The growing number of lies that members of President Trump’s team have admitted to or been accused of telling investigators leads to one big question: Why?
Why would these people risk jail time to tell lies if there wasn’t something significant being covered up? Many of them had to know exactly the stakes of lying to the government, and they did it anyway. Why take such a risk to protect … nothing?
It might be the defining question of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation — especially given that this is the predominant crime being charged and pleaded to. We still have no members of the Trump team charged with conspiracy. (Though just because there have been no such charges doesn’t mean they couldn’t be coming. Prosecutors have an incentive to charge smaller crimes before bigger ones and to keep their evidence under wraps.)
The most charitable answer is that they misremembered things, but that’s getting more and more difficult to stomach, given the growing volume of admitted and alleged lies, the number of people involved and the seemingly clear-cut nature of their lies. Another friendly explanation is that they were trying to avoid alienating Trump by suggesting Russia helped him win — or didn’t want to contradict his narrative. That’s the version offered by former Trump aide Sam Nunberg. “They all conspired,” Nunberg told The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman, Josh Dawsey and Matt Zapotosky, “against themselves.”
But not all lies are created equal, and it’s worth parsing each one for its potential motives. If we look at all of them individually, perhaps we can get a sense for just how much each might point to a coverup.
So let’s do just that. Below are 20 alleged and proved lies from the Mueller investigation, with some analysis for each one.
The alleged lies: According to Mueller’s indictment of Stone, the longtime Trump political adviser lied to the House Intelligence Committee about:
- “his possession of documents pertinent to [the committee’s] investigation”
- “the source for his early August 2016 statements about [WikiLeaks]”
- “requests he made for information from the head of [WikiLeaks]”
- “his communications with his identified intermediary [to WikiLeaks], and …”
- “his communications with the Trump Campaign about [WikiLeaks].”
Perhaps most notably, Mueller’s team details two exchanges in which Stone denied communicating with his WikiLeaks intermediary via text or email. He also denied discussing what the intermediary told him with the Trump campaign. Mueller’s team has lots of evidence firmly disputing both contentions.
The possible explanations: The volume of Stone’s alleged lies is what’s striking here. It’s not one isolated alleged lie; it’s a pattern that strongly suggests a coverup of his talks with WikiLeaks, which disseminated the Democratic emails that Russia hacked. Stone hasn’t been convicted, but the paper trail is lengthy. It’s difficult to see how he would have forgotten about all of these communications or how to square his denials with the evidence.
But why? Stone himself has said that there would be nothing illegal about working with WikiLeaks. Yet he allegedly went to great lengths to obscure it. Perhaps he really did think it could be legally problematic, and he simply hoped that his communications would never come to light. (This is at best a gray area when it comes to collusion with Russia.)
Or perhaps, as Nunberg argued, he simply worried how it would look for Trump. But possibly going to jail for lying for Trump is a hefty potential price to pay for your client’s pride.
The lies: The former White House national security adviser pleaded guilty to the following false statements about his contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump’s inauguration:
- Denying asking Kislyak not to escalate the situation in response to the Obama administration’s sanctions
- Denying that he remembered a follow-up conversation in which Kislyak said Russia had indeed moderated its response
- Denying asking countries on the United Nations Security Council to take specific action on a resolution involving Israeli settlements
The possible explanations: Flynn could have been concerned that these conversations would run afoul of an obscure law called the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized people from conducting diplomacy.
But that law has never really been enforced. Perhaps Flynn just wanted to guard against being seen as undermining the sitting president. Or perhaps he was worried about the growing narrative that Trump was too friendly with Russia, which these conversations would certainly feed. (It was at this time that Russia’s role in the 2016 election was coming to light.)
But that narrative is also at the heart of potential collusion, and it’s not inconceivable Flynn was trying to obscure behind-the-scenes dealings with Russia.
The lies: In November, the president’s former lawyer and fixer pleaded guilty to lying about his efforts to secure a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 election. According to his plea deal, Cohen’s lies included saying:
- “The Moscow Project ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others in the [Trump Organization]”
- That he never agreed to travel to Russia or suggested Trump might do so
- That he didn’t recall the Russian government responding to his inquiries about getting help for the project
In fact, Cohen kept pursuing the project as late as June 2016. He planned to travel to Russia before canceling those plans, and he had exchanges with the Kremlin.
The possible explanations: Cohen must have known that pursuing this project even as people were voting for Trump in the 2016 election would, at the very least, look bad. And he had to know that seeking the Kremlin’s assistance would look even worse.
As with the WikiLeaks stuff, it’s not clear that any of it would rise to the level of collusion or anything criminal, but Cohen seemed to be worried enough to lie about it. As with the WikiLeaks stuff, if there’s not something obviously illegal going out, why the multiple lies about it that would be illegal?
The alleged lies: After a conviction related to his personal consulting business, the former Trump campaign chairman reached a deal to cooperate with the government ahead of his second trial — and then was accused of lying during his cooperation. According to Mueller’s team, Manafort lied about:
- His interactions with an associate in Ukraine with ties to Russian intelligence, Konstantin Kilimnik
- Kilimnik’s role in influencing the testimony of witnesses in his trial
- A $125,000 payment made to a firm that was in debt to Manafort
- An unknown Justice Department investigation
- His contacts with the Trump administration
That filing was heavily redacted, so we didn’t know too many specifics at the time. But we later learned from a shoddily redacted filing by Manafort’s lawyers that Mueller believed Manafort lied about sharing polling data with Kilimnik and discussing a pro-Russian Ukraine “peace deal” with Kilimnik.
The possible explanations: The explanations here are even more confounding. Manafort had already been convicted on eight counts in his first trial, so he had to know the stakes of lying after agreeing to cooperate with Mueller. The question now is whether the Kilimnik interactions play into a larger line of inquiry in the conspiracy investigation. (The Republican platform was adjusted in a mostly pro-Russian direction on the Ukraine issue at the 2016 convention, when Manafort was Trump’s campaign chairman, for instance. And sharing polling data with a Russian intelligence agent would also seem problematic, at best.)
We also learned when the cooperation agreement was dissolved that Manafort’s legal team kept briefing Trump’s. Perhaps he never truly intended to cooperate and was instead angling for a pardon? (But a pardon wouldn’t save Manafort from state-level crimes.) Again, it seems like a pointless coverup if there was nothing untoward happening.
The lies: In his plea deal, the former deputy Trump campaign manager admitted to making false statements about his and Manafort’s relationship with overseas clients. That may not pertain to the Mueller investigation’s 2016 election-Russia focus. But one false statement seems potentially relevant moving forward:
- Denying that Manafort and a lobbyist for a company discussed Ukraine during a 2013 meeting
In fact, Gates had prepared a memo describing what had been discussed about Ukraine at the meeting for leaders in Ukraine.
The possible explanations: This one is a tougher nut to crack. We don’t know much about the circumstances here, and they long predate the 2016 campaign. That suggests that they probably don’t have anything to do with potential collusion.
Unless, that is, there is something bigger at play when it comes to the Manafort-Kilimnik relationship and Ukraine that they all sought to deliberately obscure. (More on that to come.)
The lies: In his plea deal, the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser acknowledged making false statements during a January 2017 interview with the FBI, including:
- Claiming his contacts with a foreign professor who said Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, Joseph Mifsud, took place before he joined the Trump campaign
- Claiming he didn’t think the professor had close connections to the Russian government
- Claiming he met a female Russian national before the campaign and saying she didn’t have substantial connections to the Kremlin
The possible explanations: Papadopoulos, who has completed a brief jail sentence for these lies, now claims he was set up. But that doesn’t explain why he would lie in the first place. Like the others, he seemed to be, at best, wary of admitting to any potential interactions with Russians or those close to the Russian government during the 2016 campaign.