When Will Trump Sit Down With Special Counsel Robert Mueller?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is still unclear whether or not President Trump will ever sit down with special counsel Robert Mueller. Yesterday, the president demanded that his attorney general, quote, "stop this rigged witch hunt right now." Now, to be clear, Jeff Sessions can't stop the Russia investigation because he has recused himself. But Trump's demand, delivered in a tweet, came on the second day of the trial into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Was it a knee-jerk reaction from the president? Or is it all part of a grand plan? Let's ask Matthew Olsen. He's a former federal prosecutor, and he worked for Robert Mueller at the FBI.
Matt, thanks for coming in.
MATTHEW OLSEN: Great. Good to see you. Good to see you, Rachel.
MARTIN: Some critics of the president looked at that tweet and said, there it is, clear evidence that the president is trying to obstruct Robert Mueller's investigation. Do you see it that way?
OLSEN: You know, it's - I don't see it as clear, dead-bang evidence of obstruction. It doesn't prove obstruction. It certainly starts to build the case or add to the overall mosaic of evidence that indicates that the president is seeking to obstruct justice in a sense that, you know, stopping an investigation as it gets closer to you and closer to the people around you - I mean, that's textbook obstruction of justice.
MARTIN: Right. So how does it not meet the legal standard?
OLSEN: Yeah. So I just mean I think that, in and of itself, it's not obstruction. It's part of the broader case. And if you go back just to, for example, the statements that the president made right after firing FBI Director Jim Comey, that's part of that case as well.
MARTIN: Later in the day, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders tried to clarify the president's tweet. She had this to say.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look. The president is not obstructing. He's fighting back. The president is stating his opinion. He's stating it clearly.
MARTIN: Although we have seen the president give actual directives in tweets - he has hired and fired people via tweet. So what's the legal standard for determining if the president's tweets are an opinion or an order?
OLSEN: So you know, it's kind of beside the point whether or not the tweet is his opinion because the tweet is evidence. It's a statement by an individual that can be used against the president, whether in court or in some other proceedings. So it's clearly evidence. And to my mind, when the president of the United States says something like, this needs to happen now - this should happen now, I would assume that anyone close to the president or in the president's Cabinet would interpret that as a direct order.
So for more than a year, the president and his team have said - they've been very clear on the message around this probe. They have said there is no collusion between their former campaign and the Russian government. But now both the president and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have been saying something different. They have been trying out a new rhetorical line, saying collusion is not a crime. They're technically right. Are they not?
OLSEN: Sure. I mean, collusion is not in and of itself a crime. But of course, conspiracy is a crime. And collusion is really synonymous with conspiracy. And what we've seen from the Mueller team is building the case, two now of indictments that charge conspiracy to interfere with the elections in 2016. So that case of conspiracy - you know, quote, unquote, "collusion" - is being built by the Mueller team one block at a time.
MARTIN: Central to Mueller's investigation is a possible sit-down with President Trump. We had you on a few months ago. And in that conversation, you said it would be risky for President Trump to do that. Do you still think that's true?
OLSEN: I mean, even more so now. You know, as the days go on, as the Trump team makes statements - or Trump make statements like he made yesterday...
OLSEN: ...Indicating more and more of this evidence of obstruction as well as, at the same time, the Mueller team is continuing to build its case - interviewing witnesses, gaining cooperation from charged defendants and gathering documents. The Trump team is essentially in the dark when it comes to what Mueller and his team know in as they have amassed this body of evidence. So it's increasingly risky, I think, for the president to sit down under oath and be interviewed by the prosecutors.
MARTIN: Although he wants to - I mean, according to The New York Times, the president is pushing against his own lawyers and saying he wants to make this happen. In the end, he's the president. He's the client.
OLSEN: Sure. So it's his call whether to do so. And it's quite - it appears to be that the two parties are engaging in a discussion about how to do that. I think that's in both parties' interest actually, the prosecutors and Trump, to see if there's a way to avoid a subpoena because, of course, if it came head-to-head, I think the prosecution team has the legal authority to issue a subpoena, but that would entail litigation. So the Mueller team wants to avoid that if they can. So they're willing to negotiate, I think, with the president and his team about how to do this.
MARTIN: The Times also reporting that his lawyers won't allow in-person follow-up questions. As a former prosecutor, how do you actually get any answers if you cannot follow up in person?
OLSEN: Yeah. I can't imagine that, in the end, that there will be an agreement not to ask follow-up questions. There may be some accommodation to give areas of inquiry in advance so that the president and his team know where the questioning will go. But the sort of whole point of an interview is the opportunity to engage in that back-and-forth. And that's really where both the Mueller team has something to gain, but the president has significant legal jeopardy if he says something that's false.
MARTIN: Do you see an overall legal strategy emerging by the president's team?
OLSEN: You know, the early strategy, if you recall, was cooperate, we have nothing to hide. That's totally changed now that Trump and his team have gone after Mueller personally. They changed their strategy from no collusion to - well, if there was collusion, it's not a crime. I see the strategy becoming increasingly defensive. But really, what it looks like to me is not a legal strategy but a public relations or political strategy, one that actually, I think, could backfire.
MARTIN: Matt Olsen, former U.S. attorney - he worked for Robert Mueller. Thanks so much.
OLSEN: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.