WASHINGTON -- Michael R. Caputo – the East Aurora political consultant who worked on Donald Trump's presidential campaign – on Tuesday dismissed Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting last year with a Kremlin-connected lawyer as an innocent political error.
But local members of Congress -- including Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence – didn't offer any such excuses for the younger Trump's actions.
"As I've said all along, I will await the conclusion of these various investigations and we have all the facts before making a rush to any judgement," said Collins, normally one of President Trump's most vehement defenders.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, said he was awaiting more information, as well, before commenting on the situation.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Buffalo Rep. Brian Higgins, both Democrats, were aghast. Both said emails between Donald Trump Jr. and a publicist who set up the meeting destroy the notion that there was no connection between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to sway the election on Trump's behalf.
"These emails are the end of the idea, pushed by the administration and the president, that there is absolutely no evidence of intent to coordinate or collude," Schumer said.
Caputo, though, offered an alternate explanation on WBEN radio, where he is filling in for morning host Sandy Beach, who is on vacation.
Three days before testifying privately before the House Intelligence Committee about the campaign, Caputo said he recalled speaking with Trump Jr. around the time his father clinched the Republican presidential nomination in the spring of 2016. The younger Trump said he was still looking for ways to help his father's campaign.
"Don Jr., at the time, he's still trying to find his footing," said Caputo on the radio broadcast. "And it's not uncommon for a family member to try to do something that they believe is helpful to their father or mother, whatever, and to make a mistake."
The New York Times reported Monday that Donald Trump Jr. planned the meeting after learning, in an email from publicist Rob Goldstone, that the Russian lawyer had compromising information on the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, that was part of a Russian government effort to aid the Trump campaign.
Caputo said on the radio that it's routine for campaigns to seek out damaging information on the opposing candidate.
But after the release of Trump Jr.'s emails, Caputo said in a brief phone conversation with The Buffalo News on Tuesday: "When it gets to be information from a foreign government, it gets to be pretty dicey. It's not clear to me, though, that we have seen anything illegal."
However, "it may be bad optics," Caputo added, noting that the younger Trump didn't know much about politics and had no reason to be alarmed upon hearing that the damaging information on Clinton was coming from someone with Kremlin ties.
U.S. intelligence agencies later concluded that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election in hopes of helping Trump. But Caputo disputed that conclusion, and noted that claims of Russian campaign meddling – which he blamed on Clinton – came long after the younger Trump planned the meeting with the Russian operative.
"It's before that whole false narrative was even put out," Caputo said. "So Don Jr. didn't even know that he should avoid Russia, that it was going to be some kind of a thing in the future if it came out."
Caputo neglected to mention that Paul Manafort – Trump's campaign chairman at the time and an experienced political operative with deep experience both in the United States and Russia – also attended the Trump Tower meeting. So did Jared Kushner, the elder Trump's son-in-law and now a top White House aide.
At midday Tuesday, the younger Trump publicly released the emails involving the meeting.
Afterwards, Collins said: “Donald Trump Jr. has done the right thing by releasing emails concerning the meeting he had with a Russian national. In addition, he has said he will cooperate with the myriad of investigations looking into Russian impact on our elections process."
Reed was on his weekly conference call with reporters at the moment Trump Jr. released the emails.
"We've always supported the investigations, and having the investigations be led by the evidence is something that needs to continue to occur," said Reed, who dismissed a question about President Trump's potential impeachment as both premature and political in nature.
Neither Schumer nor Higgins went so far as to suggest that Trump leave office over the Russia scandal. Schumer told reporters that the younger Trump must release any other emails or information about his contacts with the Russians, and said it is imperative that Congress insist on maintaining strong sanctions against Russia that were put in place after its covert military action in Ukraine in 2014.
Higgins said: "Clearly, the President’s son knew of Russia’s interest in getting involved in the U.S. election and eagerly took the bait, participating in discussions with foreign operatives wishing to interfere in our election."