WASHINGTON — When Michael Cohen admitted this past week to lying to Congress about a Russian business deal, he said he had testified falsely out of loyalty to President Donald Trump.
Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, former senior Trump campaign officials, lied to cover up financial fraud. George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide, lied in hopes of landing an administration job. And Michael Flynn, another adviser, lied about his interactions with a Russian official and about other matters for reasons that remain unclear.
If special counsel Robert Mueller has proved anything in his 18-month-long investigation — besides how intensely Russia meddled in a U.S. presidential election — it is that Trump surrounded himself throughout 2016 and early 2017 with people to whom lying seemed to be second nature.
They lied to federal authorities even when they had lawyers advising them, even when the risk of getting caught was high and even when the consequences for them were dire.
Even more Trump associates are under investigation for the same offense. They are part of a group of people surrounding Trump — including some White House and Cabinet officials — who contribute to a culture of bending, if not outright breaking, the truth, and whose leading exemplar is Trump himself.
Trump looks for people who share his disregard for the truth and are willing to parrot him, “even if it’s a lie, even if they know it’s a lie, and even if he said the opposite the day before,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer. They must be “loyal to what he is saying right now,” she said, or he sees them as “a traitor.”
Campaign aides often echoed Trump’s pronouncements knowing they were false. People joined the top levels of his administration with the realization that they would be expected to embrace what Trump said, no matter how far from the truth or how much their reputations suffered.
For Sean Spicer, the first White House press secretary, that included falsely insisting, on Trump’s first day in office, that his inaugural crowd was the biggest in history. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who replaced him, dialed back once-daily press briefings to once every few weeks as her credibility was increasingly battered.
For decades, such behavior was relatively free of consequence for those who aligned with Trump. The stakes in the real estate world were lower, and deceptive statements could be dismissed as hardball business tactics or just efforts to cultivate the Trump mystique.
But in Mueller, those in Trump’s orbit now confront a big-league adversary with little tolerance for what one top White House adviser once called “alternative facts.” He leads a team of prosecutors and FBI agents who are methodically and purposefully examining their words and deeds.
Trump’s own lawyers, wary of how frequently their client engages in falsehoods, are trying to hold the special counsel at bay. Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, has already been forced to pull back his own public remarks about an issue of concern to Mueller.
In a confidential memo to the special counsel, Trump’s legal team admitted that the president, not his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., drafted a misleading statement about a Trump Tower meeting in 2016 between a Kremlin-tied lawyer and campaign officials. That statement could figure in the special counsel’s scrutiny of whether the president obstructed justice.
Fearful of more deceptions, the president’s legal team has insisted that Trump answer questions only in writing. They delivered replies to some of the special counsel’s queries on Nov. 20 after months of negotiation. If unsatisfied, Mueller could try to subpoena the president to testify.
But the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, a vocal critic of Mueller’s inquiry who now supervises it, would have to sign off. And even if he did, the White House could still mount a legal battle to squash it.
Many witnesses or subjects of the inquiry lack the president’s negotiating power or resources. Some have been stunned by their encounters with prosecutors, who arrive armed with thick binders documenting their text messages, emails and whereabouts on any given date.
Sam Nunberg, a former longtime adviser to Trump, said he feared that the special counsel was creating the impression of a wide-ranging conspiracy among liars, when witnesses could have dispelled much of the suspicion simply by testifying truthfully.
“People are conspiring against themselves, and they are playing right into Mueller’s hands,” he said. “If Flynn had said he discussed sanctions, he could very well be national security adviser today,” he added. Instead, Flynn awaits sentencing for lying to FBI agents about various matters, including his talks with the Russian ambassador over whether the new administration would lift sanctions against Russia.
The reasons for the lies vary, but, not surprisingly, people were most often trying to protect themselves. Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer, said in federal court this past week that he had misled Congress about the details of a Trump hotel project in Moscow because he did not want to contradict the president’s own false characterizations of his business dealings in Moscow. He specifically cited his loyalty to Trump, referred to as “Individual 1” in court papers, as the reason for his crime.
“I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1,” Cohen told a judge. In a sentencing memo filed late Friday, Cohen emphasized that in the weeks before he misled Congress about the deal, he remained in “close and regular contact with White House-based staff,” as well as with Trump’s lawyers.
While the Moscow hotel was never built, Cohen’s court filing suggested that Trump at best minimized his knowledge of the proposed venture, both as a candidate and once he had been elected. Nearly two dozen times, Trump has publicly insisted that he had no business dealings in Russia.
But Cohen, who discussed the hotel project with the aide to a key Kremlin official in early 2016, said in Friday’s court filing that he kept Trump apprised of negotiations that continued through June of that year, just before Trump formally became the Republican nominee.
Manafort is accused of lying on top of lying. As part of a September plea deal, he acknowledged that he had lied to the Justice Department about his business dealings and that he had also tried to persuade witnesses to lie to investigators on his behalf. On Monday, prosecutors said that he continued to lie after he had agreed to cooperate with them, breaching his plea deal. His lawyers insist he told the truth.
Trump has been Mueller’s most vociferous critic, accusing his team of manufacturing lies by threatening witnesses with severe consequences if they refuse to agree with the special counsel’s narrative.
What prosecutors have called lies, Trump has insisted is truth. What they called truth, he has framed as lies.
Where all this is headed is unclear, but it appears that more allegations of lying are ahead. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which has also been investigating Russia’s interference in the election, has referred other cases to the special counsel’s office involving witnesses who may have lied.
Prosecutors are investigating whether two or more people, including a longtime friend of Trump’s, Roger Stone, lied about WikiLeaks, the rogue organization that distributed Democratic emails and other documents stolen by Russian intelligence as part of Moscow’s campaign to influence the 2016 election. Mueller’s team has been trying to determine whether anyone with the Trump campaign conspired with WikiLeaks or the Russian government to bolster Trump’s chances of winning the White House.
Jerome Corsi, a conservative author, has cast doubt on whether Stone testified truthfully to Congress about what inspired a Twitter message he posted in summer 2016, predicting it would soon be “Podesta’s time in the barrel.”
Corsi said he had helped Stone concoct a “cover story” for the message so that it would not appear Stone had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks planned to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign by releasing emails stolen from the computer of her campaign chairman, John Podesta. He said Stone then incorporated those falsehoods into his congressional testimony — an allegation that Stone vehemently denies.
But in a turnabout, Corsi said prosecutors had now accused him of lying to them about other communications he had with Stone regarding WikiLeaks. He claims his only crime is a faulty memory.
The New York Times
Sharon LaFraniere © 2018 The New York Times