President Donald Trump personally “dictated” a misleading statement about his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer last year that said they primarily “discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children,” The Washington Post reported Monday, a move experts say could put the White House at fresh legal risk.
Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, told CNN in the days after that Trump did not play a direct role in crafting the initial statement. That statement did not mention that Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., had been offered compromising information about Hillary Clinton in exchange for taking the meeting, or that the lawyer had been accompanied by a Russian-American lobbyist named Rinat Akhmetshin.
While it is not illegal for a president to mislead the public or the press, legal experts say the episode will likely be of interest to FBI special counsel Robert Mueller as he investigates 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 former FBI Director James Comey — “were done with corrupt intent,” Sklansky said. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Monday that the episode would likely signal “consciousness of guilt” to federal and congressional investigators.
Andy Wright, a professor at Savannah Law School who served as associate counsel in the White House counsel’s office under President Barack Obama, said Trump “inserted himself into an effort to cover up the nature of his son’s contact with Russia-affiliated people.”
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.
Even if that was not Trump’s intent, though, it is “clear he engaged in an act of political obstruction by trying to deceive the American people,” Wright said.
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 misdemeanours.”
According to the Post, Trump “overruled the consensus” of his advisers to be as transparent about the meeting as possible, which Wright said “demonstrates ill intent” on the president’s part.
Jens Ohlin, a professor at Cornell Law School who specialises in criminal law, agreed that 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.”
“It certainly does little to buttress the administration’s credibility or transparency on this issue,” Ohlin said.
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