On Wednesday, President Donald Trump gave an interview with the New York Times that is astonishing in its bombast and disrespect for the competence of people who serve the administration. During the 50-minute session, Trump attacked Attorney General Jeff Session, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and former FBI Director James Comey.
Trump’s interview will also undoubtedly further antagonize career prosecutors and law enforcement agents within the Department of Justice who take their independence from White House political interference as an article of faith. This interview will become essential reading for Mueller’s investigators and congressional committees, but here are three quick takeaways about how the president has damaged his own legal defense, and exposed his family and associates to greater legal jeopardy as well.
1. Obstruction of Justice Evidence: The Sessions’ Recusal Litmus Test
The biggest headline coming out the interview was Trump’s insistence that it was inappropriate for Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, notwithstanding Sessions’ failure to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings to become Attorney General and Sessions’ involvement in the Trump campaign itself. Sessions decision to recuse himself — according to the Justice Department, Sessions’ testimony and Comey’s testimony — was essentially a foregone conclusion due in part to regulations dealing with conflicts of interest that relate to his participation in the presidential campaign, and it was a decision taken on the advice of senior Department officials. Even more alarming, Trump said he would not have appointed Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse. A recusal litmus test for the Attorney General signals to prosecutors that Trump expects to be able to interfere in pending criminal investigations, even when those criminal matters touch on his interests. More specifically, it strengthens evidence that Trump intended to impede the Russia investigation through the management controls of the Presidency. Sessions himself theoretically may be implicated in the possible obstruction of justice, depending on how the decision to fire Comey was orchestrated. And Trump’s statements to the Times suggest he may have had an expectation, if not an understanding, that Sessions would help quash the Russia investigation, and feels betrayed that Sessions backed away.
2. Quid Pro Quo Evidence: The Donald Trump, Jr. Meeting & Russian Adoptions
This week Ian Bremmer broke news of a second, previously undisclosed, meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that the news was wrong and that the two leaders only engaged in “pleasantries and small talk.” During Wednesday’s interview, Trump dropped a bit of a bombshell. He said, “we talked about adoption.” As Tom Malinowski, former Assistant Secretary of State has noted, Russian “adoptions” is shorthand for “sanctions” because Putin halted American adoptions in retaliation for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.
Of particular import, Trump then tied his conversation with Putin about adoptions to Donald Trump Jr.’s June 9, 2016 meeting in which the lure had been Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton. The president said: “And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr.] had in that meeting.” One theory of an illegal collusion in the form of a quid pro quo is that Russia would aid Trump’s election in return for sanctions relief–and removal of the Magnitsky Act sanctions is reportedly an obsession for Putin. In the interview, Trump connects the two meetings in a manner that would help establish a quid pro quo. As a legal matter, this implicates not only Trump himself but also his son Don. Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, who each participated in the June 9 meeting and in the email exchange leading up to it.
3. Pattern of Communications Evidence: The “Unimportant” Donald Trump, Jr. Meeting
About the June 9 Russia meeting, President Trump said: “It must have been a very important — must have been a very unimportant meeting, because I never even heard about it.” Trump appears to reveal his expectations about Trump campaign internal communications and the pattern of practice for keeping him informed. He expected to be told about all meetings of significance. The more the June 9 meeting looks signficant–which it clearly was–the more likely it is that Trump was informed of the meeting in real time. We need not rehearse here the obvious significance of the meeting, but Don Jr. surely jumped at it with exceptional gusto, it was touted as coming directly from the highest levels of the Russian government (the equivalent of the Attorney General), and the participation of three of campaign principals was extraordinary.
Lawyers publicly and privately have cautioned Trump not to continue talking and tweeting about the ongoing Russia investigations. Lawyers speak on behalf of their client so as to avoid providing investigators with more evidence from a potential suspect. As long as he fails to heed their advice, he will continue to sink in quicksand of his own creation.