President Donald Trump on Thursday uttered his first verbal public defense of his eldest son’s decision to take a meeting with what was described to him as a “Russian government attorney” to discuss dirt on Hillary Clinton.
His comments came during a remarkably chummy day with new French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. The two slapped backs and exchanged numerous handshakes and laughs in front of journalists, vowing enhanced counterterrorism cooperation during a joint press conference.
Macron used Trump’s rhetoric when signaling trade talks aimed to “protect” Europe and the United States, and Trump left open an American return to the Paris climate pact while seeming to retract his harsh criticism of the “City of Light” as an unsafe terrorist haven.
The president argued “most people would have taken that meeting,” arguing politics is a contact sport and Donald Trump Jr. was merely doing what any political operative would have in the search for information to potentially damage an opponent in a tough race.
“My son is a wonderful young man. He took a meeting with a Russian lawyer — not a government lawyer but a Russian lawyer,” Trump said. Yet, in an June 7, 2016 email to Trump Jr., family associate and entertainment publicist Rob Goldstone described the lawyer he and two other Trump campaign officials would meet with two days later, Natalia Veselnitskaya, as just that.
“Emin [Agalarov] asked that I schedule a meeting with you and The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow for this Thursday,” Goldstone wrote.
In the email exchange, Trump Jr. replied “I love it” to Goldstone when informed about the Kremlin’s offer to Trump family business associates to provide information that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” Goldstone wrote in the exchange. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump downplayed the meeting on Thursday: “It was a short meeting. It was a meeting that went very, very quickly.”
“From a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting,” the president contended, weighing into the latest Russia scandal overshadowing his presidency. “It’s called opposition research or research into your opponent.”
Trump said in politics it is “very standard” to meet with all kinds of individuals who claim to possess “information.” As a candidate and campaign official, he said, “you take the information.”
In this case, “nothing happened from the meeting — zero happened from the meeting,” the president said, blaming the U.S. news media for making too much out of the emails and meeting with the attorney.
In a twist, the president contended that Veselnitskaya was only able to enter the United States because then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch personally approved her visa. That appeared an attempt to at the least shift blame for her presence on top Democrats, and at most suggest top Democrats knew about her pending meeting with Trump Jr. and wanted it to occur.
The Justice Department’s public affairs office had not responded to a request for more information about Trump’s allegation that Lynch was involved.
Notably, when it came time for the second of two questions from the U.S. reporters traveling with Trump, he instead called on a Chinese reporter.
But their joint press conference was not just about his family’s growing Russia — and, perhaps, legal — problems.
For instance, in what would be a second major step forward, Trump announced his administration is working to broker a ceasefire in a second part of Syria.
If all parties agree, the cessation of fighting in the unnamed portion of Syria would follow one still in place in the southwestern part of the war-torn country that he finalized with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Germany.
A few more such pacts would mean there would be “no bullets being fired, and that would be a wonderful thing,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Macron in Paris.
In a related development, Macron called for the the U.S. and France to step up their cooperation against violent extremist groups like ISIS. Such joint work is “at the heart” of the centuries-old alliance between the countries. Trump nodded as Macron made this call for enhanced joint counterterrorism efforts.
And, in a major twist, the American president who announced with great fanfare his decision to remove the United States from a global climate pact that Macron clearly values a great deal, Trump signaled he might be willing to re-enter it — on his terms.
“Something could happen with respect to the Paris Accord,” he said before following that with one of his signature lines deployed when his mind is not yet made up: “We’ll see what happens.”
Since each took office, they have traded rhetorical jabs and one awkward handshake. Pundits and former diplomats described an emerging-but-strained relationship that could hinder U.S.-French relations.
But Macron emerged from the duo’s late-afternoon closed-door one-one-one meeting using the U.S. leader’s rhetoric, saying both countries want “free and fair trade” that includes measures that would allow both the European Union and U.S. to “take measures” to “protect” their respective interests.
The ice appeared to be thawing last week during a G-20 summit in Germany, when the two were seen laughing and Macron slapping Trump on both shoulders as he repositioned himself for a group photo.
They seemed to be getting on like old pals on Thursday, with the French president and his wife greeting the Trumps with an ornate welcome that featured military personnel in dress uniforms on horseback and a military band that belted out the Star Spangled Banner. Trump described the U.S.-French “friendship” — and his with Macron — as “unbreakable,” moving to his left to pat the Frenchman’s arm as he said it.
And as the Trumps departed for a pre-dinner break at his overnight residence, Macron could be seen giving him a chummy slap on the back.
The American president, who has mightily criticized the security situation in Paris, even proclaimed his confidence that under Macron, the city will become “peaceful and beautiful.”
Trump seemed impressed during his first visit there as a head of state, telling a French journalist of Paris with a wry grin: “And I’m coming back.”