Opinion writer

President Trump has spent the past year and a half emphatically declaring that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia, adamantly and angrily insisting that any suggestion to the contrary is nothing but a “hoax.”

Trump is now trying out a new line, which looks a little something like this: There was “no collusion” … “to the best of my knowledge.”

The Post has a remarkable piece reporting that Donald Trump Jr.’s presence on the campaign trail is in major demand among GOP candidates. Trump Jr. energizes the Trump base, in spite of the fact — or rather because of the fact — that he may be in legal jeopardy, as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III scrutinizes Trump Jr.’s role in the Trump Tower meeting and its aftermath. For many Trump voters who have been relentlessly told that Mueller is leading a “deep-state coup” against the president, Trump Jr. represents a galvanizing, heroic figure who is both resisting and getting unfairly persecuted by that coup.

But in the Post piece, the president makes a statement about Trump Jr. that betrays significantly less confidence in his son’s prospects than Trump voters may have. Trump has privately fretted that Trump Jr. may have strayed into legal jeopardy with the Trump Tower meeting, which Trump Jr. and campaign officials took in the expectation of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

Here’s the latest statement from Trump to The Post (emphasis mine):

“Don has received notoriety for a brief meeting, that many politicians would have taken, but most importantly, and to the best of my knowledge, nothing happened after the meeting concluded.”

“This statement was clearly lawyered,” Bob Bauer, former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, told me.

Let’s put this in its larger context. After the news broke in July 2017 about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Trump Jr. put out a statement falsely claiming that it was “primarily” about a Russian adoption program. The president helped dictate that statement. But then Trump Jr.’s emails demonstrated the real purpose of the meeting.

Recently, Trump flatly declared on Twitter that his son held that Trump Tower meeting “to get information on an opponent.” This amounts to conceding that his son and top campaign officials had been eager to conspire with a hostile foreign power to sabotage the election on his behalf, and again reveals that the statement he (the president) dictated about the meeting was a big lie.

One big question right now is: Did Trump know about and approve the meeting at the time? He may not have; we’ll find out soon enough. But another question also matters: What happened after this meeting? As one legal expert told Natasha Bertrand, the big unknown is whether it bore some kind of relation to Russia’s subsequent cybertheft of Democratic emails and other possible evidence of collusion by Trump advisers such as Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, making the meeting part of “the same criminal conspiracy.”

In this context, Bauer pointed out, Trump’s claim that nothing untoward subsequently happened “to the best of my knowledge” is revealing.

“He’s trying to put as much of a cloak of ignorance around himself as he possibly can,” Bauer told me. “What this does is abandon Trump’s year-and-a-half explanation that there was absolutely ‘no collusion.’ After that meeting, there could have been ongoing coordination. And now he’s not denying that could have happened. He’s saying he doesn’t know.”

The real nature of the bind Trump is in

This has implications for the ongoing negotiations over whether Trump will sit for an interview with Mueller. Over the weekend, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani questioned why the interview was necessary at all, arguing that Mueller’s lawyers “already know” Trump’s “answers to everything.”

But as Bauer pointed out, the chain of events, particularly now with its culmination in Trump’s latest statement, complicates this argument as well. Mueller will want to ask whether Trump knew about the meeting at the time, of course, but also about why Trump dictated the subsequent statement lying about it, and now, why Trump is hedging about what happened after it.

“After a year and a half of saying ‘no collusion,’ now he’s saying, ‘to the best of my knowledge’ nothing happened afterwards,” Bauer said. This could conceivably “indicate that, based on some information, he’s trying to distance himself from potential collusive behavior,” Bauer added. Mueller will want to probe that.

The bottom line on all this, Bauer concluded, is that Trump almost certainly knows more than he has “publicly admitted to or acknowledged,” and Mueller probably “already knows it.”

All of which points to the real reason Trump’s lawyers likely fear an interview. They have variously said either that Mueller will try to bait Trump into lying to investigators, or that Mueller will reflexively conclude that if witnesses offer a different account from Trump, the witnesses are telling the truth and Trump is lying. But the real problem Trump faces is better described this way: He cannot lie to Mueller — but he very likely cannot tell the truth to Mueller, either.

Trump has already publicly admitted that he fired his former FBI director over anger at the Russia probe, and as Sarah Kendzior points out, he has basically admitted to obstructing justice on other occasions as well. So he can’t lie to Mueller or tell the truth about those actions. The same might be true of conspiracy with Russia. This new statement opens the door to the possibility that Trump at a minimum had reason to suspect that conspiracy might be taking place. We don’t know if this is the case. But if so, Trump can’t lie to Mueller about it or tell the truth about it, either.

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Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump may have just given a big boost to Mueller’s case against him

Greg Sargent: Here’s the real reason Trump’s lawyers fear an interview with Mueller

Greg Sargent: What did Donald Trump Jr. ask for at that meeting? The Russian lawyer just spoke out.