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New Information From Senate Investigation Adds Clarity To Trump Tower Meeting

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's look at another part of the Trump-Russia story. Two years ago, Donald Trump Jr. met with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Before and after that meeting, he made phone calls to a blocked number. One big focus of congressional investigations has been who was on the other end of those calls. Was it his father, Donald Trump? Now multiple news outlets are reporting that Senate investigators have information that Trump Jr. was not talking to his father but to family friends. The president's son told Congress that he didn't remember who he called.

Michael Schmidt is reporting the story for The New York Times and is here in the studio with us. Welcome.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So how do we know that the president was not on the other end of those phone calls?

SCHMIDT: What we understand is that the Senate Intelligence Committee, the panel that's been looking at the ties between Trump's associates in Russia, went back, was able to get the phone records. And those show that there was not a call between the son and the father in this period of time. He called the head of NASCAR, who was a Trump supporter. They called an investor that his father had known for many years. But there is no evidence of that actual call.

The important thing here is that Democrats have hung onto this issue so hard for the past two years as, please let us - we will figure this out; we will get to the bottom of this, and this will show that the president was in touch with him as the meeting was being set up and knew what was going to happen. And it appears that it's not there.

SHAPIRO: I want to get in a moment to what this means for the Democrats' theory of the case. But first tell us a little bit more about the two people who Donald Trump Jr. was calling before and after this meeting.

SCHMIDT: So one of them was that the head of NASCAR, Brian France. And he was - is a - an early Trump supporter, someone that Don Jr. knew. The other was an investor who had traveled to Russia actually with Donald Trump, the father, in the 1990s and had discussed with the father the idea of building a Trump Tower there. Now, the funny thing about that is that Trump Tower - the idea of a Trump Tower is obviously in the news because Michael Cohen, the president's longtime lawyer, had discussions about trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign and pled guilty to misleading Congress about that.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any idea why Donald Trump Jr. would be calling these two people to tell them about a meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton?

SCHMIDT: We don't know that he called them to talk about that.

SHAPIRO: Just know that it came before and after that meeting.

SCHMIDT: Like any of us in the middle of doing one thing, another thing could come up, and you could be talking to someone about what you're doing that weekend and then be on a business call next. That could be the case here.

SHAPIRO: As you said, Democrats have made a lot of these calls to this blocked number, speculating that it might have been to Donald Trump. Does knowing that these calls were not to Donald Trump severely undermine their case?

SCHMIDT: Well, it certainly hurts one of the lines that they had in, one of the bets they had on the table against the president. This was something that they had used to stoke suspicions about the president. And even Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who just took over, was saying, look; this was something we really need to get to the bottom of. The Democrats - we're in power now. And it's actually the Senate that was actually able to figure it out.

SHAPIRO: Which is still in the control of Republicans.

SCHMIDT: Correct. And that investigation is seen as more of a bipartisan one where both sides are working together, and they're...

SHAPIRO: So what are Democrats saying about this new information?

SCHMIDT: Well, they aren't saying much. Who is saying a lot are Trump folks, including Don Jr., and pointing to it. This - we're at a critical stage in the investigation, obviously a lot of stuff floating around about the president, about his associates. We just had this Stone indictment. And this is a good fact for them, and they're out there really trumpeting it as much as possible. And it sort of makes sense because they had been hit so hard on this issue.

SHAPIRO: The new chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, said, well, look; Donald Trump Jr. could have walked down the hall to talk to his father about this meeting. The fact that these two phone calls were not to his father doesn't mean they didn't discuss it. Does that argument sound plausible to you?

SCHMIDT: Well, the thing about this from the beginning was the mystery, the sort of intrigue of it - a blocked call in the middle of setting up a meeting with the Russians. It sounds very scary and such. And now we have some clarity about it. It takes a long time for things to be sussed out.

SHAPIRO: Michael Schmidt, Washington correspondent from The New York Times, thank you.

SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.