In this occasional series, we will bring you up to speed on the biggest national security stories of the week.
President Trump said Wednesday that he is willing to answer under oath questions from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — and repeated his denials that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia to meddle with the 2016 election. In an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters at the White House, Trump also spoke about whether he or anyone else sought to obstruct justice in the probe.
“You fight back, oh, it’s obstruction,” Trump said mockingly of his critics.
1. What does Mueller want, and how close is he to getting it?
Mueller and Trump’s lawyers have been talking for weeks about a possible interview with the president, and people familiar with those discussions have said it could happen in the next few weeks. Such an event could be an important step in resolving at least the obstruction of justice portion of the special counsel investigation. But getting a sitting president to sit for an interview with criminal investigators is, historically speaking, a result of some tough negotiating.
White House lawyers have taken pains to show how much they’ve cooperated with this probe, calling the degree of assistance unprecedented.
But negotiating the details of such an interview — the duration, the topics to be covered and the location — can become contentious, and having the First Client talking publicly about the issues off the cuff may create fresh headaches for Trump’s legal team.
2. Do Trump’s comments Wednesday mean that an interview will definitely happen?
There’s no guarantee, but what’s clear is Trump wants to be seen as cooperative and be seen to be willing to sit for an interview. Trump’s extemporaneous comments seemed to catch many White House staffers by surprise, however, and he did signal that he would listen to his lawyers on the subject.
From the early days of the investigation, which the president has called a witch hunt, Trump has maintained his innocence and expressed a desire for the probe to end as soon as possible. One way to speed the whole process toward a conclusion would be to sit for an interview — if prosecutors are satisfied with his answers.
3. Why does the president insist any interview he gives will be under oath?
This is a political point he’s making, not a legal one. The president has repeatedly made the point that when Hillary Clinton was interviewed by the FBI at the end of the probe into her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, she was not under oath.
He and other Republicans make this point to underscore what they believe are the kid gloves Clinton was treated with in that case. As a legal matter, it’s irrelevant. FBI interviews are not typically conducted under oath, but it is still a crime to lie to the FBI. So when Clinton testified, if prosecutors had decided she lied, she could have been charged with a crime. And when and if Trump is questioned, he will face the same legal risks whether or not he is under oath.
4. What will Mueller do after he interviews Trump?
That is the billion-dollar question, and the answer depends a lot on what the president says in the interview and whether Mueller believes he has been truthful. But interviewing the president is one of the last steps, at least in terms of an obstruction investigation. So after the interview, Mueller could have a decision to make about whether he believes he has a criminal case against anyone regarding obstruction.
It is less clear, though, if a Trump interview would signal Mueller is nearing the end of the investigation into possible coordination between agents for Russia and any Trump associates during the election campaign. That’s a more far-reaching probe involving more people, with an additional X-factor: Mueller could still find new witnesses or information.