© 2023 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Are Trump's Comments About 'Perjury Trap' Justified?


Russian interference in American democracy is, of course, at the center of the special counsel investigation. And President Trump has had a whole lot to say and tweet about the Mueller investigation. The question is, how much do any of these things mean for the special counsel's probe into that 2016 interference? Last night, the president told Reuters that he's not inclined to sit for an interview by special counsel Robert Mueller because he's concerned that any statements he made to Mueller under oath could be used to bring perjury charges against him. This echoes recent concerns by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani. We have Kimberly Wehle with us now in studio. She's a former assistant U.S. attorney who served on the Whitewater investigation.

Thanks so much for coming in.

KIMBERLY WEHLE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So in this interview with Reuters, the president said he's worried that one line of questioning, that would inevitably be put to him over James Comey's firing, could be, essentially, his word against Comey's. And I'm going to quote now from the president - "he's best friends with Mueller," referring to Comey here. "So Mueller might say, well, I believe Comey. And even if I am telling the truth, that makes me a liar." So are the president's fears of a perjury trap justified?

WEHLE: Well, a perjury trap suggests that there's some prosecutorial misconduct, that there's not a legitimate reason to put the president in a Q&A type situation. And here, I think all of those attacks are unfounded and dangerous, really. This broad stroke attack on the integrity of our criminal justice system, Mueller included, is problematic for foundational concepts of democracy. And we don't have any public information suggesting that Mueller himself is somehow engaging in some kind of missteps in terms of the president or anyone else in this particular investigation.

MARTIN: Which the word trap implies, that...

WEHLE: Correct.

MARTIN: ...It's somehow nefarious.

WEHLE: Right. It's suggesting that anytime you sit down to testify under oath that that's a trap. And of course, legitimate, truthful, honest testimony is the backbone of our civil and criminal justice system. So we've got to be careful about getting cute and distorted about these foundational concepts that uphold the rule of law in our democratic system.

MARTIN: In the same interview, President Trump said he could intervene in the Russia probe but is choosing not to. He said - and I'm quoting again - "I can go in, and I could do whatever. I could run it if I want." Is that true?

WEHLE: Well, I mean, technically, we don't have a lot of detail under Article II of the Constitution as to what it means to execute the law. So he could, presumably, go in and fire everyone, and then the question would become, what now? What is the system of accountability to ensure that he stays within the boundaries, both of the spirit of the Constitution and the norms that have upheld this institution - our democracy - for, you know, over two centuries?

This is what this president is doing. He's kind of challenging all of these sort of pillars of our democracy. And it would come down to whether Congress would do something about it politically. And at this point, they're sort of out to pasture. And I think that's a concern - it should be a concern - for every American, regardless of political party, right now.

MARTIN: You have said that you're confident that the Mueller investigation has amassed enough evidence to charge President Trump with obstruction of justice and other crimes. Why?

WEHLE: Well, you know, what we know publicly suggests - but based on his own tweets, his own comments - that he has made an effort to undermine the investigation. He thinks it's illegitimate. Regardless of whether he's fired Comey, the question with obstruction is, is there an intent to upend the investigation? I think he's put his cards on the table there.

The other question has to do with, what do you do about it? I think there's a constitutional ambiguity as to whether it would be proper to indict a sitting president. And so again, as I mentioned before, I think the straight-up answer to this is political accountability through some kind of investigative or impeachment process in Congress.

MARTIN: Because Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, keeps insisting that Mueller has given him assurances that he would not bring an indictment if he did have that evidence - that he would stand by precedent and not indict a sitting resident of the Oval Office. Do you think prosecutors should be able to do that?

WEHLE: My view of the Constitution is that accountability is paramount, that the structure - the three-part structure of the Constitution, three systems - branches of government are created so that no one gets their papers ungraded. Right? The framers created this structure and didn't even have a Bill of Rights because they figured that alone would make sure that no one amassed too much power. You know, as far as whether this Justice Department, Mueller and Rod Rosenstein would follow the guidance - it's not mandatory - that's existing within the Office of Legal Counsel that suggests that an indictment would not be proper, I think they would. But that doesn't preclude them from asking for some clarification as far as whether an indictment pending until he finishes office would be constitutional.

MARTIN: So you're saying there, we don't know.

WEHLE: We don't know. This is - when people talk about activist versus originalist justices, I think that they forget that a lot of the Constitution's ambiguous and people fill in the blanks, whether conservatives or Democrats. And this is the big one. This is a huge ambiguity.

MARTIN: Unchartered waters. Kimberly Wehle is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore. She served as associate counsel in the Whitewater investigation.

Thanks so much, Kimberly.

WEHLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.