Interrogation

Will Trump’s Tweet About the Don Jr. Meeting Put Him in Legal Jeopardy?

President Donald Trump crosses his arms over his stomach.
President Donald Trump hosts a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday.
Oliver Contreras - Pool/Getty Images

Last weekend, the Washington Post reported that an angry President Trump is increasingly concerned about exposure that his son Donald Jr. may face in the Mueller investigation. In apparent response, the president tweeted that he wasn’t concerned and that the infamous Trump Tower meeting—generally assumed to be the primary source of any legal troubles Donald Jr. faces—was meant “to get information on an opponent.” This admission of the purpose of the meeting, after an initial furious denial, raised further questions about the president’s honesty, and his own potential legal troubles. Meanwhile, one of the president’s lawyer’s, Rudy Giuliani, says that his team is continuing to hash out the details of an interview with the special counsel’s office—a process that has been going on for quite some time, and that could result in either an interview or a subpoena.

To talk about what all this means, I spoke by phone with Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent and a lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how much danger Donald Jr. might be in, whether Trump’s tweets could really cause him legal problems, and why Robert Mueller might be happy to spend a seemingly endless amount of time trying to agree on interview conditions with the president.

Isaac Chotiner: When you’re looking at a case where someone’s story keeps changing in the way that Donald Trump’s has about the Trump Tower meeting, how much does that matter if, when they’re under oath, or when they’re speaking to federal agents, they’re telling the truth?

Asha Rangappa: The point of getting an interview is that it then becomes their account of record, in the sense that that’s the account that’s going to count. Even if it’s not under oath, if he has an interview with Mueller, he’s still liable for false statement charges if he lies. He’s locked in. I think that’s the key. If the version he gives Mueller is in fact the truthful one, then there should be no problem. He can still go out and lie to the public, but presumably the truthful version will come out at some point and then there are political costs for having lied to the public.

Right, but I have also read that his lawyers are telling him to stop tweeting because it’s bad for him. Are they just talking about it’s bad publicly, because he may have to reverse course when he talks to Mueller, or do you think they are making some larger point about his credibility that could have legal ramifications?

It’s bad for him in the sense that it still can be used as evidence. Are we talking about the Trump Tower meeting or are we talking about obstruction?

Either one.

The tweeting is worse in my opinion on the obstruction case because the obstruction case centers on his state of mind. Everything he tweets that goes to him wanting the Russia investigation to go away, that’s subjective intent, it’s helpful to Mueller, even if it’s just his opinion. On the Trump Tower piece, if he’s tweeting out things that he is later going to come totally clean with Mueller on, then I don’t think the tweets are as problematic because they’re not evidentiary in the same way.

So, in a case like the obstruction case, where it might be the president’s word against Comey’s, how much would a prosecutor examine someone’s general record for honesty? How much is someone’s record of public honesty separate from having maybe talked honestly to federal agents?

Typically these things would be presented in a court of law, right? In a traditional case, a person’s credibility would be a question for the jury. If you were to put someone on the stand, Comey’s lawyer would have him introduce himself as the director of the FBI, and he’s sworn in so many cases in front of a federal court on these issues, you know on whatever. In other words, he has a history of putting things under oath and doesn’t have a history of lying.

Then, if Donald Trump was going to be a witness, what you would have is a lawyer impeaching him, meaning like cross-examining him to show a pattern of making misstatements. “Isn’t it true that the Washington Post says that you lie approximately four times a day?” Bringing up his inauguration claims and all of that stuff to show the jury that this is a person who has a pattern of dishonesty. If it’s a “he said, she said,” it would ultimately be up to the jury to decide who am I going to believe.

But what if you’re submitting a report to Rod Rosenstein who’s going to submit it to Congress and there is no jury?

Exactly. That’s why this is different. The jury here is the Senate, ultimately. If the House can decide to bring articles of impeachment, ultimately the people who would be voting on it is the Senate. Ultimately, it is a political process.

I guess my answer to you is the question of credibility and a person’s reputation for honesty would normally be relevant in a legal setting, to be evaluated by a jury, but we’re completely out of this context. This is why they’re also using the court of public opinion to make their case because that is ultimately what’s going to be most influential on the members of Congress, on what they think.

One more thing about Don Jr.: You hear people say that the way to judge his vulnerability is if he hasn’t spoken to Robert Mueller—as in, that’s a sign that he’s a target of the investigation. How reliable is that as a gauge of these things?

If you’re definitely someone who would be of interest to the things that Mueller is investigating, and the Trump Tower meeting is one of them, then I think it is a fair assessment. I mean, if Mueller is looking at Russia’s approaches to the campaign, and that meeting is one where there were at least two people connected to the Kremlin, and he still hasn’t interviewed all of the principal players, then it may be that he’s first gathering a lot of information from other sources, which then allows them … They’re going to save the people who are closer to potentially becoming a target for last, because they want to gather everything else they know. They want to have a timeline. They want to know what everyone else said, and then they can present their questions in a way that forces Don Jr., or anybody else, to give their version kind of knowing that if they screw up or tell a falsehood, the opposite side probably knows.

It seems that there have been endless negotiations between Mueller’s team and Trump’s team about setting a date for an interview and its conditions. Why do you think Mueller seems to be willing to kick the can down the road and proceed with this very drawn-out process, which God knows how long it will take, as opposed to saying, “No, we’re setting the conditions, and if you don’t agree we’re going to subpoena you”?

I think a couple of things. First, there is an election coming up, and I think that he doesn’t want to escalate things that might make it look as though he is doing it for political reasons right before an election. That could be one reason. The other reason is that maybe it actually gives Mueller more time to do other parts of. … In other words, maybe it’s not actually a loss for Mueller at this stage to not have to get this done immediately. In some ways, the longer that it’s prolonged, the more Trump starts going crazy and tweets stuff that helps Mueller’s case.

Or he doesn’t move to shut down the investigation because they’re, you know, still negotiating.

That was going to be my third comment. It’s like in a hostage negotiation. If you keep the guy talking, he’s probably not going to shoot. That’s why hostage negotiators keep talking to the person and keep them engaged because that makes them less likely to become trigger happy. In that way, continuing the negotiations in a way placates Trump and, perhaps, again, bides Mueller time to continue other parts of the investigation that he wants to finish.