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Trump reportedly dictated son’s statement about a Russian meeting. Here’s what a prosecutor thinks.

August 1, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
What did President Trump know and say about his son's meeting with a Russian lawyer? The Washington Post reports that the president was more involved than the White House and his attorney have let on, personally crafting a statement for Donald Trump Jr. Lisa Desjardins reports and Judy Woodruff talks to former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg about the legal questions being raised.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House played defense again today after new information surfaced on Monday night on the administration’s handling of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign.

The latest story suggests that the president personally intervened.

Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, White House Press Secretary: The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information he had.

LISA DESJARDINS: What did the president know, and say, about his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer? The Washington Post reports that President Trump was more involved than the White House and his attorney originally let on.

This starts with the Trump Tower meeting last summer that included Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. Flash-forward a year. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, at the G20 summit, learned The New York Times is about to report the story. They huddled to craft a response.

According to The Post, they wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later. But The Post reports that on Air Force One flying back to the U.S., the president overruled his advisers. The Post writes that the president directed that Trump Jr.’s statement to the Times described the meeting as unimportant and unrelated to the campaign.

That quickly was contradicted by Trump Jr.’s own e-mails showing he’d promised damaging campaign material on Hillary Clinton. The Post story of the president’s role in his son’s statement conflicts with what his lawyer said last month.

JAY SEKULOW, Attorney for President Donald Trump: I do want to be clear. The president wasn’t involved in the drafting of the statement and didn’t issue the statement. It came from Donald Trump Jr.

LISA DESJARDINS: White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said today that the president didn’t dictate anything, but did weigh in. And she maintained he never misled.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The statement that was issued was true. There are no inaccuracies in the statement. I think what the bigger question is — everybody wants to make story about misleading. The only thing I see misleading is a year’s worth of stories that have been fueling a false narrative about this Russia collusion.

LISA DESJARDINS: What is true or false remains a question for investigators. At least one Senate committee plans to interview Donald Trump Jr. next month.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to walk us through some of the legal questions raised by The Washington Post report, we are joined by Peter Zeidenberg. He was a federal prosecutor for nearly two decades, and was a deputy special counsel involved in the investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity.

Peter Zeidenberg, welcome to the NewsHour.

So, now that the White House has confirmed that the president was involved, weighed in, as the press secretary said, in this statement by Donald Trump Jr. to the public, what effect does this have on this investigation?

PETER ZEIDENBERG, Former Federal Prosecutor: Well, it’s going to generate a lot of interest, I’m sure, from the special counsel, who is going to want to know who was involved in that whole process, everyone on that plane who was weighing in, whether they were actually physically on the plane or they were — according to The Post story, they were opening or calling in.

So, all those people are going to — the special counsel is going to want the interview and find out what was going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much does it matter, Peter Zeidenberg, that the White House press secretary said today, yes, the president weighed in, as a father would, but then just a few weeks ago the president’s attorney said, no, the president didn’t have any involvement in this?

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Well, you know, lying to the public is not a crime. But what is going to be of interest is the motivation behind this.

Now, the administration keeps saying that this meeting was inconsequential, it’s a nothing burger, who cares. But the account of it they don’t want to tell — at least from a prosecutor’s standpoint, the question would be, well, why are they trying to divert attention to what was really happening, or why are they misleading about what was really going on with this?

I mean, the whole thing highlights the problem with having, from a lawyer’s perspective, having subjects conversing about an investigation while it’s ongoing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the fact that we now know that the president himself appears to have been part of this conversation, part of a decision about what to say, and that the version changed over the next few days, does that have a material effect here?

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Well, it could, because, by all accounts, this is a potential on obstruction of justice investigation involving the president, involving, for instance, the firing of James Comey.

And so this incident, in and of itself, is not illegal. It’s not illegal to lie to the press or to lie to the public. But you’re looking for motivation if you’re a prosecutor, and you’re looking for trying to weave together a narrative of facts.

And it’s suggestive that there is a cover-up going on about a fear of what would happen if the public were to find out about this case. And that’s how the firing of James Comey would fit into that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, a narrative. So, if someone is asking, was there a legal line that was crossed, what’s the answer to that?

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Well, it’s not so much that there’s a legal line crossed. It’s just another piece of evidence, another piece of the puzzle from the prosecutor’s standpoint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if you are Robert Mueller and you’re working on this, what are your questions? What other questions are you going to have right now?

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Well, you’re going to want to know how this story evolved and what the perspective of all the different people were.

And there’s a whole question that, because all these people and the way they had this conversation, it’s probably not a privileged conversation, as opposed if they were just speaking with their own counsel.

So, again, it paints a picture which is really — it may not be true, but from a prosecutor’s standpoint, whenever you have subjects of an investigation sitting down together, literally, and coming up with a story, what it looks like is obstruction of justice. And that’s why attorneys always tell their clients who are under investigation, don’t talk about the case with anyone involved in it. Don’t talk about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if we — we hear a lot about how presidents are immune from laws that other people are subject to. How do we know at this point whether the president himself could be in any legal jeopardy?

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Well, we don’t know, but from what we have heard, it certainly appears that there is an ongoing case of obstruction of justice, again, involving Comey, if not other things.

So it’s — the whole scenario as it’s described in The Post story, unnecessarily put a whole bunch of people at legal risk for — you know, for no good reason. And whether it’s — the impression is certainly problematic at best.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Zeidenberg, the story continues to unfold. Thank you very much.

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Thank you.

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