Trump reversal on Russian meeting raises pressure on interview

President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoint Chiefs chairman denies report that US is planning to keep 1K troops in Syria Kansas Department of Transportation calls Trump 'delusional communist' on Twitter Trump has privately voiced skepticism about driverless cars: report MORE’s reversal about why people close to him met with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential race has heightened the dangers posed by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's Russia investigation.

Trump’s Sunday tweet provided the clearest sign yet the president misled the public last year when he dictated a statement saying the meeting between his eldest son and a Kremlin-connected lawyer was related to Russian adoptions — and not about gathering dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP lawmaker defends Chelsea Clinton after confrontation over New Zealand attacks Klobuchar: Race, gender should not be litmus tests for 2020 Dem nominee Kirsten Gillibrand officially announces White House run MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT

The remark is likely to be of interest to Mueller, especially given reports that the special counsel’s team is looking at Trump’s tweets as it weighs an obstruction of justice case.

“It does heighten the special counsel’s interest in an interview with the president,” said Robert Ray, former independent counsel during the Clinton-era Whitewater probe.

Sunday’s tweet was not the first time that Trump has said the June 2016 meeting was about Clinton, but legal experts say the timing and the direct nature of his latest comments are significant.

“It was explicit,” said Randall Eliason, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “[Trump is] really clearly abandoning any pretense that the meeting was about anything else or that they didn’t know what the meeting was about.”

The meeting is a central focus in Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. It involved top-level campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpConservatives face a tough fight as Big Tech's censorship expands GOP lawmaker defends Chelsea Clinton after confrontation over New Zealand attacks Trump Jr. defends Chelsea Clinton after confrontation at vigil for New Zealand attacks MORE, meeting with Kremlin emissaries at a pivotal moment of the campaign.

Even if he decides to file a report with Congress and not bring criminal charges against the president, Mueller will be interested in hearing Trump’s account of what he knew about the meeting and his reasons for making conflicting statements about it.

Trump’s legal team has repeatedly cautioned him against sitting for an interview with Mueller, believing the president could incriminate himself if he makes false or misleading statements to federal agents.

“Why open yourself to perjury?” said Ray, who added it could be “Martha Stewart all over again,” referring to the lifestyle guru who served a prison term for making false statements to investigators in an insider trading case.

But the president, who has increasingly eschewed the advice of those around him, has long wanted to give Mueller an interview because he believes he can clear his name in the Russia probe.

Ray cautioned, however, that Trump’s tweets themselves do not represent a smoking gun that proves the president attempted to obstruct justice.

“You’d have to prove the president’s intent was at least in part to mislead investigators,” said Ray. “I find that difficult to prove.”

It is possible Trump made the initial statement in order to clean up a political problem, and not specifically to throw Mueller’s team off its trail, according to Ray.

Mueller is likely to want to learn more about the meeting to determine how it might facor into a possible case.

“The idea of the meeting is not necessarily what is criminal, but it’s what happened at the meeting,” said Eliason.

Legal analysts say potential crimes arising from the meeting could include conspiring to obtain illegal campaign contributions from foreign nationals, or to obtain stolen information, like hacked emails. But whether those crimes occurred could be difficult to determine, in part because there was no follow-up meeting.

The meeting has dogged the White House since summer 2017, when the New York Times first reported that Trump, Jr., along with the president’s son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerA question of privilege: How Trump could still gut the Mueller report Ex-White House ethics chief compares Ivanka, Kushner security clearances to college admissions scandal Nadler: Half of Trump probe targets likely to comply with document requests MORE and then-campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortBharara: 'Doesn't seem' Mueller's investigation 'ending any time soon' Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump condemns 'horrible' New Zealand mosque shootings MORE, met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Trump Jr. initially downplayed it as a “short introductory meeting” dealing with the adoption issue and said there was no follow-up afterwards.

Emails subsequently released by Trump Jr. showed that Rob Goldstone — a British music publicist who helped broker the meeting — had offered damaging information on Clinton in the form of “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” ahead of the meeting.

In response, Trump Jr. said, “If it's what you say I love it.”

Trump’s legal team confirmed in a confidential letter to Mueller’s team earlier this year that the president dictated the initial statement about the meeting on behalf of his son, describing it as a “short but accurate response,” according to the Times.

Many Republicans shrugged their shoulders at Trump’s latest reversal, even as it dominated the airwaves and roiled the debate surrounding the Mueller probe.

The president has stepped up his attacks on Mueller’s investigation as the bank fraud trial for Manafort, who was indicted in the probe last October, began last week.

“The Republican base is going with Trump every step of the way,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “It won’t hurt him with his base one bit.”

But the development threatens to erode the credibility of the White House, where Trump’s conflicting statements have consistently made it difficult for aides to do their jobs effectively.

“This is part of what has made their job more difficult from day one, when we had to talk about crowd sizes of the inauguration,” said Heye. “The president makes the job for the White House communications team harder every day.”

Trump’s Sunday tweet echoed comments he has made previously, albeit in a less explicit manner.

“I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting,” Trump said in a July 2017 news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron “It's called opposition research, or even research into your opponent.”

Trump said the participants “talked about adoption and some things.”