President Trump’s die was cast last week when he and his legal team submitted written responses to questions from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Trump’s forceful denials of untoward activity in his multitudinous tweets are one thing, potentially exposing him to political risk. His formal assertions to Mueller’s team are another thing entirely.
On Wednesday, CNN reported on the contents of two of those replies. Trump, the network reports, denied that he’d been told anything about WikiLeaks during the campaign by his long-term adviser Roger Stone and denied being aware of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between his son Donald Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort, son-in-law Jared Kushner and a Russian attorney linked to the Kremlin.
One source, CNN reports, “said the President made clear he was answering to the best of his recollection. "
There are two questions that arise based on that report. First, what evidence exists to bolster or undermine Trump's assertions? Second, if those answers are demonstrably false, what are the repercussions?
Did Trump know about WikiLeaks?
The best place to start answering this question is to note that there is only sketchy evidence that *anyone* tied to the campaign knew what WikiLeaks had in its possession during 2016.
According to the indictment Mueller’s team obtained against Russian hackers believed to be working for that country’s intelligence services, the Democratic National Committee information released by WikiLeaks in July 2016 was stolen beginning in April of that year. Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email was hacked in March; those documents were released in October. The indictment indicates that the DNC files were transferred between a Russian actor and WikiLeaks in mid-July. It’s not clear when the Podesta material changed hands or how.
Mueller’s probe has focused on Stone, who’s been close to Trump for years. There’s good reason to focus on Stone: He repeatedly tweeted about upcoming document dumps from WikiLeaks in early October 2016. Recent news reports have shown that he was in contact with two individuals with at least indirect relationships with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange over the course of the year: radio host Randy Credico, who claimed to know Assange’s attorney and who interviewed Assange in August; and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, who seems to have had some connection through an author named Ted Malloch. (Mueller has interviewed Credico, Corsi and Malloch.)
In late July, after WikiLeaks began releasing information stolen from the DNC, Stone asked Corsi to try to obtain the rest of the emails. On Aug. 2, Corsi emailed Stone from Europe to tell him that Assange “plans 2 more dumps” of documents — one in August and one in October. Corsi predicted that the next dump would focus on Clinton’s health or the Clinton Foundation.
"Would not hurt to start suggesting [Clinton] old, memory bad, has stroke,” Corsi wrote.
In early October, Credico texted Stone to let him know there was “big news” coming shortly. That spurred tweets from Stone about an upcoming release, including one on Oct. 2 in which he wrote, “Wednesday @Hillary Clinton is done. "
WikiLeaks contacted Trump Jr. over Twitter on Oct. 3, the second outreach it had made to the candidate’s son. Trump Jr. replied by asking what Stone’s Wednesday leak referred to, but WikiLeaks didn’t reply.
In a conversation with The Post on Wednesday, Stone admitted to having spoken to the candidate himself on Aug. 3, the day after he received that email from Corsi about two additional document dumps. He denied having raised the subject with Trump.
“It just didn’t come up,” Stone told The Post. “I am able to say we never discussed WikiLeaks. I’m not sure what I would have said to him anyway, because it’s all speculation. . . . I just didn’t know if it’s true or not. "
Stone also indicated that, from March 2016 on, it was more difficult for him to speak with Trump regularly. Trump’s staff changed the candidate’s cellphone number after too many people got it.
"After that,” our team reports, “a pattern developed for their calls, Stone said: Trump would call Stone from a blocked number or from the phones of associates or campaign aides.” That, of course, makes it much harder to track when Trump and Stone spoke.
Stone's assertions should be taken with innumerable grains of salt. His stories tend to evolve over time in ways that serve his needs. It seems more than possible that, in a conversation with Trump the day after getting apparent inside information about deleterious material related to Trump's political opponent, he would bring that subject up.
As journalist Marcy Wheeler notes, two days after Stone and Trump spoke, Trump said Clinton had “short-circuited” in answering a question about her email server and that he didn’t think she was “all there.” He called Clinton “unbalanced” and “unhinged,” something he hadn’t done previously, according to an index of his comments at Factba.se.
But, then, there was no new dump in August, and, before the October release, Trump Jr. was fishing around for more information. It’s possible he was out of the loop or that the Trump team was looking for more detail, but that tends to undercut the idea that the Trump team broadly was apprised of what was coming.
Did Trump know about the Trump Tower meeting?
Trump Jr. did, of course, know about the Trump Tower meeting in advance, and there's good reason to think that everyone around him knew about it, too.
That meeting was initiated with an email on June 3, 2016, from music promoter Rob Goldstone, offering to set up a meeting at which Trump Jr. would be provided with “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replied with enthusiasm.
Before the meeting was set up, though, he said he wanted to talk to Emin Agalarov, the Russian singer and developer for whom Goldstone worked and whose father, Aras Agalarov, was close to Russian government figures. Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov had back-and-forth calls, according to phone records obtained by Congress, exchanges that Trump Jr. insisted may have simply been exchanges of voice mails as best as he recalled. Agalarov’s memory was more certain: The two talked about the meeting.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, Trump Jr. also denied any memory about calls on June 6 and 7, 2016. On June 7, Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to finalize the meeting time. Trump Jr. called Manafort and Kushner — both of whom attended the meeting — before replying to Goldstone to suggest a meeting time of 3 p.m. on June 9. All of this transpired within about an hour.
It seems likely that, by that point, Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner all knew about the proposed meeting and all planned to attend. We’re asked to believe, then, that none of the three mentioned this to Trump himself.
On June 6, though, something even more interesting happened. Agalarov and Trump Jr. exchanged calls for the first time (with the two speaking, per Agalarov). Agalarov called at 4:04 p.m., and the call lasted a minute or two. At 4:27 p.m., Trump Jr. got a call from a blocked number, and they spoke for four minutes. Immediately after that call ended, at 4:31 p.m., Trump Jr. called Agalarov back. That call lasts three minutes. At 4:38 p.m., Trump Jr. emails Goldstone back to thank him for his help.
One way of assessing that timeline is that Trump Jr. had an initial conversation with Agalarov and then waited to confirm moving forward until after that call from a blocked number. Who has a blocked number? Well, Trump himself, as Stone told The Post this week. In other testimony before Congress, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski indicated that Trump’s private residence had a blocked number.
On June 7, the date of the meeting was finalized. That day was also the day of the final primaries in the 2016 campaign, and Trump, who’d now clinched the Republican Party presidential nomination, gave a speech.
“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” he said. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend, who knows.”
The Trump Tower meeting ended up providing information that was largely focused on incriminating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political opponents, not Trump’s. There was no information about Clinton that was provided, and Trump’s promised “major speech” didn’t happen the following week.
What if Trump’s answers are shown to be false?
So what if Trump is shown to have known about either WikiLeaks' plans or — more likely — that he knew about the Trump Tower meeting? What are the ramifications?
Jennifer Rodgers, a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, broke it down for us over email.
"The written answers to Mueller would be legally just like an oral statement, so subject to a false statements charge under 18 USC 1001,” she wrote. To make such a charge, “you need to prove the statement was knowingly false when it was made,” meaning that Trump’s claim that he didn’t know about the meeting to the best of his knowledge “muddies it a bit but not too much. "
To prove that he did know and that he did provide a false answer, Mueller's team would need to look at the surrounding circumstances, she wrote. Did he offer indications at the time that he knew about the meeting? How is he alleged to have learned about it?
"If the picture is strong enough that Trump was told,” she wrote, and if it’s “highly unlikely that he would not have remembered, then they could charge him with lying when he said that he was not told about the meeting as far as he can recall.” That Trump claims to have a very good memory, she notes, could be included as evidence.
Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown University, agreed, noting that several people who've offered false testimony to Mueller — possibly including, per a document shared with The Post, Jerome Corsi — have had their testimony undermined by documentary evidence from other places.
"If impeachment evidence like that exists regarding any alleged false statements by Trump, that would rebut a ‘memory lapse’ defense,” Butler wrote in an email.
Rodgers noted, though, that filing such a charge against a sitting president is a whole different issue. If Trump is shown to have lied to Mueller, the immediate repercussions would probably be political. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both faced impeachment charges that stemmed to some degree from offering false testimony.
Nixon’s were rendered unnecessary by his resignation. Clinton’s led to his impeachment in the House but not his removal from office.