FACT CHECK: Is It Illegal To Lie To Congress, Even When You’re Not Under Oath?
A congressional committee investigating Russia received criticism Sunday for allowing Donald Trump Jr. to avoid sworn testimony and meet privately with committee members instead. In response, the committee chairman Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley claimed that under oath or not, lying to Congress is still a crime.
Private interviews are a common part of congressional investigations and witnesses are still required by law to tell the truth even if they’re not under oath.
Trump Jr. reached a deal last week with the Senate Judiciary Committee to avoid a public hearing slated for Wednesday. In exchange, he agreed to turn over documents and meet with lawmakers behind closed doors.
The committee will not interview Trump Jr. under oath, prompting criticism Sunday from Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
In response, Grassley claimed there was nothing strange about the arrangement.
Grassley is correct. The False Statements Act makes it a crime to “knowingly and willfully” give a false statement – written or verbal – to the federal government for a broad range of investigative or administrative matters. The falsehood must be relevant to the matter at hand, and the crime generally carries a sentence of up to five years, although it can be longer in certain circumstances.
Giving a false statement is a different crime than committing perjury – the act of lying under oath – even though the sentences and standards for conviction are similar. “False statements, while it overlaps with perjury, it also covers more territory,” Andrew Wright, associate professor at Savannah Law School and former congressional committee lawyer, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Perjury generally applies to “official proceedings” under oath, while prosecutors can invoke the False Statements Act for offenses ranging from lying on a security clearance form to deceiving an FBI agent.
The statute also applies to congressional interviews like the one Trump Jr. accepted. A court reporter will transcribe the committee interview for investigators and Trump Jr. will be warned against making false statements at the outset.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about such a meeting. “The same procedure has been used by the Judiciary Committee and other committees routinely,” Taylor Foy, Senate Judiciary Committee press secretary for Grassley, told TheDCNF.
A witness may prefer a private interview to avoid the spectacle of a public hearing, and committees may oblige to avoid a legal battle in the short term. “From the committee side, they’re trading time – avoiding a subpoena fight right now, potentially, for this opportunity to get a bite of the apple that really doesn’t cost them anything else,” Wright said.
After the interview, a committee will often come back and subpoena the witness for a public hearing anyway. “Congressional investigations tend to have that sort of quicksand effect,” said Wright. “People think that if they feed the beast, they’ll be able to sort of put an end to it, and that isn’t usually how it works if there’s congressional appetite for further investigative steps.”
Although the Senate Judiciary Committee will privately interview Trump Jr., ranking members have already made it clear that a public hearing will follow.
Besides the strategic value of a private interview, Wright emphasized that as a practical matter it makes sense for the committee to interview Trump Jr. before holding a public hearing.
“As an investigator, transcribed interviews or informal interviews would certainly be my preference before any congressional hearings on a matter,” Wright said. “You generally don’t want to go into court and not know ahead of time what the witness is going to say. Or if they go off script, you want to have a document that’s pinned them down so that you can impeach their credibility on the stand. And so the same thing is true for congressional investigations.”
Private interviews allow congressional investigators to more efficiently and thoroughly collect information because they can probe deeper, whereas public hearings limit questions to five-minute rounds. “Congressional hearings are better at presenting information than they are at discovering information,” said Wright. “It’s more like a theater presentation in the sense that people already know what their themes are, people already have a fairly good idea of what the witnesses are going to say.”
Both private interviews and public hearings are useful in congressional investigations, but in neither case are witnesses able to make false statements without violating the law.
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