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Donald Trump Jr. refuses to discuss father-son talk with investigators

Byron Tau
FILE PHOTO: Then U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) welcomes his son Donald Trump Jr. to the stage at one of the New England Council's "Politics and Eggs' breakfasts in Manchester, New Hampshire November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump’s eldest son on Wednesday refused to discuss with congressional investigators a father-son conversation earlier this year about how to handle fallout from revelations that he met with a Russian attorney during the 2016 campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.

During the more than seven-hour session with the House Intelligence Committee, Donald Trump Jr. invoked attorney-client privilege when asked for details about a telephone conversation he had with his father after news broke about his meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, the people familiar with the matter said. The younger Mr. Trump has publicly said he met with the attorney to obtain negative information on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Attorneys for both the president and his son were on the call, which took place sometime after a July 8, 2017 New York Times story about the meeting, according to the people familiar with the matter.

An attorney for the younger Mr. Trump didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A White House lawyer declined to comment.

The House committee, as well as Senate investigators and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, are separately investigating Russia’s activities during the campaign and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. Russia has denied interfering in the campaign, and the president has said his team did nothing wrong.

The younger Mr. Trump had initially said in public that the June 2016 meeting with Ms. Veselnitskaya was about Russian adoptions. Days later he acknowledged to reporters that he had agreed to the session in part because he was promised damaging information about Mrs. Clinton.

The meeting was brokered by a British publicist named Rob Goldstone, who was working at the time for Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov. The meeting was also attended by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, who was then serving as campaign chairman.

In emails exchanged by the meetings’ participants, the younger Mr. Trump was told that the incriminating information would be provided as “part of Russia and its government’s support” for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. The emails were publicly released by the younger Mr. Trump in July.

Mr. Goldstone’s initial email to him said a Russian government representative met with Mr. Agalarov and wanted to provide the Trump campaign with “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” He added: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

That government representative Mr. Goldstone was referring to was the attorney, Ms. Veselnitskaya, although she has denied any connection to the Russian government, describing herself as an attorney in private practice.

The meeting, according to its participants, ultimately involved a discussion of Russian objections to U.S. sanctions, specifically a 2012 U.S. law that punishes Russian officials accused of human-rights violations. Moscow banned Americans from adopting Russian children in response to the U.S. law’s passage. Ms. Veselnitskaya has long advocated against the law.

Attendees of the meeting, including the younger Mr. Trump, have said the Russians didn’t provide material that could be used to attack Mrs. Clinton.

Democrats on Wednesday argued that the younger Mr. Trump’s invocation of attorney-client privilege wasn’t a proper assertion of the prerogative.

“In my view, there is no attorney-client privilege that protects a discussion between father and son. This particular discussion revolves around a pivotal meeting,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee. “We will be following up with his counsel. They asked for more time to deliberate on the claim of privilege.”

One legal expert appeared to side with Mr. Trump. David Schultz, who teaches law at the University of Minnesota, said that the conversation appeared to be privileged based on the basic facts about it.

“I would tell be telling my students right now in my professional responsibility class that Congress can’t break privilege in this situation,” said Mr. Schultz, adding that the younger Mr. Trump could waive privilege if he desired, but that it was unlikely that Congress could force him to testify about the call.

Attorney-client privilege is a longtime legal concept that protects the confidentiality of conversations between lawyer and client and has long been recognized by U.S. law. Democrats argued that the invocation of privilege between the Trumps wasn’t a proper assertion of the prerogative, however.

There are some exceptions to privilege, Mr. Schultz said, including if either Trump was conspiring to commit a crime. In that case, a judge could decide whether to force a witness to break privilege and testify, depending on the jurisdiction and the situation.

Separately, the rules for privilege in a court of law and for Congress are different. A 1995 analysis prepared by the Congressional Research Service says that assertions of attorney-client privilege “rests in the sound discretion of a congressional committee regardless of whether a court would uphold the claim.”


Write to Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com



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