- Thomson Reuters
President Donald Trump personally “dictated” a misleading statement about his son Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer last year, The Washington Post reported Monday, a move experts say could put the White House at fresh legal risk.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told reporters on Tuesday that “the president weighed in as any father would based on the limited information he had.”
But Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, told CNN in the days after the meeting became public that Trump did not play a role in crafting his son’s initial statement. The statement, which said Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer primarily “discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children,” did not mention that Trump Jr. had been offered compromising information about Hillary Clinton in exchange for taking the meeting or that the lawyer had been accompanied by the Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin.
While it is not illegal for a president to mislead the public or the press, legal experts say the episode will most likely be of interest to Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and whether the Trump campaign has sought to cover up any interactions it had with Russians last year.
“If the reports are accurate, Trump didn’t just help write a false statement for his son to release – he also then allowed his personal lawyer to falsely deny that Trump was involved in the drafting of the statement,” said David Sklansky, a professor of criminal law at Stanford Law School.
Sklansky said that lying, generally, isn’t criminal, so the episode is unlikely to constitute the “act” of obstruction of justice under federal criminal law.
“But both could be relevant to whether other things Trump has done” – like firing James Comey as FBI director – “were done with corrupt intent,” Sklansky said. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Monday that the episode would most likely signal “consciousness of guilt” to federal and congressional investigators.
“Trump inserted himself into an effort to cover up the nature of his son’s contact with Russia-affiliated people,” said Andy Wright, a professor at Savannah Law School who served as associate counsel in the White House counsel’s office under President Barack Obama.
If Trump was trying to throw congressional investigators or criminal prosecutors “off the scent” of his campaign’s contacts with Russians, Wright said, then that could be construed as obstruction in the legal sense of the term.
But even if that was not the president’s intent, Wright said he thought it was “clear he engaged in an act of political obstruction by trying to deceive the American people.”
The political implications may be the most relevant given the debate surrounding whether a sitting president could be criminally indicted. As Sklansky said, “in an impeachment proceeding, Congress would be the sole judge of whether any lies by the president themselves constituted ‘high crimes or misdemeanors.”’
According to The Post, Trump “overruled the consensus” of his advisers to be as transparent about his son’s meeting as possible, which Wright said “demonstrates ill intent” on the president’s part.
The episode “is relevant as a pattern of conduct designed to play down or even cover up any Russia-related conversations during the campaign and transition,” said Jens Ohlin, a professor at Cornell Law School who specializes in criminal law.
“It certainly does little to buttress the administration’s credibility or transparency on this issue.”