When even Barack Obama’s second-in-command is telling you you’d be a fool to do the interview, don’t do the interview. But what choice does Biden have? He’d like to encourage Trump to talk, of course, but it’s so obviously a bad idea from the president’s perspective that even a motivated Democrat can’t formulate a passable B.S. argument that it’d be in Trump’s interest to do so. I’ve written multiple posts about how stupid it would be to do an interview; Ed chimed in with another yesterday, springboarding off the NYT story about how POTUS’s lawyers are trying to talk him out of it. The closest thing I’ve seen to any commentator claiming that it’d be worth doing is anti-Trump troll Evan McMullin insisting, obnoxiously, that only a man with something to hide would think to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege. Now that the possible 2020 Democratic nominee is onboard with the “don’t talk” strategy, I think we can declare de facto unanimity. Basically everyone thinks Trump shouldn’t talk.
The question is how politically painful it might get if he tells Mueller no. “PRESIDENT REFUSES INTERVIEW WITH SPECIAL COUNSEL” is a bad headline since, a la McMullin, many will derive from it that Trump must be hiding something. But that’s okay. A lot of headlines zoom by in the course of the week and voters have short memories. But what if Mueller insists on hauling Trump before the grand jury? Trump would fight that subpoena but there’s no telling how it might turn out in court. If Mueller wins and his team puts Trump on camera at the White House, we may end up with the spectacle of the president serially invoking his privilege against self-incrimination in response to questions. Imagine the cable news coverage that week. Imagine the Democratic campaign commercials that would result. Voters’ memories might be a little longer if they watch Trump take the Fifth a thousand times in ads before election day. Which makes me wonder: What would Mueller do if Trump’s lawyers communicated to Mueller that he won’t do an interview and won’t answer questions if subpoenaed? Would he still seek to subpoena POTUS purely in the name of humiliating him by putting him on camera and forcing him to invoke the Fifth? Or would he accept a written statement of Trump’s intentions not to testify and drop the subpoena idea? I just don’t know.
By the way, here’s a fun bit from the very end of yesterday’s NYT piece:
Mr. Cobb had told the president and the public that the Mueller inquiry would be over by the end of 2017, or soon after. But a month into 2018, it remains unclear when Mr. Mueller will wrap up the bulk of his work.
Privately, people close to the president have conceded that assuring Mr. Trump that the investigation would end by a certain date was primarily aimed at keeping him from antagonizing Mr. Mueller on his Twitter feed or in interviews.
I never understood the logic of that. Why lie to him about Mueller wrapping up to try to keep him calm when you know that he’ll eventually realize it’s a lie and then be even angrier? Maybe it’s blind hope at work. If Ty Cobb and John Dowd and Trump’s other attorneys play for time, there’s a chance that Mueller will surprise everyone by finishing sooner than expected. A very small chance, but if you can delay a constitutional crisis by convincing POTUS that he won’t need to endure the Mueller probe much longer, you take that chance.
When I say “very small,” though, I mean it. Wired reporter Garrett Graff counts no fewer than five separate threads to Mueller’s Russiagate probe based on publicly known evidence, which is why Trey Gowdy et al. keep downplaying the significance of the Nunes memo. At most, that touches on one of the threads. What about the other four? Ironically, the only thread that Graff sees as potentially near its end is the one tied to Trump himself — the obstruction inquiry. Quote:
There’s fresh reason to believe that this is an active criminal investigation; lost amid the news of the Nunes memo on Friday was a court ruling in a lawsuit where I and a handful of other reporters from outlets like CNN and Daily Caller are suing the Justice Department to release the “Comey memos”: The ruling held that, based on the FBI’s private testimony to the court—including evidence from Michael Dreeben, one of the leaders of the special counsel’s office—releasing the memos would compromise the investigation. “Having heard this, the Court is now fully convinced that disclosure ‘could reasonably be expected to interfere’ with that ongoing investigation,” the judge wrote in our case…
While parts of the case will likely unfold and continue for years, particularly if some defendants head for trial, Mueller has in recent weeks been interviewing senior and central figures, like Comey and Sessions. He’s also begun working to interview President Trump himself. Given that standard procedure would be to interview the central figure in an investigation last—when all the evidence is gathered—it seems likely that such interest means that Mueller is confident he knows what he needs to know for the obstruction case, at least.
It’s smart of Mueller to deal with obstruction first. It’s surely the simplest and most straightforward part of the investigation, in which case it’s worth dispensing with it up front. And if Trump’s going to be charged, he and the country deserve to know that as soon as possible. A drawn-out obstruction probe that placed his presidency under a cloud for years would be intolerable. Plus, if — if — Mueller ends up not charging him, Trump will be so relieved about being personally vindicated that he may back off and leave Mueller alone to pursue the other four threads. There’s no way POTUS would stand by for months on end while Mueller pursues Russian contacts among his campaign aides, money laundering by Manafort and his cronies, etc, if Trump himself still hasn’t been cleared. He’d end up trying to fire Mueller before that. But if Mueller gives him a clean bill of health? Then he might have free rein to continue the probe. One way or the other, it’s best to deal with the obstruction part right away, for Trump, for the public, and for Mueller himself.