The open-ended queries

The late in the day breaking news yesterday was the NY Times publishing a list of questions from Mueller’s team for the liar in chief.

The open-ended queries appear to be an attempt to penetrate the president’s thinking, to get at the motivation behind some of his most combative Twitter posts and to examine his relationships with his family and his closest advisers. They deal chiefly with the president’s high-profile firings of the F.B.I. director and his first national security adviser, his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

[Tangent: the Times has an actual policy against the “Oxford” comma, i.e. they don’t allow it, but look at the ambiguity that not using it can create. Is Mueller asking about Trump’s treatment of a 2016 Trump Tower meeting? Of course not, but omitting the needed comma after Sessions makes it look as if he is. No newspaper should have a rigid policy about the “Oxford” comma because it’s not always necessary but sometimes it is.] [Sorry for tangent.]

Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday that it was “disgraceful” that questions the special counsel would like to ask him were publicly disclosed, and he incorrectly noted that there were no questions about collusion. The president also said collusion was a “phony” crime.

The questions provide the most detailed look yet inside Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which has been shrouded in secrecy since he was appointed nearly a year ago. The majority relate to possible obstruction of justice, demonstrating how an investigation into Russia’s election meddling grew to include an examination of the president’s conduct in office. Among them are queries on any discussions Mr. Trump had about his attempts to fire Mr. Mueller himself and what the president knew about possible pardon offers to Mr. Flynn.

“What efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?” Mr. Mueller planned to ask, according to questions read by the special counsel investigators to the president’s lawyers, who compiled them into a list. That document was provided to The Times by a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team.

On Maddow’s show yesterday Adam Schiff and other legal types explained that the list is of not so much questions as topics: each of them could and would lead to a whole slew of follow-up questions as the subject answered. It’s definitely not a case of ask this one question on the list, get a reply, and move on to the next question on the list.

Mr. Mueller appears to be investigating how Mr. Trump took steps last year to fire Mr. Mueller himself. The president relented after the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, threatened to resign, an episode that the special counsel wants to ask about.

“What consideration and discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel in June of 2017?” Mr. Mueller planned to ask, according to the list of questions. “What did you think and do in reaction to Jan. 25, 2018, story about the termination of the special counsel and Don McGahn backing you off the termination?” he planned to ask, referring to the Times article that broke the news of the confrontation.

It’s interesting to notice the difference between the way the Times words it and the way Mueller does. For the Times it’s Mueller, for Mueller it’s the special counsel. For Mueller it’s the office, the role, the job: the investigation. It’s not personal. That’s no doubt legal convention, but then conventions shape how we think, and reflect how we think. The media talks about “Mueller” a lot but actually it’s a whole big team. It’s a bit Trumpy of the media to personalize it so much.

Mr. Mueller has sought for months to question the president, who has in turn expressed a desire, at times, to be interviewed, viewing it as an avenue to end the inquiry more quickly. His lawyers have been negotiating terms of an interview out of concern that their client — whose exaggerations, half-truths and outright falsehoods are well documented — could provide false statements or easily become distracted.

Ya think? One need only listen to that Fox interview last Friday to grasp how very easily he becomes “distracted” i.e. manic and out of control. Remember the bit where he’s raging about CNN and a foxer interrupts to say “but why watch them at all?” and there’s a pause and then Trump yells “I don’t watch them at all!” He’s gold for a prosecutor.

The list of questions grew out of those negotiations. In January, Mr. Trump’s lawyers gave Mr. Mueller several pages of written explanations about the president’s role in the matters the special counsel is investigating. Concerned about putting the president in legal jeopardy, his lead lawyer, John Dowd, was trying to convince Mr. Mueller he did not need to interview Mr. Trump, according to people briefed on the matter.

Mr. Mueller was apparently unsatisfied. He told Mr. Dowd in early March that he needed to question the president directly to determine whether he had criminal intent when he fired Mr. Comey, the people said.

But Mr. Dowd held firm, and investigators for Mr. Mueller agreed days later to share during a meeting with Mr. Dowd the questions they wanted to ask Mr. Trump.

And now we get to read them.

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