Reports of President Trump’s phone call to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley to concur in the wonders of ethanol (please!) raised anew the principle question about Trump’s namesake son, Donald Jr.; is he playing with a full deck?
Trump Jr. has agreed to a closed-door interview with Judiciary Committee staffers and any senators who wish to attend. This is, in the technical jargon of the law, a really dumb idea. The Committee wants to ask Trump about the June 2016 meeting that he orchestrated with an assortment of Russians, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner. Trump Jr. has already lied in public about the meeting, demonstrating a disconcerting level of cluelessness about his situation. In the interview, he will either tell more lies, withdraw his consent to cooperate, assert his Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent, or inculpate himself in a conspiracy to invite Russian interference in the 2016 election. Which of these does he think helps his chances of staying out of jail? Or, is he willing to let it all hang out because of confidence that Dad will pardon him in the end?
By way of quick background, in June 2016 Trump Jr. agreed to meet with a Russian lawyer and others based on the promise that they would deliver information damaging to Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s effort to help the election of Trump Sr. After initially lying about the subject matter of the meeting and downplaying its significance in a statement that may have been dictated by Trump Sr., Jr. was forced to release emails that had led to the meeting and contradicted his account. New details continue to emerge that undercut Trump Jr.’s account. The original account depicted Manafort as distracted and on his phone through the meeting. NBC now reports that Manafort’s cell phone reveals that he was using it to take notes during the meeting and that the words “donation” and “RNC” appear in close proximity in those notes. We also know that a Russian-American lobbyist who attended the meeting has appeared before a grand jury under subpoena from Mueller. Therefore, it is clear that Trump Jr. cannot stick truthfully with anything resembling his original version of what happened at the meeting. He must own up to his previous lies or lie to the Committee. Any lies will be federal crimes, creating new business for Bob Mueller.
Trump Jr. could decide to respond fully and truthfully to the Committee’s questions. But we already know that would require Trump Jr. to admit to having at least attempted to collude with the Russian government to get his father elected. The emails reveal that much. He will then be open to follow-up questions about every subsequent contact with anyone connected in any way to Russia, including his co-participants in the meeting, Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner. This is precisely what the Trumps have been struggling so mightily to prevent. Again, any deceptive answers will expose Trump Jr. to criminal liability.
Because Trump Jr.’s appearance is voluntary at this point, he might try to withdraw his consent and simply refuse to answer some questions. That, too, could prove politically damaging. And the Committee would retain the right to compel his subsequent attendance.
One escape route for Trump Jr. is to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in this or any other official proceeding. Unfortunately, his father’s intemperate statements regarding Hillary Clinton make that more difficult. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly criticized Clinton associates for taking the Fifth, saying only the guilty do so. In this context, an assertion of the privilege would doubtless become public and prove politically embarrassing.
Trump Jr. may not be sufficiently savvy to assess the seriousness of his dilemma, but he is rich enough to hire a lawyer who can. Perhaps, like his father, he does not bow easily to the advice of lawyers. Regardless of the reason, he is headed toward danger.
Bill Yeomans is the Senior Justice Fellow at Alliance for Justice. He currently serves as Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and previously taught constitutional law, civil rights, and legislation at American University Washington College of Law. He also served for 26 years in the Department of Justice, where he litigated cases involving voting rights and discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and prosecuted police officers and racially motivated violent offenders before assuming a series of management positions, including acting Assistant Attorney General. For three years, Bill served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has also held positions at AFJ and the American Constitution Society. The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Alliance for Justice.