The general sense one gets from an interview that Mark Corallo gave to ABC News’s “The Investigation" podcast is that he thought President Trump and his team were in over their heads.
Corallo served briefly as spokesman for Trump’s legal team, early in Trump’s presidency and, therefore, early in the investigations into possible coordination between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. On Sunday, Attorney General William P. Barr informed Congress that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had completed his work and did not find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Corallo himself spoke with investigators from Mueller’s office, with questions focused on a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and a Russian attorney with ties to the Kremlin. This meeting was first reported in July 2017 by the New York Times and stemmed from an email Trump Jr. had received from an associate who pledged “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary" Clinton — information that purportedly came from the Russian government.
“When I was at the [Republican National Committee] during the 2000 campaign, you know, we had lawyers involved who understood, you know, what the bright lines were,” Corallo said of that outreach. “You know? Like we would have known if some, you know, some hostile foreign government approached us with dirt on the on the, on the opponent we would call the FBI, but we would have known that — they didn’t know that.” He described the campaign team as “novices," unaware of why the offer was fraught.
Mueller didn’t offer a finding on whether Trump had obstructed justice as he worked to push back on the broader Russia investigation, writing, according to Barr’s letter, that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Again, Corallo chalked that up to the Trump team’s naivete.
“I would like to believe that [Mueller’s team] looked at the facts and said well, these people didn’t even know how to obstruct,” Corallo said. “I think they were just trying to avoid embarrassment.”
But Corallo offered one of the most damning pieces of testimony suggesting that Trump and his team, including then-communications staffer Hope Hicks, had worked directly to mislead the public about the genesis of the Trump Tower meeting. Corallo also suggested to ABC News that Hicks had offered a different story to Mueller’s investigators.
The Times reached out to the White House in early July, while Trump was traveling back from Europe. The newspaper first reported that the meeting had taken place, later revealing the email chain in which Trump Jr. embraces the help of the Russian government.
In response to the Times’s initial outreach as it prepared its first story, two different responses were offered from Trump’s team. The first was drafted by Trump himself and given to the Times; it claimed that the Trump Tower meeting was “a short introductory meeting” predicated on the issue of adoption. (Trump said later that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed adoption when they met during Trump’s Europe visit. The issue is linked to sanctions imposed against Putin and Russia by President Barack Obama’s administration.)
The second was given by Corallo to Circa.
"We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” Corallo’s statement said, connecting the Russian attorney to the firm Fusion GPS, which had also been involved in compiling the dossier of reports alleging collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Trump and Hicks were very angry about that second statement, Corallo told ABC.
“[M]y phone rings, and it’s Hope Hicks,” he said. “So, she just started laying into me. And, then she admitted that, yes, they had crafted this statement on Air Force One and that they’d handled it. You know, she said, I had the New York Times handled and I’m going — you did? You work in the White House. This is a private matter. This is not the president’s conduct of his office. This is matters to do with him as a private citizen, really, not even him. This has to do with his son, son-in-law and former campaign director. So, so I just I listened to her yell, and then I said, well, you know you’ve probably made yourself a witness in a federal criminal investigation. Way to go, young lady.”
He says that Hicks called again the next day, with Trump on the phone. No lawyers were included in the call.
“I was just very aware that without an attorney on the phone, there was no [attorney-client] privilege, not to mention the fact that there was no executive privilege, because I don’t work for the White House,” Corallo said. “They are creating risk unnecessarily. The idea that a 20-something press aide would put the president of the United States on the phone to talk about a federal criminal investigation, without his attorneys on the phone, to protect the privilege and that the president wasn’t aware of it was just astounding to me. And terrifying.”
Then, Corallo said, he pointed out that the statement offered by Trump Jr. was inaccurate and that, because it was inaccurate, the issue would blow up.
“I pointed out that the statement was inaccurate and that there were documents, that I understood there were documents that would prove that,” he said, referring to the email chain in which Trump Jr. was involved. “Hope Hicks replied to me when I, when I said, look there are, you know, there are documents. She said, well nobody’s ever going to see those documents. Which you know made my throat dry up immediately. And I just — at that point I just said, Mr. President we can’t talk about this anymore. You got to talk to your lawyers.”
Through her attorneys, Hicks has denied making this claim in the past. But Corallo suggests that she made the same claim to Mueller’s team.
Asked if the phone call and Hicks’s assertion came up when he was interviewed by Mueller’s team, Corallo said, “Oh, absolutely. They wanted to know, and they asked me, and they said, well, you know Miss Hicks says that that didn’t happen. And they asked me how sure I was, and I said 100 percent.” Her actions, he said, were “reckless.”
It’s likely that, even if Mueller believed Hicks had lied about the phone call with Corallo, there would not have been enough evidence to indict her.
Corallo had far more experience in handling political communications than Hicks or Trump. He described what he saw as their intent in offering Trump Jr.'s misleading statement.
“We can kill this in one day, it’s going to be a one-day story,” Corallo said, “and you know which led to me laughing at people thinking, Oh, sure, that’s a one-day story.”
But, again, Corallo suggested that this lack of sophistication may have been their salvation.
“I think that Bob Mueller realized that these were just people who were naive,” he said.