WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - US President Donald Trump on Wednesday (July 12) said he did not fault his son Donald Trump Jr for meeting a Russian lawyer during the 2016 presidential election campaign and he was unaware of that meeting until a few days ago.
Asked if he knew that his son was meeting Ms Natalia Veselnitskaya in June last year (2016), the President told Reuters in a White House interview: "No, that I didn't know until a couple of days ago when I heard about this."
Mr Trump Jr eagerly agreed to meet the woman he was told was a Russian government lawyer who might have damaging information about his father's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as part of Moscow's official support for the senior Mr Trump's campaign, according to e-mails the son released on Tuesday.
Seated at his Oval Office desk, Mr Trump said he did not fault his son for holding the meeting, writing it off as a decision made in the heat of an upstart, non-traditional campaign. "I think many people would have held that meeting," Mr Trump said.
The e-mails were the most concrete evidence that Trump campaign officials might have been willing to accept Russian help to win the Nov 8 election, a subject that has cast a cloud over Mr Trump's presidency and prompted investigations by the US Justice Department and Congress.
Mr Trump Jr, in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday (July 11), said: "In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently."
The Washington Post reported that the Kremlin controversy has thrust the fledgling White House into “chaos” and left Mr Trump “enraged that the Russia cloud still hangs over his presidency".
CNN quoted a top Republican close to the administration as saying it has left the White House “paralysed". Mr Trump personally sought on Wednesday to dispel the image of an administration in crisis and a president obsessed with TV coverage of it.
“The W.H. is functioning perfectly, focused on HealthCare, Tax Cuts/Reform & many other things. I have very little time for watching T.V.," he tweeted.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, insisted it had no links to the Russian lawyer, while Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov, identified as a middleman for the Trump Jr meeting, also sought to distance himself.
“We never had any contact with this lawyer,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “She doesn’t have even the slightest relation to us.”
Mr Agalarov also dismissed the e-mails touting him as a go-between for the Trumps and the Kremlin, and said he only vaguely knew Goldstone. “I think this is some sort of fiction. I don’t know who is making it up,” Mr Agalarov told Russia’s Business FM radio station.
In the White House interview, the US President said he directly asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin if he was involved in what US intelligence says was Russian meddling in the presidential campaign and that Mr Putin had insisted he was not.
Mr Trump said he spent the first 20 or 25 minutes of his more than two-hour meeting with Mr Putin last Friday in Germany on the election meddling subject. "I said, 'Did you do it?' And he said, 'No, I did not. Absolutely not.' I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not," Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump, asked if he believed Mr Putin's denial, paused. "Look. Something happened and we have to find out what it is, because we can't allow a thing like that to happen to our election process. So something happened and we have to find out what it is," he said.
About Mr Putin, he added: "Somebody did say if he did do it you wouldn't have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point."
While US intelligence agencies and even members of Mr Trump's Cabinet have said Russia meddled in the election, Mr Trump has wavered on the subject, at times suggesting that other actors might have been involved.
Mr Trump equivocated on whether he felt he could trust Mr Putin. He said Mr Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping both look out for their country's interests, as he looks out for US interests. "I am not a person who goes around trusting lots of people. But he's the leader of Russia. It is the second most powerful nuclear power on earth. I am the leader of the United States. I love my country. He loves his country," Mr Trump said.
As in the past, Mr Trump said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. "There was zero coordination. It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
A Republican, Mr Trump said Democrats had used the accusations to justify Mrs Clinton's loss in November, saying: "The White House is functioning beautifully despite the hoax made up by the Democrats."
Although he and Putin were able to forge a ceasefire agreement in part of Syria, Mr Trump said their interests collided over other issues. He said his US military buildup and drive to increase US energy production were in direct conflict with Mr Putin, whose nation is dependent on energy exports.
Their differences made him wonder whether Mr Putin really had supported him last year, as many news reports have suggested. "It's really the one question I wish I would have asked Putin: Were you actually supporting me?"
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's Pat Robertson, Mr Trump went further, claiming his Russian counterpart would have preferred a win by the Democrat.
"There are many things that I do that are the exact opposite of what he (Putin) would want," Mr Trump said, even though he added that he got along "very, very well" with the long-time Russian leader.
"So what I keep hearing about that he would have rather had Trump, I think 'probably not,' because when I want a strong military, you know she wouldn't have spent the money on military," he said.
"When I want tremendous energy - we're opening up coal, we're opening up natural gas, we're opening up fracking, all the things that he would hate - but nobody ever mentions that," he said.