Former prosecutors and investigators say that the Mueller questions likely only skim the surface of what Mueller knows or wants to ask—and that given the length of the inquiry, the special counsel has a clear picture of what he thinks happened from other witnesses, and wants to see if those accounts mesh with what the president says. Therein lies the risk for both the president and his allies—if the president’s account contradicts those of other witnesses, he could strengthen an obstruction-of-justice case against him. And even if Mueller believes the president’s version of events, if other witnesses have said something different, then they could be subject to prosecution for misleading investigators.
“When they finally get around to interviewing Trump if they do, they’ve already got all the evidence that they need, they’ve already gotten the pieces of the puzzle they need,” said Dave Gomez, a former FBI agent and a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “They try to get the last pieces of the puzzle from the president, and then put the picture together. If the pieces from the president don’t fit the picture, that’s a problem."
The fact that Mueller sent Trump’s legal team the questions in the first place indicates a level of deference to the president not typically afforded the subjects of federal investigations. Prosecutors might give a defense lawyer some sense of the scope of an interview by outlining topics or events, but they rarely offer the actual questions in advance. Nor do Mueller’s queries indicate whether he might ask to follow-up on the president’s answers.
“Those are very dangerous questions for the president, because he doesn’t know everything the Mueller team knows, and the president never seems to do good vetting of his own people or know what they were up to,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “He could give a different story, and what some of the Republicans have not really thought through, is what if the president gives a different story, and he’s adamant about it, and everyone moves to support the president, and someone who gives a different account is hung out in the wind?”
Responding to the leak of the questions in the Times Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted, “So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were “leaked” to the media. No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see … you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!”
The president later added, “It would seem very hard to obstruct justice for a crime that never happened! Witch Hunt!”
The Times reported that the questions were “read by the special counsel investigators to the president’s lawyers, who compiled them into a list,” and that they were then passed on “by a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team.” The questions did, in fact, broach the subject of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. And as a legal matter, no underlying crime need be proven for a charge of obstruction of justice.