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Opinion What Mueller’s proposed questions for Trump tell us

Robert S. Mueller III in 2013. The current special counsel, Mueller has some questions he’d like to ask President Trump.
Robert S. Mueller III in 2013. The current special counsel, Mueller has some questions he’d like to ask President Trump. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

What can we glean from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s list of proposed questions for President Trump? The questions, reportedly prepared during negotiations over whether the president would agree to be interviewed, provide a rare glimpse inside the tight-lipped special counsel’s office. A few key takeaways:

Obstruction of justice is a primary focus: Many of the questions concern issues such as the president’s meetings with and the subsequent firing of then-FBI director James B. Comey, the removal of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, the president’s reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal, and even Trump’s reported consideration of firing Mueller himself. These all are related to potential efforts by the president to derail the Russia investigation.

Most questions focus on the key issue in any obstruction of justice case: proving state of mind. Mueller knows pretty much what happened regarding Flynn, Comey and Sessions. He wants to hear what the president himself was thinking. Many of the questions begin with “what did you think about” or “what was the purpose of” various meetings, actions, tweets and other things Mueller already knows took place.

This is an expected area of inquiry. Corrupt intent is the factor that can transform otherwise lawful actions into obstruction of justice, so the president’s state of mind is critical. Though prosecutors frequently prove intent through circumstantial evidence, hearing the president’s own version of events could be extremely valuable.

The questions about obstruction are narrowly focused and have the feel of a nearly concluded inquiry. Seeing whether the president will agree to provide his version of events may be one of the final things Mueller is waiting for before wrapping up that aspect of his investigation.

The “collusion” investigation is alive and well: The president has repeatedly claimed investigators have found no collusion between his campaign and the Russians. But Mueller’s questions demonstrate that an alleged conspiracy with Russians to influence the 2016 election is an active part of the investigation — and the grand jury is still out. The questions explore areas such as the president’s knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, any contacts Trump may have had with Russians during his 2013 trip to Moscow and his knowledge about contacts other members of his campaign had with Russian individuals.

More of these questions seek details about events, such as particular meetings or communications, and not simply the president’s state of mind. This suggests the picture of any potential conspiracy may be less fully formed than the obstruction case, and that prosecutors are still trying to nail down the details. That would make sense. The conspiracy allegations are far more complicated, span several years, and involve many more people and far-flung activities. This also would be consistent with earlier reports that Mueller plans to issue different reports concerning the two areas of his investigation, and that the report on obstruction of justice will be released first. It’s going to take longer to wrap up the conspiracy investigation.

Some commentators have argued that if there was a conspiracy involving the Trump campaign and Russia, we would have seen the charges by now. Such claims have always been dubious, and these questions demonstrate why. We will see the charges, if any, when the investigation is concluded — and it clearly is not yet concluded.

Mueller is keeping it focused — and fair: The proposed questions relate strictly to any potential conspiracy with Russia to influence the election and attempts to obstruct the Russian investigation. There are no big surprises or questions out of left field. There are no questions about Trump’s personal finances or questions that would suggest a focus on unrelated money laundering or financial crimes. These questions do not portray a rogue prosecutor on a “witch hunt” looking for any crime he can find. Mueller is playing it strictly by the book and is sticking to his mandate.

It is also noteworthy just how unusual it is for a prosecutor to provide such a list of questions up front. Mueller apparently was willing to lay his cards on the table as part of the negotiations over a possible interview. No subject of an investigation could ask to be treated more fairly and openly — and most would not be given such a clear road map of the prosecutor’s inquiry. There’s no sign of any attempt to hide the ball, to trick or to “trap” the president.

Trump’s lawyers are right to be concerned about an interview: It is clearer than ever why the president’s legal team is reluctant to have him sit down with Mueller. These questions present a potentially lethal minefield for Trump. Mueller already knows a great deal, and the president would be unlikely to fool him. Truthful answers to many of the questions could be extremely damaging. Untruthful answers would be readily exposed, resulting in additional criminal charges. Although the prospect of a sitting president refusing to cooperate in a criminal investigation by his own Justice Department is galling, it remains the president’s safest and most likely play.

Read more on this issue:

Greg Sargent: Mueller’s questions for Trump have leaked. Here are three big takeaways.

Jennifer Rubin: Six takeaways from the Mueller questions

Ruth Marcus: Firing Mueller would only make things worse for Trump

The Post’s View: Congress needs a red line around Mueller. Now.