Yes, well… I don’t think you need a legal degree to come to this conclusion. Trump, who wouldn’t know the truth if it landed in his pants, would perjure himself.
Greg Sargeant points out the real fear:
President Trump’s lawyers are urging him to avoid an interview with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III because he is a pathological liar who cannot be trusted to refrain from telling falsehoods to investigators. No, really — that is essentially what the New York Times is actually reporting.
“Lawyers for President Trump have advised him against sitting down for a wide-ranging interview with the special counsel,” the Times tells us, citing four people familiar with the situation. “His lawyers are concerned that the president, who has a history of making false statements and contradicting himself, could be charged with lying to investigators.”
Buried in this is a hint at an important concession. It is likely Trump’s lawyers don’t simply fear Trump might lie to investigators because he helplessly cannot refrain from doing so even about trivial matters, but also that he might feel he actually has reasons grounded in self-preservation to lie to them — because he has something important to cover up.
In an interview with me, Bob Bauer, the White House counsel under Barack Obama, suggested lines of inquiry Mueller might pursue that could lead Trump’s lawyers to worry he might lie. Bauer noted that Mueller would ask Trump what he knew and when about the meeting Donald Trump Jr. held at Trump Tower to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia.
Bauer suggested that Trump might tell investigators, “I never talked to Don Jr. about the meeting at Trump Tower,” when “in fact there may be evidence he knew about it before the Russians ever set foot on American soil,” Bauer said.
Bauer added that Mueller’s investigators would likely press Trump on what he knew and when about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition, conversations about which Flynn lied to the FBI — and about what Trump knew about those lies to the FBI, as well. “When the FBI came to ask the national security adviser about this, for weeks nobody told the president?” Bauer asked rhetorically.
Questions about obstruction
Then there’s obstruction of justice. Mueller would have to establish that Trump acted with “corrupt intent” in trying to derail the probe. There is a wealth of lines of inquiry here. He’d ask why Trump directed his White House counsel to urge his attorney general not to recuse himself and raged at Jeff Sessions’s failure to protect Trump from the probe. Why Trump demanded FBI Director James B. Comey’s loyalty and pressed him to drop the probe into Flynn. Why Trump fired Comey when that loyalty didn’t materialize. Why Trump wrote an unsent letter firing Comey that reportedly mentioned the Russia probe in the first sentence. Why Trump ordered the firing of Mueller and only backed down after his White House counsel threatened to quit.
Trump has denied some of these things happened. But now he will be getting questioned about them under penalty of perjury. And while Trump’s lawyers may fear he will lie about them, they also likely fear he might actually reveal his true motivations behind these actions without meaning to. While corrupt intent is difficult to prove, this inquiry isn’t just about establishing whether Trump broke the law, but also whether he committed serious misconduct that could be deemed impeachable. Such an interview could go a long way toward doing that, making it a minefield.
Indeed, buried in the Times article is a revelation that gives away the game: Trump’s lawyers want him to resist an interview by Mueller because they believe that in firing Comey, the president “acted within his constitutional authority and cannot be questioned about acts that were legal.” (Emphasis mine.) They want to gamble on Mueller subpoenaing Trump, after which the courts would presumably decide whether Trump can actually be questioned about those matters. But the bottom line is that this is the questioning they want to avoid.
The public White House spin on all this is that they just want to avoid a Mueller “perjury trap,” in which Trump is baited into lying about something trivial. But this is very likely misdirection, because there are all sorts of very consequential matters (such as obstruction) that Mueller can ask Trump about, and as the Times piece shows, Trump’s lawyers are actually eager to avoid that questioning.
Still, this spin hints at the broader strategy to come, especially when viewed with Trump’s continuing attacks on the FBI and his use of the Nunes memo to delegitimize the whole investigation. Trump may be laying the groundwork to use that delegitimization as a pretext to avoid a sit-down with Mueller — why should he submit to an interview when the probe is corrupt to its core?
“It creates a rationale for declining the interview,” Bauer told me. “The juxtaposition of these conversations about the interview and these escalating attacks — one could see them as connected.” Indeed, one could.
Good point. The problem isn’t that Trump will lie — it is that he’ll tell the truth!