James Comey, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, Mueller questions, Obstruction of Justice, Questions for Trump, Robert Mueller
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.
There may be some gray area. What if it can’t be proven that Trump had knowledge of the crimes, but other senior member of his staff did engage in a conspiracy against the united states or other crimes? We still don’t know that Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in.
Edward Magdaleno Soria said:
I believe that the questions in mind came and were leaked from the White House -and the presumed questions that Trumps lawyers had seen and therefore warned Trump don’t go and see Mueller. Mueller is a professional and you can understand that Mue
Paul J. Hofer said:
Weren’t these exchanges part of negotiations over a possible interview, which included limiting it to the issue of obstruction? I figured that accounts for the focus, because I agree it makes no political sense to lead with obstruction. That’s why I’ve also discounted stories that Mueller was planning an interim report on obstruction in June or July.
The interim report notion is a bit puzzling. However, one explanation may be that DOJ’s Special Counsel regulations, 28 CFR 600.8(a)(2), provide that the Special Counsel is supposed to provide a report to the Attorney General 90 days before the beginning of the fiscal year. In that report, the Special Counsel is to describe the “status of the investigation” and make a budget request for the next year. The federal fiscal year begins on Oct 1, which makes the Mueller status report due around the first of July. The regulation doesn’t say what should go into a report on the “status of the investigation,” but Mueller could interpret that as an invitation or excuse to provide a full rundown on what he’s discovered about Mr. Trump and others.