Trump's presidency hangs on whether he can be honest under oath

Not surprisingly, Department of Justice special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE has notified President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE’s attorneys that he may want to interview the president as part of his investigation of alleged collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia and any related obstruction of justice.  

Depending on how Trump responds to the request and how he handles any interview (likely to be under oath), Mueller’s investigation could soon conclude without an accusation of wrongdoing against the president — or it could end the Trump presidency. 

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Mueller likely would not have made the request unless he was satisfied that he and his team now had the relevant documents and the cooperation of the key witnesses most likely to cooperate. In other words, Mueller has substantially completed his investigation of Trump’s role in the Russian collusion and obstruction except for the questions only Trump can answer.   

 

The argument for agreeing to Mueller’s request is that, as his attorneys have insisted, the president has nothing to hide and Trump is an experienced deposition witness. Trump previously said he is “100 percent willing” to talk to Mueller and proclaimed himself to be “like, very smart” and a “very stable genius.”

By that logic, all Trump has to do is show up and deftly answer Mueller’s questions and he is home free. Simple, right? 

Well, just ask former President Clinton. His videotaped grand jury interview by independent counsel Ken Starr in Monicagate, where Clinton famously asserted that the truth of his earlier statement denying that he had sex with Monica Lewinsky depended on “what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” became the basis for an article of impeachment. (The Senate ultimately acquitted him.)

If Trump agrees to an interview, he will almost certainly be asked about, among other matters, his various explanations for firing Comey and whether by doing so, Trump was trying to block an investigation of collusion with Russia.

If Trump responds that Comey was fired because he was “a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” as Trump once said, Mueller will then ask Trump to explain his other statements that, “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself” that “Trump and Russia is a made-up story” and that firing Comey relieved “great pressure” on him.

If verbal gymnast Clinton could trip himself up, what is going to happen to Trump, who seems to think only in 140 character outbursts and has an arm's-length relationship with the truth, when he has to reconcile his own seemingly contradictory statements?

His lawyers may not want to find out; indeed, no competent attorney would allow such a client to answer questions from federal law enforcement officials for fear of perjury charges. But because this particular client is the president of the United States, they have no good alternatives.

Sure, they are free to reject the request for an interview or to agree only to answer questions in writing. Almost certainly, Mueller would then issue a grand jury subpoena compelling Trump to appear and answer questions under oath.

At that point, Trump, in theory, could assert the Fifth Amendment, which would be politically disastrous, or pardon himself, which could force a constitutional crisis, or contrive to have Mueller fired (perhaps even worse than the pardon).

At the least, by refusing to be interviewed, Trump will leave the impression that he is hiding something really serious, a self-tightening noose that the Democrats will happily drape around Republican necks in the 2018 midterm elections.    

So, ultimately, Trump has little choice to appear for an interview. His attorneys may try to negotiate limits on the scope of questioning, but Mueller is unlikely to agree to restrict his questions on the obstruction of justice issues that hold the most peril for Trump.

If the Clinton testimony is any guide, the interview will be under oath, at the White House, with Trump’s own counsel present.

While the interview will likely be videotaped, it will also be covered by grand jury secrecy. In that event, the public won’t be able to watch, at least for now, the dramatic confrontation between Mueller, as purposeful and focused as a special ops leader, and Trump, the chaos president with an attention span measured in microseconds and a volatility index that would crash the stock markets. If an investigation that simply seeks the truth ends the Trump presidency, it will be quite fitting.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer and former federal prosecutor. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” (March 2018). Follow him on Twitter, @gregorywallance.