President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he would testify under oath about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election. But now it looks like Trump’s lawyers are worried about a potential interview with special counsel Robert Mueller — and are seeking ways to avoid it.
NBC News reports that Trump’s attorneys are in initial talks with federal investigators about how a possible interview might take place. Trump’s lawyers have suggested the president could provide written answers to Mueller’s questions instead of sitting down face-to-face with Mueller’s team. They’ve also floated the idea of not having the president take part in the interview at all. The Washington Post also reports that a Trump-Mueller interview could take place within weeks.
But legal experts I spoke to doubt Mueller would settle for anything less than a sit-down with Trump. “I highly doubt that Mueller will accept written questions and answers,” Renato Mariotti, who served as a federal prosecutor from 2007 to 2016, told me in an interview. “Prosecutors are interested in a subject’s responses to detailed lines of questioning without the opportunity to have lawyers carefully craft their client’s answer.”
That means Trump may have no choice but to speak directly with federal investigators — and that could prove troublesome for a president who has problems with the truth.
“If Trump lies during this interview, he will be guilty of a felony,” Andy Wright, a professor at Savannah Law School, told me.
Mueller already knows a lot. That could spell trouble for Trump.
Trump continues to assert that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, and that he didn’t commit any crimes. That could lull him into a false sense of complacency during an interview with Mueller’s team.
And that could be a problem for Trump, as he already has trouble keeping his Russia-related comments in order.
For example, Trump originally said he fired former FBI Director James Comey because of a May 9, 2017, letter co-authored by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that advocated for Comey’s dismissal. But two days later, Trump told NBC News’s Lester Holt that he ousted Comey because of the Russia investigation.
That doesn’t bode well for Trump. Experts told me that if Mueller officially requests an interview with the president, it would suggest he feels he has a full grasp of the facts and wants to weigh what he already knows against what Trump says.
Here’s a small sample of what we already know that’s in the public domain — knowing full well that Mueller likely knows a lot more:
- In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. was offered incriminating information on Hillary Clinton that a contact of his openly described as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. emailed back, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
- Trump Jr. proceeded to attend a meeting in Trump Tower with Trump’s son-in-law and top campaign staffer Jared Kushner, Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin, a Russian-American lobbyist with links to Russian intelligence, and a Russian-American businessman who was once investigated for money laundering. (When news of all this broke in July, Trump Jr.’s story about what happened shifted three times in a matter of days.)
- Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos got a tip in April 2016 that the Russian government had “dirt” in Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” (The revelation came in a court document that revealed Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and had begun cooperating with Mueller’s team.)
- We also now know that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied about his phone calls with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition; Kushner tried to set up a secret communications channel with Kislyak; Sessions failed to disclose a meeting with Kislyak when he was required to relay all contacts he had with foreign officials; Manafort had discussed the possibility of providing private briefings to a Russian billionaire while working on Trump’s campaign; and Trump’s company explored building a Trump Tower in Moscow during the campaign.
That’s a lot Trump will have to try to explain — and do so honestly. That’s likely why Trump’s lawyers don’t want him to speak to Mueller. Trusting that a client will be able to keep his story straight and not make false statements — intentional or otherwise — during an interview with federal prosecutors is always a risky proposition, and doubly so when that client is Donald Trump.
Two members of Trump’s campaign — Flynn and Papadopoulos — have already pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators.
So for now the Trump-Mueller battle will settle around when and, more importantly, how the interview will take place. But it looks like there will likely be a Trump interview in the future — and that would be one of the bigger developments in the Russia probe yet.