The weakest defense in Washington? Saying ‘I don’t recall’ – Darren Samuelsohn 06/25/2017 07:04 AM EDT


Going back to Watergate, political aides have gotten themselves in legal trouble by pretending they’ve forgotten what they did wrong.

During Watergate, President Richard Nixon urged White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to play coy in the event he was asked to give testimony. Haldeman, pictured, would later be convicted in part for perjury. | AP Photo

Some of President Donald Trump’s closest confidants seem to be suffering from an affliction common in high-stakes White House investigations: memory loss.

In his recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning his role in the unfolding Russia saga, Attorney General Jeff Sessions answered questions with some variation of “I do not recall” more than 20 times.

Amnesia is often a favorite response from witnesses in criminal and congressional investigations, and it’s often the most truthful reply — but people caught up in scandals can wind up facing perjury or other charges if prosecutors can later show they were intentionally trying to dodge tough questions.

“Simply repeating the words ‘I don’t recall’ is not a magical amulet to ward off any further trouble,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor.

Faulty memories have had a starring role in most major modern presidential scandals. Several top Richard Nixon White House aides went to prison in part for perjury after insisting they couldn’t recall details surrounding Watergate that later proved disingenuous. President Bill Clinton professed to memory lapses as he struggled to explain himself during grand jury testimony and a deposition covering his extramarital affairs that led to his impeachment in the House. And Vice President Dick Cheney’s senior aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, tried unsuccessfully to use frail memory in his 2006 trial as part of his defense over why he misled investigators looking into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson’s name to reporters.

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