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Partisan divide grows over Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer

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Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks to KMGH from Capitol Hill on July 12, 2017. (SBG)

Lawmakers said Wednesday that investigators should follow the evidence in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election wherever it leads, but House Democrats and Republicans had very different opinions on where the evidence has led so far.

Following Donald Trump Jr.’s revelation of emails showing he attempted to meet with a Russian attorney about information he believed would damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Republicans downplayed the news and urged against a rush to judgment.

“I want to stress we don’t have all the facts in this case at this point,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

Trump Jr. released the emails Tuesday after the New York Times reported on the meeting, which occurred last June and was also attended by top campaign official Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump Jr. has said the meeting turned out to be about Russian adoptions, not opposition research.

“Let’s just keep it all in context: one meeting for 20 minutes and no information really came from it,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Despite the political jockeying over allegations of Russian involvement in the campaign, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for the House and Senate investigations and for the independent probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. CNN reported Tuesday that Mueller’s investigation will look into Trump Jr.’s meeting.

“We need to ultimately go wherever the evidence leads us,” Costa said.

In the emails, Trump Jr. welcomes information that he is told is part of the Russian government’s effort to assist his father’s campaign. Democrats say this is proof the Trump campaign intended to collude with Russia, whether it was successful or not, and some have even alleged that this activity violated the law.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., stopped short of echoing that claim.

“Collusion in and of itself is not a crime,” he said, adding that the meeting should still be deeply worrying to all Americans because it indicates a willingness by the Trump campaign to work with foreign intelligence to derail its opponent.

Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.V., argued that the emails do not present evidence of “true collusion,” but he also suggested allowing the various investigations to run their course.

“I hope that they continue to investigate, that they look at every piece of information out there, and at the end, let’s let the evidence lead to wherever it goes…. I’m going let them do their work, I’m going to keep doing my work,” he said.

In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity Tuesday, Trump Jr. acknowledged he should have handled the meeting differently. President Trump defended his son on Wednesday morning, tweeting that Trump Jr. was “open, transparent and innocent” about information that he only made public after reporters learned about it.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, disputed the notion that the Trumps have been honest and transparent about this matter.

“Like a house of cards, this Trump administration is being exposed as a house of lies,” he said. “They’re compromised by the Russians. This seriously jeopardizes national security.”

Doggett also suggested the Trump administration cannot be trusted to place America’s interests above Russia’s.

“It really is a question of how our families will be protected from a very aggressive Russia if this administration is not able to act independently of its pal, Putin,” he said.

Democrats noted that the existence of this meeting appears to refute months of Trump administration denials that the campaign had any interaction with Russians.

“We should not forget that Donald Trump Jr. and, for that matter, many principles in the White House have been lying for months,” Connolly said. “They flat-out denied that any such meetings took place and said it was disgusting to even suggest that.”

Some Republicans said Russian attempts to influence the election should not be surprising, and they suggested Democrats have failed to take Russia’s threat seriously enough until now.

“Quite frankly, I find it interesting that it has taken the Democrats a half century to figure out that Russia is a problem,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

“The only thing that surprises me is that people didn’t listen, the Obama administration didn’t listen when I was warning that Russians continued to attack through cyber and other means,” Nunes said.

Republicans also attempted to turn attention to Hillary Clinton.

“The Hillary Clinton campaign had many ties to Russia,” Nunes said, pointing to things like Russian donations to the Clinton Foundation and a deal reached during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department providing U.S. uranium to a Russian company.

Blackburn dismissed the controversy surrounding Trump Jr. as the latest liberal attempt to delegitimize President Trump.

“This is their storyline,” she said. “This is where they are for the week.”

That said, she acknowledged that this is one area of inquiry investigators should consider.

“Let’s get to the bottom of it,” she said. “Let’s see if Donald Trump Jr. was duped into taking a meeting with someone for a different issue or if there is some type of wrongdoing that was there.”

Democrats feel the emails released Tuesday provided sufficient evidence that wrongdoing occurred, even if it eventually turns out criminal activity did not.

“Forget the legal questions,” Connolly said. “It is not okay to have a foreign adversary interfering in our elections and to have one of the two campaigns cooperating with it.”