Mueller's Questions For Trump? Donald Might Be The Leaker, Experts Say
On Monday, the New York Times published dozens of questions that, according to the Times, special counsel Robert Mueller wants to ask President Trump as part of his investigation into Russia meddling. But a former assistant to the special counsel told CNN Tuesday that he thinks Trump's team leaked the "Mueller" questions, and that the questions as published aren't actually what Mueller intends to ask the president.
"I think these are notes taken by the recipients of a conversation with Mueller's office where he outlined broad topics, and these guys wrote down topics these guys think these topics might raise," said Michael Zeldin, who was Mueller's own special counsel at the Justice Department in the 1990s. "It would seem to me, potentially, that the White House counsel's office let this float out into the media in an attempt to influence the president's thinking about whether or not to do an interview."
Zeldin's theory is supported by an interview that the Times reporter who broke the story, Michael Schmidt, gave to MSNBC on Monday.
"The president's lawyers went in, they met with Mueller's investigators, and they went through subject after subject after subject that they wanted to ask about," Schmidt said. "What the president's lawyers did is they wrote down all of those things, and they came up with these 49 questions — 'These are the 49 things that Mueller wants to ask the president.'"
Zeldin told CNN that he arrived at this theory of the case thanks, in part, to the way the questions the Times published were written and composed.
“Lawyers wouldn’t write questions this way, in my estimation," Zeldin explained. "Some of the grammar is not even proper. 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."
If the White House did leak the Mueller questions itself, that begs the question: Why did it do this, and with what goal?
One theory is that Trump's team doesn't want the president to sit down for an interview with Mueller, and it leaked the questions in an attempt to spook him away from doing so. This would make a degree of sense: The questions that the Times published were very probing and thorough, and resulted in the kind of headlines that might make the president conclude that an interview is a bad idea. Furthermore, it's already been reported back that John Dowd, a former Trump attorney, strongly believed that the president shouldn't agree to an interview, and urged him not to do so. But Trump appeared poised to reject that advice, telling reporters that he'd "like to" be interviewed by Mueller. Dowd ultimately resigned.
Another possibility, as explained by Margaret Hartmann at New York Magazine, is that Trump associates leaked the questions to convince Congress — specifically, Republican lawmakers — to shut down the Mueller probe. Several House Republicans have already drafted articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has the authority to fire him. But the effort reportedly doesn't have very much support yet, even amongst House Republicans, and leaking the questions could have been an attempt to convince recalcitrant GOP legislatures to jump on the anti-Mueller train.
The source and motivation behind the leak notwithstanding, it's clear that the special counsel does want the president to sit down for an interview with his investigators. Whether or not Trump will agree to do so remains to be seen.