Just when you think you’ve caught up and digested the latest scandal news from the White House, along comes more evidence suggesting a significant effort to cover up actions, which if perfectly appropriate, should not require so many people to behave in such a shady fashion.
First, we have evidence that President Trump talked to witnesses who have provided information to the special counsel, something surely his attorneys told him not to do for fear of raising even the appearance of witness tampering. The New York Times reports that Trump asked former chief of staff Reince Priebus about his testimony, inquiring whether investigators were “nice.” More problematic, he at one point insisted to White House counsel Donald McGahn that he had never told McGahn to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and that McGahn should correct a Times story to that effect. McGahn told Trump he most certainly had told him to fire Mueller. Is this evidence that Trump has serious memory issues (or an extraordinary capacity for self-delusion), or was he telling McGahn how to recall events, in essence instructing him as to the official storyline?
These interactions (depending on how you interpret the McGahn conversation) may not be illegal, but they raise serious questions. “This was an obviously inadvisable move by the president, even if it didn’t cross over to obstruction of justice,” former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller tells me. “But does anyone really think these are the only two people who Trump has asked about their testimony? There’s a pattern here of Trump constantly meddling with this investigation, and he keeps showing by his actions how worried he is about it.” At the very least, Trump is providing Mueller with a mound of evidence of what prosecutors call consciousness of guilt. (In any case, the conversations surely underscore that Trump is indifferent to his lawyers’ advice, and therefore would be a loose cannon if ever questioned by Mueller.)
Separately, we also have evidence that yet another meeting with a Russian contact was set up during the transition — and later misrepresented to investigators. The Post reports that Mueller has “gathered evidence that a secret meeting in Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin — apparently contradicting statements made to lawmakers by one of its participants, according to people familiar with the matter.” The report explains:
In January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, met with a Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned discussion of U.S.-Russia relations.
A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
If this was on the up and up, why would Prince apparently lie about it? And more to the point, why were there so many meetings with Russians trying to establish contacts outside the purview of U.S. intelligence? (You’ll recall that Jared Kushner had a similar meeting during the transition to set up a back channel. Michael Flynn also had conversations with Russians about lifting sanctions, but then lied about his contacts.)
“It’s the breadth of the cover-up that is so shocking,” says Max Bergmann, who heads the Moscow Project investigating the Russia scandal. “Time and time again Trump and his associates have been exposed for lying about meetings with Kremlin-linked figures.” He surmises that they were lying because there really was evidence “the Trump campaign colluded with hostile foreign power to defeat their political opponent.” Perhaps, or perhaps there are other Russia-related matters the Trumps had an interest in concealing. In any event, it’s no longer credible that all these people were having perfectly appropriate conversations with a hostile power but left them off disclosure forms (as Kushner did), omitted mention of them in testimony (as Attorney General Jeff Sessions did) and/or misrepresented them to investigators. It defies common sense to think so many people for no good reason were trying to hide a myriad of ties to Russian operators.