President Donald Trump’s closest associates are ramping up their message to special counsel Robert Mueller: do not subpoena the president to testify.
A series of developments over the weekend demonstrated the Trump team’s deepening resolve to maintain control over — if not block altogether — the president’s meeting with the prosecutor looking into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
On Sunday, top Trump allies publicly warned Mueller against a subpoena and indicated that Trump would only tolerate a tightly choreographed interview.
That came a day after a months-oldletter from Trump’s legal team was published in the New York Times stating the team’s view that Trump cannot be compelled to testify and that, as president, he could not have committed obstruction of justice. A source familiar with the letter confirmed its authenticity to POLITICO.
Trump’s lawyers have for months been in quiet negotiations with Mueller, who is investigating whether any campaign aides helped Russia meddle in the election and whether the president sought to obstruct the probe by, among other things, firing former FBI Director James Comey in 2017. The talks have broken into public view as Trump’s team seeks to limit the length and scope of the interview, get Mueller’s questions in advance and win other concessions that they believe could keep the president from making mistakes or perjuring himself.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Trump’s personal lawyer, said Sunday that, as things stand, he would advise Trump against sitting down with Mueller’s investigators.
“We’re leaning toward not. But look, if they can convince us that it will be brief, it would be to the point, there were five or six points they have to clarify, and with that, we can get this long nightmare for the American public over,” Giuliani said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
In the same interview, Giuliani asserted that Trump has the power to pardon himself, though he said the president has “no intention” of making such a move.
On Fox News the same morning, Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski also made the case for a limited interview to avoid a subpoena.
“There’s a potential to avoid a subpoena entirely if the team can work together and determine that the questions that will be asked will be relevant to an investigation to prove once and for all there was no collusion,” Lewandowski told “Fox News Sunday.”
Mueller had not sent a subpoena as of Friday, Giuliani told POLITICO that day, though his office broached the idea of sending one in March.
“You’d know it if there was,” Giuliani said in an interview Friday. “First of all, you’d hear me screaming. I think you might hear something coming out of the Oval Office, too.”
Meanwhile, Trump has continued to launch assaults on Mueller’s team, claiming its members are Democrats who are biased against him. On Sunday, he tweeted a quote from a political strategist who noted that one of Mueller’s prosecutors, Jeannie Rhee, once represented the Clinton Foundation. Trump called it a “disgrace,” though Rhee’s partner at the foundation in 2015 was a Washington attorney who was later hired by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
It’s not clear what Mueller’s team wants from the White House. Interview negotiations between Trump’s team and Mueller have played out publicly in a decidedly one-sided fashion.
The special counsel’s office has repeatedly declined comment on the status of the probe, including basics like confirming meetings with the president’s lawyers. Only Trump’s team is talking, largely through a dizzying series of Giuliani interviews on cable television and with print media outlets in which the former New York mayor has relayed what he says are decisions by the special counsel.
Giuliani has said Mueller agreed to limit his interview with Trump to a narrower set of topics. He’s insisted that Mueller concluded that he legally cannot indict a sitting president. In an interview with The New York Times last month, Giuliani said Mueller told him of plans to wrap up at least part of his Russia probe by Sept. 1 if Trump grants him an interview.
In interviews with POLITICO, Giuliani has said Mueller’s office rejected Trump’s request to answer questions in writing. He’s said that Trump’s team has agreed with Mueller that any interview would be audiotaped with a stenographer in the room. Giuliani also has said he’s open to the public release of the interview, though he acknowledged that wouldn’t be his decision.
The leaked letter over the weekend was the latest emergence of partial, one-sided information about the legal maneuvering. The letter, according to the source familiar with it, was part of a series of five letters sent to Mueller before Giuliani’s hiring in mid-April.
In a statement, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said of the document’s release: “Our legal position has been consistent through the outset of this inquiry. We maintain a cooperative approach with the office of the special counsel but we do not disclosure either conversations or documents involving our representation of the president to the media.”
Trump’s legal team in recent weeks has made a series of additional demands on the special counsel that it says must be met before they’d let the president sit for an interview.
The president’s lawyers say they expect to get a full briefing from the Justice Department on the FBI’s use of an informant who contacted the Trump campaign. They also want to see the underlying “scope memo” from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that spells out the full breadth of Mueller’s mandate.
Giuliani told POLITICO Friday that negotiations on a Trump interview with Mueller continued. Jane Raskin, one of the president’s personal lawyers based in Miami, is in regular touch with the special counsel’s office, he said.
Trump has said repeatedly in public — starting last spring and as recently as this April — that he was willing to grant Mueller an interview.
“I am looking forward to it, actually,” the president told reporters in January.
Giuliani told POLITICO last month that Trump’s team is assuming Mueller will send a subpoena, but he said doing so would trigger a legal fight that would mean “Mueller is on the job for another year.”
“He doesn’t want that, I don’t think,” Giuliani said.
Giuliani also said at the time that he thought Mueller had enough information to draw a conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice without talking to the president.
“He has enough information on which to write a report right now,” Giuliani told POLITICO. “The thing is probably drafted. What are they doing? They’ve got 1.4 million documents. They’ve got to have most of it written it by now.”