Trump Should Worry About His Duties, Not a ‘Perjury Trap’
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Like it or not — and most people don’t — Donald Trump is president of the United States.
That’s a point his supporters often make, when they are telling his critics to get over the 2016 election or to accept that some action of his they dislike was a legitimate exercise of his powers. And because Trump is president, he has certain legal privileges not available to the ordinary citizen.
Thus he is arguably immune to prosecution while president. Justice Department guidelines say he cannot be indicted; a respectable body of legal opinion says it would be unconstitutional to try; his defenders have insisted on the rightness of this legal conclusion.
But the presidency also imposes special responsibilities, ones that are intertwined with its powers and privileges, and they are worth keeping in mind especially in the aftermath of Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas and Paul Manafort’s convictions on multiple counts.
Many of Trump’s supporters fear that prosecutors, especially special counsel Robert Mueller, are setting a “perjury trap” for the president. The fact that two of his former associates are facing serious prison time will increase their worry.
In one perjury-trap scenario, Trump will sit down with Mueller and contradict something Cohen or Manafort has said. Then Mueller can go after him for lying — even if Trump is not trying to mislead Mueller and even if he has committed no underlying crime.
The naive answer to this concern is that any witness or subject of an investigation who simply tells the truth to the best of his recollection is in the clear. It’s an answer that underestimates the resourcefulness of prosecutors.
But President Trump is not in the position of an ordinary criminal defendant, and his supporters should not portray him as though he were. He has much less danger of falling into a perjury trap. For one thing — as the defenders keep saying — prosecutors may not be able to indict him while he sits in the White House.
It is true that Mueller could tee up an effort to impeach him in Congress. But there is essentially no chance that a majority of the House and a two-thirds supermajority of the Senate would remove Trump from office because Trump innocently made some minor misstatement and Mueller pounced on it. (If Democrats take the House this fall and are so dead-set on impeaching the president that they would use a perjury trap against him, they will impeach him on other grounds, even if he never sits down with Mueller.)
The worst-case “perjury trap” scenario for the Trump presidency is that he and his allies will have to deal with an unpleasant political debate in which his enemies say he lied to Mueller.
Meanwhile, Trump has duties that exceed those of most potential witnesses. He has a duty to see to it that the nation’s laws are executed. He has a duty to help get to the bottom of foreign interference with an American election.
If a federal prosecutor is acting corruptly, as Trump sometimes insinuates of Mueller, he has a duty to do more about it than pop off on Twitter. If he is acting appropriately, on the other hand, he has a duty to help him.
What is striking, in the debate over Trump and Mueller, is how little the question of the president’s responsibilities has figured in it. His foes don’t bother trying to shame him by invoking them. His friends speak as though they do not see those responsibilities as important, or they think he does not. Maybe that ought to tell us something.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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