The people who work closely with Donald Trump not only think he’s an idiot but they come right and say it in meetings and crowded hallways where there’s a better than zero chance that word of it will get back to the president. I’m uncertain which of these two things is stranger.
One man who thinks the president is a dunce and quit as a result is his former lead attorney John Dowd. And prior to it being leaked to The New York Times, John Dowd is the only person outside Robert Mueller’s office who is known for certain to have been in possession of a list of the dozens of questions the special prosecutor wants to ask Donald Trump. Dowd looked at that list and decided right then and there that there was no way that Trump could willingly sit down and give a deposition without a huge risk of incriminating himself. Trump didn’t see himself in that kind of peril, so he had to go looking for a new lawyer.
It would be odd if John Dowd decided to leak Mueller’s questions. But it’s kind of odd that anyone leaked them. No matter which side you look at, it’s hard to pin down an obvious motive. The special prosecutor’s office doesn’t want to open itself up to criticism. Trump’s team doesn’t want the press asking the same questions that Mueller wants to ask.
The questions are a bit disappointing in that they contain few surprises. But there are a few gems in the bunch, and plenty of opportunity for schadenfreude. It’s amusing and a little satisfying to see Mueller ask Trump what he meant when he wrote various tweets that were clearly self-incriminating and noted as such at the time he published them. It must be a shock to Trump to have his material shoved back in his face as evidence of his criminality.
There’s a repeated theme throughout the questions that I am sure Trump didn’t anticipate. And that’s a ream of inquiries about why Trump badmouthed members of the intelligence community. Why was he obsessed with Andrew McCabe? Why did he turn on Comey after being so happy with his shivving of Hillary Clinton? Why did he want to fire Jeff Sessions? Why was he so angry that Sessions recused himself? What did he think when the special prosecutor was named? Why did he try to fire the special prosecutor?
There are no good answers to these questions that you’d want to give to Bob Mueller’s face.
Trump has been trying to build a case that the intelligence community is out to get him and that they’re all corrupt, but that’s not exactly the kind of bullshit that will convince Mueller to give him a passing grade. When Mueller says, “What did you say when I was appointed and why did you try to fire me?,” he already knows the answers.
There’s obviously more peril for Trump than just his blatant and absurdly public efforts to obstruct justice. Mueller also has a long list of questions related to collusion with the Russians, and he knows the answers to most of those questions, too. He knows because people like Michael Flynn and Sam Clovis and Felix Sater and George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates have been cooperating for months. He knows because he’s interviewed Hope Hicks and Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus and dozens of other witnesses. He knows, or soon will know, because the Justice Department now has Michael Cohen by the short and curlies along with sixteen of his cell phones and terabytes of his digital and hardcopy records. He knows because he seized a small warehouse of Paul Manafort’s business records. He knows because he has NSA intercepts and months of careful surveillance of Carter Page.
So Trump can talk to Mueller if he wants but all Mueller really wants to do is to assess his credibility, and if he tells the truth Mueller won’t even have to write a report. He can just play the video of the deposition, which will be all the corroboration he’d ever need. Trump would have to lie, and he’d have no idea of what lies he could safely tell and what lies would be easily contradicted by others’ testimony and hard evidence. Even if Trump were in the habit of keeping his own stories straight and consistent, he’d have this problem. But Trump doesn’t seem to have enough of a grasp of what is real and what is fiction to have even a puncher’s chance of winning an exchange with the special counsels’ interrogators.
Some questions don’t even offer an easy opportunity for dissembling. For example, he is supposed to tell Mueller what he knew about the effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow in the fall and winter of 2015. No response other than that he knew literally nothing about those efforts would be acceptable or remotely consistent with his story that he had no business dealings with Russia. But Sater is cooperating and Cohen soon will be. In any case, Mueller has their electronic communications and can read it for himself. Trump can only hurt himself by lying, but he’d lie anyway.
Probably the most troubling question comes near the end of the list. Mueller ominously asks what Trump knew about Manafort reaching out to the Russians for help with the campaign. The outreach is stated as a fact, suggesting that Mueller has some evidence to support his contention. Perhaps Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates gave him this information, or perhaps he got it from multiple sources. Obviously, Trump can only answer that he was completely ignorant about this treachery. Everything will probably come down to whether or not Mueller has enough evidence to prove that Trump is lying.
Or, more accurately, it would come down to that if Trump were to actually respond to these questions. He probably will be talked out of doing so, but now that the media and the rest of the world knows what to ask, it’s possible that Trump will give incriminating or dishonest answers to a reporter or some voter on a rope line.
If Mueller did leak these questions, which I seriously doubt, he must have hoped it would shake some answers loose. If someone on Trump’s team leaked them, it could only have been to either blame Mueller for it or to hope that it would somehow convince Trump to take the Fifth.