AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump is still explaining a meeting at Trump Tower that took place more than two years ago. He says the now-infamous June 2016 meeting was, quote, "to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics." That came as a surprise to many since there was a time when the president's allies insisted it was simply a meeting about Russian adoptions. As a reminder, that meeting brought together the president's son Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner, the president's then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort with a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya and others.
NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been following all of this, and she is here to walk us through this timeline. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So we have been talking so much about this meeting that took place back in June 2016. Can you just explain what has brought it back into the news again?
KEITH: There was a tweet.
CHANG: A tweet - of course.
KEITH: A tweet - of course. So over the weekend, President Trump tweeted - we think he was most likely responding to a Washington Post article - that said that he was privately concerned that his son Donald Trump Jr. might be in legal peril because of that Trump Tower meeting that happened back in June of 2016. In some ways, this is like "Groundhog Day."
CHANG: (Laughter) Tell me about it.
KEITH: We are back exactly where we were this time last year, talking about that Trump Tower meeting.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, let's start at about this time last year from the very beginning when we found out about this meeting. How did the president's circle explain that meeting back then?
KEITH: Well, it was sort of an evolving explanation. It started with The New York Times reporting on the existence of this meeting. And Donald Trump Jr. put out a statement that was in that article where he said that the meeting was primarily to discuss a program about the adoption of Russian children. We now know that that statement to The New York Times and other media outlets from Donald Trump Jr. was dictated by President Trump himself. Now, sidebar - when you talk about the adoption of Russian children, you're actually talking about sanctions.
CHANG: OK, but that line, that explanation that this meeting was only about Russian adoptions - that didn't last very long, right?
KEITH: It did not last very long because very quickly The New York Times had a story that said in fact the meeting was set up to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. Then shortly after that article, Donald Trump Jr. released via Twitter an email chain between himself and a music promoter who he knew through the Miss Universe pageant. That music promoter had gotten in touch with him saying that some people they knew in Russia had some information that they were going to want that was going to help the campaign.
It was described as information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and was, quote, "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Then Trump Jr. responded saying, if it's what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer. Now, in the face of that, President Trump had to change the message. I mean, you can't say it's all about adoptions once you see that email chain.
CHANG: Once your son is basically saying, no, it was actually about getting opposition research during the 2016 presidential election.
KEITH: All in black and white, in writing, in emails from the time. So President Trump was asked about this in a press conference in Paris and was asked, well, why would your son take this meeting, more or less. And this is what President Trump said.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I do think this. I think from a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or even research into your opponent.
KEITH: Two things about this. One, what the president said in France a year ago is perfectly in line with what he tweeted out this past weekend. Second, campaign professionals on both sides of the aisle say, no, this is not normal opposition research. There is a difference between seeking out dirt on your opponent and receiving an offer from a foreign agent to give you for free dirt on your opponent.
CHANG: I mean, there are literally rules about soliciting something of value from foreign nationals when you're campaigning for office.
KEITH: Right. And there is a question that is being explored as to whether this meeting and accepting this meeting counts as a solicitation of something of value from Russia.
CHANG: OK, so we know this meeting is part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Is Mueller interested in the meeting more because of the substance of it or more because of what Trump's circle has said about it at different times?
KEITH: Both. Obviously if you are investigating Russian interference in the presidential election and you have actual Russian agents at Trump Tower meeting with a presidential campaign, the Trump campaign, that is something that investigators would want to explore.
CHANG: Germane (laughter).
KEITH: It's germane. Also, though, there is the question of, why did President Trump and those around him initially try to hide the fact that they had been offered dirt on Hillary Clinton? In part the Trump people say, it's totally fine; it's totally legal. But also, they didn't give us anything good, and we didn't act on it. Now, it's not clear that that would hold up as a defense. It's also not clear whether they will need it to hold up as a defense. But it is certainly the public relations campaign that Trump and his lawyers are now waging.
CHANG: So in Trump's tweet that he blasted out this weekend, he also mentioned that he did not know about the June 2016 meeting when it happened. Why would he be bringing that up now in particular?
KEITH: Now, of course he does not want to have any connection to it if he can possibly avoid having a connection to it. And there is particularly a reason for that now because his former lawyer Michael Cohen, his former fixer who he's now on the outs with, has reportedly said that he'd be willing to tell Robert Mueller's team, the special counsel investigation, that President Trump in fact did know in advance about that meeting, did know about it at the time it was happening. And so the president seems to be trying to emphasize his side of the story.
CHANG: Potentially his pre-emptive strike against that.
CHANG: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.