ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The White House is defending a meeting held during the 2016 campaign between President Trump's eldest son and some of Trump's top campaign officials and a Russian lawyer linked to the Kremlin. The lawyer had offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The revelation of this meeting over the weekend was met with confirmation from Donald Trump Jr. He also said his father knew nothing about it.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So what is the White House saying about this revelation?
LIASSON: Well, first of all, Don Jr. said he'd be happy to cooperate with Senate intelligence committee investigators. And for the first time, the White House was asked about this on the record. And Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president just learned about the meeting and that there was nothing wrong with it at all.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SARAH SANDERS: The only thing I see inappropriate about the meeting was the people that leaked the information on the meeting after it was voluntarily disclosed.
LIASSON: So to be clear, this wasn't a leak of classified information. That's usually what leaks mean when people complain about them. The New York Times story described the people who disclosed the meeting as advisers to the White House, not investigators or Democrats. And that has raised questions in pro-Trump media circles that someone is out to get Don Jr.
In addition, Democrats have been pointing out Donald Trump Jr.'s long history with Russian contacts, business partners, not just the Miss Universe contest but also his comments in 2008 about how a disproportionate amount of the Trump Organization's assets come from Russia. He got $50,000 as a speaking fee from a Putin-connected think tank. So they're putting that out.
SHAPIRO: So the White House is saying there's nothing wrong with this. What might cross some kind of line here?
LIASSON: Well, that's a good question because Sarah Sanders said she doesn't think there was anything different here than what happens any campaign when people call up and offer you negative information about your opponent. The White House has denied colluding with the Russians many times, and collusion would mean there was some sort of coordination between the Trump campaign to help the Russians do what the intelligence community said they did, which was hack DNC emails, weaponize them, make sure their social media bots got anti-Hillary stories to the right voters in the Midwest and attempt to hack some state voter files. Then there was the very open calls from Donald Trump on the stump for Russians to help find Hillary Clinton's missing emails. So we don't know if those things would be a crime.
Donald Trump Jr. has offered to talk to investigators. If he does, he would presumably be put under oath. He would have to be careful about legal jeopardy because his story has already changed. Initially he said the conversations with the Russian lawyer were about adoption of Russian orphans. Yesterday he issued a statement saying he did meet with the Russian lawyer after she offered negative information on Hillary Clinton.
SHAPIRO: So some question as to whether a crime was committed, but talk about the significance of this meeting.
LIASSON: Well, it's significant because it's the first public confirmation that some people in the campaign - in this case the president's son, son-in-law and campaign chairman - so this is the innermost inner circle - didn't just meet with the Russians but met with Russians after they were told the Russians had something that would help them hurt Hillary. So they were willing to accept Russian help in the campaign. Again, you'll hear Trump defenders say, so what? As Sarah Sanders said today, Democrats got help from the Ukrainian Embassy to publicize the Trump campaign manager's ties to Russia, Paul Manafort's longtime ties to pro-Russian Ukrainian leaders.
So the other thing is regardless of whether anything here rises to a crime, there is also a recurring pattern of Trump campaign officials meeting with Russians and then failing to disclose those meetings when they were required to do so. The White House has made many blanket denials that there were no meetings at all, and they've had to walk all those back.
SHAPIRO: And remind us what we heard over the weekend from the president about this larger issue of Russian involvement in U.S. elections which intelligence officials fear the Russians may try to do again in the future.
LIASSON: That's right. They've almost guaranteed. They said the Russians will be back in 2018 and 2020. Interesting - Donald Trump has not tweeted anything about his son's meeting with the Russians. He has been tweeting about his meeting with Vladimir Putin. He tweeted that that cyber unit he had discussed setting up with Putin probably won't happen. It was a trial balloon that the White House floated, and it got tremendous pushback from Republicans in Congress. In the meantime, stories like the one about Donald Trump Jr. and the White House's inability to stick to one story about it guarantees that this...
SHAPIRO: Got to leave it there, Mara.
LIASSON: ...Stays alive.
SHAPIRO: Thanks. That's NPR's Mara Liasson speaking with us from the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.