Donald Trump has insisted he was unaware of his son’s controversial meeting with a Russian lawyer until a “couple of days ago”.
The US President’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, had spoken to Natalia Veselnitskaya during last year’s election campaign in the hope of unearthing compromising information on Hillary Clinton.
Speaking to the Reuters news agency in the Oval Office, Mr Trump said he does not fault his son for holding the meeting last June.
“I think many people would have held that meeting,” the President said.
On Tuesday night, Mr Trump Jr had said he had not told his father about the talks because no revelations about their Democratic rival had emerged.
“It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes,” the 39-year-old had told Fox News.
Despite this, emails surrounding the meeting are the most concrete evidence that Trump campaign officials may have been willing to accept Russian help to win last November’s election – a subject that has cast a cloud over his presidency.
The President has hit out at what he labelled the “greatest witch hunt in political history” – describing his son as having been “open, transparent and innocent” during his interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
During the Reuters interview, Mr Trump also revealed that he directly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin last week whether he had meddled in the US election campaign – spending 20 to 25 minutes of their two-hour meeting on the subject.
“I said: ‘Did you do it?’ and he said: ‘No, I did not. Absolutely not.
“I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not,” the US President said.
When asked if he believed Mr Putin’s denial, Mr Trump paused and said: “Look. Something happened and we have to find out what it is, because we can’t allow a thing like that to happen to our election process.
“So something happened and we have to find out what it is.
“Somebody did say if he did do it, you wouldn’t have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point.”
In an earlier interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, the President had gone one further – and claimed Mr Putin would have been happier if Mrs Clinton had won the US election.
The Republican claimed his Democratic adversary would have weakened America’s military and driven up energy prices – two things he says the Kremlin would have welcomed.
President Trump is now travelling to Paris, a city he has openly criticised following extremist attacks in recent years.
He will be a guest of honour for French President Emmanuel Macron, with their talks set to reveal whether the leaders can find consensus on any of the critical issues they openly disagree on – including climate change.