“The absolute last thing I want to do in my life is be sitting next to Donald Trump being questioned by the special counsel.”
—Anonymous lawyer familiar with the Mueller investigation to New York magazine.
Although the New Year dawned with reports that President Trump would sit for an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Trump later seemed to throw cold water on these accounts saying, “When they have no collusion … it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview.”
As usual, Trump is obsessed with the notion of “collusion.” Meanwhile, there are other crimes Mueller might be interested in, such as obstruction of justice. And always remember that things change quickly Trumpland. Only 48 hours ago, someone “close to the president” told The Washington Post that Trump was eager to sit down with the special counsel. He “is comfortable participating in an interview and believes it would put to rest questions about whether his campaign coordinated with Russia in the 2016 election.”
But, as New York noted, “No lawyer worth his salt or her salt would let a client like Trump be interviewed.” Especially by a first-rate lawman/prosecutor who once led the FBI. The record shows that Trump is a walking, talking lying machine. In his first 100 days in office, The Washington Post found he made an average of 4.9 false or misleading claims per day. And that was only what he said in public. In a deposition in an unsuccessful libel suit he brought in 2007, “Trump had to acknowledge 30 times during that deposition that he had lied over the years about a wide range of issues…
It seems every lawyer falls into one of two camps: the ones who want to do the questioning and the ones who want to be a fly on the wall. As a former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer who worked on the Clinton impeachment trial, I’m the sort who wants to ask the questions.
Not that he needs them, but here are some suggested questions for Mueller to ask:
1. Did you bring a copy of your tax returns for the last 10 years? No? Not a problem. We’ve got them. Is that your signature there?
Trump is the only President in modern memory to refuse to release his tax returns.
During the presidential debates, Hilary Clinton put her finger on four possible reasons why. They show that he is not as rich as he claims, he does not give to charity, he’s deeply in hock to foreign interests, or he simply doesn’t pay any taxes. Or all of the above.
One year into his presidency, Trump’s tax returns are a modern-day treasure of the Sierra Madre, luring everyone from conspiracy theorists to hard-nosed reporters. Mueller and his team probably are among the only people on earth who have actually seen whether the mine is full of gold or slag. They’re going to dig in with the President.
2. In 2008, your eldest son Donald Trump, Jr., told a real estate trade publication, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets…We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Was he telling the truth?
By the way, in the same interview your son said, “I really prefer Moscow over all cities in the world.” Have you discussed why he prefers Moscow to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., or any U.S. city?
Lately however, Papa Trump has taken to denying any financial involvement with Russia.
Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
This is patently false. Trump has long sought money from Russians. He was actively seeking deals in Moscow in 2015 and 2016. And he has often sold real estate in the U.S. to Russians. In Miami alone, 63 people with Russian passports or addresses spent almost $100 million at Trump developments according to a Reuters investigation.
There is nothing wrong per se with doing business in Russia or with Russians. But there are legal risks. One is money laundering. According to a 2017 State Department report, “Official corruption remains a problem at all levels of [Russian] government and is a major source of laundered funds….Criminals invest in and launder their proceeds through securities instruments, e-currencies, precious metals, domestic and foreign real estate, and luxury consumer goods.”
Until mid-2016, when Trump became the Republican presidential nominee, his financial exposure to Russian interests were not a matter of national security. But since then, they have been. Knowing the extent of his financial and legal vulnerability to Russian interests is critical.
3. In a March 2017 Forbes interview your son Eric Trump said he would supply reports on your business interests perhaps as frequently as every 90 days. What, exactly, is your ongoing involvement with your business?
Trump’s financial involvement with Russia did not end the day he took the oath of office. He continues to own his companies and maintains the right to draw as much money from them as he wants whenever he wants. His businesses seem to be suffering. As Forbes noted in October when it released its list of the 400 richest Americans:
The most notable loser was President Donald Trump, whose fortune fell $600 million to $3.1 billion. A tough New York real estate market, particularly for retail locations; a costly lawsuit and an expensive presidential campaign all contributed to the declining fortune of the 45th president.
This financial setback only magnifies the impact of Trump’s Russian entanglements. How much of a daily concern is his declining fortune? And how much is his son telling him?
4. At a January 2017 press conference, before you were sworn in as President, you dismissed allegations from the so-called Steele Dossier that Russian intelligence might have compromising videotape or “kompromat” on you. You asserted that you knew you were potentially under surveillance:
When I leave our country, I’m a very high-profile person, would you say? I am extremely careful. I’m surrounded by bodyguards. I’m surrounded by people.
And I always tell them — anywhere, but I always tell them if I’m leaving this country, “Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras.” I’m not referring just to Russia, but I would certainly put them in that category.
When did you first become aware the Russian intelligence services were interested in you and might be seeking information or material to use in their interactions with you?
Trump knows he has been a target for Russian intelligence for quite some time. He cannot credibly claim, now, to be shocked – shocked!—that he and his sons were approached by Russian intelligence as his campaign kicked into high gear. He was already on guard. When his campaign’s interactions with Russian actors intensified, he was already many years into a cagey courtship dance with Russian officials.
Trump asserts that he has no Russian involvement. When his oldest son, Trump, Jr.’s mid-2016 meeting with a posse of Russian at Trump Tower came to light, the President helped draft a misleading statement about what was discussed: adoptions, apparently.
He knows better. He cannot play the naïve rube on this one.
5. In a July 27, 2016, at a press conference in Florida you said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” You were referring approximately 30,000 emails Hillary Clinton had on her personal server that she categorized as personal and deleted. Why did you call out to Russia and hope it would be able to find the emails?
WikiLeaks made the stolen DNC email trove public on July 22, 2016. Four days later, The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies felt confident that the Russian government was behind the hack and that it had funneled the emails to WikiLeaks. One day later, Trump made his plea to Russia. Trump jumped over the middleman and went to the source very quickly.
What Trump knew about WikiLeaks and its Russian sources (and when) is rapidly becoming one of the linchpins of the collusion investigation. By the fall of last year, Russian involvement in the DNC and John Podesta email leaks was taken as a given. During that time Trump’s eldest son, Trump, Jr., received messages from WikiLeaks. Trump himself mentioned WikiLeaks more than 130 times in the last month of the campaign.
Was WikiLeaks, in effect, the cutout knowingly used by Russian operatives and the Trump campaign to coordinate efforts to interfere in the election?
6. What steps did you take or procedures did you implement during your campaign and during the transition to comply with federal laws? How did you supervise and ensure that your staff was complying with relevant federal laws?
Trump has portrayed his campaign and his businesses as freewheeling, seat-of-your-pants personal fiefdoms. He has cultivated a reputation as the charming scoundrel who breezily breaks norms and scuffs the boundary between legal and illegal. “I took a lot of finance courses at Wharton, and first they taught you all the rules and regulations,” Trump told Forbes in 1987, “Then they taught that those rules and regulations are really meant to be broken.”
But any good executive who hopes to stay out of jail and in business for more than a few years creates compliance systems. Apparently this is not one of Trump’s strengths. His Atlantic City casinos were repeatedly fined in the 1990’s for violating state regulations, such as when his father injected cash into Trump’s ailing Taj Mahal casino by buying $3.5 million in chips but with no intent to gamble. And apparently he is constantly audited by the IRS. His foundation was shut down last year by the New York State attorney general for violating state law by soliciting donations without proper authorization. And the New York state A.G. last year also slapped a $50,000 fine on Trump’s hotels for delay in telling customers about a data breach involving 70,000 credit card numbers.
CEO’s are ultimately responsible for legal compliance. And they get indicted when they break the law. They are either willfully blind or grossly incompetent. No CEO gets to say, “I told the lawyers to take care of it but I never supervised them,” —especially not when you’re being questioned by the man who led the Enron task force. Mueller is likely to find out which type of CEO Trump is the old-fashioned way: walking him through the White House org chart and showing him that compliance is indeed his responsibility.
7. When was the last time you had any communication with former national security adviser Michael Flynn either directly or through intermediaries?
After Trump, Michael Flynn may be the most important player in this drama. Flynn is critical to the case in three respects. First, Flynn was allegedly fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia. Why did the national security adviser feel the need to lie to the vice president? Second, it was the FBI’s probe of Flynn that led Trump to say to then-FBI Director James Comey, “I hope you can let this one go.” Why was Trump so anxious to have Comey end the Flynn investigation?
Finally, Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Throughout, Trump has treated Flynn with kid gloves, variously calling Flynn “a very good person,” and “I don’t think he did anything anything wrong.”
Despite all the kind words, ABC News reported that Flynn decided to cooperate with Mueller last November because he felt “abandoned” by Trump.
By the end of 2016, before Trump took office, Flynn was under investigation by the FBI. He was fired in February 2017. But he only felt “abandoned” nine months later? It raises the question what was being said, if anything, to Flynn privately and publicly before November, and what happened to cause him to change his mind and cooperate?
8. Please list every communication you have had or have directed someone in the White House to have with law enforcement or an intelligence official where you inquired about the status of this investigation?
So far we know that the President has tried to influence the investigation eight times and including inquiries to the Directors of the FBI, CIA, and National Intelligence. Who else has he tried to sway?
9. Do you use any personal phones, computers, servers or email accounts to conduct government business or to discuss matters within the scope of this investigation?
Trump does not use email or a computer very often. Instead, he reportedly has an assistant type up his emails. He also spends hours on the phone each day talking to friends and acquaintances.
After trying to instill discipline in the White House by hiring a four-star Marine general to be his chief of staff, Trump began using “workarounds.”
Would it shock anyone to learn that he has multiple covert means of communicating with people about the Mueller investigations? Trump reportedly speaks with Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch every week. One newspaper says they discuss “strategy.” Does that include the Fox News channel’s starring role in undermining Mueller?
10. This is a picture of you and Natasha Stoynoff, a People magazine correspondent who visited Mar-a-Lago in 2005. Do you remember meeting her and putting your tongue down her mouth against her will?
At this point, Trump’s lawyers would probably object that the question is outside the scope of inquiry. But you can’t blame me for trying.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.