Update: And sure enough, the New York Times reports Trump's lawyers are advising him not to grant Mueller an interview. Were Trump to refuse and Mueller to subpoena him, it could set off a lengthy court battle over whether Trump would be obliged to testify in front of a grand jury. The below post is from Jan. 26, after Trump expressed a desire to do the interview.
President Trump said this week that he is “looking forward to” talking to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and that he would “absolutely” do so under oath. But just about everything else suggests we should severely temper our expectations.
From the reaction to those comments from Trump's legal team, to the things Trump said elsewhere in that interview, to comments from Trump's allies about a potential “perjury trap,” it seems that those around Trump recognize the massive amount of danger Trump's mouth could put him in. And the idea that he is simply going to be turned loose to talk to Mueller is probably fanciful.
The Post's James Hohmann recapped the incongruence between Trump's comments and the reaction by his lawyers. Some are reading this as the legal team trying to rein in Trump and prevent him from committing to too much — of getting ahead of negotiations over the interview. I would argue there's a simpler explanation: Trump is insisting that he wants to talk so it doesn't look like he's afraid of the whole thing. From there, when his lawyers insist on strict parameters, he can simply say they wouldn't let him participate in the no-holds-barred interview he wanted.
And indeed, that seems to be the play. Even in his comments, Trump said the decision was “subject to my lawyers and all of that.” And now Trump's personal lawyer, John Dowd, has told the Daily Beast that he will make the final call. Dowd's comments also came as the president's legal team released a memo playing up just how much it has cooperated — perhaps in anticipation of Trump's interview with Mueller being deemed insufficient.
The justification for avoiding a large-scale interview is also being laid, and it involves two words: “perjury trap.” In an interview with CBS News last week, White House lawyer Ty Cobb brought up the prospect of a perjury trap in which Mueller and/or his team essentially trick Trump into lying about something. Cobb was quick to emphasize that he respects Mueller and doesn't think he would do such a thing, but he said that it must always be guarded against.
“I would hope that a fair-minded office of the special counsel would approach it in a dutiful way consistent with precedent, and it wouldn't be a mere perjury trap,” Cobb said.
The fact that Cobb would even bring up that concept — which involves investigators trying to catch Trump lying about trivial matters — shows how dicey they think this whole thing could be. And it's quickly caught on. Longtime Trump ally Roger Stone told The Post this week that Trump talking to Mueller would be a “suicide mission” because of the possibility of a perjury trap. Rush Limbaugh has said much the same thing, and Trump's favorite morning-show hosts on Fox News have raised the issue, too.
And their concern seems to be well-founded — not necessarily because it would be a perjury trap, but because the risk of perjury is massive. Trump's falsehoods as president number in the thousands. The Post has written about a 2007 deposition that forced Trump to face up to 30 false claims he had made. Trump himself long ago described his style as “truthful hyperbole.” And even in that same gaggle with reporters on Wednesday, Trump seemed to acknowledge that he was fighting back against the Russia investigation when he took the actions Mueller's team is investigating for potential obstruction of justice.
Imagine Mueller's investigators given free rein to interview that guy. You have to believe his lawyers would do everything possible to talk Trump out of anything extensive or detailed. Trump simply hasn't shown the kind of care required while crafting his public statements. Trump has routinely created problems for himself in this investigation, including in a Lester Holt interview and in a tweet about Michael Flynn, and it seems even his closest allies don't fully trust him to stay out of trouble. Heck, we just found out White House counsel Don McGahn had to throw himself on the tracks to prevent Trump from trying to fire Mueller.
In the end, the decision is Trump's. If he wants to talk, he can. If he does, though, it'll be because he's got too much chutzpah and perhaps not enough regard for sound legal advice. And for now, it sounds like his professed desire to talk is more hyperbole and brand maintenance than anything else.