The Memo: Leak fuels new Mueller intrigue
Speculation that President Trump is preparing to refuse an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is on the rise after the publication of sensitive material related to the investigation.
The New York Times early Tuesday published a list of the questions that Mueller’s team wants to ask Trump during an interview — a leak that Trump slammed as “disgraceful.”
But the Times report seemed to suggest that the newspaper had received the list from a third party who, in turn, had received the questions from a member of the Trump legal team.
The careful phrasing fueled suspicions that Trump’s legal team had orchestrated the release.
Jimmy Gurulé, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, said he could see “no value in Mueller’s team disclosing this.”
Gurulé, a former assistant attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, added, “It feeds this narrative that the investigation is not being conducted fairly and independently. Who really stands to gain? It is clearly President Trump and his lawyers, since it allows them to step back and say, ‘Look, I told you they’re biased.’”
Mark Zaid, a nonpartisan Washington lawyer who specializes in national security, said that the information helps “politicize and create tangents” about Mueller’s investigation.
Zaid also posited that the question list likely came from sources friendly to Trump.
“It wouldn’t make any sense for the disclosure to come from the special counsel’s office at this time,” he said.
The Times report stated that the questions had been “read by the special counsel investigators to the president’s lawyers, who compiled them into a list. That document was provided to The Times by a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team.”
A Washington Post story later on Tuesday stated that the 49-question list had been drawn up by Trump attorney Jay Sekulow after talks with Mueller’s team, though it did not speculate as to how the information came to be released.
“So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were ‘leaked’ to the media,” the president said in his tweet. “No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see…you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!”
In fact, there were more than a dozen questions related to collusion, by some counts.
For example, the Times story revealed that Mueller’s team wanted to ask Trump about any “outreach by your campaign, including by [former campaign chairman] Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance.”
Another question concerned when the president became aware of a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower, which included the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and Manafort.
The three met with a Russian lawyer. Prior to the meeting, a go-between had told Trump Jr. that the lawyer had dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and that this was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The president’s eldest son responded, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
Experts noted that there was little that was particularly surprising in the list of questions, even as they looked askance at the president’s “no questions on collusion” claim.
“It boils down to interactions with Russia; interactions with people who had Russian interactions; or interactions with people who investigated Russian interactions,” said Justin Levitt, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration who is now a law professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.
Levitt was alluding to a number of Mueller’s questions about the president’s dealings with former FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired, and with his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
The president has in the past suggested he would give an interview to Mueller’s team. “I’m looking forward to it, actually,” he told reporters at the White House in January.
But he was outraged by the recent raids on the home, office and hotel room of his long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, reportedly to the point of being reluctant to follow through on the promise to conduct an interview.
The recent addition of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) to his outside legal team also sparked some speculation about a change in tactics.
Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, told The New York Times last week that he wants to determine if Mueller’s team is “truly objective” about the case or if they have a predisposition to favor the version of events given by Comey.
Some legal experts have suggested the legal team is trying to lay the groundwork to refuse an interview. People close to the president’s legal team insist they are acting in good faith, however. On Tuesday, Giuliani told The Washington Post that he had “a totally open mind on what the right strategy is.”
Some experts cautioned that an interview held clear perils for Trump.
“I think it is very dangerous for President Trump to agree to be interviewed,” said Gurulé. “You just have to look at this long history of President Trump making misleading or exaggerated claims. If he made false or misleading statements to investigators … those could support claims of perjury.”
Others noted that some of the speculation about the Mueller questions was overheated, given that they would be only the starting point for an interview.
“I think some people are too narrowly interpreting the list of questions as if they are exhaustive, when no doubt they are not,” Zaid said.
Zaid described his own experience of depositions: “I know when I have done numerous depositions over the years, I often extract far more information based on questions that are elicited by the answers of the witness, rather than the questions I drafted in advance.”
Meanwhile, the president continues to hold fast to his preferred line of attack.
“It would seem very hard to obstruct justice for a crime that never happened! Witch Hunt!” he tweeted on Tuesday.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.