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White House Legal Team Considers Ways Trump Could Testify Before Mueller

25 Feb 2018 12:00 pm
By Peter Nicholas 

President Donald Trump's lawyers are considering ways for him to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller, provided the questions he faces are limited in scope and don't test his recollections in ways that amount to a potential perjury trap, a person familiar with his legal team's thinking said.

Mr. Trump's legal team is weighing options that include providing written answers to Mr. Mueller's questions and having the president give limited verbal testimony, another person familiar with the matter said.

"Everything is on the table," this person said.

Mr. Mueller is investigating whether Mr. Trump's campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 elections and whether the president obstructed justice when he fired former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, who launched the Russia probe.

The president denies his campaign colluded with Moscow and that he obstructed justice; Russia says it didn't meddle in the campaign.

Mr. Mueller last week secured an indictment against three Russian companies and 13 Russian citizens for allegedly engaging in a widespread effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including inventing fake personas on social media and staging rallies with the "strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system." The indictment didn't accuse the Trump campaign of assisting that effort.

Whether Mr. Mueller would agree to the terms sought by the Trump legal team is unclear; his office declined to comment.

"The sooner they make the president available to submit to an interview, the faster that Bob Mueller can get to the finish line and be over and done," said Robert Ray, who served as independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation that examined former President Bill Clinton's conduct.

Negotiations could break down should Mr. Mueller insist on conditions that Mr. Trump finds unacceptable, and the president's lawyers are prepared to launch a court fight to shield him from testifying, people familiar with the matter said.

Both sides have leverage they can use, legal experts say.

A subpoena from Mr. Mueller compelling Mr. Trump to testify could ratchet up pressure on the president to answer questions.

"The American people really want him to cooperate with this investigation," said Alberto Gonzales, who was attorney general under former President George W. Bush.

Should Mr. Trump face a subpoena, he could try to quash it, setting in motion a lengthy legal proceeding that could deprive Mr. Mueller of an interview any time soon. Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Florida who has worked with Mr. Mueller in the past, said, "If that's not two years of delay and litigation, up and back to the Supreme Court, then I don't know what is."

To avoid a protracted court fight, Mr. Mueller might prefer to strike an agreement on the interview's scope, he said. "You're playing chess here, and both sides are smart chess players," Mr. Lewis said.

Whether Mr. Trump winds up talking to Mr. Mueller is one of many lingering questions surrounding the Russia investigation, which has shadowed this presidency since the first.

An interview would pose risks, with the president facing skilled prosecutors armed with documents and witness testimony who have shown they are willing to indict people on perjury charges. Mr. Trump is a freewheeling conversationalist, an instinct that proved advantageous on the campaign trail but could be unsuited to a legal setting. Still, Mr. Trump is no stranger to litigation, having given depositions tied to his career as a private businessman.

"As a lawyer, what I would want to get a sense of is how careful my client is going to be when responding to questions," Mr. Gonzales said. "If I'm totally confident that this person can be careful in saying no more than needs to be said, I might let my client go ahead and testify."

If Mr. Trump were to face detailed questions involving dates and times, his legal team may be reluctant to have him participate, the person familiar with team's thinking said. As an example, this person said, general questions about what the president was thinking when he ordered the firing of Mr. Comey might be acceptable, as opposed to what action he took on a specific date and time.

Lawyers for Mr. Trump have studied a federal court ruling from the 1990s that could be the basis for delaying or limiting the scope of an interview, or perhaps avoiding one altogether.

In that 1997 case, a federal appeals court ruled that presidents and their closest advisers enjoy protections against having to disclose information about their decision-making process or official actions.

Legal experts say Mr. Trump's attorneys can use the case as leverage in talks with Mr. Mueller.

"If it were exclusively a legal judgment, no one would ever do it, but there's a political aspect to this," Mr. Ray said.

Write to Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 25, 2018 07:00 ET (12:00 GMT)

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