WASHINGTON (CN) – The top White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush said Monday that rather than meet with a Russian agent, Donald Trump Jr. should have called the FBI after a Kremlin-connected Russian attorney promised him damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Richard Painter offered the comments after the New York Times reported this weekend that the president’s son had attended the June 9 meeting with then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“A Russian agent calls and is offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton. I mean, there’s only one appropriate response and that’s to call the FBI,” Painter said in a phone interview.
“You don’t go meet with a Russian agent — that’s not how we win elections in the United States,” he added.
The New York Times first reported the previously undisclosed meeting on Saturday. In a statement responding to that story, Donald Trump Jr. made no mention of Clinton, saying instead that Natalia Veselnitskaya had wanted to talk about a disbanded program that allowed Americans to adopt Russian children.
However, his story changed on Sunday. According to the New York Times, which cites three White House advisers briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it, his account of the meeting changed after the paper presented him with information indicating that Veselnitskaya had promised him damaging information about Clinton.
Trump Jr. confirmed the motive behind the meeting, saying an acquaintance from the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant – who had traveled to Moscow with his father – had requested he attend the meeting.
“After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton,” his statement about the meeting said. “Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
According to Painter, what Trump Jr. knew at the time he accepted the meeting will determine how much legal trouble he could be in.
“If he knew, or if there was good reason to know that the Russians were offering him information that had been obtained through espionage through illegal computer hacking, then he would be an accessory after the fact of that crime,” Painter said.
“If he did know that at the time and wanted to go to the meeting anyway instead of calling the FBI, then he would be in serious legal trouble,” Painter added. “This is going to turn on what he knew at the time.”
After the story broke, Painter said on Twitter that Trump Jr. might have committed treason. He stood by that claim Monday.
Painter pointed to the computer hacking of Democratic National Committee emails, along with those of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia instigated to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
If Trump Jr. knew he would be given materials stolen through espionage by Russian actors within the U.S., that amounts to treason, Painter said.
But according to Painter, all of that would have to be proven. He urged the White House and Congress to take the matter seriously.
“I think that we are really getting pretty caught up with people saying this whole Russia thing is fake news and a witch hunt,” Painter said. “We need to find out who was collaborating with the Russians.”
Painter said this is as close to a smoking gun as we’ve gotten so far.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment by press time.