- Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has reportedly broached the subject of interviewing President Donald Trump with his lawyers.
- Trump’s defence team is looking into side-stepping a face-to-face sit-down between Trump and Mueller’s team by either having Trump submit written responses to questions or avoiding an interview altogether.
- Legal experts say the news indicates that the obstruction-of-justice thread of the Russia investigation is likely nearing its end, and that the consequences could be “tragic” for Trump if he strays off script.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is in talks with President Donald Trump’s legal defence team about interviewing him as part of the Russia investigation, multiple media outlets reported Monday.
Mueller is overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the race in his favour. He is also said to be building an obstruction-of-justice case against Trump based on his decision to fire FBI director James Comey last May. Comey was overseeing the Russia probe at the time.
A person familiar with the matter told The New York Times on Monday that Mueller’s team was focused mainly on questions about Comey’s firing as well as former national-security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump’s legal team – which consists of personal defence lawyers John Dowd and Jay Sekulow and White House lawyer Ty Cobb – has been strategising about how to approach a possible interview with Mueller since former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted in October, NBC News reported. Mueller’s team first brought up the possibility of interviewing the president when they met with his lawyers in late December, according to The Washington Post, but a formal request has not yet been made, nor a date set.
Trump’s team is reportedly considering several options in response. They include having the president submit written responses to questions and submitting an affidavit declaring his innocence and saying he did not collude with Russia. They’re also looking into the possibility of avoiding an interview altogether. And if Trump does sit down for a face-to-face interview, his team is reportedly willing to agree to that only with certain parameters in place that limit the scope of questioning.
Trump’s ‘word-salad approach to interviews could get him in real trouble’
Legal experts say it’s normal for defence lawyers to be cautious about an in-person interview, particularly with a client such as Trump, who has a tendency to speak off the cuff.
Written answers to questions can be “carefully drafted, edited, analysed and re-analysed, whereas a face-to-face interview is unpredictable,” said Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert in criminal law. “This is especially true for Trump who resists sticking to a script and is notoriously unpredictable.”
“His word-salad approach to interviews could get him in real trouble in a Mueller interview if he says something that turns out to be a deliberate lie,” he added. “If I were one of his lawyers, I would insist on a written interview and refuse the in-person interview at all costs.”
Former federal prosecutor and longtime white-collar defence lawyer Patrick Cotter floated the possibility that reports of a possible Mueller-Trump interview could be the result of “a political, not legal calculation” from Trump’s lawyers.
“Trump’s attorneys may feel that an interview will create positive press” or be appreciated by his supporters, or that “the negative repercussions of appearing to refuse to cooperate are too damaging,” he said.
Longtime former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti echoed that point, saying that defence attorneys would typically tell prosecutors that their client declined to be interviewed. If their client was subpoenaed, they would counsel him to take the Fifth Amendment, because a defence lawyer would be unwilling to let a client under investigation and facing possible criminal liability speak to a prosecutor without an agreement that protected their statements.
But in this case, “for political reasons, Trump’s attorneys appear to be unwilling to take the Fifth or refuse to cooperate,” Mariotti said.
Prosecutors began looking into whether Trump sought to obstruct justice in the days immediately following Comey’s firing, and it was likely fuelled, at least in part, by Trump’s own comments. Though the White House had initially said Comey was dismissed because of the way he handled the FBI’s investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Trump later said on national television that “this Russia thing” had been a factor in his decision.
He also reportedly told two top Russian government officials during an Oval Office meeting one day after firing Comey that the FBI director’s dismissal had taken “great pressure” off him.
Comey added – during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June – that Trump complained to him about the Russia investigation multiple times and asked him during a private meeting in February 2017 to let go of the bureau’s inquiry into Flynn. Flynn was fired one day before the meeting.
He pleaded guilty in December to one count of making false statements to investigators during an FBI interview in January 2017. Trump tweeted the day after Flynn’s guilty plea was unsealed that he had to fire him “because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.”
Legal experts said at the time that if Trump knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he asked Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation, it would significantly bolster the obstruction case against him.
‘I don’t think he fully appreciates the legal jeopardy he faces’
Reports that Mueller wants to interview Trump show “that at least part of the investigation is nearing the end,” said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer, who is now the managing director at Berkeley Research Group. “The president is clearly the last, or one of the last people, an investigator would like to question.”
He also emphasised the potential consequences for Trump if the interview goes south, saying it could be “tragic” for him and, potentially, his close associates if Trump strays off script or makes baseless statements.
Although Trump’s lawyers will push hard to either submit written answers to questions or avoid an interview altogether, it’s unlikely Mueller’s team will agree to forgo a face-to-face sit-down. It’s also possible that Trump may overrule his lawyers’ advice, Ohlin said, because he “feels he has nothing to hide, which is a dangerous belief for someone in his position. I don’t think he fully appreciates the legal jeopardy he faces.”
Trump said last year that he would be open to sitting down with Mueller’s team. And when a reporter asked him on Saturday whether he would meet with investigators if they requested it, Trump said there was “no collusion” and “no crime.” He also said, “Everybody tells me I’m not under investigation.”
Trump could theoretically refuse to cooperate. In that case, Mueller’s team would likely respond with a grand jury subpoena.
“I doubt the president can avoid answering questions in some fashion, even if not before a grand jury,” Cramer said.
Ohlin largely agreed, and added that even if Trump refused, it “would look really bad – like he has something to hide. But if he does refuse the interview, I would expect him to accompany his refusal with a no-holds-barred attack on the legitimacy of Mueller and his investigation.”
Cotter said that Mueller seeking to interview Trump might not necessarily prove the obstruction case is close to wrapping up. “However, prosecutors usually would rather (if they have a choice) interview targets after they have most of the potential evidence.”
He added: “It is then that they have the best chance of knowing what questions to ask, and of catching a witness in a lie.”
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