Donald Trump responded on Friday to bombshell reports that his former lawyer Michael Cohen says Trump knew of and approved a meeting between his son and aides with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The president denied knowing of the meeting and questioned Cohen’s motives and connections, writing: “He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary’s lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!”
The lawyer referred to is Lanny Davis, Cohen’s counsel who defended Bill Clinton during his impeachment in the late 1990s. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chair Paul Manafort met at Trump Tower on 9 June 2016 with a group including the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, having been told she was offering sensitive information about Clinton from the Russian government.
On Thursday, citing an unnamed source, CNN reported that Cohen said he was present when Donald Jr told his father about the Russians’ offer to meet and that Trump approved it. NBC said it had independently verified the report.
On Friday, the president first tweeted a familiar complaint, that “the ridiculous news that the highly conflicted Robert Mueller and his gang of 13 Angry Democrats obviously cannot find Collusion”.
Mueller is a Republican appointed by a Republican, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein. According to public information, 13 of Mueller’s investigators have registered as Democrats and nine have donated to Democrats.
“The only Collusion with Russia was with the Democrats,” Trump added, without presenting evidence. He then referenced a New York Times report that Mueller, the special counsel, is examining his Twitter feed as part of his investigation of potential obstruction of justice.
“The rigged Witch Hunt continues!” he added. “How stupid and unfair to our Country....And so the Fake News doesn’t waste my time with dumb questions, NO,....
“.....I did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?). He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary’s lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!”
Cohen’s investment in New York taxi medallions, which have been hit by the rise of Uber and other car services, has been widely reported.
Trump, his son, his lawyers and other officials have repeatedly claimed the Trump Tower meeting did not produce any “dirt” on Clinton and the future president did not know about it until details were revealed in July 2017. The president told reporters onboard Air Force One then: “I only heard about it two or three days ago.”
Trump’s role in the production of a misleading statement about the meeting is reportedly part of Mueller’s investigation.
On Thursday night Trump’s current lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, mounted a counterattack.
“It would have to be people in the room with the president that can corroborate Cohen, which there won’t be because it didn’t happen,” he told CNN. “And then it becomes a credibility contest between two or three witnesses who say one thing and Cohen who says another.”
He added: “He’s been lying all week, he’s been lying for years” – a comment potentially damaging to Trump since Cohen was working for him during those years. Cohen has also seen his home and premises raided by the FBI over his role in payments to women who claim affairs with Trump – affairs Trump denies. Whether or not Cohen will “flip” and turn against Trump has been the subject of mounting speculation.
Trump’s knowledge or otherwise of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting is a key issue in Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and links between Trump aides and Russia.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, famously told the author Michael Wolff he thought the meeting was “treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit”.
“The chance that Don Jr did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor,” Bannon added, “is zero.”
The meeting was brokered by a British music promoter, Rob Goldstone, who told Trump Jr he had “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father”.
Goldstone added: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump ... I can also send this info to your father.”
Trump Jr responded: “I love it.” He has since contended that no meaningful information was offered and the meeting focused on adoptions of Russian children.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Veselnitskaya “worked more closely with senior Russian government officials than she previously let on”.
Mueller has indicted 31 individuals including 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking Democratic networks. Trump has repeatedly denounced the investigation but was widely criticised for appearing to side with Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies in Helsinki earlier this month.