WASHINGTON (Reuters) – One of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers defended a meeting that the president’s son had with Russian nationals during the 2016 campaign, suggesting that the meeting involving Donald Trump Jr. had been screened by the Secret Service.
“Well, I wonder why the Secret Service, if this was nefarious, why the Secret Service allowed these people in. The president had Secret Service protection at that point, and that raised a question with me,” Jay Sekulow, a member of Trump’s legal team, said on Sunday on the ABC news program “This Week.”
In an emailed response to questions about Sekulow’s comments, Secret Service spokesman Mason Brayman said that the younger Trump was not under Secret Service protection at the time of the June 2016 meeting that included Trump’s son and two senior campaign officials.
“Donald Trump, Jr. was not a protectee of the USSS in June, 2016. Thus we would not have screened anyone he was meeting with at that time,” the emailed statement said.
Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged meeting with a Russian lawyer in New York City during the 2016 presidential campaign after he was told she might have damaging information about his father’s rival, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
According to emails released by Trump Jr. last week, he eagerly agreed to meet the woman, who he was told was a Russian government lawyer. The woman, Natalia Veselnitskaya, has said she is a private lawyer and denies having Kremlin ties.
On Friday, NBC News reported that a lobbyist who was once a Soviet counter-intelligence officer participated in the meeting, which was also attended by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the president’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
Trump himself has said he was unaware of the meeting until a few days ago.
Sekulow’s comments drew quick criticism, including from Frances Townsend, who advised Republican former president George W. Bush on homeland security.
“Ok let’s try to deflect blame & throw those in @SecretService who protect @POTUS @realDonaldTrump @FLOTUS & family under the bus,” she said on Twitter.
The Secret Service’s mission is to provide physical protection for the U.S. president. The agency also protects major presidential candidates. But its role in vetting people who meet with a U.S. president or a candidates is limited to ensuring physical safety.
A federal special counsel and several congressional panels are investigating allegations by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to hurt Clinton and help Trump. They are also investigating potential connections between Russian officials and the Trump campaign.
Moscow has denied any interference and the president and Trump Jr. have denied any collusion.
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on one of the panels investigating the matter, the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he wanted to hear from everyone involved and questioned the credibility of Trump Jr. and others close to the president.
“The level of credibility from the senior level of this administration really is suspect,” Warner told CNN, saying he wanted to hear from everyone who attended the June 2016 meeting though he acknowledged the Russians might not agree to speak.
“Whether we will be able to get the Russian nationals to come over and testify is an open question (but) those people that our committee has jurisdiction over, the Americans, I sure as heck want to talk to all of them,” Warner said.
Reporting By Caren Bohan, Arshad Mohammed and Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci