Trump admits coaching son’s answers on Russia inquiry
Analysts say move likely not illegal, but could give Mueller an opening
The White House confirmed Tuesday that President Trump “weighed in” to help craft his son’s response to reports of a meeting last year with a Russian lawyer — a move that could fuel an expansion of investigations into Trump campaign figures’ dealings with Moscow.
Legal analysts said drafting a misleading memo is not necessarily a crime, but it could give the ongoing special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller room to interview additional White House officials.
“Assuming all this is true, the first thing that stands out is the number of people who have been exposed to the scope of the special counsel,” said Bradley Moss, an attorney who handles national security cases. “At a minimum, it’s a political issue for the president. It looks horrible.”
The Washington Post reported Monday that Mr. Trump intervened as his advisers discussed how to respond to a New York Times inquiry about Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The Post said the president dictated a statement to be used by his son indicating the meeting was about Russian adoptions and not the campaign or other related issues.
The president’s son later released email correspondence that showed he was promised a Russian lawyer would provide information on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Trump’s lawyer last month had denied the president’s involvement in crafting the response.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders disputed details of the Post report Tuesday but confirmed the president did offer his thoughts.
“He certainly didn’t dictate. He weighed in, offered suggestions like any father would do,” Mrs. Sanders said.
She also bristled at the notion Mr. Trump’s explanation gave the wrong impression about the meeting.
“Everybody wants to try to make this some story about ‘misleading.’ The only thing I’ve seen that’s misleading is a year’s worth of stories that have been fueling a false narrative about this Russia collusion, and based on a phony scandal based on anonymous sources,” she said.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, said drafting a misleading statement isn’t illegal. “Otherwise half of Washington would be in jail,” he quipped to C-SPAN on Tuesday.
But the president’s involvement could put him in legal jeopardy when it comes to the special counsel’s investigation, he said.
“There were allegations the president had already put pressure on Cabinet officials to terminate the independent investigation, and in that context, he then took it upon himself to personally direct how to respond to perhaps the most damaging piece of information that has come out regarding the Russia investigation. That is truly breathtaking,” Mr. Turley said. “There can be a legitimate allegation that there was an attempt to mislead, and the special counsel can say ‘I want to know why.’”
They could also subject Hope Hicks, the White House director of strategic communications, to further scrutiny by the special counsel. The Post report states Ms. Hicks acted as a go-between for the president and his son as the initial statement was crafted.
“She at least is going to be asked questions about the scope of her involvement,” Mr. Moss said of the likelihood investigators will seek to learn more about the interactions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a member of both the Senate Judiciary and intelligence committees, which are each conducting probes of the 2016 election, said Congress will also take a look.
“This will be a factor when it comes before the full committee,” the California Democrat told CNN. “If it’s true, I think it is of serious concern.”
Donald Trump Jr.’s initial statement on the meeting said, “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.”
Days later, he released an email chain from June 2016 that contained correspondence between himself and Rob Goldstone, a former British journalist and Trump associate who arranged the June 9 meeting with Ms. Veselnitskaya.
One email from Mr. Goldstone states that the “Crown prosecutor of Russia” had met with a previous business partner of the elder Mr. Trump and “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Mr. Goldstone wrote.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed President Trump “weighed in” but not “dictate” Donald Trump Jr.’s statement denying Russia collusion. “Everybody wants to … make this some story about ‘misleading,’” she said of the coverage.