Politics

Trump dictated son’s misleading statement on meeting with Russian

President Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr.
Sam Hodgson/The New York Times, file
President Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr.

WASHINGTON — On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.

The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.

But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.

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Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said he and the Russian lawyer had ‘‘primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children’’ when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared a story, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was ‘‘not a campaign issue at the time.’’

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The claims were later shown to be misleading. Over the next three days, multiple accounts of the meeting were provided to the media as public pressure mounted, with Trump Jr. ultimately acknowledging that he had accepted the meeting after receiving an e-mail promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigates potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.

‘‘This was . . . unnecessary,’’ said one of the president’s advisers, who like most other people interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. ‘‘Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.’’

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Trump has already come under criticism for steps he has taken to challenge and undercut the Russia probe. For example, he fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9 after a private meeting in which Comey said the president asked him if he could end the investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told associates that Trump asked him in March if he could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on Flynn.

In addition, Trump has repeatedly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the FBI’s Russian investigation — a decision that was one factor leading to the appointment of Mueller. Although misleading the public or the press is not a crime, advisers to Trump and his family told The Washington Post that they fear any indication that Trump was seeking to hide information about contacts between his campaign and Russians almost inevitably would draw additional scrutiny from Mueller.

Trump, they say, is increasingly acting as his own lawyer, strategist, and publicist, often disregarding the recommendations of the professionals he has hired.

‘‘He refuses to sit still,’’ the presidential adviser said. ‘‘He doesn’t think he’s in any legal jeopardy, so he really views this as a political problem he is going to solve by himself.’’

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Trump has said that the Russia probe is ‘‘the greatest witch hunt in political history,’’ calling it an elaborate hoax created by Democrats to explain Clinton losing an election she should have won.

Because Trump believes he is innocent, some advisers explained, he therefore does not think he is at any legal risk for a coverup. In his mind, they said, there is nothing to conceal.

The White House directed all questions for this story to the president’s legal team.

One of Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, declined to discuss the specifics of the president’s actions and his role in crafting his son’s statement about the Russian contact. Sekulow issued a one-sentence statement in response to a list of detailed questions from The Post.

‘‘Apart from being of no consequence, the characterizations are misinformed, inaccurate, and not pertinent,’’ Sekulow’s statement read.

Trump Jr. did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer, Alan Futerfas, said that he and his client ‘‘were fully prepared and absolutely prepared to make a fulsome statement’’ about the meeting, what led up to it and what was discussed.

Asked about Trump intervening, Futerfas said, ‘‘I have no evidence to support that theory.’’ He described the process of drafting a statement as ‘‘a communal situation that involved communications people and various lawyers.’’

Peter Zeidenberg, the deputy special prosecutor who investigated the George W. Bush administration’s leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, said Mueller will have to dig into the crafting of Trump Jr.’s statement aboard Air Force One.

Prosecutors typically assume that any misleading statement is an effort to throw investigators off the track, Zeidenberg said.

‘‘The thing that really strikes me about this is the stupidity of involving the president,’’ Zeidenberg said. ‘‘They are still treating this like a family-run business and they have a PR problem. . . . What they don’t seem to understand is this is a criminal investigation involving all of them.’’