Just a thought I had while reading this NYT scoop last night. Most people, I think, will skim that and quickly put it out of mind because it zeroes in on Hope Hicks, Trump’s comms director and a rare figure in TrumpWorld who never, ever does on-camera interviews. (Not that rare, actually. Jared Kushner is famously camera-shy as well.) A Russiagate story is big if it focuses on one of the Trumps or on Kushner or on a top advisor like Mike Flynn. But Hope Hicks? Nah. Just not that important.
Is that right? I’m no prosecutor but to my eye this looks — potentially — very important. The Times is writing here about the press release that Donald Trump Jr issued after his meeting with the Russian lawyer to discuss oppo on Hillary was first revealed in the papers. His statement was reportedly crafted on Air Force One, with input from POTUS himself, as Trump and his team were traveling home after a trip to Europe. The statement claimed that the meeting with the Russians focused “primarily” on adoptions of Russian children, which turned out not to be true. Only after Don Jr’s emails were leaked to the Times, showing his interest in obtaining Clinton dirt from the meeting, did he come clean about its true purpose. Obviously that meeting is of interest to Mueller in his hunt for evidence of collusion. But what about the curious role of the president and his staff in drafting Junior’s initial misleading statement?
The latest witness to be called for an interview about the episode was Mark Corallo, who served as a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s legal team before resigning in July. Mr. Corallo received an interview request last week from the special counsel and has agreed to the interview, according to three people with knowledge of the request…
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.
According to the Times’s sources, Corallo feared that Hicks “could be contemplating obstructing justice.” When the Times called him yesterday to confirm that and other details, Corallo didn’t dispute any of it. Corallo also reportedly told Steve Bannon about the incident at some point. It shows up in Michael Wolff’s book too:
To recap, Wolff reported Corallo resigned over concerns he'd witnessed an obstruction attempt.
NYT corroborates what Corallo witnessed, reports he immediately told legal team AND Bannon.
Wolff reported Bannon screamed at Hicks “You don’t know how much trouble you are in."
— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) February 1, 2018
“Contemplating obstructing justice” isn’t a crime (is it?) but it got me thinking: What if Mueller has something on Hicks? What if Hicks took some affirmative step to try to conceal or even destroy the emails in which Don Jr chattered excitedly about the chance of Clinton oppo from the Russian lawyer?
Again, I think most people would shrug and say, “It’s just Hope.” She’s all of 29 years old, a spectral presence to the public given her refusal to appear on news shows in Trump’s defense. How important could she be, really? To which I say: Important. Legal eagles are invited to correct me but Hicks seems like an ideal target for a cunning prosecutor to try to turn. She’s young and may be frightened at the thought of spending some of the prime years of her life behind bars. She’s a high-level advisor despite her low public profile, someone who deals daily with the president and knows what’s going on in his immediate orbit. And most importantly, uniquely among Trump’s West Wing aides who aren’t blood relatives, she’s been working for him in key roles since before he entered politics. Literally no one else in the White House except for Ivanka, I believe, can say the same thing. (Jared was never technically employed by POTUS until last year, if I’m not mistaken.) That is to say, if Mueller has moved past the narrow question of collusion and is sniffing around Trump’s time at the Trump Organization for evidence of, say, money laundering, Hope Hicks may be one of the best witnesses he could ask for. If he has leverage over her and she panics, conceivably she could roll over to protect herself and blow up Trump with dirt that only family members are otherwise privy to.
What more could you want in a “play me or trade me” scenario if you’re the special counsel?
But that’s the thing: Hope is family for the Trumps, for all intents and purposes. I have no doubt that if Mueller threatened to jail Don Jr on an obstruction charge unless he gave up his father, Junior would sacrifice himself and face prosecution rather than talk. Hicks probably would respond the same way given how long she’s worked for POTUS, but I don’t know. She’s not a blood relative. The potential charges against her would matter, needless to say: The calculation is much different if she’s facing 10 years in prison instead of one. There’s also the highly likely prospect of a presidential pardon if she’s charged. Trump doesn’t want to be too generous with those since each pardon will force him to explain why the recipient shouldn’t be punished for his or her wrongdoing. In the case of someone like Paul Manafort, that explanation would be difficult. In the case of Hope Hicks, it would be easier — she’s young, she made a mistake in a moment of zealous loyalty, we don’t want to ruin her life over one bad moment. Hypothetically Hicks could still be charged with state crimes, which are beyond the reach of the president’s pardon power, but are there any extant obstruction probes aimed at the White House at the state level now? Would the public even support a state investigation of Hope Hicks without some reason to think she was involved in collusion? Given all of that, I don’t know that Mueller could flip Hicks even if he tried. But it’s something to start thinking about given the tenor of Corallo’s testimony to come.