Robert Mueller wants to talk to Donald Trump. The President wants to talk to the special counsel — so it’s a done deal right?
Trump appeared on Wednesday to make a significant gesture by telling reporters that he wanted to testify to Mueller — and was ready to do so under oath.
His offer came a day after it emerged that the Mueller had requested an interview with the President as he apparently begins to wind up one branch of his investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey while he was probing alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
“I am looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said, before offering a preview of what his testimony might look like.
“Here is the story: There has been no collusion whatsoever. There is no obstruction whatsoever,” Trump said.
Taking a step further, on the second day in a row of blockbuster disclosures about the Mueller probe, Trump offered to do the interview under oath.
“I would do it,” he said. “I would do it under oath, yeah.”
On the face of it, his statement represented a significant breakthrough in the Russia investigation, since earlier this month Trump questioned why an interview would be needed because there had been “no collusion.”
But the timing of the comment, the circumstances of his legal team’s ongoing negotiations with Mueller and the President’s own record of reversing apparently adamant statements mean it should be treated with caution.
It was also not immediately clear if Trump’s move was a coordinated strategy with his legal team or a case of the President characteristically speaking off the cuff in a way that could give his lawyers fits.
Of course, the President, in the belief that he is innocent and not at all threatened by the Mueller probe could simply be willing to testify under oath because he thinks it’s the quickest way out from under the Russia cloud.
It’s possible Trump’s move is a shrewd one.
That’s because though Mueller seems to be getting to the end of the obstruction piece of the investigation, it would be wrong to conclude that his tactics point to an eventual finding that Trump is guilty of a serious transgression.
He could simply be working through the process of interviews and evidence before wrapping up this area of inquiry, an interview with Trump could fast-track that process.
Even if the President knew he was in some jeopardy from Mueller’s investigation, offering up front to testify could be a smart move — as it makes him look like he has nothing to hide, as part of the pre-interview game of expectations setting.
But given that he left himself a significant caveat, the authenticity of his offer could be in doubt.
“I would love to do it. You know, again, I have to say, subject to my lawyers and all of that, but I would love to do it,” Trump said.
So if he changes his mind in the future, Trump will have benefited from the political value of being seen as publicly willing to testify — but could row back by saying that though he would love to help, he is bowing to the advice of his legal team to respectfully decline.
Trump’s comments also come at a critical moment of negotiations on the format and scope of an interview between his representatives as the special counsel’s office.
CNN’s Gloria Borger and Pamela Brown reported Wednesday that Mueller wants to know about the President allegedly asking Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and about his reaction to Comey’s May 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill. He’s also interested in the President’s outreach to intelligence agencies about the Russia investigation.
By saying he’s ready to talk, Trump could be taking part in a good cop/bad cop routine with his legal team as it haggles over the terms of any interview. Discussions could center on whether Trump will be allowed to give written answers, where or when the interview might take place and if his legal representatives can be in the room.
In true wheeler-dealer style, Trump may have simply made an opening offer on Wednesday, that will eventually be whittled down to more limited terms in a final deal.
There’s also the possibility however that he may have been acting impulsively, a plausible scenario since he has a record over his first year in office of supplying answers that his audience at any particular time wants to hear.
One member of Trump’s legal team, Ty Cobb, appeared to hint that the President’s comments were not his definitive position when he said in a statement that the President had been “speaking hurriedly” to reporters before departing on a trip to Switzerland.
“He remains committed to continued complete cooperation with the (special counsel) and is looking forward to speaking with Mr. Mueller,” Cobb said, adding that arrangements were being worked out between Mr. Mueller’s team and the President’s personal lawyers.
If Trump was just shooting from the hip, it’s possible that he has actually weakened his legal team’s hand, since Mueller could now presumably, argue that Trump has agreed to his terms so there’s no sense waiting any longer to get together.
Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst who once worked for Mueller at the Justice Department, said the President may have just put his lawyers in a difficult spot.
“Mueller should say to Ty Cobb and John Dowd, ‘Good, your client is all ready to go, we are all ready to go, let’s do it in the Map Room on Tuesday with a court reporter and we will settle this thing.'”
“I think that the unscripted appearance of the President talking about this has to make his lawyers a bit nuts because it’s very hard to walk this back,” Zeldin said on AC 360, adding that the question that would be immediately asked if Trump’s lawyers advised him not to talk to Mueller, is: What is he hiding?
CNN has previously reported that some Trump allies do not want him to testify voluntarily to Mueller, fearing he could put his presidency and personal legal position in jeopardy if he does so.
And given Trump’s demonstrated propensity to stretch the truth, his voluble temperament and unwillingness to listen to advice, some legal experts also warn that an interview with Mueller could be a perjury trap.