The White House has confirmed Donald Trump played a role in drafting a misleading statement about his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer.
“The statement that Don Jr issued is true,” Huckabee Sanders said at the daily press briefing. “There is no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed in as any father would.”
Trump “weighed in based on the limited information that he had”, she said.
The White House was rocked on Monday night by another revelation in the investigation into potential ties between his campaign and Russia. The Washington Post first reported that the president had dictated a statement which dismissed the significance of a meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr, top campaign aides Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016.
On Tuesday, Huckabee Sanders said: “He certainly didn’t dictate. But he weighed in, offered suggestions, like any father would do.”
The statement, which was issued by Donald Trump Jr’s lawyer, required repeated updates as more details of the meeting leaked out.
Initially, Trump Jr said he and the Russian lawyer “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children”. Further reporting revealed that Trump Jr had, in fact, taken the meeting after having been offered incriminating information about Hillary Clinton, forcing the president’s son to release the email exchange leading up to the meeting.
In the emails, Trump Jr was explicitly told of an effort by the Russian government to aid Trump’s campaign, and that Veselnitskaya could offer highly sensitive information about Clinton. “If it’s what you say, I love it,” Trump Jr replied.
The White House has insisted the president had no knowledge of the meeting, despite being in Trump Tower that same day.
The latest allegations about the meeting in Trump Tower dealt another blow to an already beleaguered president, placing him under the microscope as federal investigators look into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow during the presidential election. It also raised fresh questions for the justice department, some legal experts said, as special counsel Robert Mueller examines whether Trump obstructed justice.
“You’re boxing in a witness into a false story,” Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer for George W Bush, told the Guardian. “That puts them under enormous pressure to turn around and lie under oath to be consistent with their story. I think it’s obstruction of justice.”
For Trump to draft a “knowingly false” statement for his son, who could be considered a material witness in the Russia investigation, “very likely will be deemed to be obstruction of justice”, Painter said.
Asha Rangappa, an associate dean at Yale law school, said the report that Trump was behind the misleading statement on his son’s meeting suggested “a personal investment in wanting to cover up something that may tie his campaign to the Russians”.
“Intent would be the hardest thing to prove in terms of obstruction, because you need to show that the person acted corruptly. That’s the legal standard,” Rangappa said.
“When you start having both a reason – that he himself or his children could be implicated and that he’s deliberately trying to conceal evidence – it adds to that element of the crime.”
The Post report also portrayed Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser in the White House, as one of the lone proponents of transparency. Kushner, who privately met investigators on Capitol Hill last week, attended the meeting, but has claimed to have had no prior knowledge of its purpose – despite being forwarded the email exchange leading up to it.
Rangappa said Kushner, unlike his father-in-law, was “playing the smartest game in the White House”.
“You never see him talk, you never see him tweet. He’s doing everything his lawyers tell him to do,” Rangappa said.
“Remember that the burden is on the government if they want to prove something against you,” she added. “The less you say, and the less information you give out, the more onus you’re putting on the government to have to come up with other evidence that you did know [about the motives behind the meeting].
“He’s not giving Mueller a single morsel beyond what he has to.”
The Russia investigation has loomed over the first six months of Trump’s presidency, and impeded his ability to enact a legislative agenda. On Twitter, the president has repeatedly sought to discredit the investigation, and he prompted the appointment of Mueller by firing the FBI director James Comey and admitting Russia was part of his calculation. In recent weeks, Trump has focused his ire on Jeff Sessions, stopping short of firing the attorney general but tormenting him over his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Michael Steel, an aide to former House speaker John Boehner, said the president’s inability to escape the Russia allegations has proved one of his biggest barriers, including the failure to land a bill that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, popularly called Obamacare.
“I think Republicans on Capitol Hill are desperately trying to make progress on important conservative policy,” Steel said. “But it’s made more difficult seemingly every other day by fresh revelations from the White House or the campaign.”
The past two weeks brought further turmoil to the White House, with the resignation of the press secretary Sean Spicer and the ousting of the chief of staff Reince Priebus. Both men objected to Trump’s decision to hire Anthony Scaramucci as the White House communications director.
A profanity-laced tirade by Scaramucci against Priebus and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was made public last week and laid bare the bitter infighting within the West Wing. Scaramucci was fired on Monday, following the appointment of John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, as Trump’s new chief of staff.
Republicans have hoped Kelly, a former general, will bring military discipline to the White House. But many fear the biggest obstacle in the White House is not its staff, but the president himself.
“It’s impossible to run an organization as large and complicated as the executive branch of the United States without people around the president having his consistent trust and support,” Steel said. “You can’t get big things done, people can’t trust you to work on their behalf in a way that’s helpful if the president is constantly undermining the people around him.”
Painter said Kelly might be able to root out some of the more controversial figures in the White House. But to prevent the president from firing off unfiltered and unvetted statements in 140 characters or less would require “a sea change”.
“Two thirds of the problem is the boss,” Painter said, “this constant effort to derail the investigation and publicly tweeting about it. It makes it look like he has something to hide.”