Some of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers and allies are pleading with him not to give sworn testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller.
It’s an ongoing struggle. One that has intensified in recent days as everyone from White House officials, to trusted campaign hands, to friends and confidants on the phone have repeated a variation of the same refrain: Listen to your lawyers. Listen to your lawyers. Oh, dear God, please listen to your lawyers.
Trump actually did that last June, The New York Times reported Thursday evening, when he ordered Mueller fired only to reverse himself after White House counsel Don McGahn said he would quit instead of asking the Justice Department to do that.
“It would be monumentally and historically stupid,” a senior White House official said, regarding the possibility of Trump quickly submitting himself to a no-holds-barred sit-down, under oath, with the special counsel.
Those advising the president say they are confident that he is innocent of the allegations central to Mueller’s investigation—that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russian agents to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. But they fret the possibility that by subjecting himself to questioning, he could open himself up to additional legal quagmires, made all the more complicated by revelations on Thursday night that the president attempted to have Mueller fired, only to back off after White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit.
The president seems, at a minimum, intrigued by the idea. He publicly floated the possibility of a Mueller interview, to the surprise of his lawyers and White House officials, during an impromptu press availability at the White House on Wednesday.
“I would love to do that, and I would like to do it as soon as possible,” Trump said, guessing that an interview would happen in the next two to three weeks. Mueller’s team has said to be seeking one since early this month. “I would do it under oath,” the president added. “Absolutely.”
Trump’s comments came as his attorneys worked out the details of such an interview behind the scenes, and they quickly attempted to walk back the declaration. “He’s ready to meet with them, but he’ll be guided by the advice of his personal counsel,” White House attorney Ty Cobb told The New York Times.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an outside adviser to Trump, told The Daily Beast that Trump’s lawyers should push to get the questions to any interview in advance. Beyond that, he suggested that, “[Trump] oughta recognize that this is very dangerous because it’s not designed to be fair.
“All the advantages are with the [Mueller team],” Gingrich stressed.
Others close to Trump worry that even under the best of pre-arranged circumstances, a conversation with Mueller has no apparent upside. By speaking under oath, they worry, Trump would be opening himself up to potential violations of what former campaign aide Michael Caputo called “process crimes”—perjury, obstruction, or other charges tangential to the focus of the investigation.
Caputo said he would advise the president to sit down with Mueller “if this were only about Russian collusion.” But “everything we’re seeing shows us an investigation that’s setting a perjury trap or an obstruction trap and I think it’s fraught with peril for the president.”
Underscoring just how universally ill-regarded a Mueller interview is within Trump circles, some of the president’s favorite personalities and hosts on Fox News have also been offering him guidance on the matter through their programs and appearances on the airwaves. The drumbeat has been steady for over a day now, with the phrase “perjury trap” uttered on Fox News a total of 14 times between the airing of Sean Hannity’s program on Wednesday and Thursday. A handful of those utterances, as documented by the site tveyes.com, were re-airings of previous programming.
“How could this possibly be a trap, Roger? Mueller wants the best for the president,” Fox host Laura Ingraham (a Trump family confidant who even interviewed for the job of Trump’s White House press secretary) sarcastically said in her Wednesday night interview with former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone.
“The best advice that I could give the president... is that under no circumstances should he grant Mr. Mueller an interview. It’s a suicide mission. It’s a very clear perjury trap,” Stone said.
Hannity, an informal adviser to Trump, had fellow Fox host Jeanine Pirro, yet another Trump friend and informal consigliere, on his show Wednesday to express similar sentiments. Sources tell The Daily Beast that President Trump has privately polled both hosts, particularly Hannity, on the topic of a potential Mueller interview.
“The president absolutely should not sit down [with Mueller], he should not agree to do it,” Pirro implored.
Hannity noted that he admired that Trump wanted to sit down with Mueller. But, he cautioned, “it’s a trap.”
“That’s what the feds do,” Pirro added.
Perhaps the most pointed warning came from Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News analyst who reportedly has sway over Trump, so much so that he nearly convinced the president to submarine a planned vote on U.S. surveillance policy. Appearing on Fox & Friends, one of Trump’s all-time favorite programs, on Thursday morning, Napolitano spoke of Mueller in foreboding terms, imploring Trump to understand that he “couldn’t possibly know” what the special prosecutor “knows about the case”
“This is what we call a perjury trap,” he said, borrowing the phrase du jour. “They tripped up George Papadopoulos. They tripped up Mike Flynn. They are expert at doing that. You can’t talk somebody out of charging you with a crime if they’re determined to do it.”
Trump has a history of being swayed by the contents of Fox & Friends. Whether Napolitano’s warnings or those from other Fox personalities, friends, advisers, and aides are enough to convince him to avoid talking to Mueller—at least in person—will be discovered, likely, in the coming weeks.
Some of Trump’s supporters say they’ve learned to trust his judgment on a number of matters on which they initially disagreed. Caputo, for instance, says he pleaded with the president during the campaign to stay off of Twitter and avoid personal attacks against his political adversaries. But on the matter of Mueller, few see any room for disagreement about the political and legal danger posed.
“Often times, when I’ve thought the president should act one way and he acts another, I’ve been wrong and he’s been right,” Caputo said. “This time, I think I’m right.”