NYT: Mueller’s questions for Trump focus on Manafort, Flynn, Comey, Sessions
Special counsel Robert Mueller has a long list of questions for President Donald Trump, and is seeking to ask him about everything from Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, to whether or not Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to resign, according to a New York Times report.
The Times reported on Monday night that Mueller had at least four dozen questions for Trump on a wide range of topics that have come to light during his Russia investigation. The list provides significant insight into what the special counsel is examining as his team continues to negotiate with the White House over a possible interview with the president.
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Among those questions, according to The Times: What knowledge did Trump have of any outreach by his presidential campaign, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, to Russia about possible assistance to the campaign? What did Trump know about phone calls that Flynn made with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador at the time, in late December 2016? What was the president’s opinion of James Comey, the FBI director at the time, during the transition? Regarding the decision to fire Comey: When was it made, why, and who played a role? What did Trump think and do regarding the recusal of Sessions from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election?
Mueller’s questions are probing, open-ended and address some of the biggest flash points that have come up regarding the president and his conduct with relation to possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government in the election.
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Michigan, said one question stood out in the group published by the Times: Campaign outreach from Manafort to Russia about potential assistance with the campaign.
That question, she said, “seems to be based on previously nonpublic information.”
“Mueller is unlikely to include a false premise in a question, and so he must have heard from some source, such as Richard Gates, perhaps, that Manafort or others reached out to Russia,” she said. Gates was Manafort’s deputy during the campaign, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States and making false statements, and is cooperating with Mueller’s team.
Overall, McQuade said, the questions struck her as “very open-ended” and likely the starting point for a much deeper interview.
“Many of the questions seemed designed to assess Trump’s state of mind, which would be important to prove the corrupt intent necessary to establish obstruction of justice,” she said.
Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, said he saw “nothing surprising” in the topics Mueller wants to cover.
“The real questions will be the follow up questions that will rely on detailed facts provided by Mueller’s cooperating witnesses — Flynn, Gates and Papadopoulos — other witnesses who have not pled to any violations, and documents, including emails and data from the review of massive computer evidence,” he said. Papadopoulos was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is also cooperating in the special counsel’s investigation.
Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor, said Monday night’s leak of Mueller’s questions was “unheard of in FBI investigations.”
“If this is a witch hunt, it’s one for special-needs witches: Questions given in advance so the test will be easier to handle and so the questions can be shared with all the other witches,” Buell said.
Among those in the above list, Mueller is asking about exactly when Trump found out about calls that Flynn made to Kislyak. Flynn was later fired, according to Trump, for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about those contacts. As part of his guilty plea, Flynn pledged to cooperate fully with the investigations, including testifying in any future cases Muller’s team files.
Manafort is facing a litany of charges related to his lobbying work before he joined the Trump campaign. Among them are allegations that he worked with pro-Russian individuals on a lobbying campaign for Ukraine without complying with the law to register as a foreign agent.
In a court motion related to leaks filed Monday night just before the questions went public, Manafort’s defense team said that it had repeatedly requested from prosecutors proof of intercepted conversations between the longtime political consultant and Russian officials, but that none has been produced. The defense lawyers say that this strongly suggests some of the sources quoted in news stories were fabricating claims that the U.S. government had such information.