WASHINGTON (AP) — The date had been picked, the location too, and the plan was penciled in: President Donald Trump would be whisked from the White House to Camp David on a quiet winter Saturday to answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. But as the Jan. 27, 2018, date neared and Mueller provided the topics he wanted to discuss, Trump’s lawyers balked. Attorney John Dowd then fired off a searing letter disputing Mueller’s authority to question the president. The interview was off.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The date had been picked, the location too, and the plan was penciled in: President Donald Trump would be whisked from the White House to Camp David on a quiet winter Saturday to answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
But as the Jan. 27, 2018, date neared and Mueller provided the topics he wanted to discuss, Trump’s lawyers balked. Attorney John Dowd then fired off a searing letter disputing Mueller’s authority to question the president. The interview was off.
Nearly a year later, Trump has still not spoken directly to Mueller’s team — and may never. Through private letters, tense meetings and considerable public posturing, the president’s lawyers have engaged in a tangled, tortured back-and-forth with the special counsel to prevent the president from sitting down for a face-to-face with enormous political and legal consequences.
The prolonged negotiation speaks to the high stakes for Trump, Mueller’s investigation of his campaign and the presidency. Any questioning of a president in a criminal investigation tests the limit of executive authority. Putting this president on the record also tests his ability to stick to the facts and risks a constitutional showdown.
The process took a significant step forward this week when Trump’s lawyers handed over the president’s written answers to some of Mueller’s questions. The arrangement was a hard-fought compromise. Trump answered only questions about Russian interference in the 2016 election and not questions about whether he has tried to obstruct the broader investigation into potential coordination between Russia and his presidential campaign. It’s unclear whether Mueller intends to push for more — either in writing or in person.
Special counsel spokesman Peter Carr declined comment.
Even those written answers were months in the making.
In the months following Mueller’s May 2017 appointment, the White House pledged its cooperation, believing it the fastest way to end the investigation. The administration produced thousands of documents sought by the special counsel and made close Trump aides — including his legal counsel, chief of staff and press secretary — available for questioning. White House lawyer Ty Cobb predicted the investigation could conclude by the end of that year.
But it soon became clear that Mueller would want to interview Trump, given his involvement in several events under scrutiny. The president had fired FBI Director James Comey, harangued his attorney general over his recusal from the Russia investigation and dictated a misleading statement about a Trump Tower meeting involving his son and a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
But Trump lawyers Dowd and Jay Sekulow moved cautiously.
The last time a president is known to have been interviewed in a criminal investigation was nearly 15 years ago, and a commander-in-chief has not been subpoenaed before a grand jury since 1998, when President Bill Clinton was summoned in the Whitewater case. Trump’s lawyers were mindful such an interview would be a minefield for a president who often misstates the facts. They set out to avoid it however possible, even if it could lead to resisting a subpoena and bringing on a court fight over presidential power.
But first they tried to head off a request. Trump’s lawyers staked out a bold constitutional argument, declaring they considered his actions as president outside a prosecutor’s bounds. Mueller had no right to question the president on any of his decisions made at the White House, they argued, saying any outside scrutiny of those choices would curb a president’s executive powers.
At the same time, they worked to undermine Mueller’s case should he choose to challenge that argument. They furnished a trove of White House documents about key moments in the investigation in hopes of undercutting any claim that he could only get the information he needed by questioning Trump, according to people familiar with the strategy.