In his private interview today with Senate Judiciary Committee investigators, President Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., made a prepared statement in which he stated definitively that he took the now-infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with the intent to receive information that was purportedly being provided by the Russian Government. His subsequent caveats and clarifications notwithstanding, this admission – made subject to the felony criminal provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 regarding making knowing and willful material false statements to Congress – remains the most concrete public evidence of a senior Trump campaign official affirmatively seeking to coordinate with the Russian Government in order to defeat Hillary Clinton in last year’s election.
Donald Trump Jr.’s potential criminal liability – if his explanation is true and accurate – is candidly tenuous at best. Federal election laws do prohibit foreign nationals from contributing any “thing of value” to a political campaign. There is no direct precedent for what Donald Trump Jr. was seeking to do, however, and there is minimal case law addressing whether derogatory information, on its own, would qualify as a “thing of value”. Legal experts can opine at their leisure on whether it can qualify but the honest truth is no one truly knows for sure.
What remains of particular interest in the context of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation is whether President Trump later sought to conceal material information by personally intervening in the drafting of the press statements on behalf of his son.
Ever since the the ”New York Times” reports about the June 2016 meeting first emerged in July 2017, the story from Donald Trump Jr. about the purpose of the meeting has continually shifted. At first, a prepared statement was issued suggesting that the meeting only concerned the Russian adoption program that had been suspended after the U.S. Government imposed sanctions against the Russian Government. That statement was later expanded – after Donald Trump Jr. was confronted with additional information by the Times – to indicate that the original purpose of the meeting was actually to receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The explanation was further clarified when relevant e-mail correspondence was published online by Donald Trump Jr. himself, and in which the verbiage of the e-mails made clear that the meeting was taken after a business colleague had told Donald Trump Jr. the information was part of the Russian Government’s efforts to aid President Trump’s campaign.
Media reports have suggested that President Trump directly intervened in the drafting of the first press statement, and that it was President Trump who overruled the desire of his son to provide a full and comprehensive accounting of the June 2016 meeting. The White House has only confirmed that the president “weighed in” on the matter; it has declined to address the extent of the president’s involvement.
After Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony concluded today, media outlets began reporting on leaked portions of what had been said during the committee interview. Of particular interest here is that Donald Trump Jr. allegedly stated he cannot recall details of the extent of the White House’s involvement in the drafting of the initial press statement made on his behalf. This answer no doubt persuaded few members of the Judiciary Committee, and would be unlikely to hold any credibility with Mr. Mueller.
As if on cue, a new story was reported this afternoon by CNN indicating that Mr. Mueller has inquired with the White House about interviewing the individuals involved in drafting the initial press statement. The interviews would seek to clarify who actually played a role in the drafting, what they knew at the time about the details of the June 2016 meeting, and to what extent there was any deliberate effort to conceal material information from being included in that initial press statement.
This delicate legal situation is once again due almost entirely to unnecessary and unforced errors on the part of President Trump and his family members. The existence of a Special Counsel, in and of itself, is the result of President Trump’s rash and ham-handed firing of former FBI Director James Comey. The alleged existence of an obstruction of justice component to Mr. Mueller’s investigation is due not only to the president’s firing of Director Comey, but also allegations made by Director Comey that the president tried to pressure him to back off from an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Now, due to Donald Trump Jr.’s amateurish handling of “opposition research” during the campaign and the apparent efforts by some to conceal the details of those actions, Mr. Mueller has a new angle of criminal inquiry to pursue. Yet again, this inquiry can in theory reach all the way to the president himself.