Trump’s ‘great’ memory lapsed in response to Mueller’s queries
President Donald Trump has boasted at various points that he has “one of the great memories of all time” or even “the world’s greatest memory.”
But the world’s greatest memory failed him repeatedly when prosecutors asked him those classic questions from decades of presidential scandals – what did he know and when did he know it?
Trump refused for more than a year to be interviewed by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and in the end agreed to respond to questions only in writing. Even then, with the help of his lawyers, the president found it difficult to summon details from his presidential campaign in 2016 that might shed light on what happened.
More than 30 times he told the prosecutors that he had no memory of what they were asking about, employing several formulations to make the same point.
“I do not remember.” “I do not recall.”
“I have no recollection.” “I have no independent recollection.”
“I have no current recollection.”
He did not remember learning about a Trump Tower meeting held in June 2016 by his son, sonin-law and campaign chairman with visiting Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. He did not remember being told in advance of Russian hacking of Democratic emails before the stolen messages were posted online.
He did not remember any particular conversations with Roger Stone, a longtime adviser, during the last months of the campaign, much less discussions with him about WikiLeaks. He did not remember discussing a possible trip to Russia to promote a proposed tower project in Moscow. He did not remember an invitation from Russia’s deputy prime minister to attend an economic forum in St. Petersburg.
A fuzzy memory is not exactly unusual for any president given how much they typically juggle, much less a 72-year-old president who is the oldest ever elected for the first time. But Mueller’s prosecutors considered his memory lapses unsatisfying and pressed Trump’s lawyer again for an in-person interview, to no avail.
“The written responses, we informed counsel, ‘demonstrate the inadequacy of the written format, as we have had no opportunity to ask follow-up questions that would ensure complete answers and potentially refresh your client’s recollection or clarify the extent or nature of his lack of recollection,’ ” Mueller’s report said.
Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s private lawyers, defended his client’s answers Friday. “The president responded to the questions,” he said. “They are answers, not speculations.”
Lawyers often advise clients to avoid definitive answers if they are not sure about a question and to couch denials by saying they cannot recall an event lest contrary evidence emerge. A veteran of litigation, Trump rarely lacks for certainty in his public statements on camera, but has shown more caution when under oath.
He said, “I don’t remember” 24 times during a 2012 deposition in a lawsuit involving his nowdefunct Trump University and 35 times during another deposition related to the university suit three years later, not counting 10 more times in the two interviews that he said, “I don’t recall” or “Can’t remember.” (He eventually settled the legal claims for $25 million.)
Prosecutors said such selective memory tended to make them suspicious.
“It’s always a red flag when a witness appears to selectively forget the events most likely to be (damaging),” said Dwight C. Holton, who spent 14 years as a prosecutor, most recently as U.S. attorney in Oregon.
“And when you have a witness who repeatedly and publicly thumps his chest about how great his memory is, then all of a sudden he has sudden massive memory loss – well, let’s just say that’s a target I’d like to crossexamine in front of a jury.”
Barbara L. McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan, said the president’s answers “demonstrate why written answers are a poor substitute for an in-person interview.”
During a face-to-face encounter, she said, prosecutors can refresh a witness’s memory by providing additional details or showing him documents. They can also come to a judgment based on body language.
“I have not dealt with a witness who has claimed not to remember facts as many times as Trump did, but it is impossible to read a witness’s mind to know whether he is telling the truth,” she said. “Trump’s refusal to participate in an interview,” she added, “hampered Mueller’s investigation and contradicts” the assertion by Attorney General William Barr that the president had cooperated fully.