Now we know what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wants to ask President Trump (at least in part).
The New York Times reported Monday evening questions the special counsel’s team has previewed with Trump’s lawyers as they negotiate whether the president will sit for an interview. And although many of them are unsurprising — going over key events in the investigations of obstruction and Russian collusion in the 2016 campaign and what Trump knew about them — some hint at points of emphasis, previously unknown angles and mysterious subplots.
Below are seven questions that caught my eye.
1. “What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?”
That middle phrase is the one that sticks out: “including by Paul Manafort.” Why specify him and only him?
Until a few weeks ago, Manafort wasn’t widely considered a key figure in the collusion investigation. He was mostly seen as someone who might flip on Trump because of the dozens of criminal charges he faces. But a court filing last month revealed that Mueller had sought authorization to expand his inquiry into allegations that Manafort “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials.” And another filing shortly before that described a Manafort business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, as having ongoing ties to Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign. (It has previously been asserted that Kilimnik had ties to Russian intelligence, but not necessarily during the campaign.)
Manafort is hardly the only person linked to possible collusion. Others include Donald Trump Jr., longtime informal adviser Roger Stone and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior aide. The fact that Manafort is explicitly mentioned, when combined with these two recent filings, can’t help but raise eyebrows.
2. “How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?”
This sounds routine, but it could mean that Mueller is interested in a tweet sent from Trump’s account in December that said Trump fired former national security adviser Michael Flynn “because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.”
That was important because shortly after firing Flynn, Trump approached then-FBI Director James B. Comey about seeking leniency for Flynn, according to Comey. That plea would be more problematic from an obstruction of justice standpoint if Trump knew Flynn had lied to the FBI and was in legal jeopardy because of it. It would suggest Trump wanted to help Flynn to protect himself.
Trump’s legal team quickly went into cleanup mode. Then-attorney John Dowd said that he was responsible for the sloppily worded tweet and that Trump was only generally aware of Flynn’s conversations with the FBI. Mueller wants to know Trump’s version of how that went down.
3. “What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?”
This is a real mystery. The Washington Post reported last year that Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats if he could intervene to get Comey to back off Flynn, with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo present at the meeting. (The other official mentioned here is National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers.) But this isn’t that.
Lots of questions on the Times’s list are very general and clearly refer to things that have been reported publicly, but this seems to refer to a specific episode about which we don’t really know anything. Exactly what it is is anybody’s guess.
4. “Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?”
Trump is big on loyalty, he has expressed frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and he has spoken glowingly how Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., “totally protected” Obama. But whether he has tied all those things together is another thing.
This suggests that Mueller wants to know whether Trump has directly asked Sessions for protection. We don’t know, of course, whether that’s because someone told Mueller that Trump did, or just because Mueller thinks it’s logical that he may have.
5. “What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?”
Another mystery is why Mueller’s own appointment is in the questions he wants to ask Trump. You’d expect Mueller to be interested in Trump’s efforts to fire him — and other questions deal with that — but this one is a head-scratcher.
Again, is there a specific event Mueller is aware of that he wants to ask Trump about? Or is this just a general inquiry?
6. “What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?”
The second part is the key. Trump seemed to publicly deny that he tried to fire Mueller, calling it “fake news.” This may suggest that Mueller is interested in whether Trump misled the American public about his own actions, or could allude to something else Trump did that we, again, don’t yet know about.
As I wrote at the time, misleading public denials were cited in special counsel Kenneth Starr’s report on President Bill Clinton, even as the president wasn’t under oath.
7. “During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?”
Trump boasted in 2015 that he met with high-level Russian business executives, including Aras Agalarov, and government officials during his 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant. “I was with the top-level people, both oligarchs and generals and top-of-the-government people,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I can’t go further than that, but I will tell you I met the top people.”
It seems Mueller wants him to go further than that.