Donald Trump fancies himself a master manipulator. Aides, associates, and friends of Trump have referred to the president’s confidence to talk himself out of any problem as a reason why he was eager to speak with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In Trump’s mind, the sooner he can clear up Mueller’s questions, the quicker this Democratic-manufactured “witch hunt” of an investigation about Russian collusion and obstruction of justice can be put to bed.
The disclosure by the New York Times of what Mueller wants to ask Trump during a yet-to-be-scheduled interview sheds some light on why John Dowd, the president’s former personal attorney, believed it would be legal malpractice to allow the president to meet with Mueller’s prosecutors face-to-face. The list covers every conceivable angle of the Russia investigation: it touches on some very critical personnel decisions (“Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?”); forces Trump to explain whether he or his team ever offered pardons to witnesses as incentives to not cooperate with the inquiry (“After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?”); and whether Trump knew in advance about his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s attempt to establish a backchannel with Moscow.
Just as insightful as the questions was the buried lede in the Times story: that Mueller rejected the request by Trump’s lawyers to answer any questions he may have in a written format, where it could polished by attorneys before they were mailed to the Special Counsel’s office. No dice, Mueller responded – he wants and indeed requires Trump’s full cooperation. What Mueller wants is nothing short of a one-on-one standoff, where he can look the president in the eye and assess his body language in order to determine Trump’s state of mind during the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the tormenting of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
If Trump’s new lead counsel, Rudy Giuliani, thought that he could use his decades-long relationship with Robert Mueller to close out the investigation in a few weeks time, the large list of questions should put an end to that make-believe. Robert Mueller is on a mission to uncover truth, in depth, of what exactly occurred between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence agents during the 2016 election, what the president knew about it, and whether the president was so frightened about possible culpability that he tried to shut the investigation down.
Whether the Special Counsel subpoenas President Trump into a deposition or receives voluntary cooperation from the president, Mueller will get the answers he seeks one way or the other. The question Trump needs to ask himself is whether he is willing to challenge Mueller at the U.S. Supreme Court over the Special Counsel’s subpoena power, just as Richard Nixon challenged the Watergate prosecutor in 1974 and Bill Clinton fought Paula Jones’s civil lawsuit in 1997. We all know how those episodes ended up.