Mueller’s Skepticism of Trump’s Truthfulness Heightens Impeachment Debate

WASHINGTON — In late summer 2016, after WikiLeaks had published its first tranche of stolen Democratic emails, Donald J. Trump received a phone call while riding to La Guardia Airport and then told an aide that more damaging releases were coming.

But Mr. Trump denied to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, that he knew in advance about the timing of the release of hacked emails or their contents, contradicting the recollections of the adviser sharing the car ride, Rick Gates.

Now Mr. Trump’s answers, submitted in writing and under oath, are receiving new scrutiny after Mr. Mueller agreed in his closely watched congressional testimony this week that some of the president’s responses were untruthful.

Mr. Trump’s answers are becoming additional fodder for the internal debate among House Democrats about whether to open an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump, congressional aides said.

Notably, one of the two articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton accused him of lying under oath. That concerned a far different matter: whether he had an affair with an intern, not whether he knew about and made plans to use forthcoming illegal foreign assistance to help win an election.

ImageAsked whether the president’s answers showed that he “wasn’t always being truthful,” Mr. Mueller replied, “I would say generally.”
CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

The credibility of Mr. Trump’s written answers, which were released in an appendix to the Mueller report, has received relatively less attention than his attempts to impede the Russia investigation. The report did not contain a section analyzing whether the answers met the criteria for perjury, unlike its treatment of his actions that raised concerns about obstruction of justice.

But toward the end of Mr. Mueller’s nearly seven-hour appearance on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, a freshman Democrat from Florida, Representative Val B. Demings, brought up Mr. Trump’s written responses and asked whether “his answers showed that he wasn’t always being truthful.”

Rather than demurring as he had to similar questions, Mr. Mueller instead appeared to confirm her assessment, responding, “I would say generally.”

Ms. Demings, a former Orlando police chief, then suggested that Mr. Trump was getting away with lying under oath. She added, “As a former law enforcement officer of almost 30 years, I find that a disgrace to our criminal justice system.”

Ms. Demings raised her question in the context of Mr. Trump’s claim to know nothing during the campaign about what WikiLeaks had or was planning to publish. Little is publicly known about the Trump campaign’s actions related to WikiLeaks because that portion of the Mueller report was heavily redacted. The justification for the censorship is that the information relates to a current matter, presumably the indictment of Mr. Trump’s longtime adviser Roger J. Stone Jr.

When Mr. Trump turned in his written answers to Mr. Mueller’s investigators in November, he said that he did not recall being aware during the campaign of any direct or indirect communications between Mr. Stone and anyone he understood to be a representative of WikiLeaks. The president also denied knowing whether anyone associated with his campaign, including Mr. Stone, had direct or indirect contact with WikiLeaks about the hacked emails.

But in Mr. Stone’s indictment two months later, Mr. Mueller’s office revealed a link between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks’ parallel efforts to damage the Hillary Clinton campaign using material stolen from Russians. After WikiLeaks had published its first tranche of stolen emails, “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information” WikiLeaks had about the Clinton campaign, the indictment said.

The indictment also said that Mr. Stone later told the Trump campaign “about potential future releases of damaging material” by WikiLeaks. “A load every week going forward,” Mr. Stone wrote to Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign chairman, in early October 2016, according to emails previously obtained by The New York Times. WikiLeaks began releasing more emails days later.

Mr. Stone also told Mr. Trump over the phone that WikiLeaks was about to publish a huge trove of email that would damage the Clinton campaign, according to congressional testimony in February by Mr. Trump’s former lawyer Michael D. Cohen, who also pleaded guilty, including about making false statements, and cooperated with investigators. Mr. Cohen said he witnessed the phone call. Mr. Stone has said Mr. Cohen lied to Congress about it.

House Democrats have been divided about whether to open an impeachment inquiry. Looming over their debate has been recognition of a political reality: While they could impeach Mr. Trump, leaving a historical black mark on his record, it is very unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate would remove him.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Mueller’s answer to Ms. Demings — a rare moment in which he went beyond his report — has added to other potential episodes Democrats are weighing as potential issues to focus on in such an inquiry.

Many of Mr. Trump’s actions that Democrats are scrutinizing fall into a category of obstruction of justice. Both presidents subjected to impeachment proceedings in the modern era, Richard M. Nixon and Mr. Clinton, were accused of obstruction.

For example, in June 2017, after learning from news reports that the special counsel was investigating him for possible obstruction of justice, Mr. Trump ordered his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, to tell the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, to oust Mr. Mueller for purported conflicts of interest. Mr. McGahn refused and prepared to resign before the president backed down.

The Mueller report suggested that this episode met the criteria for attempted obstruction, citing evidence that Mr. Trump “knew he should not have made those calls” to Mr. McGahn. The firing attempt “had the potential to delay further action in the investigation, chill the actions of any replacement special counsel or otherwise impede the investigation,” investigators wrote.

Also in June 2017, Mr. Trump twice asked his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to relay a surreptitious order to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump wanted Mr. Sessions to intervene and stop Mr. Mueller’s investigation. Mr. Lewandowski did not deliver either message.

The Mueller report suggested that Mr. Trump’s requests met the criteria for attempted obstruction, citing “substantial evidence” that he was trying “to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the president’s and his campaign’s conduct.”

In January 2018, after Mr. Trump’s previous attempt to have Mr. Mueller fired came to light in news reports, Mr. Trump pushed Mr. McGahn to write an internal White House memo denying the reports and threatened to fire him if he did not comply, the report said. Mr. McGahn — who was talking to Mr. Mueller’s investigators about Mr. Trump’s conduct — refused, saying the news reports were accurate. The president backed down.

The Mueller report suggests that Mr. Trump was trying to obstruct the investigation by getting Mr. McGahn to create a document that would either constrain him from testifying truthfully, or damage his credibility as a witness if he testified in accordance with his memory but in conflict with the memo.

After Mr. Mueller indicted Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump dangled the possibility of pardoning him while praising him for not “flipping.” Though Mr. Manafort eventually pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, prosecutors said he continued to lie. The Mueller report suggests this met the criteria for obstruction, too.

Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign-finance laws by arranging hush payments before the election to a pornographic film actress and a Playboy model who said they had extramarital affairs with Mr. Trump. The payments were intended to influence the election, exceeded donation limits and were not reported as campaign expenditures, prosecutors said.

Mr. Cohen has testified, and prosecutors have agreed, that he was acting at Mr. Trump’s direction. But Mr. Trump, who has denied that the payments were campaign-related, is protected from being charged as a co-conspirator because the Justice Department says sitting presidents are temporarily immune.

One other category of potential obstruction falls outside the Mueller report: Mr. Trump’s avowed strategy of systematically fighting “all” subpoenas from Congress after Democrats won control of the House. His administration has denied that Congress has legitimate authority to seek information aimed at uncovering potential wrongdoing.

It is routine for presidents to sometimes resist a subpoena by asserting executive privilege and then litigate the matter in court. Still, there is precedent for Congress to decide that, at some point, stonewalling goes too far: The third article of impeachment the Judiciary Committee approved in 1974 against Nixon accused him of unlawfully defying its subpoenas.

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