He may consider Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation a “hoax,” but that won’t necessarily stop President Trump from being called to testify. Sources familiar with the matter say that the president’s legal team is already holding discussions with the FBI that may give Trump alternatives to a face-to-face confrontation with investigators.
NBC News reports that Trump’s lawyers are questioning whether and under what circumstances the president would be interviewed by Mueller’s team. Points of negotiation include when and where the interview might take place, the topics to be discussed and how long the interview might last.
Team Trump is also considering options that would prevent a personal interview of the president from taking place at all. These options might include having the president provide written answers to a list of questions or signing an affidavit denying any wrongdoing. The president also has the Fifth Amendment right not to provide testimony against himself.
A former US attorney and chief of staff for James Comey, Chuck Rosenberg, said that the odds against investigators accepting such a deal are “somewhere between infinitesimally small and zero.”
“Prosecutors want to see and hear folks in person,” Rosenberg, currently a NBC News legal analyst, said. “They want to probe and follow up. Body language and tone are important. And they want answers directly from witnesses, not from their lawyers.”
“I would never let the prosecution interview my client,” said famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, “but I don't represent the
president of the United States, and presidents don't want to plead the Fifth. So, this route makes sense.”
In June 2017, the reporters asked the president if he would be willing to testify before Mueller’s team. “One hundred percent,” Trump answered. “I would be glad to tell him exactly what I told you.” Since then, however, Trump has become more critical of Mueller and the Department of Justice.
Given President Trump’s penchant for going off-script, the possibility him testifying under oath likely terrifies his lawyers. The
appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel can be traced to one such moment after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. In a May 2017 interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, the president linked the firing of Comey to “this Russia thing” despite the official line that Comey was fired for bungling the investigation of Hillary Clinton. Amid the furor that followed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the matter and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller as an independent investigator.
Previous indictments from the Mueller probe have largely related to witnesses who made false statements to the FBI. If President Trump testifies, his reckless use of language could leave him open to a similar charge, even if no evidence of illegal collusion with the Russians is found.
Several recent presidents have testified in criminal investigations while they were in office. President Bill Clinton testified several times, including a four-hour grand jury testimony on video, between 1994 and 1998 in a series of different investigations. In 1987, President Reagan provided answers to a list of written questions from Iran-Contra special counsel Lawrence Walsh. President Carter gave a four-hour deposition in a special counsel investigation of financial improprieties at his family’s peanut warehouse in 1979.
The president’s team must consider the political aspects of their actions as well as possible legal ramifications. While the primary mission of Trump’s legal team is to prevent an indictment and prosecution of the president, their legal strategies must factor in public opinion as well. Actions, such as refusing to testify, that make President Trump appear guilty to voters could damage his Administration’s ability to enact his agenda and doom his chances at reelection.