President Donald Trump has provided the special counsel’s office with written answers to questions about his knowledge of Russian interference in the 2016 election, his lawyers said Tuesday, marking the first time Trump has directly cooperated with the investigation.
The step is a milestone in a months-long negotiation between Trump’s attorneys and special counsel Robert Mueller’s team over whether and when the president would sit for an interview. They represent the first time the president is known to have described to investigators his knowledge of key moments under scrutiny by prosecutors. If Mueller finds the answers satisfactory, the responses may also help stave off a potential subpoena fight over Trump’s testimony.
The compromise outcome, nearly a year in the making, offers some benefit to both sides. Trump avoids, at least for now, a potentially risky and unpredictable sit-down with prosecutors, while Mueller secures a set of on-the-record statements whose accuracy the president and his lawyers will be expected to stand by for the duration of the investigation.
“The president today answered written questions submitted by the special counsel’s office,” attorney Jay Sekulow said in a statement. “The questions presented dealt with issues regarding the Russia-related topics of the inquiry. The president responded in writing.”
Sekulow said in a follow-up message that the legal team would not release copies of the questions and answers or discuss correspondence with the special counsel’s office.
Mueller’s team may well press for additional information.
Investigators months ago presented Trump’s legal team with dozens of questions they wanted to ask the president related to whether his campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to tip the 2016 election and whether he sought to criminally obstruct the Russia probe by actions including the firing of former FBI director James Comey.
Mueller’s office agreed to accept written responses to questions about potential Russian collusion and tabled, for the moment, obstruction-related inquiries. They left open the possibility that they would follow up with additional questions on obstruction, though Trump’s lawyers — who had long resisted any face-to-face interview — had been especially adamant that the Constitution shielded him from having to answer any questions about actions he took as president.
Another of Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said Tuesday that the lawyers continue to believe that “much of what has been asked raised serious constitutional issues and was beyond the scope of a legitimate inquiry.” He said Mueller’s office had received “unprecedented cooperation from the White House.”
“it is time to bring this inquiry to a conclusion,” Giuliani said.
The precise questions and answers that Trump gave to Mueller weren’t immediately clear, though the president told reporters last week that he had prepared the responses himself.
Trump told Fox News in an interview that aired Sunday that he was unlikely to answer questions about obstruction, saying, “I think we’ve wasted enough time on this witch hunt and the answer is probably, we’re finished.”
Trump joins a list of recent presidents to be questioned as part of a criminal investigation.
In 2004, George W. Bush was interviewed by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s office during an investigation into the leaked identity of a CIA officer. In 1998, President Bill Clinton testified before a federal grand jury in independent counsel Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation.
“It’s very extraordinary if this were a regular case, but it’s not every day that you have an investigation that touches upon the White House,” said Solomon Wisenberg, a Washington lawyer who was part of Starr’s team and conducted the grand jury questioning of Clinton.
Mueller could theoretically still look to subpoena the president if he feels the answers are not satisfactory. But Justice Department leaders, including acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker — who now oversees the investigation and has spoken pejoratively of it in the past — would have to sign off on such a move, and it’s far from clear that they would. It’s also not clear that Mueller’s team would prevail if a subpoena fight reaches the Supreme Court.
“Mueller certainly could have forced the issue and issued a subpoena, but I think he wants to present a record of having bent over backwards to be fair,” Wisenberg said.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether a president can be subpoenaed to testify in a criminal case. Clinton was subpoenaed to appear before the Whitewater grand jury, though investigators withdrew the subpoena once he agreed to appear voluntarily.
Other cases involving Presidents Richard Nixon and Clinton have presented similar issues for the justices that could be instructive now.
In 1974, for instance, the court ruled that Nixon could be ordered to turn over subpoenaed audio recordings, a decision that hastened his resignation from office. The court in 1998 said Clinton could be questioned under oath in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones.