By Frank Bowman
The New York Times this morning released a series of questions which it says Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team would like Mr. Trump to answer. The provenance of this list is murky.
First, we don’t really know if it’s genuine. Second, if the list is essentially genuine, it seems unclear whether the questions are actually those Mr. Mueller would like answered or are, instead, summaries in question form by Trump’s lawyers of broad topic areas Mueller’s people have said they’d like to discuss with Mr. Trump. Third, the source of the list is uncertain. According to the Times, the list did not come from Mueller’s team. Which leaves people in the White House or others associated with Mr. Trump’s legal defense.
Although the question list is certainly a scoop for the Times, I’m not sure it adds much to our knowledge of the Mueller investigation. All of the published questions concern issues or events that have been discussed ad nauseum in the public press.
That said, I am struck by the prevalence of questions that seem to relate primarily to obstruction of justice. There is a set relating to the firing of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a long set about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, and, quite interestingly, a set about threats to the continued tenure of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In addition, several of the questions relate to the activities and potential termination of the office of special counsel itself.
My first reaction to the questions about Sessions and the special counsel’s office is that they serve as a kind of brush-back pitch — a warning that Trump’s threats to Mueller and his efforts to influence Mueller’s investigation are themselves legally and politically dangerous.
Beyond that obvious point, I find the heavy emphasis on obstruction of justice a tad disturbing. It is undoubtedly true that obstruction of justice is a crime (albeit one for which, under current DOJ policy, a sitting president will not be indicted) and potentially an impeachable offense. And it is also true, contrary to the assertions of Mr. Trump, that one can be guilty of obstruction of justice for impeding investigation of matters that ultimately prove not to be criminal.
Nonetheless, those who ardently oppose Mr. Trump — particularly those who long for his impeachment — must remember that this is a political process. By which I mean that changing the public mind matters as much or more than legal fine points. Suppose that, at the end of his investigation, all Mr. Mueller comes up with is evidence that Mr. Trump obstructed an investigation that produces no proof of other significant wrongdoing by Trump or those closest to him. In that case, those who already despise Trump will hail the obstruction finding as a victory. But Trump and Trump supporters will claim exoneration because, they will say, a president is entirely within his rights to squelch a politically damaging investigation into non-existent crimes.
That the Trumpists would be wrong on the law won’t matter a fig in the court of public opinion, or in the Republican precincts of the House of Representatives if, post-midterms, the House were to begin an impeachment inquiry. It is perfectly clear that the hard core of congressional Trump supporters just aren’t interested in abstractions like prosecutorial independence or even the rule of law itself. The only result from Mueller that might change the progressively hardening partisan positions on Trump would be solid evidence of serious substantive crime.
Of course, Mr. Trump’s own tweeted response to the leaked questions, in which he claims there are “No questions on Collusion,” is flatly wrong. Many of the questions relate directly to possible cooperation between Russian entities and the Trump campaign. Still, one hopes that Mueller’s inquiries are focused more heavily on that end of things than the leaked queries suggest.
In short, a Trump critic should hope that the Mueller folks will, in the end, be able to show that Mr. Trump’s obstructive behavior was intended to conceal real, and incontrovertibly serious, misconduct.