Trump 'weighed in,' but how heavy is that in the Russia investigation?
Posted August 3
The White House acknowledgment that President Donald Trump "weighed in" on his son's statement about a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 presidential campaign could add a new dimension to the special counsel's investigation, including any potential effort to pursue obstruction of justice charges.
The President's part in crafting a statement by Donald Trump Jr. that turned out to be misleading offers Robert Mueller another avenue of possible evidence to track, if not another block on which to build a criminal case.
Mueller already faces a similar question regarding the President's intent tied to his firing in May of FBI director James Comey, who had been leading the Russian probe. Investigators are exploring allegations of collusion between Russia and Trump campaign associates ahead of the 2016 election.
Among the new questions raised by the latest developments: What did the President himself know about the Russian meeting that apparently arose from a promise of damaging information about Hillary Clinton? And what were his intentions in advising Trump Jr. on his statement?
Was the President simply offering advice "as any father would," in the words of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday, or was Trump seeking to mislead the public and federal investigators?
Legal analysts say the answers could determine whether Trump's role in his son's explanation for the meeting in June 2016 rises to obstruction or any other crime.
"Every single revelation like this has to be another nail in the coffin of credibility," said University of Texas law professor and CNN analyst Stephen Vladeck. "But we won't know perhaps for a while how big a factor this is in Mueller's investigation."
Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor who has written extensively on presidential power and the impeachment process, agrees that the developments call into question Trump's truthfulness.
"He is disposed to trying to control the narrative," Gerhardt said. "The more he does that, the more he puts his own veracity on the line."
Yet, Gerhardt adds that lying in a public statement or to the news media does not typically constitute criminal behavior. Rather, he said, "Mueller would be concerned about anyone obstructing his investigation, throwing obstacles in their way. That's what they could be trying to figure out: 'Is Trump making it harder for us to investigate?'"
Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who writes for the conservative National Review, said the President's behavior dealing with information related to the Russia meeting raises questions, but "there's a lot of guilty-looking behavior that might not become relevant."
If the President encouraged his son to obscure the truth about the meeting, McCarthy said that he might have been trying "to control the political fallout and not the legal fallout." Any misleading statement made to the news media or public, he stressed, would lack the significance of one made to a federal investigator or in court.
Trump Jr.'s disputed statement said that his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in June 2016, along with Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and senior adviser, and Paul Manafort, who was campaign chair at the time, was "primarily" about adoption and US sanctions on Russia under the related Magnitsky Act.
Trump Jr. provided the statement to The New York Times as it reported on July 8 on the meeting with Veselnitskaya. Soon after, as the Times was ready to publish a follow-up story casting doubt on the original explanation, along with a chain of emails, Trump Jr. himself released the emails. The series on July 11 indicated he accepted the meeting thinking it would yield information that could be used by his father's campaign against Clinton.
One of the emails, from publicist Rob Goldstone, offered a meeting with "a Russian government attorney" with "some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia."
Trump Jr. responded, according to an email he released: "If it's what you say I love it."
His involvement with the Kremlin-connected lawyer could have legal repercussions. Federal campaign finance law makes it a crime to "knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation ... or other thing of value."
Kushner's role could also draw scrutiny from federal investigators. Sources told CNN in July that White House aides and Kushner's legal team began strategizing in late June over how to manage the disclosure of the emails setting up the meeting, after discovering emails as they were preparing documents to respond to a congressional committee request.
The Kushner team also discussed whether they should immediately go public and disclose the meeting and the emails, according to a person close to Kushner. This person said Kushner knew of the newly discovered email by mid-June and told his lawyers he planned to sit down with the President to discuss the meeting and the email that had been discovered
The New York Times reported last month that Kushner met with the President but played down the significance of the session, possibly because he believed nothing came of the June 2016 meeting.
Kushner, who was on board Air Force One when Trump was involved in drafting the initial statement, could also be asked about what role, if any, he played in the creation.
On July 24 Kushner issued a statement after meeting with Senate intelligence committee staffers.
"I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government," Kushner said. "I had no improper contacts."
The full extent of Trump's communications with his son about the episode are unknown.
Jay Sekulow, one of the lawyers representing Trump in the Russia investigation, told CNN's Chris Cuomo on "New Day" on July 11 that Trump was not involved in crafting the original statement.
"No. That was written by Donald Trump, Jr. and I'm sure with consultation with his lawyer," Sekulow said.
The White House disclosure on Tuesday that the President was involved in his son's initial explanation followed a Washington Post report that said he had "personally dictated" the statement in which Trump Jr. said he and the Russian lawyer had primarily discussed the adoption program.
The Post said its information was based on multiple people with knowledge of deliberations that occurred as the President was flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One.
Even with the new revelation of the President's participation, Press Secretary Sanders said, "The statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There is no inaccuracy in the statement. The President weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had."
Sanders on Tuesday broadly disparaged interest in the Russian probe.
For his part, Trump has criticized Mueller and called his investigation "the greatest single witch hunt in American political history."