Wrapping up or digging in? Robert Mueller wants to ask Donald Trump nearly four dozen questions as part of his special counsel probe into issues surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign. However, the questions leaked to the New York Times also include potential land mines about hints at a pardon for Michael Flynn, the firing of James Comey, and even the 2013 Miss Universe trip to Moscow among other Russia issues. While the president is still said to not be a target of the investigation, the questions Mueller wants to ask certainly have the potential to move him into that status:
President Trump's lawyers reportedly received several questions that special counsel Robert Mueller wants to ask the president. The questions, first revealed by the New York Times, center on whether the president obstructed justice https://t.co/OGGvdkirUL pic.twitter.com/qvJZqVBlEx
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 1, 2018
The open-ended queries appear to be an attempt to penetrate the president’s thinking, to get at the motivation behind some of his most combative Twitter posts and to examine his relationships with his family and his closest advisers. They deal chiefly with the president’s high-profile firings of the F.B.I. director and his first national security adviser, his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
But they also touch on the president’s businesses; any discussions with his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, about a Moscow real estate deal; whether the president knew of any attempt by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel to Russia during the transition; any contacts he had with Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser who claimed to have inside information about Democratic email hackings; and what happened during Mr. Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant.
The questions provide the most detailed look yet inside Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which has been shrouded in secrecy since he was appointed nearly a year ago. The majority relate to possible obstruction of justice, demonstrating how an investigation into Russia’s election meddling grew to include an examination of the president’s conduct in office. Among them are queries on any discussions Mr. Trump had about his attempts to fire Mr. Mueller himself and what the president knew about possible pardon offers to Mr. Flynn.
If this list is accurate, these don’t look like questions intended to wrap up a case against a non-target. They look like the kind of questions an investigator would use to move someone from the “subject” to the “target” list. The NYT’s Michael Schmidt points out that these are all open-ended questions, designed to get a potential witness or suspect to open up and talk at length, and Trump is well-known for doing just that. The more Trump talks, the more he might contradict what investigators already know about the details around these questions, creating numerous opportunities for perjury or obstruction of justice.
That’s the nature of those questions. The substance of the questions also show that Mueller and his team want to dig as much as they can to find potential obstruction charges. Roughly a quarter or more of the questions relate to James Comey, and they’re almost all about Trump’s state of mind surrounding his conversations with Comey before his firing, and Trump’s tweets and other public statements afterward. There are also several about Jeff Sessions and Trump’s assumption that his AG would “protect” him.
Beyond obstruction issues, Mueller also still has the core mission of his appointment in mind with regard to Trump. He will ask what Trump knew about the meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower, his contacts on the 2013 trip to Moscow, discussions during the campaign about meeting with Vladimir Putin, and more. For instance, this question suggests that Mueller hasn’t given up on Paul Manafort as a point man for potential collusion:
- What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?
This is one of the most intriguing questions on the list. It is not clear whether Mr. Mueller knows something new, but there is no publicly available information linking Mr. Manafort, the former campaign chairman, to such outreach. So his inclusion here is significant. Mr. Manafort’s longtime colleague, Rick Gates, is cooperating with Mr. Mueller.
That points out something that Trump should keep in mind, which is that even for an innocent man, this is a dangerous list of questions. Trump and his legal team don’t know what Gates, Flynn, and George Papadopoulos have already told investigators, or whether they’ve stuck to the truth. They also don’t know what others may have told Mueller’s team, and what might have been picked up by people who may have worn wires during the probe. These questions are landmines, and there may not be any easy way to pick through them without taking serious legal damage. In this case, declining to talk might be the best option, although Trump has already spoken so much in public on all of these issues that he may have already done enough damage to get him into trouble.
This is why the first piece of advice attorneys give clients is usually to keep their mouths shut and let them do all the talking.
Of course, that’s not advice Donald Trump likes to take. He demonstrated that again this morning, pronouncing himself none too pleased with the leak:
So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were “leaked” to the media. No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see…you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2018
A disgrace? Probably, yes, but by whom? Presumably Mueller has had this list in hand for months, hoping to use them directly with the president in an “interview” at some point. The leak only came out when Trump’s new legal line-up restarted negotiations with Mueller this month, a team headed up by Rudy Giuliani. If Mueller wanted to leak this for political purposes, he could have done so last year.
But why would Trump’s lawyers want to leak it, if it makes the probe look more serious than it has been characterized by the White House? That’s a good question, too. Maybe they’re hoping that the reaction in the media — and especially the conservative media — will convince Trump of what a bad idea it is for him to sit down with Mueller’s team. If that list of questions doesn’t do it, nothing will.