Imagine a bull – or a bull’s handlers – wanting a matador to wave a red muleta in front of the charging beast. That’s one way to look at Monday night’s leak of the questions Special Counsel Robert Mueller reportedly wants to ask President Trump as part of the growing Russia investigation: Team Trump is trying to goad the president into charging at Mueller and his investigators.
These revelations were an obviously orchestrated attempt by the president and/or his allies in and out of the White House to continue to shape the public narrative about the investigation and the special counsel’s agenda. This is an inside baseball, law-politics-and-media story that tells us more about the extent to which the White House fears a presidential interview with Mueller than it does about the substance or progress of the special counsel’s actual work.
We do not know from the Times’ scoop what Mueller really does want to ask Trump, because we have no reason to believe the questions accurately reflect the current state of the investigation. Maybe these questions chronicle where Mueller is on all this today, May 1, or maybe not. Maybe there are new questions generated by the discovery of new evidence. (Remember the Cohen raids?) Is it really breaking news to anyone who has been paying attention to this story – or to Mueller’s long, public history – that the special counsel’s investigation appears to be a comprehensive one?
Would you want to bet your beer money on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of anything coming out of the White House these days? Would you want to lay your hand on the Bible and declare that Trump adviser Giuliani is offering up the gospel? I wouldn’t. And I sure wouldn’t want to presume too much about the accuracy and reliability of summaries of questions written by one side in a legal dispute against the other that then evidently were passed on to someone else … who then passed those summaries along to reporters.
Most of the questions, reportedly summarized by Team Trump, are obvious ones that most of us would like to have the chance to ask the president. There are questions about obstruction of justice, questions about who approached the Russians and why, questions about several of the president’s men (and relatives) who seem to be in jeopardy of becoming federal criminal defendants one day soon. Also on that list are questions focusing on Trump’s business interests; questions that appear specifically designed to evoke a response from the temperamental president.
And right on cue, Tuesday morning, the president, that bull facing the red cloth he may have requested, ripped and snorted out a Tweet that everyone saw coming:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2018
There already has been a cascading wave of analysis and speculation over the past 15 hours about who leaked these questions, and why, and who is really impacted by their arrival in the public domain. (This is a particularly good stab at the whole thing.) Here’s my theory, to which I’ll be sticking no matter what comes out of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ mouth the next time she dissembles to reporters on the topic:
I believe Trump and his allies leaked this information to try to gin up a new round of sympathy for the president on Capitol Hill and on Fox News, and to antagonize the president into a new round of fury toward Mueller and his investigators. Maybe this was a Rudy Giuliani operation, but it doesn’t really matter. The idea was, and is, to continue to portray the special counsel as having strayed beyond his initial mission, and the greater goal is to try to weaken GOP support for Mueller in Congress, and/or to justify the coming decision by Trump to refuse to be interviewed by Mueller.
The story, then is not the parsing of what “obstruction of justice” means in the context of the summaries or the renewal of the endless debate over the legal consequences of collusion versus conspiracy. The story is not that the special counsel may believe there are stronger ties between the Trump team and the Russians than so far has been made public (of course there are). And the story today, for sure, is not that we suddenly know what Mueller wants to know before he closes his case.
The Times’ latest scoop tells us instead that the lawyers surrounding the president, either formally or informally, have great reason to worry about sending their client into a room with Robert Mueller. The leak shows us that this worry has prompted them over and over again to try to undermine the chances of that interview taking place no matter what they publicly say about how eager Trump is to answer questions. The whole thing is an indication that we ought to expect additional leaks from the president’s allies that seek to damage Mueller and to steer Trump in one direction or another, toward at least one of the flashes of red in front of him.