Trump Waffles on His Vow to Grant Mueller an Interview Under Oath
Posted January 10, 2018 10:42 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2018 10:49 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declined on Wednesday to commit to being interviewed by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating whether his campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election, backing off his statement last year that he would be willing to talk to Mueller under oath.
“I’ll speak to attorneys,” Trump said during a news conference with Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway, when asked whether he would agree to an interview. “We’ll see what happens.”
That answer was a marked change from June, when Trump defended his firing of the FBI director, James B. Comey, denying that it was related to his handling of the Russia investigation, and said he would be “100 percent” willing to give a sworn statement to Mueller.
It came as the president’s advisers have been discussing whether Trump should submit to what would be an extraordinary but not unprecedented instance of a president being interviewed by a prosecutor investigating him for wrongdoing.
Trump also repeated his criticism of Mueller’s inquiry as a “witch hunt” and the investigations being pursued by congressional committees as a “Democrat hoax.” In a Twitter post, he referred to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the Senate committee conducting an investigation into Russian interference, as “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein.”
“For 11 months, they’ve had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government, and it has hurt our government,” Trump said. “It’s a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election.”
The president was angry at Feinstein in particular for releasing a transcript of Senate testimony by one of the founders of the firm that produced a salacious and largely unsubstantiated dossier outlining a Russian effort to aid the Trump campaign and he demanded that Republicans “finally take control” of the investigations.
Also on Wednesday, Senate Democrats released an extensive report concluding that Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election fit into a nearly two-decade pattern of meddling with governments around the world, and charging that Trump himself had hindered the U.S. response to a serious national security threat.
“Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president,” the report asserts.
Trump, in his remarks, repeated his often-stated assertion that he has essentially been cleared of colluding with Russia. “It has been determined that there’s been no collusion — and by virtually everybody,” he said. “When they have no collusion, and nobody’s found any collusion at any level, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview.”
In fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee and its House counterpart have not reached a conclusion on that question, which Mueller is also believed to be exploring, along with whether the president or his team obstructed justice in firing Comey.
The Democratic report on Russian interference looked at efforts of the government of President Vladimir Putin in 19 countries, and describes misinformation campaigns, the funding of far-right political causes and the manipulation of energy supplies long before 2016 in an attempt to glean lessons for U.S. officials considering how to counteract similar efforts here.
In total, the report offers more than 30 recommendations to safeguard the country’s electoral process and to work with allies, primarily in Europe, to establish new standards to address these types of threats. They include new sanctions to punish states that initiate cyberattacks on elections or critical infrastructure, an international summit meeting centered on such threats, an allied commitment of mutual defense against cyberattacks, as well as forcing social media companies to disclose the sources of funding for political ads.
The document begins by calling on Trump to “assert presidential leadership” to establish a governmentwide response to the Russian efforts, including setting up an interagency center modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center to coordinate the U.S. response to threats and policy related to their deterrence. And it argues that merely investigating what the Russians did in 2016 will be insufficient in protecting against future attacks, given their persistence.
Overall, the report argues that Putin’s rise and hold on power in Russia has depended on the use of force and the undermining of institutions at home and abroad. It points to successful actions taken by European nations, including Germany and Nordic countries, as models for counteracting Russian tools like disinformation and hacking.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who commissioned the report, said it was not the investigations into Russia’s meddling but the president’s own inaction in the face of Moscow’s brazen attack that was harming the country.
“While President Trump stands practically idle, Mr. Putin continues to refine his asymmetric arsenal and look for future opportunities to disrupt governance and erode support for the democratic and international institutions,” he said.
U.S. spy agencies have concluded that Putin directed a multifaceted campaign using hacking and propaganda to try to sway the 2016 presidential election against the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and, eventually, in favor of Trump.
Trump’s response to those findings has varied. After Congress overwhelmingly passed new sanctions in August retaliating against Russia over a range of issues including the election interference, Trump was forced to sign the measure into law despite his own objections. In November, after speaking with Putin, Trump said he believed that the Russian leader was sincere in his denials of interfering with the 2016 race. But on Wednesday, Trump used Twitter and the news conference with Solberg to once again dismiss the Russia investigations as a politically motivated farce.
“There was no collusion, everybody including the Dems knows there was no collusion, & yet on and on it goes,” he wrote on Twitter. “Russia & the world is laughing at the stupidity they are witnessing.”
In sidestepping the question of whether he would submit to an interview with Mueller, the president pointed to the circumstances surrounding the FBI interview of Clinton in the investigation of her use of a private email server.
“She wasn’t sworn in; she wasn’t given the oath; they didn’t take notes; they didn’t record,” Trump said. “That is perhaps ridiculous, and a lot of people looked upon that as being a very serious breach — and it really was.”
Clinton’s interview was a standard one for the FBI, which typically does not place people under oath because lying to the agency is a crime, and it rarely records voluntary interviews. The most famous time a sitting president was interviewed by a special prosecutor was 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton, via closed-circuit television from the White House, testified for four hours under oath before a federal grand jury convened by Kenneth W. Starr.
His answers, including defending his assertion that he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, led to a damning report by Starr and prompted his impeachment by the Republican-led Congress on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.