Special counsel Robert Mueller is preparing to take the next step in his investigation, without the benefit of a face-to-face meeting with Donald Trump.
On Monday Trump’s lawyers were discussing a possible interview with Mueller’s team and had begun to hash out the final sticking points, including the timing, scope and length, according to people familiar with the discussions. One person familiar with the strategy said the president’s lawyers had over the weekend sought to expand his legal team to include individuals who would prepare him for an interview. Another person familiar with the matter, however, said preparations had not yet gone that far.
But that was before the raid on attorney Michael Cohen’s office sent Trump running for the corner, and got both the White House and Trump supporters in the House chattering over schemes to fire Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Despite Trump’s initial statement that he was “looking forward to” his turn in the chair, his legal team has been screaming from Day One that Trump should not sit down across from Mueller. Trump’s lawyers have been searching for some way that Trump could turn in a written report, or respond only to a set of pre-vetted question—anything that would keep him from having to answer actual questions in real time. Trump supporters have painted the idea of having Trump talk to Mueller as a “perjury trap,” apparently on no other basis than the idea that Trump is incapable of telling the truth.
Though multiple claims have been made in an effort to generate some reason to excuse Trump from appearing, there really is no legal precedent to protect Trump from facing questioning. Not only did Bill Clinton famously make a video appearance in front of a grand jury for Ken Starr, he even sat down for face-to-face questioning from special prosecutor Robert Fiske. Giving Trump a subpoena to sit down and talk to Mueller would break no boundaries and establish no new law. But it seems that Trump, and Mueller, may be spared that occasion.
Now some sources are saying that Mueller may be able to wrap up his investigation sooner … because he’s not talking to Trump. Which seems like a very odd statement.
Now, according to two sources, Mueller’s team may be able to close the obstruction probe more quickly as they will not need to prepare for the interview or follow up on what the president says.
Being able to shut down more quickly because there is less evidence to deal with seems like a counterintuitive goal for any investigation. However, it may be that the raid on Cohen’s files produced the evidence that Mueller hoped to get from a Trump interview. Still, even if that were true, it’s hard to understand why Mueller would not try to get Trump on the record either agreeing with, or contradicting, what he’s learned from documents and other witnesses. It’s rare that a suspect in a criminal proceeding actually appear before a grand jury responsible for filing charges, but talking with Mueller seems like something that should be enforceable through a simple subpoena.
In any case, much of Mueller’s concern with Trump seems to be focused on the idea that he acted to impede the investigation.
Three sources familiar with the investigation said the findings Mueller has collected on Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice include: His intent for firing former FBI Director James Comey; his role in the crafting of a misleading public statement on the nature of a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son and Russians; Trump’s dangling of pardons before grand jury witnesses who might testify against him; and pressuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Of those four possible reasons for a finding of obstruction, the offering of pardons seems both the most damning and the item that’s been least discussed in public. It’s not clear which of the potential witnesses against Trump may have been offered a pardon or when that even may have occurred. Stories that appeared in March indicated that former Trump attorney John Dowd passed offers of pardons to both Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort.
Dowd spoke about a pardon with Manafort’s lawyer, Reginald Brown, before Manafort was indicted last October, according to the Times. The Times report did not specify exactly when Dowd spoke about a pardon with Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner. Dowd joined Trump’s legal team last summer, and Flynn pleaded guilty in December.