Opinion writer

One of the responsibilities of living in the Trump era is that we have to keep reminding ourselves to step back and look at things objectively, not to simply accept whatever craziness is happening because we’ve gotten so used to this mad carnival. When you manage to step back in that way, you inevitably find yourself saying, “Wait — are you kidding me?!?”

In that spirit, let me describe as concisely as I can what is going on in one corner of our world:

  • A hostile foreign power mounted a comprehensive effort to manipulate our last presidential election.
  • There is credible evidence to suggest that the president’s campaign cooperated in that effort.
  • The president has admitted that he, his son and his aides lied to the public to cover up one key event in that cooperation.
  • The widely respected prosecutor investigating the scandal has indicted or obtained guilty pleas and cooperation from dozens of people, including a number of high-ranking advisers to the president.
  • The president is demanding that the investigation be shut down immediately.
  • The president’s lawyers are refusing to allow him to be interviewed by the prosecutor, even though they claim he is completely innocent, because according to multiple reports, they are all but certain that if he has to answer questions, he will commit perjury.

I would use the commonly heard assertion, “This is not normal,” but that doesn’t begin to describe it.

Let’s look for the moment just at the question of whether President Trump will allow himself to be interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team. The mere fact that until now he has refused to do so ought to be shocking. He says he did nothing wrong, he has access to all the legal help he could want, and he is refusing to answer questions. His lawyers are attempting to negotiate some kind of agreement whereby the queries would be confined to narrow topics they decide on, which might make sense if the only consideration was Trump’s legal exposure. But he is the president of the United States, acting like a criminal telling the cops, “I didn’t do nothin’ and I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”

But that’s not the whole story. Here’s what Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times report:

President Trump’s lawyers rejected the special counsel’s latest terms for an interview in the Russia investigation, countering … with an offer that suggested a narrow path for answering questions, people familiar with the matter said. […]

The negotiations have dragged on in part because the president’s lawyers are concerned that if he is interviewed, Mr. Trump could perjure himself. They had been prepared last week to tell Mr. Mueller that Mr. Trump would decline an interview, but the president, who believes he can convince Mr. Mueller that he is innocent, pushed his lawyers to continue negotiating.

Annie Karni of Politico tells a similar story:

The idea that Trump could convince Mueller that his own investigation is the partisan trap Trump believes it to be is considered laughable by many of Trump’s own advisers. But his desire to sit with the lawyers and take his chances, those advisers said, is vintage Trump.

Well, why don’t we let Trump be Trump? He says he did absolutely nothing wrong. He is sure that with his spectacular powers of persuasion, he can make his innocence clear. So why doesn’t he sit down with the prosecutors and answer any questions they have? Do it on TV, so we can all watch. If this is a “witch hunt” as Trump says, presumably that will be revealed when we finally get a look at what Mueller’s tight-lipped team wants to know. If Trump is innocent, that will become clear; if he isn’t, that might become clear, too.

That’s what happened with Bill Clinton. His lawyers had protracted negotiations with Kenneth W. Starr about the conditions under which he was going to testify about his affair with Monica Lewinsky; ultimately, Starr got fed up and issued a subpoena, at which point Clinton agreed to a lengthy interview. The American people saw a president trying to wriggle away from responsibility for his own moral failings, and a bunch of prosecutors obsessed with the prurient details of the president’s sex life. They came to a judgment that while Clinton may have been nobody to admire, Starr’s investigation had gone far beyond what was reasonable. Shouldn’t they have the same opportunity to make a judgment this time?

On last night’s “Hannity,” Trump’s TV lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, went on a desperate rant, calling the investigation “illegitimate” five times and claiming that if Mueller doesn’t shut the whole thing down by September, “then we have a very serious violation of the Justice Department rules, they shouldn’t be conducting one of these investigations in the 60-day period.”

That is utterly false. Department of Justice guidance instructs prosecutors that they should not take public steps close to an election that might affect its outcome, such as announcing the indictment of a candidate, but there is no rule stating that every investigation must be closed once Election Day approaches. And the last time I checked, Trump is not actually running for office this year, so it wouldn’t apply to him anyway.

But here’s the thing Giuliani said that really stuck out:

“Why do you want to get him under oath? Do you think we’re fools? You want to get him under oath because you want to trap him into perjury. Well, we’re not going to let you do that.”

If Trump is so sure of his innocence, what is he afraid of? He is not some kid who got nabbed by the police for a robbery he didn’t commit and will get manipulated into signing a confession; he’s the president of the United States. As for the idea that an interview could be a “perjury trap,” you can only get snared in a perjury trap if you’re willing to commit perjury. Is he?

I think we all know the answer to that — even Trump’s own lawyer thinks he is. But maybe someone should tell the president that an interview with Mueller would be great TV, and it’ll get fantastic ratings. That should convince him.