Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to intensify as it reaches beyond American borders and creeps closer to the commander-in-chief, but President Trump continues to defy his legal team and conduct himself in a fashion that raises even more concern. The latest example of this was revealed Wednesday, when the New York Times reported that the president, against all legal advice, asked two witnesses who were interviewed by Mueller about what they discussed during those meetings.
The two witnesses in question are White House counsel Don McGahn II, and former Chief of Staff and RNC Chair Reince Priebus.
Trump’s interaction with McGahn centered around a January New York Times story that revealed that the White House counsel threatened to quit after Trump asked him to fire Mueller. McGahn was told by then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter to release a statement denying the report, per the request of the president, or face the possibility of losing his job. No public denial was issued by McGahn and he reminded the president of his request during an Oval Office confrontation. Despite detailing how Trump asked McGahn to tell deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Mueller should be disqualified from overseeing the investigation and should be removed from the Russia probe, the president said he didn’t remember the discussion that way. Trump would later deny that McGahn told him he would leave over the request, but McGahn did say that to other senior White House officials.
Trump’s post-interview interactions with Priebus were less charged but still eyebrow-raising. In December, during a meeting in the West Wing, the president brought up Priebus’ meeting with Mueller, asking how it went and if investigators had been “nice.” Priebus shared no details beyond saying the Special Counsel’s team were courteous and professional.
The two conversations, while not explicitly illegal, were incredibly unwise and have caused Mueller to begin questioning witnesses about their interactions with the president regarding the investigation itself. The real concern for the White House is that these conversations did not occur through lawyers, as is common practice in order to ensure they are shielded by attorney-client privilege. Trump’s actions now give no legal protection to these conversations as the investigation moves onward.
What’s even worse for the administration is that both interactions raise concerns over possible witness tampering, the president’s potential use of such conversations to shape his own answers and their possible use as evidence of obstruction in the case. “It makes it look like you’re cooking a story, and prosecutors are always looking out for it,” said Georgetown University law professor Julie O’Sullivan, adding, ”It can get at the issue of consciousness of guilt in an obstruction case because if you didn’t do anything wrong, why are you doing that?”
Trump’s decision to ignore his legal team’s warnings will only increase the scrutiny of investigators toward him as they move ever closer to sitting down with the president for his own interview.