After months of backtracks on the Russia investigation, and now on those hush money payments to two former Trump paramours, the White House has apparently settled on a new line of defense: We didn’t do anything wrong, but even if we did it’s not a crime.
Over the weekend, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told ABC News’s George Stephanopolous that “collusion is not a crime,” “hush payments aren’t crimes,” and if Trump personally had received a heads-up from Roger Stone about a WikiLeaks e-mail dumps that targeted Democrats well, guess what, that isn’t a crime either, says the former New York Mayor.
Let’s put aside the fact that federal prosecutors in New York and in the special counsel’s office have a slightly different view of these matters. Here’s the one question that I still struggle with: If Trump and those around him did nothing wrong; if their actions weren’t crimes, why have they consistently lied about it?
Why did the president and his aides consistently deny knowledge of the payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal? Why did Trump deny that it was done to keep the women quiet during the campaign? Why did he lie about his lawyer, Michael Cohen (the other one), being reimbursed for the payments? Why does Trump’s story keep changing? If none of this was wrong — and if it was what any political campaign in a similar situation would do, as some have argued — why not just tell the truth from the beginning.
But the even bigger — and likely more politically important — question is, why all the lies about Russia?
Keep in mind it was over two years ago that Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said about rumored links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
In fact, according to the Moscow Project, there were at least 97 documented contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
In February 2017, Trump himself said at a press conference that “Nobody that I know of” from his campaign had been in contact with Russia. “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”
That wasn’t true either. Nearly two years later, we know that 16 Trump campaign officials and advisers had contacts with Russian officials and another 12 knew about them.
Donald Trump Jr., lied about meeting with Russian officials at Trump Tower for the specific purpose of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. Then his dad, the president, put out a press statement doubling down on the lie.
Jeff Sessions forgot to tell the Senate, in both written and oral testimony, about his meetings with former Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kisylak. Jared Kushner repeatedly omitted contacts with Russian officials on his application for a security clearance.
George Papadopoulos lied about his communications with Russian intermediaries who were peddling Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and went to jail.
Cohen lied about his work on a Trump organization project in Moscow, and he’ll be going to jail for three years. Michael Flynn lied about his conversations with Kisylak during the transition . . . and he’s hoping to avoid jail. Roger Stone lied about his discussions with Russian hackers and WikiLeaks and may be facing indictment.
After he agreed to cooperate with the special counsel, Paul Manafort lied about his contacts with a former employee who has close ties to Russian intelligence — and there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll be spending the rest of his life in jail.
If, as the president now claims, collusion didn’t happen, and even if it did, none of these meetings were a crime, why so much dishonesty? And this was not garden-variety deceit. These lies have led to felony indictments and prison time for multiple individuals.
The most likely explanation for all this dissembling and untruthfulness is obvious: Trump officials were lying because they knew they did something wrong. Some might have been aware they committed a crime; others may have feared embarrassment and political consequences. But no matter how Trump and his enablers try to spin this now, the fact is none of them, it seems, believed what they did was proper or even defensible. If they did, there was no reason not to tell the truth.
And yet over and over again, not telling the truth is exactly what they did.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.