BY MATT APUZZO
WASHINGTON (THE NEW YORK TIMES) — For nearly a year, the denials from President Trump’s lawyers and spokeswoman were unequivocal. No, the president did not dictate a misleading statement released in his son’s name.
“He certainly didn’t dictate,” said the White House press secretary , Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“The president was not involved in the drafting of that statement,” his lawyer Jay Sekulowtold NBC News .
“That was written by Donald Trump Jr., and I’m sure in consultation with his lawyer,” Mr. Sekulow told CNN .
“The president didn’t sign off on anything,” he told ABC .
But in a confidential, hand-delivered memo to the special counsel, Mr. Trump’s lawyers acknowledged that, yes, Mr. Trump had dictated the statement, which attempted to deflect questions about a meeting with a Kremlin-tied lawyer at Trump Tower. Prosecutors are asking whether the statement was part of an effort by the president to obstruct a federal investigation.
Even for a president whose false statements have been constantly cited by fact-checkers , this was a stark private acknowledgment of what was a repeated public falsehood. And it sums up the dilemma that Mr. Trump faces as he weighs whether to sit for an interview with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
The misleading statement is but one aspect of Mr. Mueller’s investigation. But it highlights a communication strategy that the White House has used repeatedly: deny facts, attack news outlets and dismiss journalism as “fake news.”
Late last year, for example, reporters revealed a White House plan to fire the secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, and replace him with the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo. Not so, Mr. Trump angrily replied, dismissing the stories as fake news . Ultimately, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Tillerson, replaced him with Mr. Pompeo and said he had been talking about doing so “for a long time.”
The situation is more complicated and perilous now that Mr. Mueller is seeking to interview the president. Fact-checkers spring into action when Mr. Trump mischaracterizes immigration law or passes off debunked fables as historical facts . But there are few repercussions. In the witness chair with Mr. Mueller, the president would face serious consequences for lying.
Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. So have two former campaign advisers, George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates. A former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has pleaded not guilty to charges of making false statements to the government.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, acknowledged as much in an ABC News interview this weekend, even as he blamed the string of false statements on faulty memory and incorrect assumptions. “This is the reason you don’t let the president testify,” Mr. Giuliani said. “Our recollection keeps changing, or we’re not even asked a question and somebody makes an assumption.”
Asked about shifting explanations for statement on Trump Tower meeting, Rudy Giuliani tells @GStephanopoulos :
"This is the reason you don't let the president testify. Our recollection keeps changing, or we're not even asked a question and somebody makes an assumption."pic.twitter.com/Ya0dK1KenB
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) June 3, 2018
But Mr. Trump’s team was asked the question, again and again, by multiple reporters. The answer was consistent. Then on Monday, Ms. Sanders refused to answer the question or address her previous denial. “I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth,” she said, when pressed to explain her remarks. Mr. Sekulow said on Monday that the legal memo “reflects our understanding of the events that occurred.”
The New York Times reported last July that, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Trump’s eldest son, hosted a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who had promised to bring political dirt on Hillary Clinton. The lawyer was offering the meeting, emails showed, as part of the Russian government’s support for the Trump campaign.
But when approached by journalists, the younger Mr. Trump issued a statement that omitted all of that. Instead, the statement said that the meeting had primarily been about Russian adoption policy. When The Times reported that the president himself had “signed off on” the statement, Mr. Trump’s advisers pushed back hard.
“They’re incorrect,” Mr. Sekulow said on CNN .
“The New York Times is wrong?” he was asked.
“Yeah, I know, is that shocking that sometimes they make a mistake?” Mr. Sekulow said.
Then The Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump had not only approved it, but had personally dictated it. Mr. Sekulow responded, “Apart from being of no consequence, the characterizations are misinformed, inaccurate and not pertinent.”
The Times has since obtained a confidential memo to Mr. Mueller acknowledging that “the president dictated a short but accurate response to The New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr.” The memo adds that “this subject is a private matter with The New York Times.”
Mr. Trump has for years held the view that fudging the facts with journalists is far from a federal offense, and has acknowledged as much in civil lawsuits. He has acknowledged practicing what he calls “truthful hyperbole,” and has waved away outright falsehoods,dismissing them as smart public relations . Asked in court why he overstated his property sales on national television, Mr. Trump replied, “We do want to put the best spin on the property.”
After his firing, Mr. Tillerson delivered a barely veiled criticism of his former boss’s trustworthiness, declaring that American democracy was threatened by a crisis of integrity. “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America,” he said in a commencement address last month.
Mr. Mueller has told Mr. Trump’s lawyers that only by interviewing the president can prosecutors determine whether he had intended to obstruct justice. Mr. Trump has said he is eager to sit for an interview. He told reporters in January that he expected to do so within “two to three weeks.”
That did not happen, and his lawyers are not sure it ever will.