FILE - In this Thursday, March 28, 2019, file photo, Donald Trump Jr. speaks at a rally for President Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Mich. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee says the panel subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. after he backed out of two interviews that were part of its Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Canceled interviews led to Trump Jr. subpoena

May 14, 2019 - 3:18 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate intelligence committee subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. after he backed out of two scheduled interviews as part of the panel's Russia investigation, the chairman of the committee told his Republican colleagues last week as he tried to stem criticism from the move.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., outlined the events at a GOP caucus luncheon Thursday after weathering fierce criticism for the subpoena of President Donald Trump's eldest son, according to three people familiar with the remarks. They requested anonymity to discuss the private senators' meeting.

Burr told colleagues that Trump Jr. had twice voluntarily agreed to interviews and later backed out. The committee had been in negotiations with Trump Jr. since December and had scheduled the interviews for March and April, according to one of the people familiar with his remarks.

Trump Jr.'s stance about the interviews changed after special counsel Robert Mueller's probe on Russian election interference ended without any charges, according to a person familiar with his beliefs but not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations. Trump Jr.'s legal team also complained that, in its view, the committee refused to negotiate the scope or time limit of the testimony.

The president on Tuesday said he believed that his son was being treated poorly.

"It's really a tough situation because my son spent, I guess, over 20 hours testifying about something that Mueller said was 100 percent OK and now they want him to testify again," Trump told reporters at the White House before traveling to Louisiana. "I don't know why. I have no idea why. But it seems very unfair to me."

It's unclear if Trump Jr. will comply with the subpoena, or whether the committee will take action to hold him in contempt if he doesn't. Senators on the committee want to go over answers Trump Jr. gave the panel's staff in a 2017 interview and ask further questions.

It's the first known subpoena of a member of the president's immediate family, and news of the move prompted strong words from Burr's Republican colleagues last week, including some who went as far as to say they thought Trump Jr. shouldn't comply.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tweeted, "It's time to move on & start focusing on issues that matter to Americans." Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a GOP member of the panel, said he understood Trump Jr.'s frustration. Cornyn's Texas colleague, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, said there was "no need" for the subpoena.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on "Fox News Sunday" that if he were Trump Jr.'s lawyer, "I would tell him, 'You don't need to go back into this environment anymore.'"

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has defended Burr, telling his colleagues during the private GOP luncheon that he trusted the intelligence committee chairman. On Tuesday, McConnell told reporters that "none of us tell Chairman Burr how to run his committee."

Still, McConnell made it clear that he is eager to be finished with the probe, which has now gone on for more than two years.

Burr has "indicated publicly he believes they will find no collusion" with Russia, McConnell said. "We're hoping we will get a report on that subject sometime soon."

It's uncertain when the panel will issue a final report. Burr told The Associated Press earlier this month that he hopes to be finished with the investigation by the end of the year.

The subpoena highlights a delicate bind facing Burr, a third-term senator who has said he is not running for re-election in 2022. He has been adamant that the panel's Russia probe be bipartisan and fair and has worked closely with the panel's top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner.

Burr's committee had renewed interest in talking to Trump Jr. after Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a House committee in February that he had briefed Trump Jr. approximately 10 times about a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow before the presidential election. Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a separate interview in 2017 he was only "peripherally aware" of the proposal.

The panel is also interested in talking to the president's first son about other topics, including a campaign meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer.

That Trump Jr. backed out of the interviews was first reported by CNN.

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Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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