Many in Washington see President Trump as impulsive, sometimes profoundly inarticulate, and prone to bursts of hyperbole. And those are his supporters.
His opponents aren’t nearly as generous. They view the leader of the free world as a congenital liar.
In the next several weeks, investigators and prosecutors working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller are hoping to sit down and formally question Mr. Trump as part of their ongoing probe into whether Trump and others conspired with Russia to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
Trump has repeatedly denied charges of collusion and obstruction.
It is unclear what evidence has already been compiled proving or disproving the allegations. But there is little doubt about one fact: As the special counsel’s investigation moves into a more mature phase, one of the greatest threats to Donald Trump’s legacy as president could be Donald Trump.
“He could easily be his own worst enemy,” says David Sklansky, a professor and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School. “I think his lawyers are very likely to be worried about making sure that he doesn’t make more trouble for himself by lying when he is talking to Mueller’s team.”
If his testimony becomes a version of his morning tweets or of ‘let Trump be Trump,’ the president may find himself charged with lying to federal investigators, analysts say.
Lying to federal agents or prosecutors is a felony even if the comments are not made under oath.
“Trump is used to being able to say whatever he wants, and then if he later decides to say something different, he just says something different,” Professor Sklansky says. “That doesn’t work when you are faced with federal criminal investigators of the caliber of Mueller and his team.”
If the president is worried, he isn’t showing it.
“I would love to do that, and I’d like to do it as soon as possible,” Trump recently told reporters at the White House of a potential interview. He suggested it might take place within the next two to three weeks. He added as an aside: “subject to my lawyers and all of that.”
Allegations of bias
Speculation about a possible Trump interview comes as partisan tensions continue to escalate in Washington over Republican allegations of bias by top officials at the FBI and charges of US intelligence abuses against the Trump campaign in 2016.
The bias allegations spring from text messages between two FBI officials working on the Trump-Russia investigation that suggest they shared strong anti-Trump political views. Both officials are no longer working on the Trump-Russia investigation.
The controversy gained an added push with revelations that five months’ worth of text messages between the two – covering a critical period in the investigation from Dec. 2016 to May 2017 – had gone missing. Bureau officials said the deletions were a result of a software foul-up, a glitch that also affected thousands of other FBI cellphones. On Thursday, officials announced they had recovered some of the missing messages.
Adding fuel to this fire, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee have produced a four-page classified memo detailing problems identified with surveillance operations at the start of the Trump-Russia investigation. The memo has been made available for viewing by all members of Congress, and there is debate about whether it should be made public.
Democrats have denounced these efforts as attempts to undercut the credibility of the FBI and help protect Trump in the midst of the ongoing investigation. Democrats have drafted their own classified memo in an effort to expose what they say are misleading aspects of the Republican memo.
Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing to set the terms of a possible Trump interview. Lawyers for the president would likely seek to limit the scope of the questions and ensure that the president’s personal lawyers will be in the room as Trump is questioned.
Such conditions can be arranged as part of a voluntary interview, according to legal analysts. But if Trump were to refuse to submit to an interview, Mueller could issue a subpoena to force Trump to appear and answer questions before a federal grand jury. In that case, his lawyers would not be at his side during the questioning. Trump would face his questioners alone, with his lawyers waiting outside in the hallway.
Trained interrogators working for Mueller can be expected to grill the president about any inconsistencies and alleged falsehoods. Analysts expect Trump will face close questioning about his alleged statement to then-FBI Director James Comey that he “hoped” the director would drop his investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. He will be asked about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Flynn’s meeting with the Russian ambassador and Flynn’s eventual firing. And he will be asked about the circumstances surrounding his decision to fire Mr. Comey.
How will Trump do? Much may depend on Mueller’s approach to the interview. Will he embrace a hyper-technical view in judging Trump’s statements, or will he offer the president the opportunity to clear up any suspected misstatements?
At least so far, Trump-Russia investigators have been unforgiving when encountering discrepancies and potential false statements.
Flynn pleaded guilty to charges that he lied about whether he discussed US sanctions with Russia’s ambassador in December 2016, a few weeks before he was set to occupy his new office in the White House.
Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos has also pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about his efforts in mid-2016 to explore contacts with various Russians who allegedly had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Both men have since agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the ongoing investigation. That suggests they would be available to testify about their recollection of events and conversations should agents detect discrepancies in Trump’s statements.
The Clinton precedent
Grilling a president of the United States about controversial matters is not unprecedented. The country has been down this road before.
President Bill Clinton was impeached (though not convicted) and lost his law license after lying under oath to the special counsel investigating an array of allegations against the Clintons, including whether the president had a sexual relationship with a White House intern.
Although the terms of any Trump-Mueller interview are still not set, the Clinton case may offer a partial template for the meeting.
The Clinton testimony was given under oath in the White House and was broadcast to the grand jury room across town. A key feature of that encounter is that it was videotaped.
It is not clear that Trump would agree to have a video and audio record of the questions and answers. It is also not clear that Trump’s lawyers would agree to create such a record.
But given the president’s apparent distrust of the motives of certain FBI agents and supervisors, a taped interview would help head off disputes about what was said and how it was said, analysts say.
“I think it would make a lot of sense to record the conversation, and I imagine that Mueller’s team would want to do that,” Sklansky says.
And the president may well agree. “Trump himself has often said, ‘I hope there are tapes,’” he adds. “So if he means that, I would assume he would want tapes of this as well.”