The Mueller-Trump interview drama may be coming to a head
President Trump’s attorney once predicted that Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation would be done by Christmas — of 2017. When Rudolph W. Giuliani joined the team in April, he predicted a resolution within “a week or two.” And Wednesday, as news broke of Trump’s legal team yet again rejecting Mueller’s offer of terms for a Trump interview, Giuliani yet again optimistically pegged the end date at Sept. 1.
The most recent word from the Trump team is that it has issued what it views as a final offer to Mueller. In rejecting his latest proposed terms for the interview, The Post’s Carol Leonnig reports, Trump’s attorneys maintain that questions related to obstruction of justice need to be off the table.
Which means we are at an impasse. And the two sides seem to be waiting for the other to force a showdown over a potential subpoena of a sitting U.S. president — just the second in history. But the prolonged nature of the whole thing is beginning to run into political realities, most notably the 2018 elections, and the dynamics of the standoff appear to be shifting, for both sides.
Let’s run through how.
The Trump side is broadcasting a desire to conclude this whole thing posthaste and well before the midterms. “This should be over with by Sept. 1,” Giuliani said Wednesday on fellow Trump attorney Jay Sekulow’s radio show. “We have now given [Mueller] an answer. Obviously, he should take a few days to consider it. But we should get this resolved.” Sekulow added in a lighthearted nod to Giuliani: “I think it will end soon. I never give dates; some of my colleagues give dates.”
All these efforts to set end dates have looked foolish in retrospect, so you have to think the fact that people like Giuliani keep predicting them is because their client demands it and they’re just trying to pacify him and his desire to be rid of the whole thing.
But if that’s really what’s happening, it would seem to strengthen Mueller’s negotiating hand. If he just waits Trump out — which, by outward appearances, could be what is happening here — perhaps Trump will eventually give in and just do the interview in the name of getting it all over with. The threat of a subpoena, after all, would potentially draw this out for weeks or even months more.
The New York Times, in its report on the Trump team’s latest counteroffer, suggested that Trump isn’t quite ready for that possible subpoena showdown and that he recently talked his attorneys out of just ending negotiations:
The negotiations have dragged on in part because the president’s lawyers are concerned that if he is interviewed, Mr. Trump could perjure himself. They had been prepared last week to tell Mr. Mueller that Mr. Trump would decline an interview, but the president, who believes he can convince Mr. Mueller that he is innocent, pushed his lawyers to continue negotiating.
The company line has long been that Trump actually wants to do the interview, but an equally — if not more — compelling explanation is that he wants to appear a willing participant. His insistence on more negotiation may be born more out of a desire to avoid a subpoena showdown that he could ultimately lose. Trump fashions himself a master negotiator, but he has also been known to drive a hard bargain and then declare victory without much of a shift in terms.
Under other circumstances, a subpoena fight would seem to be something Trump might actually want. It’s maximum drama. It allows him to assert his presidential powers and beat the “witch hunt” in court. But, for some reason, we haven’t gone down that road yet. Regardless of Trump’s ego, it’s difficult to believe that’s only because he really wants to prove his innocence in a Mueller interview but his attorneys have prevailed upon him to resist the urge.
But the prolonged nature of the whole thing also has some potential strategic value for the Trump team and negative consequences for Mueller. Polls suggest that Americans are gradually growing impatient with the investigation and, in some cases, are warming to Trump’s and his allies’ arguments against its legitimacy. The longer this goes on, the more those feelings have a chance to fester, and the more people might begin to doubt that Mueller has the goods. The 2018 midterms may be something Trump wants to avoid, but it’s also a milestone for Mueller — fully two years and one full election cycle since Trump was voted into office.
“Team Trump’s hope presumably is they can string Mueller along until enough time has passed that the refrain of ‘wrap it up’ will have more force and the public attributes to Mueller the blame for a delay from a subpoena battle,” said former Justice Department official Harry Litman. “But that battle, if it comes, means the probe hovers over the election. It’s a complicated series of calculations for both sides.”
And neither side has been willing to invoke the nuclear option — even as it may be inevitable (unless Mueller decides to give up). The decision here, as Giuliani and Sekulow emphasized Wednesday, lies with Trump and Trump alone. Perhaps Mueller thinks he can wait him out, and perhaps Trump is thinking the same thing.
It’s time for someone to blink.