When federal investigators are determining whether an individual attempted to obstruct justice, they look for patterns of behavior and evidence of intent.
The Washington Post on Monday night added another piece to the obstruction puzzle that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is trying to put together, reporting that President Donald Trump had personally dictated a deeply misleading statement that went out to the press under his eldest son’s name and obscured the true purpose of Donald Trump, Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer.
As the Post noted, it’s unclear how much the President knew at the time of the statement’s release about the meeting Trump Jr. attended in order to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a Kremlin-directed effort to help his father’s campaign. But the President reportedly overruled the advice of his family members, senior aides and private legal team to personally craft a brief statement claiming that the meeting was focused only on a defunct program allowing U.S. citizens to adopt Russian children.
One of his attorneys, Jay Sekulow, has insisted that Trump “wasn’t involved” in any way in putting the statement together as the President and his aides flew back to the U.S. on Air Force One from the July G-20 summit in Germany.
It’s not a crime for the administration to provide false or misleading information to the press. But the statement Trump reportedly dictated marks his latest effort to obfuscate a subject of interest in the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, which he has consistently dismissed as a partisan “witch hunt.”
Mueller’s team reportedly demonstrated great interest in both the meeting and the White House’s role in covering it up. Mueller’s office asked the White House to preserve all documents related to “subjects discussed” in the meeting and “any decisions made regarding the recent disclosures about” it to the media, CNN reported.
Questions about whether Trump’s actions amounted to intervening to alter the course of federal investigations into his campaign and associates date back as far as February, when he reportedly asked then-FBI director James Comey to drop a probe into the foreign lobbying work of his ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn. That alleged request, as well as separate requests that Comey swear personal loyalty and help lift the “cloud” of the Russia investigation, came to light shortly after Trump abruptly dismissed his FBI chief in May.
It was Comey’s firing itself that reportedly prompted federal agents to open an inquiry into whether the President had attempted to obstruct justice. Trump made it explicitly clear that he got rid of Comey because of his oversight of the Russia investigation, both in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt and in an Oval Office meeting with top Russian officials in which Trump bragged about the “great pressure” taken off him by the departure of that “real nut job” Comey.
As Cornell Law School professor Jens Ohlin previously told TPM, those statements provided the “proof” of Trump’s desire to have the Russia investigation go away.
“Trump just flat-out said it on national television,” Ohlin said. “So what would normally be the most difficult part of the investigation is not difficult at all. The whole world has the evidence.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s team of personal lawyers is taking all manner of steps to discredit Mueller’s office and the work they are carrying out. They’ve pointed to Mueller’s acquaintance with Comey at the FBI and donations that lawyers working on the special counsel’s probe have made to Democrats to claim that the office cannot carry out a credible investigation.
Trump continues to tweet about the “phony” investigation, and his legal team also is reportedly digging through the backgrounds of Mueller’s staff and top reporters who have worked on the Russia story to procure damaging information about them. He spent almost two weeks smearing and toying with firing his longtime ally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation—a move Trump blames for the appointment of Mueller to oversee the probe.
The President is even preemptively weighing pardons for himself and his family members, as his recently fired communications director Anthony Scaramucci acknowledged last week.
It may be, as the President’s allies told the Post, that Trump simply doesn’t grasp the legal implications of his actions and sees the Russia probe as a family public relations problem that he alone can set right.
But his denials, obfuscations and personal interventions in matters of interest to the special counsel’s office aren’t helping him make his case.