According to several reports, Robert Mueller’s team is gearing up for a face-to-face interview with President Donald Trump. Legal experts say it indicates the obstruction-of-justice thread of the Russia investigation is likely nearing its end, and that the consequences could be “tragic” for Trump if he strays off script.
Trump’s word-salad approach to interviews could get him in real trouble. For that reason, Trump’s defense team is looking into side-stepping a face-to-face sit-down between Trump and Mueller by either having Trump submit written responses to questions or avoiding an interview altogether.
Mueller is overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the race in his favor. He is also said to be building an obstruction-of-justice case against Trump based on his decision to fire FBI director James Comey last May. Comey was overseeing the Russia probe at the time.
A person familiar with the matter told The New York Times on Monday that Mueller’s team is focused mainly on questions about Comey’s firing, as well as former national-security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump’s team is reportedly considering several options in response. That includes having the president submit written responses to questions, and submitting a sworn affidavit declaring his innocence and saying he did not collude with Russia. They are also looking into the possibility of avoiding an interview all together. And if Trump does sit down for a face-to-face interview, his team is reportedly seeking to limit the scope of questioning.
Written answers to questions can be “carefully drafted, edited, analyzed and re-analyzed, whereas a face-to-face interview is unpredictable,” said Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School who is an expert in criminal law. “This is especially true for Trump who resists sticking to a script and is notoriously unpredictable.”
Prosecutors began looking into whether Trump sought to obstruct justice in the days immediately following Comey’s firing and it was likely fueled, at least in part, by Trump’s own comments. Trump said on national television that “this Russia thing” had been a factor in his decision.
He also told two top Russian government officials during an Oval Office meeting one day after firing Comey that the FBI director’s dismissal had taken “great pressure” off of him.
Comey revealed, during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last June, that Trump complained to him about the Russia investigation multiple times and asked him during a private meeting last February to “let go of the bureau’s inquiry into Flynn.” Flynn was fired one day before the meeting.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December to one count of making false statements to investigators during an FBI interview in January of last year. Trump tweeted the day after Flynn’s guilty plea was unsealed that he had to fire him “because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.”
Legal experts say that if Trump knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he asked Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation, it would significantly bolster the obstruction case against him.
“I don’t think he fully appreciates the legal jeopardy he faces,” former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer, who is now the managing director at Berkeley Research Group, told Business Insider. He also emphasized the potential consequences for Trump if the interview goes south, saying it could be “tragic” for him and, potentially, his close associates if Trump strays off script or makes baseless statements.
Trump could refuse to cooperate. In that case, Mueller’s team would likely respond with a grand jury subpoena.