When we learned at the end of October that two former Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, had been indicted and a third, George Papadopoulos, had cut a plea deal, it was widely interpreted as a signal from Special Counsel Robert Mueller to other potential witnesses.
“Oh man, they couldn’t have sent a message any clearer if they’d rented a revolving neon sign in Times Square,’’ Patrick Cotter, a white-collar defense lawyer, told the Washington Post at the time. “And the message isn’t just about Manafort. It’s a message to the next five guys they talk to. And the message is: ‘We are coming, and we are not playing, and we are not bluffing.’’’
It appears they heard Mueller, loud and clear. About a month later, former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as part of a deal to cooperate with the special counsel. Now the New York Times reports that yet another former Trump staffer is ready to sing: Mark Corallo, who served as a spokesperson for Trump’s legal team before resigning in July.
Mueller’s team is said to be looking into the White House response to reports of Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with a group of Russians who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. During a flight on Air Force One last July, Trump and White House communications director Hope Hicks reportedly led the drafting of a misleading statement suggesting that the meeting was about Russian adoptions.
Corallo recently received an interview request from Mueller, and is expected to speak with the special counsel in the next two weeks. The Times reports that he’s planning to share some information that Mueller can add to his long list of potential obstruction of justice:
Mr. Corallo is planning to tell Mr. Mueller about a previously undisclosed conference call with Mr. Trump and Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, according to the three people. Mr. Corallo planned to tell investigators that Ms. Hicks said during the call that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting — in which the younger Mr. Trump said he was eager to receive political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians — “will never get out.” That left Mr. Corallo with concerns that Ms. Hicks could be contemplating obstructing justice, the people said.
Shortly after Donald Trump Jr. released the statement drafted on Air Force One, Corallo, who was not involved in that discussion, publicly suggested that the Trump Tower meeting might have been a Democratic setup to make the Trump team look like they were colluding with Russia. The next day, Corallo and Hicks argued about the response in a conference call with the president. Per the Times:
In Mr. Corallo’s account — which he provided contemporaneously to three colleagues who later gave it to the Times — he told both Mr. Trump and Ms. Hicks that the statement drafted aboard Air Force One would backfire because documents would eventually surface showing that the meeting had been set up for the Trump campaign to get political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians.
According to his account, Ms. Hicks responded that the emails “will never get out” because only a few people had access to them. Mr. Corallo, who worked as a Justice Department spokesman during the George W. Bush administration, told colleagues he was alarmed not only by what Ms. Hicks had said — either she was being naïve or was suggesting that the emails could be withheld from investigators — but also that she had said it in front of the president without a lawyer on the phone and that the conversation could not be protected by attorney-client privilege.
Corallo reportedly cut off the call when Trump started asking about the documents, telling him he needed to speak to his legal team. He then jotted down notes about the call, notified the legal team about the conversation, and brought his concerns to Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist at the time.
Corallo told the paper on Wednesday that he doesn’t dispute any of the information provided by his colleagues. However, Hicks released a rare statement denying his claims.
“As most reporters know, it’s not my practice to comment in response to questions from the media. But this warrants a response,” said her lawyer, Robert P. Trout. “She never said that. And the idea that Hope Hicks ever suggested that emails or other documents would be concealed or destroyed is completely false.”
This development is seriously bad for Team Trump, for a number of reasons. First, while the Trump team often stresses that it’s not a crime to lie to the media, if Hicks did suggest that evidence could be withheld or destroyed, that could help prosecutors establish intent in an obstruction case.
Second, it may mean that Hicks is in more serious trouble. If she is, in fact, as naïve or deceitful as the Corallo story suggests, did she say anything incriminating when she was interviewed by Mueller’s team in December? In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff reported that in response to the bungled Trump Tower meeting response, Bannon shouted at Hicks that she needed to get a lawyer.
“You don’t know what you are doing,” Bannon reportedly shouted. “You don’t know how much trouble you are in … You are as dumb as a stone!”
Wolff also reported that Corallo quit because he believed the Air Force One meeting amounted to obstruction of justice, which the Times report seems to confirm. That brings us to the third issue for Team Trump: new fears of disloyalty. It’s actually not that shocking that Corallo would rat on his former White House colleagues. Last summer the Times noted that shortly before he was hired, the longtime conservative posted a number of tweets criticizing President Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner. There was also this comment about Mueller, whose time leading the FBI overlaps with Corallo’s tenure at the Justice Department:
More recently Corallo accused some on Mueller’s team of “not just hyperpartisanship, but what seems to be actual efforts to go after Trump and his associates without the objectivity that is required of prosecutors and investigators,” but he still said Trump firing Mueller would be a “colossal mistake.”
Even if what Corallo actually tells Mueller doesn’t amount to anything, his reported plan to spill new information is likely to raise fears of disloyalty among White House staffers, as well as with the president himself. And as we’ve learned, when Trump gets fixated on the loyalty of his subordinates, nothing good comes of it.