What Robert Mueller's questions for Donald Trump reveal about the Russia investigation
Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation began a year ago -- tasked with looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the possibility of officials in Donald Trump's campaign colluding with the Russians.Posted — Updated
With the leak Monday night of nearly 50 questions Mueller would like to ask the President as part of the investigation, it's now clear that not only has the scope of Mueller's investigation widened significantly but also that Trump, at least in Mueller's mind, has a lot to explain about his own role in all of it. The language of the leaked questions, by the way, was written by Trump's legal team, but off a list of detailed topics Mueller's team said they would like to ask about.
The leak of Mueller's questions -- which should not be treated as the totality of what he wants to ask -- also lands at a moment in which the White House remains deeply divided about whether or not Trump should sit down for a face-to-face interview with Mueller before the investigation wraps up. Trump himself has at times voiced a willingness to voluntarily sit for an interview -- I explain why I think that is here -- but his legal team has been more skeptical. The leading voice in opposition to Trump granting an interview with Mueller -- John Dowd -- left Trump's legal team in March. CNN's most recent reporting is that he is leaning away from doing an interview since federal agents raided his attorney Michael Cohen's home, office and hotel room.
The sweep of questions that Mueller is seeking to ask Trump may change the President's mind about sitting for an interview with the special counsel.
Here's how New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, who broke the story, described the nature of the questions:
"They deal chiefly with the president's high-profile firings of the F.B.I. director and his first national security adviser, his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton."
Trump, via Twitter, immediately seized on the fact that the focus of Mueller's investigation didn't appear to be on his campaign colluding with the Russians.
"So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were 'leaked' to the media," he wrote. "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!"
He followed that tweet up with this one -- a variation on a theme: "It would seem very hard to obstruct justice for a crime that never happened! Witch Hunt!."
I'm no lawyer -- sorry Mom! -- but those tweets seem like Trump missing the forest for the trees. Trump seems to think that if he and his campaign are cleared of colluding with the Russians -- and we don't know whether or not that will happen -- then he is off the hook entirely. That is, um, not so.
Take Mueller's apparent focus on the firings of former FBI director James Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn and whether those amount an attempt to obstruct the investigation.
Remember that Trump's explanation on why he fired Comey has repeatedly shifted. He has said it was because of how Comey handled himself in the 2016 election. But he has also said that it had to do with "this Russia thing" in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt. And, Trump reportedly expressed relief to a group of Russian officials in the wake of firing Comey. "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," Trump told the Russians. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
Trump could very easily be cleared of collusion -- the actual criminal activity would likely be conspiracy or obstruction -- with the Russians and found culpable of attempting to obstruct justice. Trump would have no way of knowing what Mueller knew -- or didn't know -- over the past year of the investigation. Meaning that Trump -- or someone in his inner circle -- could well have been working to throw roadblocks in front of the Mueller investigation because they simply didn't know what he would find and wanted to end and/or discredit the investigation before it got anywhere near where it is today.
Then there are these lines in the Schmidt story about other questions Mueller wants to ask Trump:
"They also touch on the president's businesses; any discussions with his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, about a Moscow real estate deal; whether the president knew of any attempt by Mr. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel to Russia during the transition; any contacts he had with Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser who claimed to have inside information about Democratic email hackings; and what happened during Mr. Trump's 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant."
That's a whole lot of ground. And it shows that Mueller is following the money. The connective tissue in all of those story lines is cash -- whether it's Trump's own, money moving through Michael Cohen or the financial dealings of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
It's not clear to me whether Trump's tweets this morning are motivated by a genuine belief that the leaked questions are somehow good for him because collusion is not the main focus or whether he simply doesn't understand that there are lots and lots of questions that Mueller wants to ask about that suggest major challenges ahead for the president and his team.
Regardless of why Trump thinks what he thinks, the main takeaway from the leaking of these questions is that the Mueller investigation is wide and broad -- and that Trump, in Mueller's mind, can shed lots of light on much of it. That is a very big deal.
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