President Donald Trump has remained true to form on whether he would agree to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller over alleged campaign collusion with Russia and possible obstruction of justice.
When pressed by reporters at various times, Trump has responded: “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe.”
“We’ll see what happens,” he told reporters on Jan. 10.
Supporters view Trump’s characteristic shifting stances as yet another example of his ability to leave everyone guessing while keeping his opponents off balance. Detractors see them as ammunition for assertions that the president is unstable.
Mueller, who has indicted four former Trump aides since October (two have already pleaded guilty), hasn’t said for sure that he will interview the president. Among those charged are former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump lawyers, however, have already begun negotiating with his staff regarding possible formats for him to provide information, as first reported by NBC News. These potential formats range from answering written queries to submitting to direct questioning.
More broadly, some of Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill recently urged him not to participate at all in the investigation. This stance is at odds with the cooperation pledged by White House lawyers and other Trump aides — not to mention the president’s own assertions that he’ll play ball because he’s got nothing to hide.
Robert Ray, a former top investigator during the Whitewater probe of President Bill Clinton, said agreeing to be interviewed by Mueller would carry huge risks for Trump.
“Any defense lawyer’s position is, ‘Why would I want to subject my client to an interview with the FBI?’” Ray told The Hill on Jan. 12. (Mueller is a former FBI chief but his investigation is not affiliated with the agency.)
If Mueller does question Trump, the special prosecutor would likely focus on why the president fired former FBI Director James Comey last May.
Ray’s caution has historical relevance in the context of recent presidential history. Clinton’s claim during a deposition that he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky led to his December 1998 impeachment on charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Of course, he remained in office after the Senate failed to convict him of the charges.
If Mueller does question Trump, the special prosecutor would likely focus on why the president fired former FBI Director James Comey last May. At the time, Comey was leading the probe looking into potential Russian interference during the November 2016 election.
Mueller would also almost certainly ask Trump whether he knew anything, during or after the presidential campaign, about the alleged actions of his former aides now under indictment. He is also expected to seek information on what, if anything, Trump knew about Flynn’s ties to Russia when he named the general his top national security aide nine days after winning the Nov. 7 election.
If Trump refuses to answer questions, Mueller could try to force his testimony via a grand jury subpoena, though presidents from Richard Nixon to Clinton have claimed that executive immunity shields them from having to answer subpoenas.
But is it going to happen? Trump’s most recent public statement on the matter was cryptic and open to competing interpretations. Calling it “unlikely” that he would speak with Mueller, Trump said: “When they have no collusion, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview.”
Trump’s statement could mean he considers it unlikely that Mueller will need to interview him — or that it is unlikely that he would agree to be interviewed should the special prosecutor ask.
For his part, Mueller told Trump’s lawyers as recently as last month that he would probably want to question the president.
“I think that he’s going to be fair… There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair.”
Neither Mueller nor three congressional committees probing the affair have concluded, despite Trump’s frequent claims to the contrary, that there was no collusion between Russia and his campaign during the White House race. And Mueller has already defied White House aides’ predictions that his investigation, now entering its ninth month, would have ended by now.
“I’d be embarrassed if this is still haunting the White House by Thanksgiving and worse if it’s still haunting him by year end,” White House lawyer Ty Cobb said last August.
Then there's the attorney general question. Some conservative Republican lawmakers believe Trump might have been spared the problems Mueller’s probe now poses had Attorney General Jeff Sessions not recused him from the Trump-Russia investigation last March. Sessions' recusal led Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller the special counsel.
If Sessions was replaced by Trump, a new attorney general could fire Mueller or take other steps to short-circuit the investigation. But replacing Sessions would subject Trump to fierce partisan attacks from Democrats and likely prompt blowback from some GOP leaders.
Meanwhile, Trump has walked a careful line — declining to criticize Mueller directly while repeatedly denigrating the special counsel’s probe as “a witch hunt” pushed by bitter Democrats.
“I hope that he’s going to be fair,” Trump said last month. “I think that he’s going to be fair… There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair.”
James Rosen received the 2017 Military Reporters and Editors Association’s James Crawley Award for his Pentagon coverage and earlier received two National Press Club awards for political reporting. His novel "High Hand," now in its second printing, revolves around a billionaire Republican presidential nominee with secret ties to the Kremlin.