At his news conference Wednesday, President Donald Trump pointedly declined to say whether he would agree to answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller - but then suggested that such a session wouldn’t be warranted in any event.
“When they have no collusion - and nobody’s found any collusion at any level - it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview,” he observed.
The president is wrong. What is unlikely - unimaginable, in my assessment - is that Mueller would conclude his investigation without seeking to interview the president.
The president’s repeated insistence that he did nothing improper does not mean an interview is unnecessary.
After all, if prosecutors decided there was no need to speak with every subject who proclaimed his own innocence, they would never get very far.
Mueller, of course, is not required to take the president’s word for it on the question of collusion.
Equally misguided is the president’s claim that no one has found “any collusion at any level.” We simply don’t know whether that’s true. There certainly have been suspicious reports about events such as the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower and contacts between Russian individuals and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos (who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating). Due to the secrecy surrounding grand jury investigations, we don’t know exactly what Mueller has found.
Trump may repeat this denial as frequently as he likes (as he did again Wednesday on Twitter), but the grand jury is still out on the question of collusion (or, more accurately, criminal conspiracy).
Even if there were no evidence at all of collusion, that would not make an interview unnecessary. It seems pretty clear that in addition to allegations of conspiracy with Russian nationals, Mueller is investigating other crimes, including obstruction of justice.
Much of that probe may center on the president’s own actions, such as the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. Attempting to interview the president himself concerning these other allegations is a critical step in Mueller’s investigation.
Finally, even if the president is completely innocent of any wrongdoing, prosecutors would still want to talk to him. Mueller’s team cannot get a full picture of events surrounding the campaign without speaking to the candidate himself.
So despite the president’s claim that an interview seems “unlikely,” there’s little doubt that Mueller’s team will want to talk to him. Trump’s comments Wednesday suggest he might not agree to sit down with prosecutors voluntarily.
That probably would be in line with the legal advice he would receive from most defense counsel, although refusing to cooperate could have serious political implications.
It also would invite Mueller to respond by subpoenaing Trump to the grand jury - far less friendly terrain for the president. His lawyers definitely have their hands full in deciding how best to respond to the special counsel. But despite what the president may hope, Mueller is not going to simply go away.
Randall D. Eliason teaches white-collar criminal law at George Washington University Law School.