The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee doesn't buy the Trump administration’s spin about the Donald Trump Jr. email scandal. He finds it odd that senior Trump aides keep forgetting they spoke to Russian envoys and officials. And he worries the president might pardon anyone convicted of colluding with Moscow.
Those are the main takeaways of my interview Thursday with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a lawmaker at the center of the growing web of congressional investigations into whether the Trump campaign worked with the Kremlin to help defeat Clinton, as well as into the Trump team’s broader ties to Moscow.
I spoke to Warner just days after the release of emails showing that Trump Jr. agreed to a meeting with a Russian envoy promising to turn over information that “would incriminate Hillary ... would be very useful to your father.” The envoy went on to say the information was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The younger Trump’s willingness to attend the meeting, and the fact that Trump adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort also showed up, is the clearest evidence to date of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The Senate Judiciary Committee has told Trump Jr. that it wants him to testify and has threatened to use a subpoena if he refuses; it’s not clear if Warner’s committee would do the same.
During the interview, I asked Warner about one of the most important unknowns in the saga: whether Trump Jr. told his father about the meeting.
“It would seem strange that that wouldn't come up ... at family dinner,” Warner told me during the conversation in his small hideaway office off the Senate floor.
Below are the highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Republicans want the Russia investigation to “go away”
The challenge we have right now is we got a large number of Democrats who presume he’s guilty and a large number of Republicans that say, “Just make this go away.”
I think there’s us getting the truth and then there’s also a public policy goal of trying to have some kind of united view.
It would be a mistake for Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller
After the first couple of months, I thought this administration couldn’t surprise me. And I’ve been proven wrong time and again.
But firing Mueller would be both policy[-wise] and politically an extraordinary mistake.
Even with Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions, we’ve had reaffirmation that Mueller is the right guy and of high integrity. But as an outside observer — and I have not talked to Mueller about his staffing — it’s pretty amazing the kind of an A-plus team that he’s putting together.
There’s a real chance Trump might pardon anyone Mueller helps convict
I asked Attorney General Sessions what I thought would be the ultimate softball when he testified. I said — I may not have said it this way — at least you got to tell us that there has been no discussion of pardons at this point. And he did not answer.
The possibility of presidential pardons in this process concerns me and also would be, I think, a really, really bad move.
It’s hard to believe Trump aides simply forget so many Russian meetings
I think we’re up to, like, a dozen people — sometimes people like [White House press secretary Sean] Spicer and others, who’ve made one set of explanations about not meeting with Russians or the reason [former FBI Director James] Comey has been fired — that have all had to then, when evidence came out ... recant and/or amend their papers.
I can’t think of any administration, Democrat or Republican, in this short period of time that has had to change their story this many times.
If it is all coincidence, and all forgetful memory — I don't know what the statistical chance of having that much coincidence and that much forgetful memory is.
Jared Kushner didn’t sit down with a Russian envoy to talk about adoptions
I want to give Mr. Kushner a chance to come in and explain — testify — the fact that we now have three meetings with Russians that he forgot until evidence came up.
The fact that one of these meetings — and, again, I’m not sure yet, there’s some question if Mr. Kushner and Mr. Manafort were copied on the email thread — but I got to believe he didn't come to the meeting because it was going to be about Russian adoptions.
It’s really troubling if he knew the subject of the meeting was — this was part of the Russian government’s effort to help Mr. Trump.
Despite his denials, President Trump probably heard about the meeting
Given the fact that it was his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager all having that meeting, it would seem strange that that wouldn't come up — even if you accept their description of the meeting as a waste of time — at family dinner.
Russian help didn’t begin or end with the Donald Trump Jr. emails
The fact that the emails to Donald Trump Jr. are in black and white means you have lots of dots that are starting to be connected now.
I would be surprised — but time will tell because we have not seen all the documents yet — but I would be surprised if that was the only communication about that subject and the subject of Russian help.