Mueller keeps Russia cards close to the vest

Speculation is swirling about whether special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE is nearing the end of his Russia probe — and whether he has any evidence that President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE or his officials colluded with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.

The allegation that Trump campaign officials illegally coordinated with Moscow has been a central claim made by Democrats, as well as the focus of aggressive reporting by media outlets since Trump was inaugurated last January.

But new reports indicate that Mueller’s recent interviews pertain to whether Trump obstructed justice by firing former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyTrump rips Krugman, NYT after columnist writes GOP no longer believes in American values Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment Heavy lapses in judgment are politicizing the justice system MORE, who had been leading an investigation into Russia's election meddling.

Bloomberg reported this week that Mueller is close to finishing the investigation into obstruction of justice and CNN has reported that the special counsel has communicated to Trump’s legal team that Mueller would like to interview the president on why he fired Comey.

Mueller has interviewed most of the principles for an obstruction case, including Comey, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump poised to roll back transgender health protections Trump claims Mueller didn't speak to those 'closest' to him And the winner of the Robert Mueller Sweepstakes is — Vladimir Putin MORE, former acting attorney general Sally YatesSally Caroline YatesTrump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list Sally Yates: Barr should release Mueller report as soon as possible A question of privilege: How Trump could still gut the Mueller report MORE, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusHouse Judiciary chairman subpoenas former White House lawyer McGahn Trump snapped at McMaster for taking notes during meeting: report The Memo: Mueller's depictions will fuel Trump angst MORE, CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoMore money at the gas pump may be the price of pressuring Iran The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics Kim to meet with Putin as tensions with US rise MORE and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump claims Mueller didn't speak to those 'closest' to him It is wrong to say 'no collusion' The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? MORE, as well as dozens of White House staffers. 

The only missing piece is the president. Trump said Wednesday that he’d be willing to speak with Mueller under oath and that it could happen in the next two or three weeks.

Legal experts say Mueller will get only one interview with Trump, so any questions he has about both obstruction and collusion would have to be brought up in that meeting, regardless of whether he’s conducting parallel investigations with separate timelines.

“You only get one crack at it,” said Bill Barr, who served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush. “Trump should be the last person interviewed for both investigations.”

The recent chatter over obstruction — and not collusion — has Trump’s allies feeling optimistic that Mueller has come up empty on the Russia front.

The president’s lawyers are circulating a memo, obtained by The Hill, detailing the ways in which the administration has complied with the special counsel investigation — a document that strongly implies that the White House believes it’s time to bring the investigation to a close.

“The most transparent response in history by a president to [special counsel] inquiries,” John Dowd, an attorney for Trump, told The Hill in an email.

Dowd’s memo says the White House made more than 20 staffers available for interviews, including eight people from the general counsel’s office. In addition, 17 campaign aides and 11 outside advisers have given voluntary interviews, according to the document.

The White House says it has handed over 20,000 pages of documents to the special counsel, including more than 1,600 pertaining to Flynn and 1,200 regarding Comey. The campaign handed over orders of magnitude more documents — 1.4 million pages, according to the president’s legal team.

Trump has signaled his strategy in dealing with questions of obstruction, saying Wednesday that he was merely “fighting back” against false claims made against him.

But Trump’s critics believe Mueller has the president dead-to-rights on obstruction.

Trump has made conflicting public statements about why he fired Comey. Most notably, Trump said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt last year that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.

“Testimony under oath about the obstruction charges would be a bloodbath for Trump,” former U.S. attorney Harry Litman wrote for Lawfare this week. 

“The president has told serial lies about his conversations with Comey, whose account is in any case backed by contemporaneous evidence, and, it would appear, the testimony of Trump-camp insiders such as Reince Priebus,” Litman said. “Mueller’s team will meticulously serve up each of those lies back to Trump, forcing him either to disavow them (adding to the obstruction case) or recommit to them (adding perjury counts to Mueller’s ledger). And Trump is arrogant and easily goaded, making him a prosecutor’s dream.”

Still, some legal experts note the difficulty of pinning obstruction charges on the president. 

There are questions about how Mueller could prove Trump intended to obstruct justice without evidence of an underlying crime.

And some legal experts argue that Trump has the right to fire his FBI director for any reason he sees fit.

“I don’t think for a minute they’ll be able to bring an obstruction case against the president,” said Robert Ray, the former independent counsel for the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration. 

“Trump had a mix of reasons for firing Comey and he can explain those to Mueller. You’d never be able to prove criminal intent for an action that the president is constitutionally entitled to take for any reason or no reason at all. You may not like that, you may think it’s grounds for impeachment, but he’s the executive and no reasonable prosecutor could conclude he committed a criminal offense here.”

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But even if Mueller’s recent focus has been on obstruction, the Russia investigation remains a wild card.

The special counsel has largely avoided leaks, and Mueller has kept his collusion cards — if he has them — close to the vest.

Trump’s allies have been quick to note that none of the charges brought against Trump campaign officials so far have pertained to Russia.

The president’s former campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortPoll: Nearly half of Republicans say no one on Trump campaign committed a crime It is wrong to say 'no collusion' The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? MORE and his associate, Richard Gates, who was also on the campaign, have been charged with a litany of financial crimes dating back to before the campaign.

And Flynn and former campaign adviser George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosPoll: Nearly half of Republicans say no one on Trump campaign committed a crime George Papadopoulos urges Barr to investigate examples of 'spying' while he was campaign aide Ten post-Mueller questions that could turn the tables on Russia collusion investigators MORE have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. 

Mueller’s court filings on Papadopoulos referenced emails in which he talked about meetings with Russian officials, but there has been little reporting and no signals from the special counsel that it is preparing to bring charges on the question of illegal collusion.

That could be intentional — if Mueller is hot on the trail of a conspiracy to collude, it would be in his interests not to tip his hand to those he’s pursuing. The special counsel recently added a cyber-crimes specialist, indicating an investigation into hacked Democratic emails or Russian campaign ads could still be alive.

Flynn’s cooperation with the special counsel has to be alarming to the administration, considering he once occupied senior positions in the campaign and at the White House.

And in a stunning interview with The Washington Post this week, Papadopoulos’s fiancée, Simona Mangiante, said the former campaign adviser knows far more than has been reported. Mangiante said that Papadopoulos would go down in history as a modern day John Dean — a reference to former President Nixon’s attorney, who turned state’s evidence for Watergate prosecutors.

“That definitely suggests there is still a focus on collusion,” said John Wood, a former U.S. attorney.

Still, Wood said there are encouraging signs for the White House that the special counsel appears to be approaching its final stop.

“Prosecutors want to talk to the most senior person at the end of an investigation, so I think they’re encouraged that Mueller wants to talk,” Wood said. “Obviously, they have to prepare for every angle and be ready for whatever Mueller might throw at them. You can’t get too comfortable or take anything for granted, but there is some good news here too in terms of what this means for the White House.”