President Donald Trump’s lawyers are gaming out possible questions and answers for a potential interview with special counsel Robert Mueller, according to two people familiar with the strategy.
The preparations reflect an understanding that negotiations with the lead Russia investigator, which have been ongoing since January, will eventually culminate in a sit-down meeting between Mueller with the president. One source said the discussions about the terms of a possible interview may soon even reach a conclusion.
“I don’t think it’s months and months out. I don’t think it’s in a week,” said the person familiar with the negotiations. “But I think it’s moving toward closure.”
But even given the high stakes of a potential meeting with Mueller, Trump’s lawyers face a challenge in prepping a president who resists following scripts and who has deep trust in his own improvisational instincts.
Trump has said he is eager to meet with Mueller. “I’m looking forward to it, actually,” he told reporters in the White House on Jan. 24, adding that his lawyers had informed him the interview could happen in “about two to three weeks.” But his attorneys quickly ratcheted back his remarks, saying he was “speaking hurriedly” before departing for a European trip, and have since addressed the subject cautiously.
The president’s timeline has since blown by, and Trump’s personal lawyers and some associates have urged him to refuse a sit-down interview that does not include ground rules on the kinds of questions he’d face.
It is standard practice for attorneys to anticipate prosecutors’ likely questions and craft draft responses for their clients. If an interview between Mueller and Trump is scheduled, Trump and his lawyers may even war-game the session in advance, much as candidates stage mock debates to prepare themselves for opponents.
But Trump is not known for studious preparation. He is an impatient reader and spent little time preparing for the 2016 presidential debates. That raises the question of how challenging it might be for his lawyers to ready him for a high-stakes session with Mueller and his crack team of prosecutors.
Trump is hardly a stranger to legal proceedings: In one 2012 deposition, according to the Atlantic, Trump said he had participated in more than 100 depositions.
But that doesn’t mean Trump is always well-prepared to field complex legal questions under oath. During a 2016 deposition tied to his lawsuit against a chef who backed out of a deal to open a restaurant at Trump’s Washington D.C. hotel, Trump was asked what he did to prepare for the hearing.
“I would say virtually nothing,” he replied. “I spoke with my counsel for a short period of time. I just arrived here, and we proceeded to the deposition.”
Trump added that he didn’t study any documents beforehand.
Before any interview, Trump and his lawyers must complete their sensitive negotiations with Mueller over its terms. Among other things, Trump’s lawyers have argued that the burden is on Mueller to show his investigation can’t be completed without an interview with the president. They have also studied the feasibility of answering questions in writing, as President Ronald Reagan did during the Iran-Contra scandal. And they have made clear their resistance to Mueller questioning Trump more than once.
In his document requests, Mueller has expressed an interest in subjects ranging from Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey to how he responded to the theft and leaks of Democratic emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“It’s a tug of war both internally and probably with Mueller,” said a senior Republican who recently met with the president. “The end goal for the White House is to get as narrow a discussion as can be possibly negotiated including maybe just answering written questions like Reagan.”
The Republican argued that it’s in Mueller’s interests to narrow the scope of any interview to ensure it isn’t just seen as a fishing expedition. “Otherwise it’s pointless,” the Republican said. “You can’t prepare him. And he can’t be prepared. And Mueller gets nothing out of it except a perjury charge. Is that all he’s trying to get out of this?”
Some of the bargaining between Trump’s lawyers and Mueller has spilled into the media. A Wall Street Journal story published last Friday said Trump’s lawyers were considering offering the special counsel a sit-down interview — but only with conditions, such as a deadline for Mueller to wrap up portions of the probe specifically involving Trump.
Solomon Wisenberg, a former deputy on Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton, said that idea would be a non-starter for Mueller.
“That’s bullshit,” he said. “You accommodate the president but you don’t change the rules for him in a substantive way.”
One defense attorney working on the Russia probe speculated that the Journal article may have represented a tactical ploy by Trump’s lawyers: an offer Mueller is sure to reject designed to show the president that they had tried to bargain with the special counsel to no avail.
“It’s a strategy by the lawyers,” the defense attorney said. “Either Mueller will agree to the terms in some fashion, and at least they get something out of it, or he won’t and then they can convince the president not to sit for the interview.”
The lawyer added that Mueller is also at a crossroads in his pursuit of a Trump interview. If the special counsel pushes too hard he could end up in a long legal fight that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and where there’s no guarantee the ruling on the other end is favorable to the probe.
“They’ve let themselves be drawn into a sort of a Pyrrhic war,” the attorney said. “The problem they have is that they don’t they don’t know for sure what would happen if they try to subpoena the president.”
Mueller’s office declined comment about the status of talks with Trump lawyers.
Wisenberg said it was reasonable for Mueller to provide Trump with general topics he wanted to discuss. But he said the special counsel has adopted aggressive tactics before — including an early-morning search of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s home — and doubted Mueller would hesitate to subpoena Trump if the president’s lawyers balk at a meeting. “If Trump does not sit down and talk he’s going to subpoena him,” Wisenberg said.
Wisenberg also predicted Mueller would win if the case was decided by the Supreme Court. “He’s going to lose 9-0 and Gorsuch is going to write the opinion,” he said, referring to Trump’s appointee, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Trump’s lawyers noted that the president has made no claims of executive privilege and his lawyers have turned over thousands of pages of White House and campaign documents.
“It’s been the most transparent inquiry of this type in history,” said Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal lawyers.
Asked about the progress of the talks with Mueller, John Dowd, who is serving as the president’s lead negotiator on the interview, had nothing to say.
“None of your business,” he replied.
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