Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on reported completion of answers to the questions given to President Donald Trump by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The White House anticipated giving the answers to the Special Counsel before Thanksgiving. As noted below, that could put the collusion part of the investigation into high gear toward a report to Congress.
Here is the column:
For White House legal counsel, it may be the most chilling five words uttered thus far in the long Russia investigation. President Trump said he has finished working on the questions submitted to him by special counsel Robert Mueller, declaring, “I answered them very easily.”
If there is one universally accepted fact in this political morass, it is that nothing is easy about this investigation, let alone “very” easy. Reports indicate that Trump was given a couple dozen questions that focused on Russian collusion allegations and other matters before his inauguration. That alone defies any “easy peasy lemon squeezy” responses.
It ignores what the questions notably did not include, which is a single query about obstruction of justice. That is an ironic twist, since some of us opposed the appointment of a special counsel after the 2016 election but changed our minds when Trump unwisely fired then FBI director James Comey in the midst of the Russia investigation. That act triggered the obstruction investigation and produced an overwhelming level of support for an independent investigator. Had Trump just fired Comey at the outset of his administration, or waited for the conclusion of the investigation, it is likely that all of this would have been ended long ago.
The omission of obstruction questions can mean a variety of different things, from the mundane to the horrific. It may be that Mueller concluded earlier that obstruction was not a serious allegation, which would explain why Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did not recuse himself for being a witness in that investigation. Or it could mean that, given White House opposition to obstruction questions, Mueller will leave that matter to the Congress after he issues his special counsel report.
Finally, and this is the most difficult course, Mueller could be prepared to hit Trump with a subpoena to answer the rest of the questions that fall under his mandate. The assumption, or at least the profound hope, is that his statement was signature bravado and that, in reality, Trump is yielding to counsel on the content of his answers. The concern obviously is his penchant for speaking his mind and making impulsive statements. Indeed, the second most scary six words uttered in this controversy followed the first. Trump stated that it “didn’t take very long to do them.”
If Trump believes these questions are really just about whether he personally colluded with the Russians, he has not been paying attention to the developments in the investigation. The list of Mueller indictments shows that collusion is largely immaterial to most of his prosecutions. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was prosecuted entirely for matters predating the election and separate from collusion allegations. Virtually all of the remaining American defendants were charged with unrelated crimes or with making false statements to investigators.
The point is that it was not easy for them to answer the questions, but it was relatively easy for Mueller to indict them. Lawyers for Trump evidently delayed submission of his answers due to concerns over possible “perjury trap” questions. If Trump answers with any specificity, his responses will be overlaid with the testimony of a host of cooperating witnesses, from former national security adviser Michael Flynn to former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen. If statements by Trump do not match up, Congress will then be left with a stark choice over who is lying on the issue.
Putting aside that obvious danger, there also is the fact that the answers will have a profound impact on the next stage of this controversy. They will clear the way for Mueller to issue a report on Russian collusion. It also would give him ample reason to separate that report from a report on other potential crimes such as obstruction. That would mean Congress could conceivably receive a report early in the new year. With the House under Democratic control then, that could trigger a flurry of investigations and subpoenas even before an obstruction report arrives on Capitol Hill.
With only two years remaining in his term as president, the Democrats will be rapidly losing runway to get any investigation off the ground, at least if they hope to preserve time for a possible impeachment. This is not to say there is any indication of a serious crime related to collusion linked to Trump. The most serious but least likely allegation is that Trump somehow conspired with Russians to hack the computer systems of his opponent. The timing and structure of that operation, described in prior filings, would seem to undermine such an allegation.
That leaves a second possible allegation that the Russians did not give advance notice of their hacking efforts, but made Trump or his aides a type of accessory after the fact in the use of the purloined emails. That tack appears to have been a focus of Mueller in drilling down on figures like Trump associate Roger Stone. However, there is no crime in Trump celebrating or even inviting the release of hacked emails, as he did on the campaign trail repeatedly and controversially before the 2016 election.
Finally, there could be allegations that Trump offered assurances to the Russians about some quid pro quo in exchange for the release of the Clinton campaign emails. The promise of any official act in exchange for a political favor could raise corruption allegations, as shown by the conviction of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who went to prison for trying to trading a Senate appointment for campaign donations.
However, using or encouraging the public release of hacked emails is not a crime, absent some direct role in a precursor crime. Hillary Clinton and Democratic leaders were undermined by the hacked emails because those showed they were misleading or lying to the public on various issues. Many critics aside from Trump celebrated the disclosure of such false statements by major political figures. Of course, the disclosures were one sided and clearly calculated to hurt Clinton and help Trump.
Yet, without a quid pro quo, it is hard to discern even a conceivable crime. The most likely crime remains unchanged from my first column on this controversy written two years, which is false statements. Trump is answering questions following hundreds of hours of testimony and millions of pages of evidence gathered from other witnesses. This is why there is nothing “easy” about answering these questions by the president as opposed to the ease of using those answers by a special counsel.