President Trump has reportedly engaged in conversations with witnesses in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia election probe, despite admonitions from his lawyers not to behave in ways that might look like witness-tampering.
Citing “three people familiar with the encounters,” the New York Times reported Wednesday evening that Mr. Mueller has learned of Mr. Trump’s having asked two witnesses about their discussions with investigators.
The witnesses are White House Counsel Donald McGahn and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
The McGahn conversation concerned an admonition from Mr. Trump that the lawyer should issue a statement denying a New York Times story that the president had asked Mr. McGahn to fire Mr. Mueller.
According to the Times report, Mr. McGahn refused, because Mr. Trump had indeed made that request.
In the Priebus conversation, Mr. Trump asked his former deputy “how his interview had gone with the special counsel’s investigators and whether they had been ‘nice,’” the Times reported, citing “two people familiar with the discussion.”
According to legal scholars interviewed by the Times, the conversations likely didn’t reach the legal threshold for the crime of witness-tampering. But they were sufficiently close to that line, and sufficiently concerning for people who knew of the conversations to share them with Mr. Mueller.
For a person to tamper with witnesses, if proven, would be a crime even if the underlying investigation produces no charges against that person.
Combined with such reported episodes as Mr. Trump’s asking FBI Director James B. Comey for his loyalty and his public criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe, the conversations may sharpen or focus a case against Mr. Trump personally.
“It makes it look like you’re cooking a story, and prosecutors are always looking out for it,” Julie R. O’Sullivan, a law professor at Georgetown University and expert on white-collar criminal investigations, told the New York Times.
“It can get at the issue of consciousness of guilt in an obstruction case because if you didn’t do anything wrong, why are you doing that?” she added.