The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mueller’s questions for Trump have leaked. Here are three big takeaways.

Opinion | If President Trump fires the bane of his legal troubles, he could spark a legal and constitutional crisis. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)


The New York Times has obtained a long list of questions that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wants to pose to President Trump in a sit-down interview. One crucial revelation from the Times is this: After seeing these questions, which are mostly geared at determining whether Trump obstructed justice, Trump’s former attorney, John Dowd, became even more convinced that Trump should not sit for this interview, because of their “tone and detailed nature.”

Trump apparently disagreed, and Dowd subsequently quit, because he concluded his advice was not being followed. In short, Trump doesn’t see any threat from these questions. As he tweeted moments ago, there are “No questions on Collusion” (actually, there are), and “it would seem very hard to obstruct justice” if no crime was committed (actually, you can).

Here are three big takeaways from Mueller’s questions:

The ‘collusion’ issue is far from settled. Despite Trump’s tweet, and despite the exoneration in the sham House GOP Intel Committee report, Mueller’s questions suggest that the possibility of a Russia-Trump campaign conspiracy is very much alive. Mueller wants to ask Trump when he became “aware of the Trump Tower meeting,” which top Trump officials undertook in hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government; what Trump’s role was in drafting that statement for Donald Trump Jr. that falsified the rationale for that meeting; and what Trump knew about Russian email hacking “during the campaign.”

On that last one, remember that the genesis of the probe was that Trump adviser George Papadopoulos had been told that Russia had dirt on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” We don’t know if Papadopoulos communicated this to Trump campaign higher-ups; Mueller appears to want to ask if Trump himself knew about it. Mueller also wants to ask whether Trump knew of “any outreach” by campaign chair Paul Manafort “about potential assistance to the campaign,” which is tantalizing because it means Mueller may know something we don’t.

“These should remind everybody forcefully that the special counsel is going to raise questions about a conspiracy between a foreign power and the Trump campaign to illegally influence the outcome of a presidential election,” Bob Bauer, the former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, told me this morning.

Mueller knows a lot more about possible obstruction of justice than we do. According to the questions, Mueller wants to ask Trump what the purpose was of his Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with then-FBI Director James B. Comey, and what was said. Comey has claimed that Trump pressed him to drop the probe into Michael Flynn, which Trump denies. The Democratic rebuttal to the GOP Intelligence Committee report informs us that Comey extensively briefed multiple FBI officials about his conversations with Trump just after they happened. Mueller has interviewed those officials and wants to press Trump on his denial with their testimony in mind as counter-evidence.

Mueller also wants to ask Trump directly about when and why the decision to fire Comey was made. As the Times notes, Mueller has interviewed other White House officials about the conversations that went into this and “will be able to compare Mr. Trump’s answers to what he has learned elsewhere.” In both these cases, Mueller has almost certainly established far more about Trump’s intent in trying to derail the probe than the public reporting indicates.

Columnist David Ignatius says that by the time Paul Manafort met his end as Donald Trump's presidential campaign manager, his life was shattered. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Trump’s team may be laying the groundwork to avoid the interview. The Times reports that Mueller’s questions were leaked by “a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team.” This doesn’t preclude it being someone close to Trump who is not on that team or that his team may have arranged the leak via someone else.

Bauer suggests to me that in revealing the questions, and demonstrating how wide a range of subjects they touch on, Trump’s team “may be laying the foundation for saying Trump won’t do the interview.” Bauer adds that Trump’s allies may start a drumbeat criticizing “the breadth” of the questions, claiming that Mueller is “ranging beyond his brief.” Bauer notes that in this telling, Trump’s public claims that he wants to do the interview are a “head fake,” and that in reality, the leaked questions could help lay the pretext for arguing that “there’s no advantage to Trump in interviewing with Mueller, that he’s out of control.”

That would make some sense. After all, Trump’s Twitter bluster notwithstanding, now that we’ve seen the questions, it’s even more obvious that this interview would be a dangerous minefield for him.

* NEW IMPEACHMENT ARTICLES AGAINST ROSENSTEIN: The Post reports that a handful of Trump allies in Congress have drafted articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein as a “last resort.” But:

The group’s impeachment draft would face many challenges if it were referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. Republican leaders have kept their distance from calls to remove Rosenstein from office, and Democrats have argued that the GOP’s clashes with the deputy attorney general are little more than a pretext to weaken Mueller’s efforts.

Even if GOP leaders have “kept their distance,” if Trump fires Rosenstein, they will fall in line. This effort — while ostensibly about getting “documents” — is really about creating a pretext for that.

* WHERE’S THE INVESTMENT FROM GOP TAX CUT? The New York Times reports that the acceleration in business investment that Republicans promised their tax law would bring has yet to materialize:

So far, hard evidence of such an acceleration has yet to appear in economic data … And while there are pockets of the economy where investment is picking up … corporate spending on buying back stock is increasing at a far faster clip, prompting a debate about whether the law is returning money to the overall economy or just rewarding a small segment of investors.

Yes, that is one way to put it. The other way to put it is that many predicted that this is exactly what would happen.

* OBAMACARE SABOTAGE IS WORKING: Axios reports that the Commonwealth Fund has released a new study showing the uninsured rate is rising again:

About 15.5% of adults are uninsured, by Commonwealth’s count, up roughly three percentage points from the same time in 2016. That represents an increase of about 4 million people, the organization said. .. Lower-income families saw the biggest coverage losses. … Commonwealth attributes the increase largely to the way Congress and the Trump administration has handled the ACA.

Mission accomplished!

* TENSIONS BETWEEN TRUMP AND KELLY RUN HIGH: CNN reports that Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is denying a report that he called Trump an “idiot.” But:

Tensions between Kelly and Trump have been brewing for weeks if not months. …”The President hates reading these stories,” an official said. “He hates it.” Officials have long believed it’s just a matter of when, rather than if, Kelly would be fired or pushed aside. The report … capped off weeks of what sources have described as a growing disconnect between Kelly and Trump.

Somebody from inside the “fine tuned machine” that is the Trump White House is leaking this stuff.

* TRUMP UNDERCUTS CASE FOR MUSLIM BAN: The White House solicitor general told the Supreme Court that Trump had disavowed his call for a Muslim ban (the policy now targets particular countries). But, asked by reporters if he apologizes for the ban, Trump said this:

“There’s no reason to apologize. Our immigration laws in this country are a total disaster. They’re laughed at all over the world — they’re laughed at for their stupidity, and we have to have strong immigration laws. … There’s nothing to apologize for.”

We all know that the administration changed the policy to target countries only to get as close as possible to a Muslim ban that would pass legal muster. The intent didn’t change at all.

* TRUMP’S MENTAL HEALTH UNDER SCRUTINY: Today at the National Press Club, a group of mental-health experts is convening a panel to kick off Mental Health Awareness Month with a discussion of how to put standards in place for evaluating the mental fitness of presidents and others in power, including, of course, one Donald J. Trump. Seems timely!

 *THE GOP TAX CUT IS KANSAS REDUX: Paul Krugman runs through all the ways the GOP tax cut is failing to produce its promised effects — and comments:

The effects of the Trump tax cut are already looking like the effects of the Brownback tax cut in Kansas, the Bush tax cut and every other much-hyped tax cut of the past three decades: big talk, big promises, but no results aside from a swollen budget deficit. You might think that the G.O.P. would eventually learn something from this experience, realize that tax cuts aren’t magical, and come up with some different ideas.

On the other hand, if the real goal is simply to lower top earners’ tax burden, why would Republicans need new ideas?

* AND TRUMP’S LIES HIT THE 3,000 MARK: The Post fact-checking team has just updated its tally of Trump’s false and misleading statements. The grand total: 3,001, in 466 days:

That’s an average of nearly 6.5 claims a day. When we first started this project for the president’s first 100 days, he averaged 4.9 claims a day. Slowly, the average number of claims has been creeping up. Indeed, since we last updated this tally two months ago, the president has averaged about 9 claims a day.

Maybe Trump’s lies are escalating because he doesn’t believe he pays any price for them?