WASHINGTON: Donald Trump defended his eldest son on Wednesday (Jul 12) over emails showing his embrace of Russian efforts to support the billionaire's presidential campaign in a shock disclosure set to fuel speculation over Moscow's suspected role in the vote.
The revelation puts the president's son at the centre of a burgeoning scandal involving multiple US investigations into whether Trump associates colluded with Moscow in its efforts to tilt the 2016 election in the Republican's favour.
In a string of emails released on Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr was told he could get "very high level and sensitive information" that was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
In response, the 39-year-old - who runs the family real estate business - wrote back saying: "if it's what you say I love it". He then held a meeting with a woman described in the emails as a "Russian government attorney."
Speaking to Fox News, Trump Jr said he went along to see what it was about. "For me this was opposition research, they had something, you know, maybe concrete evidence to all the stories I'd been hearing about," he said.
But he said he didn't mention the meeting to his father after it failed to yield any compromising information, describing it as "such a nothing. There was nothing to tell."
The president's lawyer Jay Sekulow also said Trump had not been aware of his son's meeting with the Russian lawyer until "very recently" and did not know about the emails.
"The president, by the way, never saw an email - did not see the email - until it was seen today," Sekulow said. "I want to be clear on that."
'OPEN, TRANSPARENT, INNOCENT'
US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a mass effort to tilt the election in Trump's favour, including hacking and leaking embarrassing emails from Democrats.
The latest disclosure all but ensures the president's son will come under scrutiny by investigators in Congress and at the FBI who are probing whether Trump's team was in the know.
In a statement accompanying the emails, Trump Jr said the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya "was not a government official" insisting that he and those with him "didn't know who she was before the meeting."
Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, two of Trump's most trusted campaign officials, also attended the meeting.
In a statement, Trump leapt to his son's defence, saying: "My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency."
And in a tweet early on Wednesday, he praised him for doing "a good job" in the Fox interview.
"He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!"
In the emails released Tuesday, Rob Goldstone - a publicist close to the Trumps - tells Donald Jr about an offer allegedly made by Russia's general prosecutor to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Clinton during talks with real estate mogul Aras Agalarov.
He said he was tipped off about the information by Agalarov's son, Emin, a pop singer.
In a Jun 3 email, Goldstone said the Russian prosecutor "met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."
"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump - helped along by Aras and Emin," he wrote.
Donald Jr responded less than 20 minutes later, according to the chain of emails entitled "Russia - Clinton - private and confidential" responding: "If it's what you say, I love it."
Veselnitskaya is referred to in the exchange as "the Russian government attorney."
But the Russian businessman Agalarov rubbished the emails touting him as a possible go-between for the Trumps and the Kremlin.
"I think this is some sort of fiction. I don't know who is making it up," he told Russia's Business FM radio station, according to a transcript posted online.
"What has Hillary Clinton got to do with anything? I don't know. I really don't know Rob Goldstone well."
Clinton's vice presidential running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, described the revelations as "potentially treason," though experts downplayed the charge.
"Simply having a contact with a foreign country, even a foreign adversary - we are not at war - does not make it espionage or treason," said Joshua Dressler, law professor at Ohio State University.
Treason involves a person intending to harm their country, he said, calling it "an extreme argument to make."
However, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said the emails "show there is no longer a question of whether this campaign sought to collude with a hostile foreign power to subvert America's democracy."
Vice President Mike Pence appeared to distance himself from the matter, with his office saying he was unaware of the meeting, but some Republicans said the issue raised a red flag.
"The fact he took the meeting is problematic. That email is problematic," said Senator Lindsey Graham.