Seek­ing truth, Mueller finds cul­ture of lies

Probe re­veals habit of false­hoods within Trump’s in­ner cir­cle

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - HEALTH | SCIENCE - By Sharon LaFraniere NEW YORK TIMES

WASH­ING­TON — When Michael Co­hen ad­mit­ted this past week to ly­ing to Congress about a Rus­sian busi­ness deal, he said he had tes­ti­fied falsely out of loy­alty to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. When he ad­mit­ted this sum­mer to ly­ing on cam­paign fi­nance records about pay­ments to cover up a sex scan­dal dur­ing the cam­paign, he said it was at Trump’s di­rec­tion.

Paul Man­afort and Rick Gates, for­mer se­nior Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials, lied to cover up fi­nan­cial fraud. Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, a for­mer Trump cam­paign aide, lied in hopes of land­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tion job. And Michael Flynn, an­other ad­viser, lied about his in­ter­ac­tions with a Rus­sian of­fi­cial and about other mat­ters for rea­sons that re­main un­clear.

If spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller has proved any­thing in his 18month in­ves­ti­ga­tion — be­sides how in­tensely Rus­sia med­dled in a U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — it is that Trump sur­rounded him­self through­out 2016 and early 2017 with peo­ple to whom ly­ing seemed to be sec­ond na­ture.

They lied to fed­eral au­thor­i­ties even when they had lawyers ad­vis­ing them, even when the risk of get­ting caught was high and even when the con­se­quences for them were dire.

Even more Trump as­so­ci­ates are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for the same of­fense. They are part of a group of peo­ple sur­round­ing Trump — in­clud­ing some White House and Cab­i­net of­fi­cials — who con­trib­ute to a cul­ture of bend­ing, if not out­right break­ing, the truth, and whose lead­ing ex­em­plar is Trump him­self.

Trump looks for peo­ple who share his dis­re­gard for the truth and are will­ing to par­rot him, “even if it’s a lie, even if they know it’s a lie, and even if he said the op­po­site the day be­fore,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump bi­og­ra­pher. They must be “loyal to what he is say­ing right now,” she said, or he sees them as “a traitor.”

Em­brac­ing fal­si­ties

Cam­paign aides of­ten echoed Trump’s pro­nounce­ments know­ing they were false. Peo­ple joined the top lev­els of his ad­min­is­tra­tion with the re­al­iza­tion that they would be ex­pected to em­brace what Trump said, no mat­ter how far from the truth or how much their rep­u­ta­tions suf­fered.

For Sean Spicer, the first White House press sec­re­tary, that in­cluded falsely in­sist­ing, on Trump’s first day in of­fice, that his in­au­gu­ral crowd was the big­gest in his­tory. Sarah Huck­abee Sanders, who re­placed him, di­aled back once-daily press brief­ings to once ev­ery few weeks as her cred­i­bil­ity was in­creas­ingly bat­tered.

For decades, such be­hav­ior was rel­a­tively free of con­se­quence for those who aligned with Trump. The stakes in the real es­tate world were lower, and de­cep­tive state­ments could be dis­missed as hard­ball busi­ness tac­tics or just ef­forts to cul­ti­vate the Trump mys­tique.

But in Mueller, those in Trump’s or­bit now con­front a bigleague ad­ver­sary with lit­tle tol­er­ance for what one top White House ad­viser once called “al­ter­na­tive facts.” He heads a team of pros­e­cu­tors and FBI agents who are me­thod­i­cally and pur­pose­fully ex­am­in­ing their words and deeds.

Trump’s own lawyers, wary of how fre­quently their client en­gages in false­hoods, are try­ing to hold the spe­cial coun­sel at bay. Jay Seku­low, one of the pres­i­dent’s lawyers, has al­ready been forced to pull back his own pub­lic re­marks about an is­sue of con­cern to Mueller.

In a con­fi­den­tial memo to the spe­cial coun­sel, Trump’s le­gal team ad­mit­ted that the pres­i­dent, not his el­dest son, Don­ald Trump Jr., drafted a mislead­ing state­ment about a Trump Tower meet­ing be­tween a Krem­lin-tied lawyer and cam­paign of­fi­cials in 2016. That state­ment could fig­ure in the spe­cial coun­sel’s scru­tiny of whether the pres­i­dent ob­structed jus­tice.

Fear­ful of more de­cep­tions, the pres­i­dent’s le­gal team has in­sisted that Trump an­swer ques­tions only in writ­ing. They de­liv­ered replies to some of the spe­cial coun­sel’s queries on Nov. 20 af­ter months of ne­go­ti­a­tion. If un­sat­is­fied, Mueller could try to sub­poena the pres­i­dent to tes­tify.

But the new act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral, Matthew Whi­taker, a vo­cal critic of Mueller’s in­quiry who now su­per­vises it, would have to sign off. And even if he did, the White House could still mount a le­gal bat­tle to squash it.

Busi­ness in Rus­sia

The rea­sons for the lies vary, but, not sur­pris­ingly, peo­ple were most of­ten try­ing to pro­tect them­selves. Co­hen, Trump’s long­time fixer, said in fed­eral court this past week that he had mis­led Congress about the de­tails of a Trump ho­tel project in Moscow be­cause he did not want to con­tra­dict the pres­i­dent’s own false char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of his busi­ness deal­ings in Moscow. He specif­i­cally cited his loy­alty to Trump, re­ferred to as “In­di­vid­ual 1” in court pa­pers, as the rea­son for his crime.

“I made these mis­state­ments to be con­sis­tent with In­di­vid­ual 1’s po­lit­i­cal mes­sag­ing and out of loy­alty to In­di­vid­ual 1,” Co­hen told a judge.

But Co­hen was also on Trump’s pay­roll for years, so in pro­tect­ing his in­ter­ests, Co­hen was also try­ing to pro­tect his own. Pa­padopou­los, the for­mer cam­paign aide, said he had lied to FBI agents about his in­ter­ac­tions with Rus­sian gov­ern­ment in­ter­me­di­aries be­cause he hoped to se­cure a job in the new Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Man­afort is ac­cused of ly­ing on top of ly­ing. As part of a Septem­ber plea deal, he ac­knowl­edged that he had lied to the Jus­tice De­part­ment about his busi­ness deal­ings and that he had also tried to per­suade wit­nesses to lie to in­ves­ti­ga­tors on his be­half.

On Mon­day, pros­e­cu­tors al­leged that he con­tin­ued to lie af­ter he had agreed to co­op­er­ate with them, breach­ing his plea deal. His lawyers in­sist he told the truth.

Trump has been Mueller’s most vo­cif­er­ous critic, ac­cus­ing his team of man­u­fac­tur­ing lies by threat­en­ing wit­nesses with se­vere con­se­quences if they refuse to agree with the spe­cial coun­sel’s nar­ra­tive.

What pros­e­cu­tors have called lies, Trump has in­sisted is truth. What they called truth, he has framed as lies.

Where all this is headed is un­clear, but it ap­pears that more al­le­ga­tions of ly­ing are ahead. The Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, which has also been in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion, has re­ferred other cases to the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice in­volv­ing wit­nesses who may have lied.

Lu­dovic Marin / AFP / Getty Im­ages

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has ac­cused the spe­cial coun­sel of man­u­fac­tur­ing lies by threat­en­ing wit­nesses with se­vere con­se­quences if they refuse to co­op­er­ate.

J. Scott Ap­ple­white / As­so­ci­ated Press

Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s team of pros­e­cu­tors and FBI agents are me­thod­i­cally and pur­pose­fully ex­am­in­ing the words and deeds of Trump’s as­so­ci­ates.

Man­afort

Flynn

Gates

Pa­padopou­los

Co­hen

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