Fifteen months since special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to head the probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, prosecutors and lawyers for President Donald Trump are still negotiating over what questions investigators can ask the president.
News reports Wednesday quoted the president’s lawyers as saying they are trying to narrow the scope of Mueller’s questions by declining to allow the president to answer questions about possible obstruction of justice.
In an interview with CNN, Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers on the case, said the team is sending a new letter today with a counteroffer. Giuliani declined to describe the counteroffer.
The Washington Post reports Giuliani, a former New York mayor who joined the Trump legal team in April this year, said the letter will largely reject a presidential interview that would include questions about possible obstruction of justice, particularly in regard to the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
Mueller has been seeking to interview the president for months. Trump has repeatedly urged his legal team to allow him to be interviewed, believing it will give him the opportunity to clear his name. Trump’s lawyers have advised him against it, citing the fear of a “perjury trap.”
One of the defenses often invoked by Giuliani and other members of Trump’s legal team in regard to whether Trump is obstructing justice by firing Comey is Article II of the U.S. Constitution. The provision gives the president executive authority to appoint and dismiss members of his administration.
In May 2017 Trump fired Comey, who was leading the Russia investigation. The day after the firing, Trump said that Russia was on his mind when he made the decision.
Interview scope unclear
The president’s lawyers had previously offered the special counsel written answers to obstruction questions and insisted on limiting the interview to matters before Trump’s presidential inauguration.
Of particular interest to Mueller is the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., several top campaign aides, and a Russian lawyer with connections to the Kremlin.
Last weekend, Trump tweeted that the meeting’s purpose was to “get information on an opponent,” i.e. former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He claimed that such a meeting was “totally legal” and “done all the time in politics.” Trump’s tweets are at odds with his own statements about the encounter, as well as with Trump Jr.’s statement in July 2017, saying the meeting had been mostly about issues related to Americans adopting Russian children.
Last month, Trump declared on Twitter that “collusion is not a crime,” as he continued his attacks on Mueller’s investigation. Mueller is examining Trump’s tweets and public statements to determine whether he made them with the intention to deceive investigators.
If Mueller and the Trump legal team fail to reach an agreement on the interview, Mueller could resort to issuing a subpoena to the president. In an interview with ABC on Sunday, Jay Sekulow, a member of Trump’s legal team, said a subpoena would spark a legal battle that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
In May 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
The investigation has led to the indictments of several members of Trump’s circle, including former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort and former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates, as well as 12 Russian intelligence agents.
Trump has repeatedly called the Russia probe a “witch hunt.”