Seeking truth, Mueller finds culture of lies
Probe reveals habit of falsehoods within Trump’s inner circle
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.”
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.
President Donald Trump has accused the special counsel of manufacturing lies by threatening witnesses with severe consequences if they refuse to cooperate.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of prosecutors and FBI agents are methodically and purposefully examining the words and deeds of Trump’s associates.