For months, President Trump’s lawyers fought special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team on its request for a sit-down interview with the president. However confident Trump might have been about his ability to bamboozle Mueller’s lawyers, his own attorneys understood that he would almost certainly perjure himself or be caught in a lie. (When he was deposed in 2007 as part of a lawsuit, Trump was caught in 30 different falsehoods.) The compromise: Trump would answer a set of questions posed by Mueller, once.
The result? Trump heavily relying on the old “I don’t recall” line, which he repeated in one form or another more than 30 times over the course of his 21 answers. There was no follow-up, and no subpoena to solicit more. In his final report on the investigation, Mueller describes the president’s answers as “inadequate.”
Trump was lucky. Many of those who worked for him were not able to negotiate a similar deal and instead sat down with seasoned investigators for live interviews with high stakes: Tell a provable lie and go to jail. But the alternative was also grim: Tell the truth and face Trump's fury.
In essence, there were three options for people who didn't want to tell Mueller the truth. They could lie, break the law and hope they weren't caught. They could tell the truth and risk angering Trump. Or they could tell the truth to Mueller and then try to walk back the lie later.
After a redacted version of Mueller's report came out, that's exactly what White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to do.
When Trump fired then-FBI director James B. Comey in May 2017, Sanders told reporters that “countless members of the FBI” supported the president's decision. In an interview, she claimed that members of the FBI had lost confidence in Comey's leadership. To Mueller, though, under oath, she admitted that the use of “countless” was a “slip of the tongue” and that there was no basis for her claims about rank-and-file agents losing confidence in Comey.
In an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Thursday evening, she waved away those clarifications — after Hannity claimed that the majority of FBI agents he’d spoken with said they were “hurt by a few at the top” of the Bureau.
“I acknowledge that I had a slip of the tongue when I used the word ‘countless,’ ” Sanders said to Hannity. “But,” she continued, “it’s not untrue, and certainly you just echoed exactly the sentiment and the point that I was making, that a number of current and former FBI agents agreed with the president.”
Well, it is untrue. Having no basis for a claim or exaggerating a point is necessarily saying something untrue. On ABC News on Friday morning, George Stephanopoulos pressed Sanders substantially harder on the point. She said she made the comments about the FBI agents “in the heat of the moment” and fake-apologized for not being a “robot like the Democrat Party.”
While she was in the studio, Trump was tweeting.
“Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue,” he wrote. “Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed."
This is no doubt a reference to former White House counsel Donald McGahn. The Mueller report describes an exchange between Trump and McGahn in which the president tries to get McGahn to repudiate a story about Trump wanting to fire Mueller. Trump insists he didn’t say “fire”; McGahn appears to have responded by quoting Trump from contemporaneous notes that get to the point of an effort to remove Mueller. In response, Trump disparages McGahn for taking notes, saying that his former attorney Roy Cohn never took notes. (Cohn was eventually disbarred for unprofessional behavior.)
That predictable response from Trump, though, shows the tension for Trump staffers sitting with Mueller. The most powerful man in the world asks you to lie about his effort to fire the special counsel, and then the most powerful man in the world bashes you publicly when you don’t lie about how he wanted you to lie. More disparagement by the president of those who spoke to Mueller seems inevitable. Some, like Sanders, may try to revise their commentary now that they’re no longer under oath.
There are other reasons to attempt similar rehabilitation. Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, for example, has been engaged in his own bit of post-lie cleanup. In October 2017, he admitted to having misled Mueller's investigators about when he came into contact with a Russia-linked professor named Joseph Mifsud and when Mifsud told him that Russia had incriminating emails on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos eventually served time for those misrepresentations.
Since getting out of jail, though, he’s written a book in which he says that he didn’t lie to Mueller’s team. Lying suggests an intent to mislead, and Papadopoulos claims that, like Sanders, he simply misspoke. That assertion comes despite his telling a judge when he was being sentenced that his comments were wrong and criminal.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn similarly admitted to lying to investigators. While he hasn’t publicly suggested that his admission was forced or inaccurate, his son and other defenders have, vociferously. There was an argument in February of last year, for example, that a new court filing suggested that investigators had unethically forced Flynn to admit guilt. In short order, that theory was dismantled.
Mueller’s report outlines a number of other instances when people with whom his team was talking offered untrue information. Some are obvious: Former Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates admitted to offering false statements over the course of the investigation, as did an attorney he and campaign chairman Paul Manafort had worked with before joining the campaign. Manafort himself was found to have lied to investigators by a federal judge after reaching a plea agreement with Mueller’s team. Lobbyist Sam Patten admitted to misleading investigators in a plea agreement he accepted in August. The Kremlin-linked attorney who met with Donald Trump Jr. and others at Trump Tower in June 2016 lied to a court about being linked to the Kremlin. Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen admitted to lying to Congress when approached by Mueller’s investigators. Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone faces multiple criminal charges of lying during the investigation.
Why all the lies? That remains largely unanswered in the Mueller report except for one presumed overarching explanation: They thought the risk of getting caught was lower than the repercussions of being honest.
The list above delineates the people who are shown or alleged to have chosen to break the law rather than offer up accurate information. They're not alone.
“Even when individuals testified or agreed to be interviewed,” the report states, “they sometimes provided information that was false or incomplete, leading to some of the false-statements charges described above.” The false or incomplete information led to some of the charges — suggesting that other false statements didn’t.
Those might be the luckiest people, those who Mueller’s team believes lied but who won’t face charges. One of them might be conservative writer Jerome Corsi, who was offered a plea agreement last year but turned it down. Corsi might also be one of the targets of the 12 still-secret criminal referrals that came from the Mueller probe.
No one, though, is as lucky as Trump. The report details scores of lies told by individuals who weren’t under oath, including those named above. Like Flynn, who lied to a number of people about his conversations with the Russian ambassador — lies that led to his being forced from his position.
It also outlines numerous times in which Trump said untrue things to colleagues and staff, something that could well have happened had he, too, sat with Mueller’s team for an interview.
But he didn’t.