After 10 long months of delay and recalcitrance, President Donald Trump has finally submitted his answers to some of special counsel Robert Mueller’s questions on Russian interference with the 2016 election, according to the president’s personal lawyers.
We don’t know whether these answers will be forthright, or whether the president will try to dodge the questions asked, since the format doesn’t allow for immediate follow-ups. (Last week, Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that he “probably” wouldn’t voluntarily agree to answer further questions from Mueller or do an in-person interview with the special counsel’s team.)
And the answers aren’t public, at least for now.
But Trump submitting his answers is still a significant moment for the probe. Unlike his many public statements, these statements to the special counsel are submitted at risk of legal penalties for making false statements. And after investigators judged President Bill Clinton to have made false statements in a deposition and grand jury interview, congressional Republicans made those statements the basis for articles of impeachment against him.
Trump has spent hours meeting with his lawyers about the questions over several sessions, per the Washington Post. The morning after one meeting last week, he sent a series of tweets calling the Mueller investigation “a disgrace to our Nation” that was trying to “destroy people” and “ruin” lives — perhaps a sign he was having trouble with his answers.
It is possible that Trump has nothing serious to hide. Maybe his many months of refusing to agree to answer these questions are solely because he’s being cautious — because he fears a “perjury trap” or a “witch hunt” will ensnare him even though he’s done nothing wrong. Maybe the fact that he’s only answering these now that he’s installed a new acting attorney general he views as more loyal is also just a coincidence.
But if there is more to the story of what happened in 2016 than Trump has so far admitted, then the president has likely been struggling with some difficult choices behind the scenes.
Such as: Does he fess up to politically damaging and perhaps legally perilous conduct? Or does he continue to try to conceal, or lie about, what happened — even in statements made under penalty of perjury?
“Will Mueller interview Trump” has become “Will Trump deign to answer a very limited set of Mueller’s questions”
All the way back in January, Mueller’s team first requested to question Trump as part of their investigation.
The stakes were high. Trump’s statements about many topics have often been … factually challenged. But they are generally made to the press and the public, and not to federal law enforcement officers. Should Trump make false statements to Mueller’s team, there could be legal consequences for him (potential impeachment while he’s in office, or even criminal charges after he leaves it).
In March, Mueller’s team told Trump’s lawyers about various topics they hoped to ask Trump about in person. Trump’s lawyers used this information to assemble a list of more than 40 likely questions, which the New York Times obtained earlier this year. Many of these questions related to obstruction of justice (connected to Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and pressure on Attorney General Jeff Sessions), but many others related directly to Russian interference.
Trump’s team decided they did not want to have him answer these questions. They offered various shifting excuses for not agreeing to do the interview (while dubiously claiming Trump himself still wanted to do it). The most common justifications for refusal were that they feared a “perjury trap,” that Trump had a tendency to make off-the-cuff misstatements, and that they had constitutional executive power concerns about the obstruction of justice questions.
All this time, the threat of Mueller subpoenaing Trump was hanging over everything. (Mueller himself explicitly mentioned that possibility to Trump’s team, per the Post.) This is one likely reason Trump didn’t just refuse to answer questions outright. Many legal experts believed that Trump would likely lose a battle over a subpoena in court, were one to occur. But that battle would take some time and hold up the investigation.
Eventually, a compromise was struck. For at least an initial set of questions, Mueller’s team agreed that Trump could answer in written form, rather than orally — minimizing the chances for an off-the-cuff misstatement. And he scaled back these initial questions to focus on the topic of collusion with Russia, not obstruction.
Mueller sent Trump those questions by mid-October. According to the Washington Post, there are about two dozen questions that focus on five topics. More than a month has passed since then. And finally, Trump sat down with his lawyers over several lengthy meetings last week to craft his answers.
Bill Clinton thought he could get away with lying about Monica Lewinsky
About 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton was in a similar position. In a January 1998 deposition for Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against him, Clinton was quizzed about his interactions with several women, including former White House intern and then employee Monica Lewinsky.
At the time, Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky wasn’t publicly known. If Clinton admitted to it, he’d cause a major scandal and suffer political embarrassment. But if he lied about it, he might get away with it. What evidence could there be, anyway?
So Clinton proceeded to lie repeatedly, ludicrously claiming that he didn’t think he and Lewinsky had ever been alone in the Oval Office together, that if they had been together, “nothing remarkable” would have happened, and that he had “never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.”
News of the affair broke days after the deposition. Clinton continued to deny it publicly, but independent counsel Ken Starr’s prosecutors amassed evidence including Lewinsky’s taped conversations, a blue dress stained with Clinton’s semen, and (eventually) Lewinsky’s cooperation.
So when Clinton agreed to testify to Starr’s grand jury, he finally admitted that when he was “alone with Ms. Lewinsky on certain occasions,” he had “inappropriate, intimate contact” with her. Still, Starr argued that Clinton lied three more times in the grand jury testimony, about the details and timeline of the affair. (In the end, Clinton did “get away with it” in a sense after all, since he was impeached but not convicted, and he remained in office.)
So hypothetically, if someone is trying to get away with lying under oath rather than make damaging admissions, they are likely thinking about several questions. What do prosecutors suspect? What do they know for sure? What are they likely to find out eventually? What will they have witnesses willing to testify about? What can they prove with evidence? Depending on the answers of these questions, it may be possible to get away with lies — or to get busted.
Did Trump have an easy time answering the questions? Accounts differ.
The Washington Post reported that Trump and his lawyers had a four-hour meeting about the questions last Monday, and a 90-minute meeting Wednesday. The morning after that second meeting, Trump sent a series of angry tweets about the Mueller investigation. We don’t know what’s been going on behind the scenes, but he certainly seemed agitated about the probe:
Naturally, Trump then insisted to Chris Wallace that answering the questions wasn’t “a big deal” and was “very simple,” because “I did nothing wrong.” He did not explain why it’s taken him so long to send the answers.
His lawyer Rudy Giuliani didn’t make it sound so simple. Around the same time, he told the Post that there were some of Mueller’s questions that “create more issues for us legally than others,” that some were “unnecessary,” that some were “possible traps,” and that he might “consider some as irrelevant.”
Meanwhile, an update on Paul Manafort is coming by Monday
In the midst of all this, Mueller’s team submitted an interesting joint court filing with lawyers for Paul Manafort.
The former Trump campaign chair agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation as part of a plea deal in September. Since then, he’s left jail to travel to the special counsel’s office at least nine times, per CNN. However, ABC News had a recent report claiming that the cooperation isn’t going well — that there is “frustration over whether Manafort is fully providing the information he agreed to offer.”