The saga over whether President Donald Trump will agree to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller has now stretched on for nearly seven months.
And people close to the president are still telling the New York Times that Trump really, really wants to do the interview — honest.
Citing “three people briefed on the matter,” Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman reported Wednesday that Trump has “pushed his lawyers in recent days to try once again to reach an agreement” with Mueller. They add: “Mr. Trump has told advisers he is eager to meet with investigators to clear himself of wrongdoing.”
Now, it’s certainly possible that Trump will at some point agree to be interviewed. After all, if he refuses, he could well be subpoenaed by Mueller and have to do the interview anyway. But the description of Trump as “eager” to be interviewed certainly sounds bizarre considering what’s happened over the past seven or so months of this discussion.
Trump certainly wants people to think he’s eager to be interviewed, because he’s said as much publicly. He’d “100 percent” rebut Comey’s accusations under oath, he said in June 2017. He was “looking forward” to the interview, he said this January. “Nobody wants to speak more than me,” he said in May.
Yet he and his team have constantly delayed, obfuscated, and refused to actually agree to do it — offering a shifting series of purported explanations that look a whole lot like excuses.
Meanwhile, Trump has only escalated his attacks on the Mueller probe, and just hours before the publication of the Times story, he tweeted that “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted” and that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.”
A timeline of Trump’s excuses for not agreeing to do the Mueller interview
Mueller first made an official request for an interview with Trump around January 2018, according to a leaked letter from Trump’s lawyers. And toward the end of that month, Trump said publicly that he was “looking forward” to doing the interview — which he said would be “under oath,” and which he expected to happen in the next two or three weeks.
Then the excuses started coming.
The first story was that Trump would really love to do it, but the problem was that his lawyers were telling him not to. The Times reported this back in early February, citing “four people briefed on the matter” (i.e., Trump’s team):
This story, of Trump supposedly really wanting to do the interview and his lawyers being desperate to stop him, played a central role in the media narrative over why his lawyer John Dowd exited his team in March. (The source, again, is “a person briefed on the matter.”)
In April, Trump’s team found a new excuse. The Times reported that just as Trump’s legal team was about to make a new proposal to Mueller about the interview, they learned of the FBI raiding Michael Cohen’s residence and office. The raids allegedly made Trump lose trust in the process. (This is all according to, once again, a “person briefed.”)
Once Rudy Giuliani came on board as Trump’s lawyer in late April, the excuses started to come from him on the record, rather than just anonymous briefed persons.
In May, the problem was that Trump was just too busy planning for the North Korea summit, Giuliani told the Associated Press:
By early July, there was a new objection — Trump wanted Mueller to show evidence that he’d committed a crime before he’d agree to be interviewed, Giuliani told the Times.
By late July, Giuliani’s new line was that Trump would really love to be interviewed — but, minor detail, he wanted the questioning to focus only on collusion, not obstruction of justice.
And by Wednesday night, we’d returned to what the Times reported six months ago — Trump wants to do the interview and in fact is downright pushing for it, according to — you guessed it — “three people briefed on the matter.”
The leaks about the interview back-and-forth seem to have come entirely from Trump’s team
An interview would pose immense legal and political peril for the president, who has frequently lied about matters Mueller is investigating. If Trump were to make provably false statements to Mueller, that could be grounds for impeachment.
But the question of whether to do the interview may actually not be up to Trump — if he were to refuse to be interviewed, Mueller could try to subpoena him.
So with the specter of a potential subpoena battle hanging over everything, the president’s lawyers and Mueller’s team have exchanged several proposals for what this interview would cover and how it would be conducted.
But practically everything that’s been reported about the details of these supposed negotiations appears to have been put out by Trump’s team — raising obvious questions about its reliability and accuracy.
Mueller’s operation is widely viewed as leakproof. Trump’s lawyers, meanwhile, have been positively loquacious, chatting with reporters from top media outlets regularly about what they claim is going on during these discussions — often in a manner that serves Trump’s interests.
Even with primary source documents, we’re getting a selective view. The Times published a list of 49 questions Mueller’s team supposedly told Trump’s team that they wanted to ask in the interview. But it later emerged that Mueller’s team had actually listed 16 subject areas for the questioning, and that Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow had restructured that into 49 questions. (Naturally, Trump’s team then used Sekulow’s longer list to complain that Mueller wanted to ask about too many things.)
The bigger picture is that during seven months of this two-sided discussion over a Trump-Mueller interview, we’ve basically just been hearing one side’s version of what’s happening in a two-sided discussion — Trump’s side. And you should keep that in mind as you read coverage of it.