What Mueller Wants to Ask Trump About Obstruction, and What It Means
Posted April 30, 2018 10:17 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 11:12 a.m. EDT
The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, recently provided President Donald Trump’s lawyers a list of questions he wants answered in an interview. The New York Times obtained the list; here are the questions, along with the context and significance of each. The questions fall into categories based on four broad subjects. They are not quoted verbatim, and some were condensed.
Questions Related to Michael T. Flynn, the Former National Security Adviser
— What did you know about phone calls that Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?
These questions revolve around whether Trump tried to obstruct justice to protect Flynn from prosecution. His phone calls with Kislyak are at the heart of that inquiry.
During the calls, Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to sanctions just announced by the Obama administration. But Trump’s aides publicly denied that sanctions were discussed and, when questioned by the FBI, Flynn denied it, as well. Mueller wants to know whether Flynn was operating on Trump’s behalf. Prosecutors may already know the answer: Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying and is cooperating with investigators.
— What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017, and Feb. 8-9, 2017?
In January, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius revealed Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak. Ignatius questioned whether those conversations had violated a law prohibiting private citizens from attempting to undermine American policies. In February, The Washington Post revealed the true nature of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak.
Mueller wants to know, among other things, whether Trump feared that his national security adviser had broken the law and then tried to shield him from consequences.
— What did you know about Sally Yates’ meetings about Flynn?
Yates, the acting attorney general for the first weeks of the Trump administration, twice warned the White House that Flynn was lying, and those lies made him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. No one from the White House has ever said how much Trump knew about those warnings.
— How was the decision made to fire Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?
Eighteen days after Yates’ warning, Flynn was asked to resign. The White House said that Trump lost confidence in Flynn because he had lied. But the White House has never fully explained why, after learning about the lie, officials waited so long to act.
— After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?
The Times recently revealed that, when Flynn began considering cooperating with the FBI, Trump’s lawyers floated the idea of a pardon. Mueller wants to know why.
Questions Related to James B. Comey, the Former FBI Director
— What was your opinion of Comey during the transition?
The questions about Comey relate to whether Trump fired Comey last year to shield Flynn, or anyone else, from prosecution. Trump has denied that, saying he fired Comey because of his mishandling of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
This question is important because, if Trump truly was upset about the Clinton investigation, he would have shown an early distaste for Comey.
— What did you think about Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?
The briefing revealed that American intelligence agencies had concluded that Russian operatives meddled in the election to hurt Clinton and to boost Trump. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on these conclusions and said he believes the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who denies any interference.
— What was your reaction to Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?
This question addresses documents written by a retired British spy, Christopher Steele, who said that Russia had gathered compromising information on Trump. The documents, which became known as the Steele Dossier, also claim that the Trump campaign had ties to the Russian government. Comey privately briefed Trump about these documents.
— What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Comey, and what was said?
A few weeks after his briefing, Comey was called to the White House for a private dinner. Comey’s notes say that Trump raised concerns about the Steele Dossier and said he needed loyalty from his FBI director. This question touches on Trump’s true motivation for firing Comey: Was he dismissed because he was not loyal and would not shut down an FBI investigation?
— What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Comey, and what was said?
That was a key moment. Comey testified that the president told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Trump has denied this.
— What did you know about the FBI’s investigation into Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?
Comey’s testimony publicly confirmed that the FBI was investigating members of the Trump campaign for possible coordination with Russia. Mueller wants to know what role that revelation played in Comey’s firing.
— What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.
In the aftermath, The Post reported, Trump asked the United States’ top intelligence official, Daniel Coats, to pressure Comey to back off his investigation. Mueller wants to ask Trump about his contacts with Coats as well as the CIA’s director at the time, Mike Pompeo, and the National Security Agency’s director, Michael S. Rogers. The conversations could reflect Trump’s growing frustration with Comey — not about the Clinton case, but about his refusal to shut down the Russia inquiry.
— What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Rogers, Pompeo and Coats?
It is not clear whether Mueller knows something specific about Trump’s reaction to these interviews, but the question shows that Mueller is keenly interested in how Trump responded to each step of his investigation.
— What was the purpose of your calls to Comey on March 30 and April 11, 2017?
Comey said that Trump called twice to ask him to say publicly that he was not under FBI investigation. In the second call, Comey said, the president added: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know.”
— What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?
While the White House ultimately said Comey was fired for breaking with Justice Department policy and discussing the Clinton investigation, Trump expressed no such qualms in an interview with Bartiromo of Fox Business Network. “Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you,” he said. “If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.”
— What did you think and do about Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?
In this Senate appearance, Comey described his handling of the Clinton investigation in detail. Comey was fired soon after. Mueller’s question suggests he wants to know why Trump soured.
— Regarding the decision to fire Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?
Over the past several months, Mueller has asked White House officials for the back story, and whether the public justification was accurate. He will be able to compare Trump’s answers to what he has learned elsewhere.
— What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Comey had taken the pressure off?
The day after Comey’s firing, Trump met with Russian officials in the Oval Office. There, The Times revealed, Trump suggested he had fired Comey because of the pressure from the Russia investigation.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
— What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Comey and Russia?
Shortly after firing Comey, Trump undercut his own argument when he told NBC News that he had been thinking about the Russia investigation when he fired Comey.
“I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”
— What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?
After The Times revealed the president’s private dinner with Comey, Trump responded on Twitter.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Comey appeared unworried. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said. The White House ultimately said that, no, there were no tapes.
— What did you think about Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Flynn, and what did you do about it?
After he was fired, Comey testified about his conversations with Trump and described him as preoccupied with the FBI’s investigation into Russia. After the testimony, Trump called him a liar.
— What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Comey?
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that Comey had testified falsely to Congress and suggested that the Justice Department might investigate. Trump followed up with tweets suggesting that he should be investigated for rigging an inquiry into Clinton. Such comments reinforced criticism that Trump views the Justice Department as a sword to use against his political rivals.
“...people not interviewed, including Clinton herself. Comey stated under oath that he didn’t do this — obviously a fix? Where is Justice Dept?” Trump wrote on Twitter.
— What is the reason for your continued criticism of Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?
Comey and McCabe are among Trump’s favorite targets. McCabe is a lifelong Republican, but Trump has criticized him as a Clinton loyalist because McCabe’s wife, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for office in Virginia and received donations from a Clinton ally. This question suggests that Mueller wants to know whether Trump’s criticism is an effort to damage the FBI while it investigates the president’s associates.
Questions Related to Attorney General Jeff Sessions
— What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Sessions?
Trump has criticized Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation. The Times reported that Trump humiliated him in an Oval Office meeting and accused him of being disloyal. Sessions ultimately submitted his resignation, though Trump did not accept it. Along with the next two questions, this inquiry looks at whether Trump views law enforcement officials as protectors.
— What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind?
The Times has reported that Trump told his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, to stop Sessions from recusing himself. McGahn was unsuccessful, and Trump erupted, saying he needed an attorney general who would protect him.
— Did you discuss whether Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?
Trump has spoken affectionately about past attorneys general who he said were loyal to their presidents. He cited Robert F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. as examples. “Holder protected the president,” he said in a Times interview in December. “And I have great respect for that.”
— What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?
In a twist, Mueller’s very appointment has become part of his investigation. Trump has repeatedly denounced the inquiry as a “witch hunt.” Trump blames the appointment on Sessions’ recusal.
— Why did you hold Sessions’ resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?
Trump rejected Sessions’ resignation after aides argued that it would only create more problems. The details of those discussions remain unclear, but Trump’s advisers have already given Mueller their accounts of the conversations.
— What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?
Priebus, who was Trump’s chief of staff, has said he raced out of the White House after Sessions and implored him not to resign. Mueller has interviewed Priebus and would be able to compare his answers with those of Trump.
— What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?
Again, Mueller’s investigation intersects with its own existence. The Times reported that, in June 2017, Trump ordered McGahn to fire Mueller. McGahn refused. Though Trump’s own advisers informed Mueller about that effort, Trump denied it: “Fake news,” he said. “A typical New York Times fake story.”
— What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Sessions?
Trump unleashed a series of attacks on Sessions in July.
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Campaign Coordination With Russia
— When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?
This and other questions relate to a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who offered political dirt about Clinton. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., arranged the meeting. He said he did not tell his father about it when it happened.
— What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.'s emails?
When The Times found out about the meeting, Trump helped draft a misleading statement in his son’s name, omitting the true purpose of the meeting. After The Times obtained the younger Trump’s emails, he published them on Twitter.
— During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?
The Trump Tower meeting was arranged through Russian singer Emin Agalarov, his billionaire father, Aras Agalarov, and a music promoter. Mueller is scrutinizing the nature of connections between the Agalarovs, Trump and Russian officials.
— What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?
Mueller is referring to a failed effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Sater, a business associate, proposed the idea to Cohen, the longtime personal lawyer to Trump. Emails show that Sater believed that the project would showcase Trump’s deal-making acumen and propel him into the presidency.
— What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Putin? Did you discuss it with others?
Journalists and lawmakers have uncovered several examples of Russian officials trying, through intermediaries, to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin. Senior campaign officials rejected some overtures, but Trump’s involvement has been a mystery.
— What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?
Even as the Obama administration stepped up sanctions on Russia, Trump struck a laudatory tone toward Putin.
— What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?
A portion of the Republican platform was changed in a way more favorable to Russia.
— During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
This is a key question. Trump praised the release of hacked Democratic emails and called on Russia to find others. Mueller’s investigation has unearthed evidence that at least one member of Trump’s campaign — George Papadopoulos — was told that Russia had obtained compromising emails about Clinton. But Trump has repeatedly said there was “no collusion” with the Russian government.
— What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?
This is one of the most intriguing questions on the list. It is not clear whether Mueller knows something new, but there is no publicly available information linking Manafort, the former campaign chairman, to such outreach. So his inclusion here is significant. Manafort’s longtime colleague, Rick Gates, is cooperating with Mueller.
— What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?
Stone, a longtime adviser, claimed to have inside information from WikiLeaks, which published hacked Democratic emails. He appeared to predict future releases, and was in touch with a Twitter account used by Russian intelligence. This question, along with the next two, show that Mueller is still investigating possible campaign cooperation with Russia.
— What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?
Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has testified that the Russian ambassador proposed getting Flynn in contact with Russian officials to discuss Syria. In response, Kushner said, he proposed using secure phones inside the Russian Embassy — a highly unusual suggestion that was not accepted.
— What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince?
The meeting was convened by Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. It brought Prince, an informal adviser to Trump’s team, together with a Russian investor close to Putin.
— What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Cohen in 2017?
Cohen, the lawyer, hand-delivered to the White House a peace proposal for Ukraine and Russia. This unusual bit of backdoor diplomacy is of interest because it involved a Ukrainian lawmaker who said he was being encouraged by Putin’s aides. Cohen has said he did not discuss the proposal with Trump.