This week, we got a look at what are reportedly the questions Mueller will ask President Trump in an interview, should Trump agree to one. Many of the questions, in particular the ones about obstruction of justice, were quite detailed, and we can learn a lot from them about the case Mueller is building against the president. And despite Trump’s claims to the contrary in recent tweets, the case—really several cases—is a strong one.
One thing to keep in mind as we walk through the takeaways: Mueller almost certainly isn’t looking to Trump for new information here. No one would believe anything Trump volunteers. Instead, Mueller is mostly asking Trump to confirm or deny information or evidence he already has, and it seems the evidence is damning. Here are the four major takeaways from this story.
Trump says the list has “no questions on collusion.” But if someone with a third-grade reading level gives the questions a glance, he or she will see that several questions are specifically about collusion. By my count, 18. We also have no reason to believe these are all the questions Mueller would ask. At the very least he’ll have follow-ups nested in these broad questions. Here are a few collusion questions that pose the biggest problems for Trump.
What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?
This is deceptively tricky, and perhaps the most dangerous of all Mueller’s questions, because it indicates Mueller knows Trump either knew about or himself committed conspiracy against the United States. In other words, Mueller likely knows for fact that Trump did indeed “collude,” as we call it.
First, the obvious: Mueller specifies Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort committing a specific act. Because Mueller provided these questions (or ones like them; more on that in a bit) to Trump’s legal team in advance, we can assume he has a reason to be so up-front. It’s a warning to Trump: I know what you know, so you better not lie about this.
And though Manafort has been indicted for charges related to money laundering, there’s so far been no public reporting that Mueller knows or suspects Manafort conspired with the Russian government. And to be sure, Mueller likely has a lot of information we don’t know about. For instance, several witnesses have cut plea deals in exchange for cooperating with the special counsel, including Trump campaign official and Manafort associate Richard Gates. Mueller’s question suggests at least one person has flipped not only on Manafort, but, because Trump is directly implicated in this specific act, it seems at least one person has flipped on the president as well.
The question has more landmines, though. If Mueller does indeed know more than we knew about, and it’s certain he does, Trump must worry about what he doesn’t know about what Mueller knows. It seems apparent that Mueller has evidence Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia, and that Trump knew about it, but we don’t know how much evidence he has. Neither would Trump. The president, then, must either lie about what he knew or incriminate himself as a knowing participant in the conspiracy.
And finally, the question is open-ended. If Trump conceals information, he’s guilty of what we call “lying to the FBI,” which isn’t just telling a lie. The actual law (18 U.S. Code § 1001) says:
(a)Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully—(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;(2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation
If Trump withholds or tries to conceal what he knows, such as through omitting some of what he knew, he breaks the law.
Bottom line: Even if this were the only question Mueller had, Trump shouldn’t take the interview.
During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?
This also suggests Mueller knows things we don’t. Doubly interesting here, though, in that Trump might be forced to confirm parts of the Steele dossier that allege the Kremlin had begun “recruiting” him as a possible asset for several years, often by dangling sweetheart development deals in front of him. One allegation involves a specific deal: Trump would get an interest in the 2018 World Cup stadium, which the Agalarovs were building. This hasn’t been confirmed publicly, but again, Mueller’s question indicates there’s probably something more.
Remember also that the Agalarovs set up the Trump Tower meeting.
What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?
What did the president know and when did he know it? This suggests that at the very least Mueller has strong suspicions Trump knew about this phone call. And considering Flynn is cooperating with Mueller, Trump needs to be careful.
When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?
Same question, different treason. Additionally, this one hits close to home: Donald Trump Jr. has said publicly that his dad didn’t know about the meeting. The President’s answer to this question might not implicate just him, but his son as well.
During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
Same question, different treason.
What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?
Same question, different treason. Interesting wording here, too, in that it seems Mueller knows for sure what Stone has denied: He was in contact with WikiLeaks and had advance notice of the hacked emails.
And I’ll include this one, too:
What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?
Mueller wants Trump to know Jared is in trouble.
The majority of Mueller’s questions, and some of the most detailed, concern Trump’s repeated efforts to interfere with the Russia investigation: with Flynn; with Comey; with Sessions; with Pompeo, Coats, and Rogers; with McCabe; with Trump Tower; and even with the Special Counsel itself.
Note that Mueller has conducted interviews with dozens of people connected to all these events, and from those interviews he can construct timelines, deduce inconsistencies, and draw a pretty good picture of Trump’s corrupt intent. Mueller wants to see whether Trump will confirm this himself, so a lot of these questions include phrases such as “what was the purpose” and “what did you think and do.” If Trump lies to Mueller, contradicts himself, or contradicts testimony or evidence that Mueller already has, that’s more evidence of corrupt intent. Here are some of the key questions about obstruction. (There are so many of these, by the way, that it’s impossible to conclude Trump hasn’t been obstructing justice. What’s more, Mueller suggests he believes Trump is part of a larger obstruction conspiracy.)
What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?
This is a moment that hasn’t gotten much attention. When Trump fired Comey, the official story was that the former FBI Director violated DOJ policy in the way he handled the Clinton investigation. Basically, Trump said he fired Comey because, and I shit you not, Comey hadn’t been fair to Clinton during the election. But in an interview with Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump offered a much different take: “Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you. If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.” So which is it: Comey helped Clinton, or Comey wasn’t fair to Clinton?
Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?
The most direct of the obstruction questions. Trump has given different defenses of his decision to fire Comey, and Mueller wants him to commit to one. We also know Trump initially conscripted Steven Miller to write a letter that fired Comey explicitly because of the Russia investigation. Mueller reportedly has that letter. After reviewing the letter, though, advisers repeatedly told Trump he couldn’t use it because it would clearly be evidence of obstruction of justice. Don McGahn, the White House counsel, gave Sessions and Rosenstein a mark-up of that letter and instructed them how to write their complaints, none of which touched on Russia.
This question is doubly important because “who played a role” suggests Mueller has put together evidence of a conspiracy to obstruct justice. (Spoiler: It’s a conspiracy.)
What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?
This is interesting because it hints at an event we’re not aware of. We already know from reporting that Trump has said more than once he wanted to fire Mueller, and at least once he ordered the White House counsel to do it. (Mcgahn refused.) But all of that happened after Mueller’s appointment. This question, however, is about a different moment: what Trump did immediately after Mueller was appointed. We haven’t heard anything about this, and this suggests yet again that Mueller knows something about an event that we don’t.
What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?
We know Mueller has interviewed McGahn, and we know McGahn was the attorney who met with Yates to discuss Flynn’s lies to the FBI. We don’t, however, know when McGahn told Trump what Yates told him. If Trump knew in late January—which he almost certainly did—but didn’t fire Flynn for three weeks, that indicates Trump was trying to protect Flynn. This confirms corrupt intent.
What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?
When the news broke that DJTJ, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had met with Kremlin agents in Trump Tower, President Trump helped draft the first statement on his son’s behalf. That statement didn’t mention that Trump Jr. met with the Russians in order to get dirt on Clinton. Mueller wants Trump to confess to his involvement and help paint a more complete picture of the thinking behind this cover-up, which included co-conspirators.
You can read the many more questions on obstruction here. Let’s move on to the next branch of Mueller’s investigation: Money laundering.
Mueller only asks two questions that could be construed as part of an investigation into Trump’s finances. Here they are:
During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?
We’ve already covered this one.
What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?
This question refers to the Trump Organization’s attempt to build a Trump Tower Moscow. We know from reporting that Sater and Cohen talked about the project, and that Sater thought such a partnership with Russian oligarchs, with the blessing of the government, could help Trump with the election. We don’t know how close Trump was to this deal, but we do know Mueller has spoken with Sater…
At any rate, it seems strange that Mueller’s questions don’t pursue this channel of the investigation. After all, it’s public knowledge that Trump does indeed have shady financial connections to Russian investors. The lack of questions on this topic could mean a few things:
1. Mueller doesn’t have anything on Trump here. Given the glut of reporting on shady Russian and mob investment in Trump properties, this option is unlikely to the point of being impossible.
2. Mueller is still building this case. Again, there’s no indication that this list of questions is exhaustive. Money laundering cases are complicated and take a long time to build, especially one this sprawling and long-running.
3. Mueller doesn’t need Trump’s help. At this point it’s worth noting most of Mueller’s questions concern Trump’s intent or knowledge. This is because obstruction of justice and conspiracy require Mueller to provide evidence of Trump’s intent or knowledge, and the best evidence for those things is the person’s own words and thoughts, though that’s not always needed.
Financial crimes, however, don’t hinge on that stuff. Those charges require the kind of hard evidence you get from transaction records, account information, tax returns, etc. In other words, because this part of the investigation wouldn’t require much in terms of testimony, we shouldn’t expect Mueller to pursue testimony. We can’t draw any conclusions based on this list of questions.
Which leads us to the fourth takeaway.
The New York Times broke this story, and in “the report: they said the questions had been leaked by “a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team.” This attributes the leak to Trump’s side, not Mueller, but that didn’t stop Trump from calling the leak “disgraceful.”
So who leaked the list and why?
It’s weird because these questions don’t make Trump look good: Mueller clearly knows some shit about some shit. And Trump’s messaging in the above tweet contains not one, not two, not three, but four self-incriminating statements. And not just statements, either: These are obvious lies.
1. “Disgraceful” implicates Mueller, but the Times was clear that it came from someone close to Trump’s team. I wonder if the idea all along was to make Mueller look like a leaker out to get him, the way Trump is trying to smear Comey as a leaker, but the Times saw through it and Trump didn’t catch that part.
2. There were obviously several questions about “collusion.”
3. “Collusion” isn’t one of the crimes Mueller is pursuing precisely because it isn’t a crime. He’s after things like conspiracy against the United States, defrauding the United States, obstruction of justice, money laundering and racketeering, campaign fraud, etc etc.
4. The investigation started with a tip from Australian intelligence.
One possibility is that Trump’s legal team is trying to convince him not to take an interview. Trump has said before that he’d be willing to sit for an interview, but his lawyers know that would be suicide. He’ll perjure himself immediately. The depth, breadth, and substance of these questions should alarm him. Or, that’s the effect they’d have on a rational person.
This might also be an attempt to undermine the Mueller investigation. If so, Trump’s tweet, though still bafflingly incorrect, makes more sense strategically. In this line of thinking, the wide range of questions isn’t a bad thing that suggests Trump’s crimes are themselves wide-ranging (and ongoing). It’s the opposite: Mueller is on a fishing expedition, desperately digging up everything he can. This argument isn’t designed to convince anyone to change their mind about Mueller, though. It would be designed to get Trump’s true believers to dig in behind the president, and give them more ammunition to take down the special counsel. More ammunition, sure—but they’re shooting blanks.