Trump dictated son’s misleading statement about meeting with Russian lawyer, and advisers fear legal peril
On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Donald Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign - a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.
The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jnr to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.
But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.
Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jnr said he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared a story - but before it was revealed that the Times had obtained Trump Jnr’s emails about the meeting - emphasised that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.”
The claims were later shown to be misleading.
Over the next three days, multiple accounts of the meeting were provided to the media as public pressure mounted, with Trump Jnr ultimately acknowledging that he had accepted the meeting after receiving an email promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.
The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.
As Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigates potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.
“This was . . . unnecessary,” said one of the president’s advisers, who like most other people interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”
Trump has already come under criticism for steps he has taken to challenge and undercut the Russia probe.
He fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9 after a private meeting in which Comey said the president asked him if he could end the investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told associates that Trump asked him in March if he could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on Flynn. In addition, Trump has repeatedly criticised Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the FBI’s Russian investigation - a decision that was one factor leading to the appointment of Mueller. And he has privately discussed his power to issue pardons, including for himself, and explored potential avenues for undercutting Mueller’s work.
Although misleading the public or the press is not a crime, advisers to Trump and his family said they fear any indication that Trump was seeking to hide information about contacts between his campaign and Russians almost inevitably would draw additional scrutiny from Mueller.
Trump, they say, is increasingly acting as his own lawyer, strategist and publicist, often disregarding the recommendations of the professionals he has hired.
“He refuses to sit still,” the presidential adviser said. “He doesn’t think he’s in any legal jeopardy, so he really views this as a political problem he is going to solve by himself.”
Trump has said that the Russia probe is “the greatest witch hunt in political history,” calling it an elaborate hoax created by Democrats to explain Clinton losing an election she should have won.
Because Trump believes he is innocent, some advisers explained, he therefore does not think he is at any legal risk for a coverup. In his mind, they said, there is nothing to conceal.
The White House directed all questions for this story to the president’s legal team.
One of Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, declined to discuss the specifics of the president’s actions and his role in crafting his son’s statement about the Russian contact. Sekulow issued a one-sentence statement in response to a list of detailed questions from The Post.
“Apart from being of no consequence, the characterisations are misinformed, inaccurate, and not pertinent,” Sekulow’s statement read.
Trump Jnr did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer, Alan Futerfas, said he and his client “were fully prepared and absolutely prepared to make a fulsome statement” about the meeting, what led up to it and what was discussed.
Asked about Trump intervening, Futerfas said, “I have no evidence to support that theory.” He described the process of drafting a statement as “a communal situation that involved communications people and various lawyers.”
Peter Zeidenberg, the deputy special prosecutor who investigated the George W. Bush administration’s leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, said Mueller will have to dig into the crafting of Trump Jnr’s statement aboard Air Force One.
Prosecutors typically assume that any misleading statement is an effort to throw investigators off the track, Zeidenberg said.
“The thing that really strikes me about this is the stupidity of involving the president,” Zeidenberg said. “They are still treating this like a family-run business and they have a PR problem ... What they don’t seem to understand is this is a criminal investigation involving all of them.”
The debate about how to deal with the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting began weeks before any news organisations began to ask questions about it.
Kushner’s legal team first learned about the meeting when doing research to respond to congressional requests for information. Congressional investigators wanted to know about any contacts the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser had with Russian officials or business people.
Kushner’s lawyers came across what they immediately recognised would eventually become a problematic story. A string of emails showed Kushner attended a meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in the midst of the campaign - one he had failed to disclose. Trump Jnr had arranged it, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort had also attended.
To compound what was, at best, a public relations fiasco, the emails, which had not yet surfaced publicly, showed Trump Jnr responding to the prospect of negative information on Clinton from Russia: “I love it.”
Lawyers and advisers for Trump, his son and son-in-law gamed out various strategies for disclosing the information to try to minimise the fallout.
Hope Hicks, the White House director of strategic communications and one of the president’s most trusted and loyal aides, and Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who works closely with Kushner and Ivanka Trump, huddled with Kushner’s lawyers, and they advocated for a more transparent approach, according to people with knowledge of the conversations.
Circumstances changed when the New York Times began asking about the Trump Tower meeting, though advisers believed the paper knew few of the details.
During breaks away from the summit, Kushner and Ivanka Trump gathered with Hicks and Raffel to discuss Kushner’s response to the inquiry.
Hicks also spoke by phone with Trump Jnr. Again, say people familiar with the conversations, Kushner’s team concluded that the best strategy would be to err on the side of transparency, because they believed the complete story would eventually emerge.
The discussions among President Trump’s advisers consumed much of the day, and continued as they prepared to board Air Force One that evening for the flight home.
But before everyone boarded the plane, Trump had overruled the consensus, according to people with knowledge of the events.
It remains unclear exactly how much the president knew at the time of the flight about Trump Jnr’s meeting.
The president directed that Trump Jnr’s statement to the Times describe the meeting as unimportant. He wanted the statement to say that the meeting had been initiated by the Russian lawyer and primarily was about her pet issue - the adoption of Russian children.
Air Force One took off from Germany shortly after 6pm, about noon in Washington. In a forward cabin, Trump was busy working on his son’s statement, according to people with knowledge of events. The president dictated the statement to Hicks, who served as a go-between with Trump Jnr, who was not on the plane, sharing edits between the two men, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
In the early afternoon, Eastern time, Trump Jnr’s team put out the statement to the Times. It was four sentences long, describing the encounter as a “short, introductory meeting.”
“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,” the statement read.
The Times’ story revealing the existence of the June 2016 meeting went online around 4pm Eastern time. Roughly four hours later, Air Force One touched down at Joint Base Andrews. Trump’s family members and advisers departed the plane, and they knew the problem they had once hoped to contain would soon grow bigger.