Political News

Donald Trump doesn't appear to have any idea what a 'perjury trap' is

Posted August 21, 2018 3:25 p.m. EDT

— In an interview with Reuters on Monday, President Donald Trump tried to explain why he is wary of sitting down with special counsel Robert Mueller to answer questions about Russia's interference in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion between his campaign and the Russians.

Here's what he said:

"So if I say something and he [former FBI director James Comey] says something, and it's my word against his, and he's best friends with Mueller, so Mueller might say: 'Well, I believe Comey,' and even if I'm telling the truth, that makes me a liar. That's no good."

This is, to be clear, how the President views a "perjury trap" -- a move that his lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has long insisted is the main reason why the President shouldn't even consider sitting down with Mueller.

But what Trump is describing above isn't a perjury trap at all.

Let's define the term first: A perjury trap is when a prosecutor asks questions of a witness knowing that witness will lie. In order to lure someone into a perjury trap, you have to know two things beyond any doubt: 1) The facts behind the question and 2) That the person you are asking the question of is going to lie about the facts.

It's not at all clear that's what would be going on with a Mueller-Trump sitdown -- on matters related to Comey or anything else. And in fact, the scenario Trump lays out isn't even close to a perjury trap. Instead it's a "he said, he said" with a bit of conspiracy theory thrown in. It's a lot of things all at once, sort of like the Triple Lindy.

Trump is saying that his version of events on certain things might well differ from, say, what Comey's version of those events are. That's similar to the argument that Giuliani made during an appearance on "Meet the Press" on Sunday:

"I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury. And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he's going to tell the truth and he shouldn't worry, well that's so silly because it's somebody's version of the truth. Not the truth."

The problem here is that Giuliani (and Trump), whether intentionally or unintentionally, are conflating a "he said, she said" debate with a perjury trap. What they are describing are two people having different recollections of an event. That happens all the time in legal proceedings. Citing it as a perjury trap is a red herring to change the conversation about why Trump might not want to sit down with Mueller.

Then there is the conspiracy theory angle. In Trump's mind, he could somehow be brought up on perjury charges solely because Mueller would choose to side with Comey's version of events rather than his because Comey and Mueller are friends. Which is, um, a pretty big logical leap.

To believe what Trump told Reuters, you have to think that Robert Mueller, a man who has served four presidents -- of both parties -- and who spent a decade as the head of the FBI would be willing to risk his credibility by siding with someone he is friends with rather than the President of the United States. And, by the way, that the entire special counsel team would just go along with it -- thereby risking their own careers and credibility.

Which is, um, not likely.

There is also the issue of whether Comey and Mueller are as close as Trump, Giuliani and the conservative media like to paint them. There's little question that the two have, in the past, had a very close working relationship. They began working together in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and were unified in opposition to Vice President Dick Cheney's attempt to force a re-upping of a broad-scale surveillance measure in 2004. (For much more on that, read this terrific Washingtonian profile of the two men by Garrett Graff.)

Comey's lawyer, David Kelley, told Snopes this:

"Jim and Bob are friends in the sense that co-workers are friends. They don't really have a personal relationship. Jim has never been to Bob's house and Bob has never been to Jim's house. ... They've had lunch together once, dinner together twice, once with their spouses and once after Jim became FBI director so Bob could give him a run-down on what to look out for. [Bob] is not a mentor. He's friendly, as colleagues are."

In truth, however, how close -- or not -- Mueller and Comey are is irrelevant per the point above. Do reasonable people really believe that Mueller would risk his career to take sides with a friend (or work buddy) over the president? No.

All of this is to say: None of what Trump (or Giuliani) is alleging is a perjury trap. Not even close.