Donald Trump’s eldest son and other associates of the president may be at greater risk of prosecution after Robert Mueller, the special counsel, showed he is willing to criminally charge people for lying to Congress.
Mueller on Thursday obtained a guilty plea from Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s closest advisers for more than a decade, who admitted giving an untrue account to Congress about the Trump Organization’s effort to develop a tower in Moscow during 2016.
Cohen, Trump’s former legal fixer, became the first person prosecuted by Mueller over remarks to congressional investigators. He pleaded guilty to making a false statement, under the same federal law violated by other Trump advisers who have admitted lying to the FBI.
Donald Trump Jr and Erik Prince, an adviser to the Trump campaign in 2016, made statements to Congress that have since been contradicted by public reports. Several more Trump allies testified to Congress on the Russia inquiry on a wide range of subjects. All deny wrongdoing.
Adam Schiff, the House intelligence committee’s incoming Democratic chair, has said he will share transcripts from the panel’s Russia inquiry with Mueller for consideration of further criminal charges. Schiff said Republicans have so far declined to assist the special counsel.
“We believe other witnesses were untruthful before our committee,” Schiff told reporters on Thursday, while urging its outgoing Republican leaders to accelerate the sharing of transcripts with Mueller for witnesses who appeared to have lied.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said that panel had already made several criminal referrals – effectively requests for criminal investigations – to Mueller, but declined to identify the subjects.
Trump Jr has already come under scrutiny for answers he gave the Senate judiciary committee during an interview in September 2017. When asked if any foreign governments other than Russia’s offered or provided assistance to the Trump campaign, Trump Jr replied: “None that I’m aware of.” Asked if any foreign nationals had done so, he said: “No.”
But in May this year, the New York Times reported that a representative for the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered their assistance in the presidential election during a meeting with Trump Jr in New York in August 2016. A lawyer for Trump Jr confirmed the meeting took place.
Following the report, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said it appeared Trump Jr had “provided false testimony” to the Senate and that he should be recalled to answer more questions. But the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, rejected Coons’s request and said there were “potentially innocuous explanations” for any contradictions between Trump Jr’s testimony and the Times report.
Even on the day Trump Jr’s testimony was made public, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said: “I have no confidence that he has told the whole truth.”
Trump Jr has denied any wrongdoing. Alan Futerfas, an attorney for the Trump Organization, did not respond to an email seeking comment. He has previously said Trump Jr’s testimony to Congress was totally truthful.
The August 2016 meeting was reportedly arranged by Erik Prince, the former military contractor and brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Prince also attended the meeting.
Yet Prince told the House intelligence committee in November last year he played “no official or, really, unofficial role” in the Trump campaign and had no formal communications with the campaign beyond sending foreign policy papers to Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist.
Professor Ryan Goodman of New York University, a former special counsel at the US defense department, said that Prince’s testimony “looks a lot like perjury” in light of the disclosure of his meeting with Trump Jr and the emissary for Gulf leaders.
Prince also omitted to mention the meeting when asked by a Democratic committee member when he had met Trump Jr. Prince cited only “a campaign event” before the election and “a couple of times” during the transition following Trump’s election victory in November 2016.
A lawyer for Prince, Thomas Dunlap, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Josh Campbell, a former FBI agent, said on Thursday that Mueller had put other Trump associates on notice that they could face severe consequences if they had misled members of Congress during their interviews.
“Whether intentional or not, this will serve as a warning to ALL the other witnesses who testified on the Hill about Russia. Their testimony is fair game. If they lied, game over,” Campbell tweeted.
Trump Jr’s answers to congressional investigators about the Trump Organization’s plans to build a tower-style development in Moscow are also likely to come under renewed scrutiny following the revised account of the project given by Cohen as part of his deal with Mueller.
Mueller said in a court filing that Cohen had admitted he briefed Trump and unidentified Trump family members about the progress of the project more extensively than was previously known.
Trump Jr, a senior executive at the Trump Organization, played down his awareness of the project during his September 2017 interview, saying he knew “very little” about the deal. “I was peripherally aware of it, but most of my knowledge has been gained since as it relates to hearing about it over the last few weeks,” he said.
The Republican-led House intelligence committee, which has come under sharp criticism from Democrats for what they call a deliberately lacklustre Russia inquiry, has released only a handful of interview transcripts despite having published its findings in April.
Thousands of pages of testimony from Trump allies including Trump Jr, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Hope Hicks and Roger Stone are due to be published over the coming months. None has been accused of wrongdoing.
Mueller did not indicate in Thursday’s court filings whether Cohen had been directed to give his misleading testimony to Congress. Any finding that he was urged to lie to protect Trump or his company could expose others in Trump’s circle to fresh legal problems.
Neal Katyal, a supreme court attorney and former acting US solicitor general, said the “next question” for authorities after the discovery that Trump aides lied to Congress and other investigators would be: “Why? At whose direction? Who stood to gain from the lies? What did they know and when?”
The possible implications of Cohen’s guilty plea were also highlighted on Thursday by Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. “Michael Cohen’s indictment and guilty plea is once again an example that you cannot lie to Congress without consequences,” said Burr.