Lawyers representing Donald Trump’s current and former aides are giving their clients one simple piece of advice: Don’t lie to protect the president.
As special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators prepare to question high-ranking aides — including Hope Hicks, Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer — in the coming weeks, Trump’s long history of demanding his employees’ complete loyalty is being put to the test.
But Trump stalwarts know the president is closely following the media coverage of the Russia case — and the last thing they want is to be deemed a turncoat whose answers end up becoming further fuel for investigators.
Several of the lawyers representing current and former aides told POLITICO they’re actively warning their clients that any bonds connecting them to Trump won’t protect them from criminal charges if federal prosecutors can nail them for perjury, making false statements or obstruction of justice.
“What I always tell clients is you can’t protect anybody. You can only hurt yourself,” said a lawyer representing a client involved in the Russia probe. The attorney added that any overt attempts to protect Trump will raise wider suspicions of a cover-up, making matters “worse for everybody.”
“Efforts to concoct a story to protect somebody are almost inevitably doomed to failure,” the attorney explained. “All you do is create liability to yourself that didn’t exist before.”
Mueller’s investigation and multiple probes on Capitol Hill have expanded to include the Trump family’s interactions with Russians as well as business deals involving the Trump Organization. The federal prosecutors and congressional investigators are doing their homework as they build substantive factual records through document requests, subpoenas and interviews.
That’s something the lawyers representing Trump officials say they can’t impress enough on their clients, especially when one of the most potent weapons Mueller and his team have to gain leverage centers around anyone who makes misleading statements or other trip-ups.
“The lesson to be always learned is loyalty is one thing, but are you prepared to go to jail for it?” said former Whitewater special counsel Robert Ray. “The answer to that question should be no.”
Recent history is littered with examples of loyal staffers who chose to shield their superiors. Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was convicted in 2007 for lying to federal officials probing who leaked the name of a covert CIA officer, and even President George W. Bush believed Libby was guilty of trying to protect his boss.
Webster Hubbell, a former Clinton Justice Department official, served an 18-month federal sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges tied to his Whitewater work as a former law partner with President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton. But Hubbell maintained his loyalty to the first couple while in jail, and even as he faced additional charges tied to independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s probe.
Bush commuted Libby’s prison sentence, but the Republican president did not heed Cheney’s request for a complete pardon. Clinton also declined to grant Hubbell a pardon.
Ray, who succeeded Starr as the special counsel investigating the Clinton White House, called political loyalty a “good thing” that “makes the system work” for elected officials and their staff. But he noted it also “presents some problems when it comes to criminal investigations. These have real-life consequences to people beyond what they even imagined.”
“Loyalty is not a two-way street,” Ray said. “A lot of young people go to the White House and they’re going to be loyal to the president and the president is going to be loyal to me. Bullshit. If it’s expedient, you’re going to be thrown under the bus. The loyalty isn’t necessarily going to be returned. Even if it were, I’m not sure the promise or prospect of a pardon is all that comforting.”
As the Trump associates face questioning, they know that loyalty is a treasured commodity in the president’s orbit.
Comey testified to this before the Senate in June, explaining how Trump told him during one of their initial White House meetings, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” While the ousted FBI chief rejected Trump’s overtures, Trump’s inner circle is packed with loyalists. Cohen, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, described how he sees himself as an extension of the president’s family and will stick by Trump no matter the legal bills or criticism that his own relatives face. “I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president,” Cohen told the magazine.
Trump’s most dedicated supporters even have a nickname for their club: the “Oct. 8th coalition,” which White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told the Washington Examiner represents the people who stuck by Trump after the vulgar “Access Hollywood” videotape emerged during the heat of the 2016 campaign.
Calls for testimony have reportedly gone out to Priebus and Spicer, the former top White House aides who played roles in many of the critical early Trump decisions that have become pertinent to the Russia case, including the firings of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.
Also of interest for Mueller and lawmakers are a pair of longtime Trump Organization hands who have had front-row seats to the president’s political rise: Hicks, one of Trump’s most trusted aides, now serving as White House interim communications director, and Rhona Graff, the personal secretary who is namedin an email chain arranging a controversial Trump Tower meeting last summer between senior Trump campaign aides and a Russian attorney promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Investigators have also been pressing for answers from the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who spent five hours last week meeting with Senate staff to discuss that June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower; Michael Cohen, a personal Trump attorney under a subpoena for documents from the House Intelligence Committee; and Paul Manafort, the embattled former Trump campaign chairman.
John Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel whose public testimony before Congress played a major role in exposing the Watergate cover-up, said a president’s loyalty will matter only so much when the staff starts talking to federal investigators.
“It’s very interesting the way that works,” he said. “I felt that loyalty to Nixon until he started trying to destroy me. That somehow drains loyalty.”
Many of the Trump aides being pulled into the investigations are readying for the legal scrutiny. Hicks hired Robert Trout, a former U.S. attorney in Baltimore, as her personal counsel, while Priebus and White House counsel Don McGahn both have tapped William Burck, a former deputy counsel in the George W. Bush White House.
Others insist questions about maintaining loyalty to Trump in the Russia case is really a moot point. “There’s nothing to cover up or have his back on,” said a former Trump White House aide. “By all accounts, he’s not involved in this.”
White House attorney Ty Cobb said Trump has instructed his staff to cooperate with Mueller and congressional investigators. “The message goes out to all his people. They have to listen to their own lawyers, but the White House wants them to fully cooperate and tell the truth, and we expect they will and to the best of our knowledge that’ll be the case.”
Cobb also pushed back on the notion that loyalty to Trump would supersede a person telling the truth. “You can be loyal and be honorable at the same time, and that’s what the president wants,” he added. “Candor and honesty and anything that paints a complete picture here is in the interest of justice, the White House and the country.”
A spokesman for Mueller declined comment.
As the current and former Trump associates head into congressional hearing rooms and before Mueller’s grand jury, former federal prosecutors say the witnesses are likely to be mindful of how their former colleagues — Trump included — interpret their moves.
“They don’t want to be seen as the John Dean among Republicans, to be the traitor who brought down the party,” said a former federal law enforcement official who has worked on special counsel cases. “They also have to be concerned if they appear to be cooperating then they’re the target of the White House attack machine.”
Alex Whiting, a former federal prosecutor and Harvard Law professor, said Mueller may have more luck getting cooperation from recently ousted Trump officials — like Priebus and Spicer, though he noted the two men also may end up being overly cautious too.
“These guys they have their careers and reputations to be concerned about,” he said.
Barbara Res, a former construction executive at the Trump Organization who worked directly under Trump, countered that loyalty is likely to matter little for anyone who has gotten such a public boot from Trump’s inner circle. “Why should they be loyal to him?” she asked of aides such as Spicer and Priebus. “He treated them like crap.”