For months, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has wanted to talk to Donald Trump. For as many months, the president has said he’s eager to sit down with Mueller and his team, and Trump’s lawyers have balked.
With increasing frequency, the presidential defense team has warned of a “perjury trap.” The Washington Post reported overnight:
Early this year, it was very subtle. White House lawyer Ty Cobb for the first time gently suggested the possibility of President Trump being lured into a “perjury trap” if he interviewed with Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation. At the same time, though, Cobb was quick to emphasize that he didn’t think Mueller, a man he respected, would ever do such a thing.
Times have changed.
Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Wednesday night, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani addressed Mueller directly and explicitly accused him of laying a perjury trap for Trump – twice.
Fox News started pushing perjury-trap warnings in earnest in January, but the rhetoric is now effectively a daily talking point for Trump World.
And that’s a shame because, by all appearances, the president’s lawyers don’t fully appreciate what the phrase means.
To hear Giuliani tell it, to ask Trump a question under oath is, practically by definition, a perjury trap. This presupposes that Trump is a man who lies routinely and habitually, making effectively any Q&A a perjury trap.
But the phrase is a term of art Jon Chait had a good piece on this yesterday:
A perjury trap is a real thing. The term describes when prosecutors lure a witness into giving false testimony, usually for reasons other than covering up a crime, knowing they can prove the claim was false, and then nail them for perjury. The impeachment of President Clinton was a classic perjury trap. Special Prosecutor Ken Starr asked the president about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, knowing Clinton – like most people who have affairs, especially politicians – would lie about it.
Asking Trump about his attempt to manipulate his FBI director is not a perjury trap. The question is not extraneous to a crime, it is a crime. He was very consciously attempting to stop an investigation into his administration. The mere fact that his lawyers are discussing it well in advance indicates that the subject matter is not a perjury trap, because the “trap” aspect involves the witness not knowing beforehand that the question is designed to produce a lie.
So here’s my question: do Donald Trump’s lawyers really not know what a perjury trap is, or are they deliberately engaging in deceptive political tactics as part of a misguided public-relations campaign?
The fact that it’s equally easy to believe either scenario is unsettling.