Editorials of The Times

Posted May 1, 2018 11:53 p.m. EDT

What Robert Mueller Knows

The 49 questions that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, hopes to ask President Donald Trump as part of the yearlong Russia investigation suggest that Mueller knows a great deal more than he’s letting on — and he hasn’t even gotten to the follow-ups yet.

After the questions, which were published by The Times on Monday, were provided to Trump’s legal team in March, John Dowd, the president’s lead personal lawyer at the time, urged him to avoid sitting for an interview with Mueller. When Trump said he intended to anyway, Dowd resigned.

Reading through the list, it’s clear why Dowd was so concerned. Federal investigators don’t like being lied to, and Trump has a marked tendency to say things that aren’t true. If he agrees to speak with Mueller’s team, he will have to answer some very basic questions about what he knew, when he knew it and what motivated some of his most shocking and inexplicable actions over the past year.

To name just a few: When and why did you decide to fire James Comey, the FBI director, who was leading the Russia investigation at the time? What did you mean when you told NBC’s Lester Holt that you fired Comey because “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”? Did you try to persuade the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to protect you from the investigation? Did you secretly promise to pardon Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who has pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his communications with the Russian ambassador?

The questions are a reminder of just how aberrant this White House has been. No prior president so openly assaulted the rule of law or undermined the integrity of the law enforcement community. In that light, Mueller’s questions also provide a measure of comfort that, amid all the chaos and tumult of this administration, career public servants in law enforcement continue to do their jobs, investigating crimes and pursuing justice. It may unnerve Trump, who has spent his life skirting the law and avoiding full accountability, but this is how the law works. Without saying a word publicly, Mueller and his team of experienced investigators are showing America how a government premised on the rule of law is supposed to function. The process may seem slow, but that is out of diligence and caution. Its fundamental purpose is truth-seeking — unlike, say, the embarrassing obfuscations of the Republican leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, who last week absolved Trump and his campaign of any wrongdoing in a 250-page report that reads more like a work of fantasy than a government investigation.

Early Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted that the leak of Mueller’s questions was “disgraceful” and that “it would seem very hard to obstruct justice for a crime that never happened!"

Wrong. Obstruction of justice is itself a federal crime — see, for example, Section 1505 of Title 18 of the United States Code — regardless of whether prosecutors can establish an underlying offense. Trump and his defenders mock it as a “process crime,” but the rule of law breaks down if people can interfere, with impunity, in law enforcement’s efforts to do justice. Don’t forget that both presidents who have faced impeachment proceedings in the past few decades, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, were accused of obstructing justice.

Anyway, Mueller appears to have at least some evidence of an underlying offense. That is the implication of about a dozen of his questions, including the most surprising of all: Was Trump aware of any efforts by his campaign, and specifically by his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, to seek Russia’s help in winning the 2016 election?

We don’t know exactly what is leading Mueller to want to ask this question of Trump, but it’s worth noting that as far back as August 2017, CNN reported that American intelligence services had intercepted communications among suspected Russian operatives discussing conversations they claimed to have had with Manafort, in which he requested their help in damaging Hillary Clinton’s election prospects. Mueller has already secured an indictment of Manafort on federal charges, including money laundering, tax fraud and making false statements, and has extracted a guilty plea from Manafort’s top aide, Rick Gates, on related charges. Manafort is fighting the charges while Gates is now cooperating with investigators.

Whatever information he has, Mueller, like any seasoned prosecutor, does not ask questions unless he already knows the answers. Whether or not Trump decides to talk to him, the rest of us will know, too, soon enough.

Netanyahu’s Flimflam on Iran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has long employed visual aids to drive home the dangers of Iran and the nuclear deal, even if those dangers are sometimes imagined.

In February, Netanyahu brandished part of a downed Iranian drone at a European security conference as a prop for his argument that Tehran and its proxies should not test his country’s resolve. In a 2012 speech to the United Nations, he used a much-ridiculed cartoon of a bomb to measure Iran’s nuclear capability, which, while advancing at the time, never reached the stage of producing a weapon.

So far, these theatrical displays have failed to stop the nuclear deal the Israeli leader despises. But Netanyahu’s latest show and tell may have greater effect.

In a televised appearance on Monday, he presented images of thousands of nuclear-related documents stolen from Iran by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, along with a giant poster proclaiming “Iran lied.” He argued that the documents proved Iranian leaders were deceptive when they insisted their nuclear program was for peaceful purposes.

It didn’t matter that the data simply reinforced what the world has long known: Iran lied about its program and hid it for years. In fact, Netanyahu confirmed what American intelligence agencies revealed in 2007: Iran had suspended the active portion of a nuclear weapons program in 2003.

That program, along with related activities that continued after 2003, is a major reason the nuclear deal was struck in the first place and why its verification provisions are the most intrusive of any arms control agreement. It also explains why those provisions need to be retained, not jettisoned.

Netanyahu did not provide any evidence that Iran had violated the deal since it took effect in early 2016. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the deal, has repeatedly judged Iran to be in compliance with its commitments, as have top U.S. security officials. Many of Israel’s past and present military and intelligence leaders also say the deal is effective and should be kept in force.

But Netanyahu remains intent on killing it. President Donald Trump is widely expected to try to do just that on May 12 by not waiving sanctions as the deal requires. Netanyahu was not leaving such an outcome to chance, however.

Netanyahu made his televised plea — in a style and format that Trump seems to prefer — days after Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, made separate visits to Washington to implore Trump to adhere to the deal negotiated with Iran by Russia, China, Britain, the United States, France and Germany.

The goal seemed to be threefold: emphasize Iranian perfidies in an effort to get Trump, with Congress’ support, to scuttle the nuclear deal; signal to Tehran’s government Israel’s ability to penetrate its deepest secrets; and flaunt a major intelligence feat by Mossad.

No matter how disingenuous it was, Netanyahu’s data dump created the illusion of fresh incrimination, which the Trump White House indulged by issuing a statement that said Iran “has a robust clandestine nuclear weapons program.” Only later did the White House correct that to read “had” a weapons program.

Israel, the United States and Gulf Arab states are right to be concerned about Iran’s growing role in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and other regional hot spots. Some Iranian leaders have called for Israel’s destruction, and the two adversaries have traded blows via proxies, cyberattacks and assassination squads since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The dangers of rising tensions in the Middle East were reaffirmed on Sunday when Israeli jets reportedly again struck Iranian targets in Syria, killing at least 16 people.

Those alarm bells make maintaining the nuclear deal even more important. Trump could work with the Europeans on a plan to address such concerns as constraining Tehran’s ballistic missile program, expanding inspections of nuclear facilities and curbing Iran’s regional adventurism. Iran isn’t the region’s only destabilizing force. Withdrawing from the nuclear deal, thus freeing Iran to resume its nuclear activities and possibly provoking other countries to follow suit, would only make things worse.

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