On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s eldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.
The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump junior to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account could not be repudiated later if the full details emerged. Within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.
Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump junior said that he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a programme about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.
The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared an article, emphasised that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time”.
The claims were later shown to be misleading. Over the next three days, accounts of the meeting were provided to the news media as public pressure mounted, with Trump junior ultimately acknowledging that he had accepted the meeting after receiving an e-mail promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.
The extent of the President’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy. As special counsel Robert S Mueller III looks into potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the President’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a cover-up.
“This was 100% unnecessary,” one of the president’s advisers said. Like most other people interviewed he spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”
Trump has already come under criticism for steps he has taken to challenge and undercut the Russia investigation.
He fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James B Comey on May 9 after a private meeting in which Comey said the President asked him if he could end the investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told associates Trump asked him in March if he could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on Flynn. In addition, Trump has repeatedly criticised Attorney-General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the FBI’s Russian investigation a decision that was one factor leading to the appointment of Mueller. He has privately discussed his power to issue pardons, including for himself, and explored potential avenues for undercutting Mueller’s work.
Although misleading the public or the news media is not a crime, advisers to Trump and his family said they fear any indication that Trump was seeking to hide information about contacts between his campaign and Russians almost inevitably would draw additional scrutiny from Mueller.
Trump, they say, is increasingly acting as his own lawyer, strategist and publicist, often disregarding the recommendations of the professionals he has hired.
“He refuses to sit still,” the presidential adviser said. “He doesn’t think he’s in any legal jeopardy, so he really views this as a political problem he is going to solve by himself.”
Trump has said that the Russia investigation is “the greatest witch hunt in political history,” calling it an elaborate hoax created by Democrats to explain why Clinton lost an election she should have won.
Because Trump believes he is innocent, some advisers explained, he therefore does not think he is at any legal risk for a cover-up. In his mind, they said, there is nothing to conceal.
The White House directed all questions to the president’s legal team.
One of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, declined to discuss the specifics of the president’s actions and his role in crafting his son’s statement about the Russian contact. Sekulow issued a one-sentence statement in response to a list of detailed questions. “Apart from being of no consequence, the characterisations are misinformed, inaccurate, and not pertinent,” Sekulow’s statement read.
Trump junior did not respond to requests for comment. AP