Washington’s ly­ing ways

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Harry Lit­man

FOR MORE than a year, the most se­nior of­fi­cials in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion adamantly, even scorn­fully, de­nied that there was any con­tact be­tween the Trump cam­paign and the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. The bomb­shell report last week of Don­ald Trump Jr.’s ef­forts to se­cure dirt on Hil­lary Clin­ton from Rus­sian of­fi­cials — and his June 9, 2016, meet­ing with the sup­posed pur­veyor of that dirt as well as then-Trump cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort and his fa­ther’s aide Jared Kush­ner — put the lie to those de­nials.

Why did the truth emerge? A care­ful pars­ing of the events lead­ing to the rev­e­la­tions points to the im­por­tance of the fed­eral crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion over­seen by a stal­wart spe­cial coun­sel, Robert S. Mueller III. His be­hind-the-scenes work al­ready has changed the rules of the game for the White House and con­trib­uted to a more ac­cu­rate public ac­count­ing.

The New York Times, which broke the story, re­ported that it was Kush­ner’s le­gal team that re­cently dis­cov­ered the now-in­fa­mous email chain in which Trump Jr. was told that a se­nior Rus­sian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial had doc­u­ments that “would in­crim­i­nate Hil­lary and her deal­ings with Rus­sia and would be very use­ful to your fa­ther,” to which Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.”

And here is where Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion has rewrit­ten the rule book for se­nior White House of­fi­cials. To re­ceive a se­cu­rity clear­ance, Kush­ner had to complete a form — the SF-86 — de­tail­ing, un­der penalty of per­jury, ev­ery con­tact he had with for­eign gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the last seven years. (I dealt with SF-86s as a deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice.)

Pros­e­cu­tions for ly­ing on an SF-86 are rare, but they hap­pen, and Kush­ner al­ready has one strike against him: He first signed and submitted his SF-86 with­out list­ing more than 100 ap­pli­ca­ble con­tacts with for­eign lead­ers or of­fi­cials. His lawyer said the ques­tion­naire was submitted pre­ma­turely; it took two tries to fully sup­ple­ment it. The Trump Jr. emails re­port­edly sur­faced when Kush­ner was go­ing through his records as part of that process.

In a pre-Mueller world, Kush­ner might have ap­proached the mat­ter ca­su­ally and, if any­one asked, pleaded ig­no­rance and a busy sched­ule. That ap­proach, how­ever, is no longer fea­si­ble. In the midst of a wide-rang­ing crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, with mul­ti­ple tar­gets, the threat of a per­jury pros­e­cu­tion is the sort of of­fense zeal­ous and so­phis­ti­cated fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors — and there is no doubt that Mueller’s team fits that de­scrip­tion — could bring to bear.

All of this would lead a good Washington coun­sel — and Kush­ner’s lawyers, Jamie Gore­lick, ini­tially, and then sud­denly on Fri­day, crim­i­nal de­fense spe­cial­ist Abbe Low­ell, are among the best — to con­clude that Kush­ner needed to “get ahead of the story” and turn over the emails (a de­vel­op­ment the Times learned from peo­ple “fa­mil­iar with” Kush­ner’s ap­pli­ca­tion, who re­quested anonymity be­cause the ques­tion­naire is not a public doc­u­ment).

Ab­sent the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the po­ten­tial le­gal jeop­ardy for Kush­ner, the email chain very pos­si­bly would never have seen the light of day. In­deed, President Trump and Trump Jr. at first de­cided to pro­vide a dis­hon­est ac­count of the June 2016 meet­ing, omit­ting the of­fer of dirt on the Clin­ton cam­paign. It was only af­ter fur­ther re­port­ing in the New York Times and fi­nally its plan to pub­lish the ac­tual emails that Trump Jr. fessed up.

The threats rep­re­sented by the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion are hav­ing ad­di­tional con­se­quences within the White House, fa­mil­iar to vet­er­ans of pre­vi­ous scan­dals. Mul­ti­ple ac­counts sug­gest that the Trump Jr. emails have given rise to a cir­cu­lar fir­ing squad in the West Wing that we are told fea­tures wide­spread sus­pi­cions of Kush­ner. These kinds of ef­fects will only get worse as Mueller’s work ad­vances.

Per­haps no qual­ity has more stunned and frus­trated the president’s crit­ics than his brazen will­ing­ness to lie. Trump fre­quently ap­pears to have no in­de­pen­dent re­gard for truth, to see ve­rac­ity in purely ex­pe­di­ent terms: What he can get away with in public de­bate. More dumb­found­ing, he and oth­ers in the White House do seem to get away with it, ridi­cul­ing plainly ob­jec­tive ac­counts as “fake news.”

But the prospect of gen­uine le­gal jeop­ardy up­ends the cal­cu­la­tion, cer­tainly for Trump’s sub­or­di­nates, who have fu­ture ca­reers to lose, fam­i­lies to raise and, un­like the president, no gen­eral in­su­la­tion from crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. It is probable that some pow­er­ful peo­ple will be go­ing to jail as a re­sult of the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Among the like­li­est can­di­dates are those who don’t re­al­ize that the game has changed, and that in the am­bit of the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and the courts of law, a lie is a lie.

The prospect of le­gal jeop­ardy rep­re­sented by the spe­cial coun­sel is a game-changer for those who stray from the truth.

An­drew Harnik As­so­ci­ated Press

PRES­I­DEN­TIAL AD­VI­SOR Jared Kush­ner first signed and submitted his se­cu­rity clear­ance form with­out list­ing more than 100 con­tacts with for­eign lead­ers or of­fi­cials.

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