The real story on the 40 questions for Donald Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller in the Oval Office on July 20, 2012. (Photo by Pete Souza.)

While President Donald Trump has made it clear that he is not happy about the American people knowing the contents of the questions sent to him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, commentators are trying to figure out the meaning of both the questions themselves and the fact that they were leaked in the first place.


This article was originally published at Salon

There were nearly 50 questions presented by the special counsel to Trump's lawyers for the president to answer, according to The New York Times. They included questions about the events leading up to and following the firing of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn — with a focus on why Trump waited so long to fire Flynn after learning that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and why he thought about pardoning him — questions about why Trump had repeatedly met with former FBI Director James Comey, later fired him and even later told certain sources (such as Russian officials and news anchors) that he had done so because of the ongoing Russia investigation — and questions about Trump's rift with his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, over the latter's decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe.

Each of these three lines of inquiry involves crucial matters pertaining to potential obstruction.

Flynn had been harshly scrutinized even before the election for his close connections to Russia and later had to resign after he was revealed to have lied about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump's firing of Comey was controversial because, despite his subsequent claims to the contrary, he had on a number of occasions insisted that Comey was fired because of his actions pertaining to the Russia investigation. This included an interview he gave to journalist Lester Holt and comments he made to Russian officials in which he said he fired Comey to relieve the pressure from the investigation. Finally, Trump and Sessions saw their close friendship disintegrate after Trump blamed the former Alabama senator for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging section of questions were those that entailed allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. While the bulk of the previous questions involve possible obstruction by the president, these questions strike at the heart of the Trump-Russia scandal — namely, whether the president's campaign worked with the Russian government in order to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

Those questions cover the meeting in June 2016 between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya; the nature of Trump's business relationships with various Russian oligarchs; why Trump took pro-Russia, anti-Ukraine positions during his campaign; whether Trump knew about or was involved in hacking efforts and alleged coordination between Roger Stone and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame; and efforts to arrange meetings between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as back-channel communications between the Trump team and Russia.

The most unexpected question, as Margaret Hartmann of New York Magazine reported, was "What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?" As of yet, there have been no stories alleging that Manafort, who worked as Trump's campaign manager, directly appealed to the Russian government for help.

Hartmann also noted that there were three prevailing theories as to why the questions were leaked (and most likely by someone either currently or formerly associated with Trump's team): to convince Trump not to speak with Mueller, to turn the public against the Mueller investigation or to persuade the Republican-controlled Congress that Mueller is getting too close to the president and needs to be stopped. Hartmann concluded by noting:

Of course, it’s possible Mueller’s questions were leaked to accomplish multiple goals. Maybe the plan was to make Hannity even angrier than usual, and let him convince Trump, his House allies, and other Fox News viewers that Mueller can’t be allowed to ask the president to explain himself.

Norm Eisen, the board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and White House special counsel for ethics and government reform under President Barack Obama, took to Twitter to explain the practical legal implications of the leaking of Mueller's questions.

In The New York Times editorial cited by Eisen — which he co-authored with Barry Berke and Noah Bookbinder in January — Eisen reviewed the facts which strongly suggest that Trump had acted with a deliberate intent to impede the investigation into his campaign's alleged collusion with the Russian government:

Courts have recognized repeatedly that a government official’s clear legal authority to take some action does not immunize that official from prosecution for crimes relating to the exercise of that authority. Judges, sheriffs, police officers, lawyers, elected officials and many others have been prosecuted for obstruction of justice for taking actions that would have been entirely proper and within their lawful authority but for the fact that they were motivated by a corrupt intent to obstruct justice. There is no principled basis for exempting a president from this rule; in our system, no person is above the law, no matter how high the office.

It is unclear whether Trump will agree to answer these questions or meet with Mueller. Although previous reports have indicated that Trump would like to meet with Mueller, many of his advisers have been strongly opposed to the idea. One concern is that Trump's penchant for embellishment and baseless denials will cause him to commit perjury, whether intentionally or inadvertently. Another concern is that, if Trump did, in fact, engage in improper conduct by either obstructing justice or colluding with Russia (or both), he may accidentally admit to having committed a crime.

"There is no question that these leaks did not come from Mueller's team, but did come from Trump's team," Dan Abrams told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. "How do we know that? Because in 'The New York Times' article they make it very clear that this came from a list of questions that Mueller's team read to them. And so Trump's team created this list that was then leaked by someone outside of Trump's defense team, but no question it came from Trump's side."

Abrams added that there is "no way" Trump's legal team would want him to sit down and answer those questions, if for no other reason than the president is bound to contradict himself.

Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe seemed to share the view that the questions had been leaked by Trump's own team.

CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin, who used to work as an assistant to Robert Mueller, also pointed to the wording of the questions as possible proof that they were based on notes taken by Trump's legal team rather than by Mueller himself.

"Because of the way the questions are written. Lawyers wouldn’t write questions this way, in my estimation. Some of the grammar is not even proper," Zeldin told CNN. "So, I don’t see this as a list of written questions that Mueller’s office gave to the president. I think these are more notes that the White House has taken and then they have expanded upon the conversation to write out these as questions."

"The very fact that the questions are out there, my first reaction is that it could be an act of obstruction just to have released these questions," John Dean, the former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon, told Anderson Cooper. He elaborated that they may have been released "to try to somehow disrupt the flow of information, the tipping off of a witness in advance as to what the questions are going to be." He also noted, as did Abrams, that these seem to be questions someone wrote down after listening to someone else.

Regardless of the Trump administration's maneuvering, however, most Americans support the Mueller investigation. Recent polls have found that 54 percent of Americans believe Mueller is conducting a fair investigation and 74 percent don't think Trump should fire the special counsel (according to a Quinnipiac University poll). Another poll taken this month by ABC News/Washington Post found that 69 percent of Americans support Mueller investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, 64 percent support Mueller investigating Trump's business activities and 58 percent support Mueller investigating possible hush money paid by Trump to silence women with whom he allegedly had affairs.