For months President Trump’s legal team has been battling with Special Counsel Robert Mueller over whether the president will sit for an interview, and under what conditions the chat might occur. Now the New York Times has published a list of the four dozen or so questions Mueller would like Trump to answer.
The questions mostly cover topics Mueller is already known to be investigating, such as Trump’s reasons for firing FBI director James Comey, why he publicly attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and what he knew about Don Jr.’s meeting with Russians in Trump Tower. While they provide insight into the special counsel’s case, there’s only one truly surprising question: “What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?” So far there have been no public reports about Trump’s former campaign manager asking Russia for help.
The biggest mystery stemming from the questions is why we’re reading about them now. There was some initial speculation as to which side leaked them, but an accompanying Times piece explains the questions were “read by the special counsel investigators to the president’s lawyers, who compiled them into a list. That document was provided to the Times by a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team.”
Times reporter Michael Schmidt elaborated on MSNBC, seeming to confirm that the document came from Trump’s side (which makes sense because Mueller’s team has not been known to leak).
Still, why would someone close to Trump’s legal team want to release a road map of the president’s potential missteps? Here are the leading theories.
To Convince Trump Not to Do the Interview
Trump has said publicly that he’s “looking forward” to talking with Mueller, and he’s reportedly said in private that he’s “champing at the bit” to sit for the interview. Trump seems to think the special counsel’s probe will come to a speedy end if he’s given the opportunity to explain himself, but no sane lawyer would agree.
Indeed, Schmidt reports that when Mueller’s team previewed the questions in March, it convinced Trump’s lead lawyer at the time, John Dowd, that he absolutely should not participate. (Mueller can probably compel Trump to talk, but the legality of subpoenaing a sitting president is tricky). Schmidt writes:
When Mr. Mueller’s team relayed the questions, their tone and detailed nature cemented Mr. Dowd’s view that the president should not sit for an interview. Despite Mr. Dowd’s misgivings, Mr. Trump remained firm in his insistence that he meet with Mr. Mueller. About a week and a half after receiving the questions, Mr. Dowd resigned, concluding that his client was ignoring his advice.
So perhaps Dowd, who would have access to the questions and seems to fit the description of “person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team” leaked the document to the Times. Trump puts a lot of stock in things he hears on TV, and it wouldn’t be the first time advisers tried to sway him by leaking to the press. Former Obama ethics czar Norm Eisen thinks that may be what’s happening:
And both he and conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt argued that the questions show Trump should avoid talking to Mueller:
But there’s a piece that doesn’t fit. The Times reported earlier this month that Trump’s lawyers were drafting a proposal that would have allowed him to be interviewed, but then the raid on Trump fixer Michael Cohen “damaged” trust with the special counsel’s office. CNN said the raid made Trump’s team reevaluate whether he should do the interview. If Trump was already leaning against cooperating with Mueller, why launch a risky public campaign to argue that point?
To Convince the Public That Mueller Is Biased
Perhaps the goal isn’t to convince Trump that Mueller is up to no good, but the public. After struggling to find a lawyer to replace Dowd, on April 19 Trump announced that his friend Rudy Giuliani would lead his legal team. Giuliani talked about bringing the investigation to a quick resolution:
Since then it seems there have been more leaks coming from the Trump team:
And this latest disclosure comes days after Giuliani met with the special counsel, then subtly cast doubt on his credibility, telling The Wall Street Journal that he needed to suss out Mueller’s intentions (though they’ve known each other for decades). “Does the special prosecutor really have an open mind?” Giuliani asked. “We’re trying to assess their good faith.”
Mueller has said he needs to talk to Trump before he can wrap up his report on potential obstruction of justice. Establishing “corrupt intent” is often key to charges of obstruction of justice, but Trump’s legal team may be trying to convince the public that Mueller is trying to trap Trump by asking him overly broad questions like “What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?”
If that’s the idea, it’s already worked on Sean Hannity. After declaring on Monday night’s broadcast that “I am told by my sources tonight that the New York Times is full of crap,” he suggested Mueller was the source of the leak (despite what the Times article says), and argued that federal prosecutors have no business questioning the president’s intent.
“How stupid is it? They want to get in the president’s mind? Did you ever think of firing Mueller? When he never fired Mueller, and he has every right to fire Mueller, constitutionally,” Hannity fumed.
To Convince Congress to Stop Mueller
That other topic Hannity was bemoaning in a fact-free fashion brings us to a third theory: perhaps Mueller’s questions were leaked in order to put pressure on Republican lawmakers to shut down the special counsel’s probe, before it’s too late.
In recent weeks Trump’s conservative House allies escalated their months-long battle with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia probe. Though Rosenstein caved in to their demands by releasing the Comey memos, on Monday they said they were still unsatisfied with his response to document requests, and have drafted articles of impeachment against him to use as a “last resort.”
The Washington Post notes the draft articles probably wouldn’t garner sufficient support in Congress, but maybe Mueller’s questions were released to convince more Republicans that his investigation should be reined in before it causes any more damage to the Trump administration. Trump’s own lawyers seem to think he’s incapable of not perjuring himself, and we’ve already seen him give inconsistent, incriminating answers to simple questions like “why did you fire Comey?”
Of course, it’s possible Mueller’s questions were leaked to accomplish multiple goals. Maybe the plan was to make Hannity even angrier than usual, and let him convince Trump, his House allies, and other Fox News viewers that Mueller can’t be allowed to ask the president to explain himself.