Every once in a while, a consistent theme emerges from a news cycle, and today’s theme is “People in the Trump Administration Who Know the Difference Between Normal Lying and Lying That Can Land You in Jail.”
Donald Trump Jr. kicked off the trend by amending his lies about meeting a Russian lawyer in an attempt at collusion, followed by Trump White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s pointed reminders that she would make just a terrible witness for Bob Mueller.
As I noted earlier, Conway is one of a select group of Trump administration political pros who know how to insulate themselves from legal jeopardy, and you can include interim White House Communications Director Sean Spicer among that clique.
At an off-camera press briefing Monday afternoon, Spicer had Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders casually tell reporters that Donald Trump lied when he said he had not discussed sanctions with Russian President Vladimir Putin:
REPORTER: “Did President Trump discuss sanctions with Russian President Putin at the G-20 Summit?”
SANDERS: “I do know that it was mentioned specifically when you ask about sanctions, I know there’s a little bit of a question there. There were sanctions specific to election meddling that I believe were discussed, but not beyond that.”
So why would Spicer send Sanders out to catch Trump in a lie? Here’s a possibility.
On Saturday, Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters aboard Air Force One that he didn’t know if sanctions were discussed at the meeting, specifically referencing the Russian compounds that former President Barack Obama seized in response to Russia’s election interference. The next day, Trump tweeted that no sanctions were discussed.
At the time, the prospect sounded incredibly dubious, and I wrote that “since Rex Tillerson was the only other American official in that meeting, it’s a tough claim to debunk. I guess Trump had better hope Putin doesn’t have any ‘tapes’ of their meeting.”
But at Monday’s briefing, Sanders was asked if there were any recordings of the meeting, made either by Russia or the United States, and she would not rule that out:
REPORTER: “Did you make an audio recording of the meeting, or did the Russians?”
SANDERS: “Not that I am aware of, I’d have to ask. I am not sure.”
Now, Trump has demonstrated his unflagging belief in “my word against his,” and many lies can be left up to interpretation, but lying about sanctions could eventually become material to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Even if Trump was willing to continue lying, someone like Spicer would know that a recording of the meeting, or even an under-oath recounting by Tillerson, could put a lot of people neck deep in bad stuff.
So far, it appears Spicer’s strategy has paid off because Sanders’s revelation barely raised an eyebrow at the briefing, and chances are it will be taken as just another of Trump’s many lies. But it exposes a deep vein of legal vulnerability that could come back to bite him — and probably will.