House Intelligence Committee lawyers are divided along partisan lines about whether Donald Trump Jr. could legitimately assert attorney-client privilege as he did Wednesday to avoid describing details of a Russia-related conversation with his father, the committee’s top Republican said Thursday.
“I don’t know how to adjudicate that, competing lawyers,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the House’s top investigator looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, said in an interview.
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Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, said Wednesday that Trump Jr. refused in a closed-door interview to describe a conversation he had with President Donald Trump after news broke the younger Trump had met with Russia-linked contacts in Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The president’s son, Schiff said, claimed the privilege because there was an attorney in the room during the discussion.
Schiff said Trump Jr.’s claim was invalid, because neither the president nor Trump Jr. are lawyers. But it’s unclear whether Republicans on the panel will attempt to force Trump Jr. to answer the question.
“Anytime you have three lawyers, you’ll have four opinions,” Conaway said. “I’ve got lawyers saying it’s a good privilege, [Schiff]’s got lawyers saying it’s not.”
Conaway said the matter would “probably” require input from the House’s general counsel, though he said he was uncertain of the process when committee lawyers disagree.
The White House backed Trump Jr.’s claim. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that the president’s son had a “legitimate reason” to invoke attorney-client privilege.
“We believe that his lawyers had a legitimate reason and basis for not answering those questions,” Sanders said at Thursday’s daily press briefing.
The meeting in question, where Trump Jr., senior adviser Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, has become a central part of congressional probes into ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Trump Jr. initially claimed the meeting was about the issue of adoption of Russian children by American families. After The New York Times published email communications about the meeting, Trump Jr. acknowledged that he had initially hoped to receive dirt from the Russians about Trump’s campaign rival, Hillary Clinton.
Conaway said he wouldn’t speculate about whether Trump Jr. would be called back to Congress to answer questions if the committee ultimately determines his claim of attorney-client privilege is invalid. And he also expressed frustration that Schiff had divulged the details of the question Trump Jr. declined to answer.
“We admonish every witness that this is a confidential [hearing] … and do not talk to anyone except your lawyer,” he said. “Why would we not hold ourselves to the same standard?”