Senate panel obtains records for Trump Jr.'s blocked calls

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate investigators have evidence revealing the identities behind mysterious phone calls that Donald Trump Jr. had with blocked numbers during the 2016 presidential campaign, just days before he met with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Democrats have speculated that Trump Jr. was talking to his father, who has denied knowing anything about the controversial Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya. But according to phone records provided to Congress, Trump Jr. spoke to Howard Lorber, a New York real estate executive, and Brian France, the former chairman of NASCAR, two people familiar with the records told The Associated Press.

The people asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

While the records shed new light on Trump Jr.'s calls, Democrats have said Trump could still have found out about the meeting. Trump and his son, along with other administration officials, have said he didn't know about it.

Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the election, has zeroed in on the Trump Tower meeting and how much Trump knew about it. Mueller is also interested in the White House response to the meeting once it became public.

The White House has said the president was involved in drafting an early statement saying the meeting primarily concerned a Russian adoption program, but emails later released by Trump Jr. showed he enthusiastically agreed to the sit-down with Veselnitskaya and others after he was promised damaging information on Clinton, his father's rival. Trump Jr. later said the promised material never materialized.

Democrats have pushed for more information about the communications between President Trump and his son related to the June 2016 meeting. According to phone records he provided to Congress, Trump Jr. had calls with two blocked numbers several days before the meeting took place, in between and after other calls he made as he organized the meeting. He said during closed-door testimony that he didn't recall with whom he had those conversations.

He also had another conversation with a blocked number after the meeting; it was not immediately clear if that call also was with Lorber or France.

Lorber is a longtime friend of Trump's who fundraised for him during the 2016 campaign and also traveled with him to Moscow in 1996 to scout out real estate projects, according to an article in The New Yorker at the time. Neither Lorber nor representatives for his company, Vector Group Ltd., responded to messages.

A spokesperson for NASCAR said France was unavailable and a lawyer for France did not return a request for comment.

The Senate records were first reported by CNN and ABC News. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in response to the reports that they will still seek to obtain the records, along with other materials.

The House panel, then led by Republican allies of the president, closed its Russia investigation last year, saying there was no evidence of conspiracy between Russia and the campaign; the Senate investigation is still ongoing.

"Those conversations could have taken place over the phone or they could have taken place by Don Jr. walking down the hall to talk to dad," Schiff said on MSNBC. "But it's key to understanding the president's involvement in all of this."

Trump Jr. spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017 behind closed doors. In a transcript of that interview later released by that committee, Trump Jr. said he didn't remember whom he had called. He also said he didn't know if his father used a blocked number.

The president's son was also interviewed by the House intelligence panel in December 2017. In that interview, Trump Jr. said he didn't tell his father about the meeting when it happened and he declined to elaborate on what he ultimately told him after the meeting became public.

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Associated Press writers Chad Day in Washington and Jenna Fryer in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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