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Trump ignores legal advice, talks with witnesses about Russia case

Donald Trump's lawyers have given him good advice about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation: don't talk to witnesses. He's ignoring that advice.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with law enforcement officials on the MS-13 street gang and border security, in the Cabinet Room of the White...

About a week ago, Politico  reported that Donald Trump's lawyers have given him good advice about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal: the president should not discuss details of the probe "with anyone outside his legal team."

The same piece added, however, that when it comes to this scandal, Trump "often fails to observe boundaries." It's a point driven home by the latest reporting from the New York Times.

The special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters. [...]The episodes demonstrate that even as the special counsel investigation appears to be intensifying, the president has ignored his lawyers' advice to avoid doing anything publicly or privately that could create the appearance of interfering with it.

On the show last night, MSNBC's Ari Melber did a nice job summarizing some of the possible reasons the president would do this. It's possible, for example, that Trump simply doesn't care about his own lawyer's advice. Maybe he doesn't fully appreciate the possible risks. Perhaps the president recognizes the risk, but he believes it's a gamble worth making.

Or maybe Trump, lacking in impulse control, just can't help himself.

The article added that the president's conversations with witnesses, according to legal experts, probably doesn't "rise to the level of witness tampering" -- in other words, Trump's actions probably weren't illegal, unless there was evidence he encouraged a witness to lie -- but it doesn't make these chats any less dumb.

Complicating matters is the other part of the Times' reporting.

The newspaper reported in January that the president ordered Mueller's ouster, before backing off when White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. This has also reportedly drawn scrutiny from the special counsel's team, seeing this as relevant to the question of possible obstruction of justice.

According to the latest reporting, Trump responded to the January article by telling an aide that McGahn should issue a statement denying its accuracy. The piece published overnight added, "Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed."

If accurate, it's the sort of detail that could be quite important: did Trump push a bogus claim about his own actions, and then ask the White House counsel to join him in advancing this false narrative?

And then, of course, there's the fact that all of this is appearing in the New York Times, while the scandal is intensifying, raising the prospect of someone close to Don McGahn -- perhaps even the White House counsel himself -- wants the public to be aware of these behind-the-scenes machinations, all of which paints the president in a less-than-flattering light.

For that matter, there's the question Ari also posed on last night's show: if this is what McGahn (or people sympathetic to him) is signaling to the public, what do you suppose the White House counsel is telling the special counsel investigators in private?