After a busy news day in which Trump tripled-down on his feud with Amazon, met with the leaders of the Baltic states and threatened to scrap NAFTA and foreign aid to Central America if Mexico doesn’t stop a caravan of migrants from reaching the US border, the Washington Post has published the most notable update about the Mueller probe in recent history.
Citing three people familiar with the investigation, the paper reports that Mueller told Trump’s legal team last month that the president isn’t a criminal target in the Russia probe at this point.
However, Mueller also informed Trump’s lawyers that he is preparing a report about the president’s conduct while in office, and that report will include details about Trump’s purported obstruction of justice. Of course, the prosecutor didn’t hesitate to use this report as leverage to try and convince the Trump legal team to assent to an unrestricted interview between Trump and Mueller.
Mueller has described Trump as a “subject” of the investigation – a term that has also been used to described his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s involvement.
Some of Trump’s legal advisors have taken this as a positive sign, but others have warned that Trump’s status could easily be moved from “subject” to a criminal indictment.
Mueller’s description of the president’s status has sparked friction within Trump’s inner circle as his advisers have debated his legal standing. The president and some of his allies seized on the special counsel’s words as an assurance that Trump’s risk of criminal jeopardy is low. Other advisers, however, noted that subjects of investigations can easily become indicted targets — and expressed concern that the special prosecutor was baiting Trump into an interview that could put the president in greater legal peril.
Typically special counsel probes end with a private report to the attorney general or deputy attorney general (in this case, the latter). That report can then be made public at their discretion – but, according to WaPo, it appears as if Rod Rosenstein has already made up his mind that some record of the investigation must be released to the public.
Mueller’s team has also told Trump’s legal team – which has endured an unprecedented shakeup in recent weeks – that the DOJ intends to issue the report in stages, with the first stage dealing with obstruction, and the next detailing what Trump knew about his campaign advisors contacts with Russian officials.
Mueller’s investigators have indicated to the president’s legal team that they are considering writing reports on their findings in stages — with the first report focused on the obstruction issue, according to two people briefed on the discussions.
Under special counsel regulations, Mueller is required to report his conclusions confidentially to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has the authority to decide whether to release the information publicly.
“They’ve said they want to write a report on this — to answer the public’s questions — and they need the president’s interview as the last step,” one person familiar with the discussions said of Mueller’s team.
Trump’s attorneys expect the president would also face questions about what he knew about any contacts by his associates with Russians officials and emissaries in 2016, several White House advisers said. The president’s allies believe a second report detailing the special counsel’s findings on Russia’s interference would be issued later.
The president has privately expressed relief at the description of his legal status, which has increased his determination to agree to a special counsel interview, the people said. He has repeatedly told allies that he is not a target of the probe and believes an interview will help him put the matter behind him, friends said.
However, legal experts said Mueller’s description of Trump as a subject of a grand jury probe does not mean he is in the clear.
Under Justice Department guidelines, a subject of an investigation is a person whose conduct falls within the scope of a grand jury’s investigation. A target is a person for which there is substantial evidence linking him or her to a crime.
A subject could become a target with his or her own testimony, legal experts warn.
“If I were the president, I would be very reluctant to think I’m off the hook,” said Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University and impeachment expert.
Trump has repeatedly said he’d be happy to sit down with Mueller, but his legal team has been working to limit the scope of his testimony to written answers or agreeing to exclude certain topics.
It’s also widely believed that Trump’s legal team has been split on whether Trump should testify, with Dowd reportedly leaving because the president ignored his advice. Even if Trump refuses to meet with Mueller, it’s unlikely he’d decide to subpoena the president or pursue him further. Such an act would instigate a legal battle that could escalate to the Supreme Court, where Mueller risks an embarrassing defeat.
So, why risk it? It’d be easier to put the president’s mind at ease while exerting some pressure on his legal team, hoping the mixture convinces them all that Trump – the “walking perjury trap,” according to one source – assents to the interview.