Special counsel Robert Mueller told President Donald Trump's lawyers last month that he will probably seek to interview the president, setting off discussions among Trump's lawyers about the perils of such a move, two people familiar with the discussion said Monday.
No formal request has been made and no date has been set. White House officials viewed the discussion as a sign that Mueller's investigation of Trump could be nearing the end. But even if that is so, allowing prosecutors to interview a sitting president who has a history of hyperbolic or baseless assertions carries legal risk for him. Mueller has already brought charges against four of Trump's former aides. All face accusations of lying to authorities.
Trump's lawyers have long expected that Mueller would eventually ask to speak with the president. Ty Cobb, the senior White House lawyer on the case, has for months pledged full cooperation, saying Trump has nothing to hide in an investigation into whether his campaign worked with Russian operatives to try to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Trump's lawyers are expected to try to set ground rules for any interview or provide answers to written questions. If Trump were to refuse outright to cooperate, Mueller could respond with a grand jury subpoena.
The White House had no comment on the discussions about a possible interview, which were first reported by NBC News.
One person familiar with the discussions said Mueller appeared most interested in asking questions about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the firing of FBI Director James Comey – not the broader question of possible collusion with Russia. Those topics signal an interest in whether Trump tried to obstruct justice. The person was not authorized to talk about internal discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The obstruction investigation focuses on whether Trump broke the law by asking Comey to end the investigation into Flynn and whether he fired Comey to try to hinder the FBI investigation into Russia-related matters. Shortly after dismissing Comey in May, the president told Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting that doing so had relieved "great pressure" on him.
Trump has sat for depositions before and shown discipline when under oath. His testimony in civil cases reveals a canny ability to avoid being cornered and a frank acknowledgment that he uses "truthful hyperbole" or "innocent exaggeration." But he has never faced questioning from someone like Mueller, a veteran prosecutor and former FBI director who has a dozen experienced litigators behind him.
And the stakes have never been higher. President Bill Clinton was impeached on a perjury charge over his grand jury testimony about his relationship with a White House intern.
Solomon L. Wisenberg, one of the lawyers who questioned Clinton – prompting him to famously assert that his answer depended on what the meaning of "is" is – said Mueller would probably wait until his inquiry was nearly complete to question the president. Wisenberg said that while Trump often makes statements to the public that are inflammatory or untrue, the president has shown he can be disciplined, as he has curtailed his criticisms of Mueller in recent months.
"Trump has been on message about Mueller since Ty Cobb came in as his lawyer" in July, Wisenberg said. "It's pretty clear when Ty Cobb came in, he tightened up the ship and had a talk with Trump and must have said: 'You're OK on collusion. Stop attacking Mueller directly.'"
Mueller will have three choices for questioning Trump: written questions, an interview with his investigators or a subpoena to appear before a grand jury. Legal experts said Mueller would almost certainly want to speak directly with Trump in person. They said Trump's lawyers would want to prevent Mueller from putting Trump alone before a grand jury, where lawyers normally are not present.
"You want to be an active participant in the conversation," Wisenberg said, adding that Trump's lawyers would do all they could to show Mueller they were cooperating to prevent the special counsel from putting him before the grand jury.
Historically, presidents have been reluctant to speak with investigators looking into their conduct. During the investigation of Clinton, the independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, served Clinton with a grand jury subpoena as part of an effort to compel him to testify. The subpoena set off negotiations between Starr and Clinton's lawyers, which ultimately resulted in Clinton being questioned at the White House instead of a courthouse, where nearly all grand jury appearances occur.