Palace intrigue is, perhaps, the only way to describe the leaking of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s questions for President Donald Trump and the speculation fueled by that leak. The New York Times published the list of more than 40 questions Monday, giving rise to almost as many other questions about the leak itself and the changing nature of Mueller’s investigation. Furthermore, the questions for the president indicate that the special counsel may be attempting to attribute criminal intent to actions taken by Trump that, in fact, fall easily within his authority as chief executive.
Fox News has now also obtained the list of questions. Neither the special counsel nor the White House has commented further although the president himself tweeted his displeasure over the leak.
Given the wide range of theories presented in the media, it is worth clarifying what few facts are known about this list of questions. What The Times published was supposedly taken from a list of written questions provided by the special counsel to Trump’s legal team. It appears the intention is that the questions would be answered by the president himself during some future interview with the special counsel.
The Leak That Left Everyone Guessing
The questions, as published in The Times, are not exact quotes and some, the paper claims, have been ‘condensed.’ This fact, in itself, should raise some eyebrows. In what form did the paper receive these questions? Were they relayed verbally by whoever leaked them? Why are the questions not quoted verbatim, exactly as they were delivered to the White House? Is this, in fact, the full list of questions or are there more?
Naturally, the president’s opponents are theorizing that the leak came from the White House and is an attempt to further discredit Mueller’s investigation. The logic behind this theory is inherently flawed, however, since these theorists are, at the same time, spinning this as an indication of how precarious Trump’s position is. It can only be one or the other; the leaked questions either cast further doubt on the legitimacy of the special counsel’s agenda or they portend legal jeopardy for the president and show that Mueller is closing in on some criminal wrongdoing.
Does it all Come Down to Intent?
A reading of these questions, which cover a range of events, suggests that Mueller is trying to attach criminal intent to Trump’s words or actions. They are open-ended questions and many are designed, it seems, to clarify the president’s thinking. This, in itself, is problematic. Intent is purely subjective. When Trump fired then-FBI Director Comey, for example, did he intend to obstruct justice or did he have other legitimate reasons to do so? Since a president has the absolute authority to fire the head of the FBI and to do so for whatever reason he deems appropriate, there is no possible way to prove that Trump fired Comey in an attempt to sabotage the investigation – unless the president himself were to directly admit this had been his intention. In reality, a president could fire an FBI Director for no other reason than the intent to replace him with someone who the president feels would be more effective in the role.
The only reasonable conclusions one can reach after studying the questions is that Mueller is no longer attempting to prove the Trump team had been colluding with the Russians during the 2016 election campaign. One of the questions asks: “What knowledge did you have during the Transition of an attempt to establish back-channel communications to Russia and efforts by Jared Kushner regarding same?” Here, it is accepted that no such collusion took place during the campaign since that in itself would have rendered any efforts to “establish back-channel communications” to Russia unnecessary.
The Vast Scope of Mueller’s Enquiries
Further, it now seems as though Mueller is attempting to fill in some pieces of a very large puzzle; this puzzle encompasses the hacked Clinton emails, the business dealings of various individuals, including the president himself, the Comey firing and Trump’s relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That is still not the full of these questions and the list looks very much like a fishing expedition.
Using this latest plot-twist as a basis for anything more concrete than mere speculation would be folly. It is worth remembering that a sitting president cannot be criminally charged – even if a crime exists, which continues to appear very doubtful.
This blueprint for an interrogation carries little legal weight. When and how these questions will be answered is not clear and Mueller may, in fact, have thrown a Hail Mary, hoping to draw Trump into a perjury trap. The mere fact that the special counsel has provided Trump’s lawyers with written questions indicates, if nothing else, that Mueller is willing to give the president the option of incriminating himself, or not, rather than blindsiding him with some fabricated crime, as some have feared. This seemingly interminable investigation may not continue indefinitely, after all.