WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his eldest son as “innocent” following emails that showed Donald Trump Jr. welcomed Russian help against his father’s rival in the 2016 presidential election, deepening the controversy over purported Russian meddling.
Trump Jr. released a series of emails on Tuesday that revealed he had eagerly agreed to meet a woman he was told was a Russian government lawyer who might have damaging information about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as part of Moscow’s official support for his father.
Trump Jr., in a Fox News television interview Tuesday, said: “In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently.”
The president, after initially releasing a statement calling his son “high-quality,” on Wednesday praised the TV appearance and again condemned news coverage and investigations into his campaign’s alleged links to Russia.
“He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday he did not consider special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling to be a “witch hunt.”
The emails offered the most concrete evidence to date that Trump campaign officials embraced an offer of Russian help to win the election, a subject that has cast a cloud over Trump’s presidency and spurred multiple investigations.
The emails do not appear to provide evidence of illegal activity, but legal experts say Trump Jr. could run into trouble if investigators find he aided a criminal action, such as hacking into Democratic computer networks, or violated campaign-finance laws by accepting gifts from foreign entities.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Moscow sought to help Trump win the election, in part by releasing private emails from Democratic Party officials.
The Justice Department and Congress are both investigating alleged Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign.
Trump has said his campaign did not collude with Russia and Moscow has denied meddling.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday it was preposterous that Trump’s eldest son was under attack for meeting the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
“I learned with surprise that a Russian lawyer, a woman, is being blamed and Trump’s son is being blamed for meeting. For me, this is wild,” Lavrov told a news conference in Brussels.
The allegations that Russia tried to help Trump win the election has cast a cloud over his presidency.
White House aides say the president keenly watches cable TV news, which he often mentions in his tweets. Trump denied that on Wednesday, saying the White House was focused on getting healthcare and tax reforms through Congress.
“The W.H. is functioning perfectly, focused on HealthCare, Tax Cuts/Reform & many other things. I have very little time for watching T.V.,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
One of the president’s personal attorneys, Jay Sekulow, in a series of TV interviews on Wednesday said Trump Jr.’s meeting with Veselnitskaya was not a violation of the law and that the president was unaware of the meeting and the emails until recently.
“There’s no illegality,” he told NBC’s “Today” program.
Trump Jr. said that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager at the time, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a top White House adviser, also attended the meeting with Veselnitskaya, who has denied having Kremlin ties.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Alistair Bell; Editing by Catherine Evans and Jeffrey Benkoe)