“Lawyers for President Trump have advised him against sitting down for a wide-ranging interview with the special counsel,” the Times tells us, citing four people familiar with the situation. “His lawyers are concerned that the president, who has a history of making false statements and contradicting himself, could be charged with lying to investigators.”
Buried in this is a hint at an important concession. It is likely Trump’s lawyers don’t simply fear Trump might lie to investigators because he helplessly cannot refrain from doing so even about trivial matters, but also that he might feel he actually has reasons grounded in self-preservation to lie to them — because he has something important to cover up.
In an interview with me, Bob Bauer, the White House counsel under Barack Obama, suggested lines of inquiry Mueller might pursue that could lead Trump’s lawyers to worry he might lie. Bauer noted that Mueller would ask Trump what he knew and when about the meeting Donald Trump Jr. held at Trump Tower to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia.
Bauer suggested that Trump might tell investigators, “I never talked to Don Jr. about the meeting at Trump Tower,” when “in fact there may be evidence he knew about it before the Russians ever set foot on American soil,” Bauer said.
Bauer added that Mueller’s investigators would likely press Trump on what he knew and when about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition, conversations about which Flynn lied to the FBI — and about what Trump knew about those lies to the FBI, as well. “When the FBI came to ask the national security adviser about this, for weeks nobody told the president?” Bauer asked rhetorically.
Questions about obstruction
Then there’s obstruction of justice. Mueller would have to establish that Trump acted with “corrupt intent” in trying to derail the probe. There is a wealth of lines of inquiry here. He’d ask why Trump directed his White House counsel to urge his attorney general not to recuse himself and raged at Jeff Sessions’s failure to protect Trump from the probe. Why Trump demanded FBI Director James B. Comey’s loyalty and pressed him to drop the probe into Flynn. Why Trump fired Comey when that loyalty didn’t materialize. Why Trump wrote an unsent letter firing Comey that reportedly mentioned the Russia probe in the first sentence. Why Trump ordered the firing of Mueller and only backed down after his White House counsel threatened to quit.
Trump has denied some of these things happened. But now he will be getting questioned about them under penalty of perjury. And while Trump’s lawyers may fear he will lie about them, they also likely fear he might actually reveal his true motivations behind these actions without meaning to. While corrupt intent is difficult to prove, this inquiry isn’t just about establishing whether Trump broke the law, but also whether he committed serious misconduct that could be deemed impeachable. Such an interview could go a long way toward doing that, making it a minefield.
Indeed, buried in the Times article is a revelation that gives away the game: Trump’s lawyers want him to resist an interview by Mueller because they believe that in firing Comey, the president “acted within his constitutional authority and cannot be questioned about acts that were legal.” (Emphasis mine.) They want to gamble on Mueller subpoenaing Trump, after which the courts would presumably decide whether Trump can actually be questioned about those matters. But the bottom line is that this is the questioning they want to avoid.
The public White House spin on all this is that they just want to avoid a Mueller “perjury trap,” in which Trump is baited into lying about something trivial. But this is very likely misdirection, because there are all sorts of very consequential matters (such as obstruction) that Mueller can ask Trump about, and as the Times piece shows, Trump’s lawyers are actually eager to avoid that questioning.
Still, this spin hints at the broader strategy to come, especially when viewed with Trump’s continuing attacks on the FBI and his use of the Nunes memo to delegitimize the whole investigation. Trump may be laying the groundwork to use that delegitimization as a pretext to avoid a sit-down with Mueller — why should he submit to an interview when the probe is corrupt to its core?
“It creates a rationale for declining the interview,” Bauer told me. “The juxtaposition of these conversations about the interview and these escalating attacks — one could see them as connected.” Indeed, one could.
* WHAT HAPPENS IF TRUMP BLOCKS DEM REBUTTAL? Last night the House Intelligence Committee voted to release Demoratic Rep. Adam Schiff’s rebuttal to the Nunes memo, and Trump now has to decide whether to authorize it. If he doesn’t:
If Mr. Trump tries to block the Democratic memo’s release, House rules allow Democrats to seek a closed-door vote of the full House of Representatives to override the president. With some Republicans now arguing for its release, there is a possibility that the House could override the president’s decision in a rare rebuke to his authority.
The fact that it is even possible Republicans would feel pressure to release the Democrats’ corrective over Trump’s objections shows what a fiasco the Nunes charade has been.
* A SHOWDOWN OVER BANNON: The Post reports that Stephen K. Bannon may not show up to a scheduled interview with the House Intel Committee today:
A person familiar with Bannon’s plans said he would not appear Tuesday because the White House and the House counsel have not come to an agreement about whether Bannon is covered by executive privilege, as the White House insists. This person said, however, that Bannon will meet with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III before the middle of the month and will answer his questions with no restrictions.
In other words, the White House can only keep Bannon from spilling for so long.
* REPUBLICANS PANIC ABOUT SPECIAL ELECTION: Politico reports that Republicans are pulling out all the stops to stave off a loss in the March special election for a House district outside Pittsburgh:
By the end of the weekend, Republicans were outspending Democrats on TV by a ratio of nearly 5-to-1. … With Republicans already deeply anxious about the midterms, a loss in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which Trump won by 20 percentage points, would show that the party is vulnerable even in deep conservative territory and that a political bloodbath could be in the making.
Yes, though even if Democrat Conor Lamb loses in a close race, that also bodes very badly for the GOP in the midterms.
* TRUMP’S LAWYERS TELL HIM PROBE IS WINDING DOWN: The Times reminds us that Trump’s lawyers have told him the Mueller probe would be over by now, reports this additional nugget:
A month into 2018, it remains unclear when Mr. Mueller will wrap up the bulk of his work. Privately, people close to the president have conceded that assuring Mr. Trump that the investigation would end by a certain date was primarily aimed at keeping him from antagonizing Mr. Mueller on his Twitter feed or in interviews.
The danger this sets up, of course, is that as the investigation grinds on, it becomes more likely that Trump will melt down and try to quash or constrain it.
* DON’T PANIC ABOUT MARKET SLIDE: CNN explains why you shouldn’t panic about the sharp drop in the markets:
There’s no talk of recession among economists. The U.S., unemployment is at a 17-year low. Average hourly wages went up last month the most in eight years. Consumer and business confidence are near record levels. That counts for a lot more than a few days of losses on Wall Street.
Of course, Trump has repeatedly held up the markets as proof of the explosive prosperity of the Trump Economy, so …
* WE’RE HEADED FOR ‘DOWNSHIFT IN GROWTH’: Paul Krugman steps back from the market slide to assess the economy and notes that we’re nearing full employment, which is good news but could also limit future economic growth:
What the data say, I’d argue, is that at the very least America is heading for a downshift in its growth rate … growth in the U.S. working-age population, especially in prime working years, has slowed to a crawl, while productivity growth has been disappointing. Together, these factors suggest an economy likely to grow only half as fast as Trump promises.
Krugman adds that it’s possible the market drop portends something worse, and, if so, “rest assured that we’ll have the worst possible people on the case.”
* AND TRUMP SET HIMSELF UP: Politico’s Ben White explains how Trump’s boasting about the markets, combined with its sharp drop, have left him in an extremely precarious position:
It arrived amid growing concern that an economy juiced by a massive corporate tax cut, and already at full employment, could overheat and require forceful action from a new and untested Federal Reserve chairman … the tax cuts are … accelerating the date by which Congress must raise the federal debt limit. … there was still no plan in Washington to … avoid a catastrophic default. The result is that a president who tossed aside traditional presidential caution in cheerleading the stock market now stands poised to take the blame for any correction.
Feel reassured yet?