On May 2, President Donald Trump defiantly tweeted that the four dozen questions Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to ask him are “a setup & trap.”
This was in sharp contrast to his tweet back in January when he said, “I’m looking forward to it.” The “it” was testifying before Mueller.
So what changed in four months to cause Trump to dig in his heels? In a word, nothing.
The January tweet was nothing but another big smokescreen from a man who has practically rewritten the script on how to duck, dodge, obfuscate and flat out lie on the Mueller probe. Trump will do everything legally possible not to testify.
He’ll accompany that with a well-tuned media and public barrage of acid words and slurs at Mueller and anyone and anything connected with the probe. Trump is not stupid. He didn’t need his ever-changing pack of attorneys to tell him that anything he said to Mueller is fraught with mountainous legal perils for him.
He also didn’t need to see the leaked questions to know that. Why else, months after Mueller publicly declared he wanted to talk to Trump, is there no date set for him to testify or timetable for setting a date.
From day one, the prospect of Trump testifying set off a mad legal scramble behind the scenes by him and his attorneys to weasel out of giving any testimony. In the months before Trump’s public boast about testifying, Mueller laid the groundwork for what, if any case, could be made against him for collusion by pecking away around the edges.
He indicted several key Trump campaign and administration associates. He indicted 13 Russian nationals, and in the process blew open the details of how Russia pulled off its elaborate and wide-ranging presidential election scam.
He then followed that up by wringing a guilty plea for lying to investigators from a top-notch New York attorney about his work for a Ukrainian firm knee deep in the election scam. This guaranteed the likelihood of more plea deals from those involved in some way in the scam.
However, these maneuvers were just the legal and public warm-up act to the main event: getting Trump to talk.
The Mueller probe has always had one publicly stated official purpose and one privately unstated purpose. The official purpose is to determine if, and how, Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The FBI, CIA and National Security Administration, in separate reports in January 2017, firmly established that it had. Then President Obama followed that up by ordering an investigation into the extent of Russian election meddling.
The indictment of the 13 Russian nationals a year later simply fleshed out the details of the meddling. Even Trump, in between lambasting the investigation as a “hoax” and shouting “no collusion,” “no collusion,” was careful to add that he had never said that the Russians “or someone” hadn’t put their fingers in the 2016 presidential election. So there was little left to say about that part of the probe.
The unstated purpose for the probe is to determine if Trump, or someone operating at his behest, knowingly or unknowingly was involved in the Russian scheme. That is the thorny issue that has hung over the probe from the start.
It is clearly established that the Russians set up their elaborate election fraud campaign to wreck Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It did a pretty masterful job of it by spreading malicious gossip, lies and hit pieces all over the public and media landscape about her. The aim was to ensure that Trump got in the Oval Office.
If that could be proven, then the question would be would Mueller bring charges against him? Legal experts have been furiously debating that point.
The Nixon-Watergate and Clinton cases are cited to show that he could be indicted. Watergate prosecutors argued that Nixon could have been indicted for his role in the Watergate break-in. There was evidence that independent counsel Kenneth Starr did prepare a memo that then President Bill Clinton could be indicted on issues involving the Lewinsky scandal.
The greatest shield Trump would have beyond the constitutional quibble over indictment was precedent. No sitting president has ever been indicted, simply because it would cause monumental political and legal havoc and paralyze the chief executive and by extension the government. That didn’t mean, however, it couldn’t happen.
Trump is very much aware of that potential danger. That is the major reason he has employed every legal dodge not to give face-to-face testimony to Mueller.
He has dredged up the “bad precedent” argument to make the claim that a sitting president talking to a prosecutor in a potential criminal case could hamstring the presidency. The only valid point about this is that Mueller is a prosecutor and sitting down with him to testify would be adversarial and for a president, embarrassing. And since Trump is an unabashed liar and story-changer to suit his purposes, there’s the added danger that Mueller could nail him for lying to a federal prosecutor.
Trump will move heaven and earth to make sure that doesn’t happen. That means saying no to a sit-down with Mueller every way he can and every chance he gets.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is, “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.