The Russian Connection: Mueller Has Some Questions

Late Monday night, the New York Times released a list of four dozen questions that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would like ask Donald Trump.

The open-ended queries appear to be an attempt to penetrate the president’s thinking, to get at the motivation behind some of his most combative Twitter posts and to examine his relationships with his family and his closest advisers. They deal chiefly with the president’s high-profile firings of the F.B.I. director and his first national security adviser, his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

But they also touch on the president’s businesses; any discussions with his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, about a Moscow real estate deal; whether the president knew of any attempt by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel to Russia during the transition; any contacts he had with Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser who claimed to have inside information about Democratic email hackings; and what happened during Mr. Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant. [..]

The questions provide the most detailed look yet inside Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which has been shrouded in secrecy since he was appointed nearly a year ago. The majority relate to possible obstruction of justice, demonstrating how an investigation into Russia’s election meddling grew to include an examination of the president’s conduct in office. Among them are queries on any discussions Mr. Trump had about his attempts to fire Mr. Mueller himself and what the president knew about possible pardon offers to Mr. Flynn. [..]

A few questions reveal that Mr. Mueller is still investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. In one of the more tantalizing inquiries, Mr. Mueller asks what Mr. Trump knew about campaign aides, including the former chairman Paul Manafort, seeking assistance from Moscow: “What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?” No such outreach has been revealed publicly. [..]

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow read through the list of questions at the start of her Monday program.

She also spoke with Michael Schmidt who broke the story for the Times

The list of questions can be read at the Times web site.

Former Obama White House ethics czar, Ambassador Norm Eisen thinks that should “frighten Trump.”

The trouble for Trump and his legal team is that the president will place himself in even greater legal jeopardy unless his answers to these questions are both innocent and true.

Many of the questions aim to shed light on the issue at the heart of the inquiry into the president’s possible obstruction of justice: whether he acted with corrupt intent. What were his motives in firing FBI Director James Comey, and were they pure or tainted by the wrongful desire to shield his associates or himself from liability? When Trump reportedly told Russian officials after he fired Comey, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” was he advocating neutral policy concerns or protecting himself from personal exposure? Was the aim of the president’s tweets and comments threatening Comey to intimidate a witness or simply editorial commentary? Trump will need to not only provide innocent explanations to all of these questions, but also address the pattern of his actions, which otherwise appears damning.

Other questions drive at the “collusion” issue by echoing Republican Senator Howard Baker’s famous question in the Watergate hearings: What did the president know and when did he know it? If there truly was no collusion, as the president incessantly claims, then this question should be a softball, particularly since Mueller has told the president the exact pitches that are coming. Here too, however, problems lie for Trump. The president will need to explain how it is possible that he did not know about any of the 70 or more contacts his associates had with Russians during and after the campaign; or that the president only learned last summer about the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting that his campaign chair Paul Manafort, his son Donald Trump Jr., and his son-in-law Jared Kushner took with the Russians. Mueller’s questions show that the investigation of conspiracy and other offenses that could fall under the label of “collusion” is very much alive, no matter what House Republicans think. [..]

The president is, of course, not required to volunteer his testimony. The problem is that the choice is not his alone to make. Special Counsel Mueller may well do what Independent Counsel Ken Starr ultimately did and seek to compel Trump to testify before a grand jury. (President Clinton relented after the subpoena was served.) If that happens, the president could try to challenge it legally, but he will fail. Although courts have been sensitive to a sitting president’s need for special accommodations and deference when he is subjected to civil and criminal matters, they have rejected claims that the president is beyond the reach of the law.

Confronted with the compulsion to testify, or indeed, at any point, President Trump does have another option available—asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Normally it is difficult for public officials to exercise this option. President Trump has taken an oath to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, and it is hard to see how refusing to answer a federal investigator’s questions is consistent with that oath. [..]

As an elected official, Trump must answer to that body and to voters, who will be left to draw negative inferences from the questions he declines to answer on self-incrimination grounds.

Former US attorney Chuck Rosenberg gave his impression of what answers Mueller expects with these questions.

The top Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks with Rachel. He noted that money laundering does not appear to be a theme of the questions despite promising leads on that front.

In an MSNBC special report Friday night, she of the Trump Tower meeting, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya reared her head in an interview with NBC correspondent Richard Engel recanting her earlier denials of Russian government ties. In recently discovered e-mails, it was revealed that Vetelnitskaya worked hand in glove with Russia’s chief legal office to thwart a Justice Department civil fraud case against a well-connected Russian firm. She admitted to Engel that she not just a private lawyer but a source of information for a top Kremlin official, Yuri Y. Chaika, the prosecutor general.

This investigation doen’t look like its going to end anytime soon.