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Mueller Probe: What Mueller Wants to Ask Trump About Obstruction, and What It Means

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —   The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, recently provided President Trump’s lawyers a list of questions he wants answered in an interview. The New York Times obtained the list; here are the questions, along with the context and significance of each. The questions fall into categories based on four broad subjects. They are not quoted verbatim, and some were condensed.

Questions related to Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser

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Michael T. Flynn in December 2017.CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

• What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

These questions revolve around whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct justice to protect Mr. Flynn from prosecution. His phone calls with Mr. Kislyak are at the heart of that inquiry.

During the calls, Mr. Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to sanctions just announced by the Obama administration. But Mr. Trump’s aides publicly denied that sanctions were discussed and, when questioned by the F.B.I., Mr. Flynn denied it, as well. Mr. Mueller wants to know whether Mr. Flynn was operating on Mr. Trump’s behalf. Prosecutors may already know the answer: Mr. Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying and is cooperating with investigators.

• What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017, and Feb. 8-9, 2017?

In January, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius revealed Mr. Flynn’s phone calls with Mr. Kislyak. Mr. Ignatius questioned whether those conversations had violated a law prohibiting private citizens from attempting to undermine American policies. In February, The Washington Post revealed the true nature of Mr. Flynn’s conversations with Mr. Kislyak.

Mr. Mueller wants to know, among other things, whether Mr. Trump feared that his national security adviser had broken the law and then tried to shield him from consequences.

• What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?

Ms. Yates, the acting attorney general for the first weeks of the Trump administration, twice warned the White House that Mr. Flynn was lying, and those lies made him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. No one from the White House has ever said how much Mr. Trump knew about those warnings.

• How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?

Eighteen days after Ms. Yates’s warning, Mr. Flynn was asked to resign. The White House said that Mr. Trump lost confidence in Mr. Flynn because he had lied. But the White House has never fully explained why, after learning about the lie, officials waited so long to act.

• After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?

The Times recently revealed that, when Mr. Flynn began considering cooperating with the F.B.I., Mr. Trump’s lawyers floated the idea of a pardon. Mr. Mueller wants to know why.


Questions related to James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director

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CreditBrendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

• What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?

The questions about Mr. Comey relate to whether Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey last year to shield Mr. Flynn, or anyone else, from prosecution. Mr. Trump has denied that, saying he fired Mr. Comey because of his mishandling of the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

This question is important because, if Mr. Trump truly was upset about the Clinton investigation, he would have shown an early distaste for Mr. Comey.

• What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?

The briefing revealed that American intelligence agencies had concluded that Russian operatives meddled in the election to hurt Mrs. Clinton and to boost Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on these conclusions and said he believes the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, who denies any interference.

• What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?

This question addresses documents written by a retired British spy, Christopher Steele, who said that Russia had gathered compromising information on Mr. Trump. The documents, which became known as the Steele Dossier, also claim that the Trump campaign had ties to the Russian government. Mr. Comey privately briefed Mr. Trump about these documents.

• What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

A few weeks after his briefing, Mr. Comey was called to the White House for a private dinner. Mr. Comey’s notes say that Mr. Trump raised concerns about the Steele Dossier and said he needed loyalty from his F.B.I. director. This question touches on Mr. Trump’s true motivation for firing Mr. Comey: Was he dismissed because he was not loyal and would not shut down an F.B.I. investigation?

• What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

That was a key moment. Mr. Comey testified that the president told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Mr. Trump has denied this.

• What did you know about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Mr. Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Mr. Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?

Mr. Comey’s testimony publicly confirmed that the F.B.I. was investigating members of the Trump campaign for possible coordination with Russia. Mr. Mueller wants to know what role that revelation played in Mr. Comey’s firing.

• What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.

In the aftermath, The Post reported, Mr. Trump asked the United States’ top intelligence official, Daniel Coats, to pressure Mr. Comey to back off his investigation. Mr. Mueller wants to ask Mr. Trump about his contacts with Mr. Coats as well as the C.I.A.’s director at the time, Mike Pompeo, and the National Security Agency’s director, Michael S. Rogers. The conversations could reflect Mr. Trump’s growing frustration with Mr. Comey — not about the Clinton case, but about his refusal to shut down the Russia inquiry.

• What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?

It is not clear whether Mr. Mueller knows something specific about Mr. Trump’s reaction to these interviews, but the question shows that Mr. Mueller is keenly interested in how Mr. Trump responded to each step of his investigation.

• What was the purpose of your calls to Mr. Comey on March 30 and April 11, 2017?

Mr. Comey said that Mr. Trump called twice to ask him to say publicly that he was not under F.B.I. investigation. In the second call, Mr. Comey said, the president added: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know.”

• What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?

While the White House ultimately said Mr. Comey was fired for breaking with Justice Department policy and discussing the Clinton investigation, Mr. Trump expressed no such qualms in an interview with Ms. Bartiromo of Fox Business Network. “Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you,” he said. “If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.”

• What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?

In this Senate appearance, Mr. Comey described his handling of the Clinton investigation in detail. Mr. Comey was fired soon after. Mr. Mueller’s question suggests he wants to know why Mr. Trump soured.

• Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?

Over the past several months, Mr. Mueller has asked White House officials for the back story, and whether the public justification was accurate. He will be able to compare Mr. Trump’s answers to what he has learned elsewhere.

• What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

The day after Mr. Comey’s firing, Mr. Trump met with Russian officials in the Oval Office. There, The Times revealed, Mr. Trump suggested he had fired Mr. Comey because of the pressure from the Russia investigation.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

• What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?

Shortly after firing Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump undercut his own argument when he told NBC News that he had been thinking about the Russia investigation when he fired Mr. Comey.

“I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”

• What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?

Mr. Comey appeared unworried. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Mr. Comey said. The White House ultimately said that, no, there were no tapes.

• What did you think about Mr. Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Mr. Flynn, and what did you do about it?

After he was fired, Mr. Comey testified about his conversations with Mr. Trump and described him as preoccupied with the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russia. After the testimony, Mr. Trump called him a liar.

• What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Comey had testified falsely to Congress and suggested that the Justice Department might investigate. Mr. Trump followed up with tweets suggesting that he should be investigated for rigging an inquiry into Mrs. Clinton. Such comments reinforced criticism that Mr. Trump views the Justice Department as a sword to use against his political rivals.

• What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?

Mr. Comey and Mr. McCabe are among Mr. Trump’s favorite targets. Mr. McCabe is a lifelong Republican, but Mr. Trump has criticized him as a Clinton loyalist because Mr. McCabe’s wife, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for office in Virginia and received donations from a Clinton ally. This question suggests that Mr. Mueller wants to know whether Mr. Trump’s criticism is an effort to damage the F.B.I. while it investigates the president’s associates.


Questions related to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April in Washington.CreditLawrence Jackson for The New York Times

• What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?

Mr. Trump has criticized Mr. Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation. The Times reported that Mr. Trump humiliated him in an Oval Office meeting and accused him of being disloyal. Mr. Sessions ultimately submitted his resignation, though Mr. Trump did not accept it. Along with the next two questions, this inquiry looks at whether Mr. Trump views law enforcement officials as protectors.

• What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind?

The Times has reported that Mr. Trump told his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, to stop Mr. Sessions from recusing himself. Mr. McGahn was unsuccessful, and Mr. Trump erupted, saying he needed an attorney general who would protect him.

• Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?

Mr. Trump has spoken affectionately about past attorneys general who he said were loyal to their presidents. He cited Robert F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. as examples. “Holder protected the president,” he said in a Times interview in December. “And I have great respect for that.”

• What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?

In a twist, Mr. Mueller’s very appointment has become part of his investigation. Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced the inquiry as a “witch hunt.” Mr. Trump blames the appointment on Mr. Sessions’s recusal.

• Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?

Mr. Trump rejected Mr. Sessions’s resignation after aides argued that it would only create more problems. The details of those discussions remain unclear, but Mr. Trump’s advisers have already given Mr. Mueller their accounts of the conversations.

• What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

Mr. Priebus, who was Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, has said he raced out of the White House after Mr. Sessions and implored him not to resign. Mr. Mueller has interviewed Mr. Priebus and would be able to compare his answers with those of Mr. Trump.

• What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

Again, Mr. Mueller’s investigation intersects with its own existence. The Times reported that, in June 2017, Mr. Trump ordered Mr. McGahn to fire Mr. Mueller. Mr. McGahn refused. Though Mr. Trump’s own advisers informed Mr. Mueller about that effort, Mr. Trump denied it: “Fake news,” he said. “A typical New York Times fake story.”

• What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions?

 


Campaign Coordination With Russia

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Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016.CreditLeah Millis/Reuters

• When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?

This and other questions relate to a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who offered political dirt about Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., arranged the meeting. He said he did not tell his father about it when it happened.

• What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

When The Times found out about the meeting, Mr. Trump helped draft a misleading statement in his son’s name, omitting the true purpose of the meeting. After The Times obtained the younger Mr. Trump’s emails, he published them on Twitter.

• During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?

The Trump Tower meeting was arranged through the Russian singer Emin Agalarov, his billionaire father, Aras Agalarov, and a music promoter. Mr. Mueller is scrutinizing the nature of connections between the Agalarovs, Mr. Trump and Russian officials.

• What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?

Mr. Mueller is referring to a failed effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Mr. Sater, a business associate, proposed the idea to Mr. Cohen, the longtime personal lawyer to Mr. Trump. Emails show that Mr. Sater believed that the project would showcase Mr. Trump’s deal-making acumen and propel him into the presidency.

• What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?

Journalists and lawmakers have uncovered several examples of Russian officials trying, through intermediaries, to arrange a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. Senior campaign officials rejected some overtures, but Mr. Trump’s involvement has been a mystery.

• What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?

Even as the Obama administration stepped up sanctions on Russia, Mr. Trump struck a laudatory tone toward Mr. Putin.

• What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?

A portion of the Republican platform was changed in a way more favorable to Russia.

• During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?

This is a key question. Mr. Trump praised the release of hacked Democratic emails and called on Russia to find others. Mr. Mueller’s investigation has unearthed evidence that at least one member of Mr. Trump’s campaign — George Papadopoulos — was told that Russia had obtained compromising emails about Mrs. Clinton. But Mr. Trump has repeatedly said there was “no collusion” with the Russian government.

• What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

This is one of the most intriguing questions on the list. It is not clear whether Mr. Mueller knows something new, but there is no publicly available information linking Mr. Manafort, the former campaign chairman, to such outreach. So his inclusion here is significant. Mr. Manafort’s longtime colleague, Rick Gates, is cooperating with Mr. Mueller.

• What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

Mr. Stone, a longtime adviser, claimed to have inside information from WikiLeaks, which published hacked Democratic emails. He appeared to predict future releases, and was in touch with a Twitter account used by Russian intelligence. This question, along with the next two, show that Mr. Mueller is still investigating possible campaign cooperation with Russia.

• What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?

Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, has testified that the Russian ambassador proposed getting Mr. Flynn in contact with Russian officials to discuss Syria. In response, Mr. Kushner said, he proposed using secure phones inside the Russian Embassy — a highly unusual suggestion that was not accepted.

• What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince?

The meeting was convened by Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. It brought Mr. Prince, an informal adviser to Mr. Trump’s team, together with a Russian investor close to Mr. Putin.

• What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017?

Mr. Cohen, the lawyer, hand-delivered to the White House a peace proposal for Ukraine and Russia. This unusual bit of backdoor diplomacy is of interest because it involved a Ukrainian lawmaker who said he was being encouraged by Mr. Putin’s aides. Mr. Cohen has said he did not discuss the proposal with Mr. Trump.

 ___

Matt Apuzzo is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter based in Washington. He has covered law enforcement and security matters for more than a decade and is the co-author of the book “Enemies Within.”

 @mattapuzzo

Michael S. Schmidt is a Washington correspondent for The Times who covers national security and federal investigations. He was part of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2018 — one for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues and the other for coverage of President Donald Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia.@NYTMike

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