Special counsel Robert Mueller may soon interview President Donald Trump as part of an ongoing FBI investigation, setting up a risky situation for the White House.
As Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has moved forward, experts say it’s become increasingly likely that he’ll seek to question Trump next.
For his part, Trump said earlier this week that he would “love” to talk with Mueller, though the White House has not previously confirmed that he would be willing to speak with Mueller’s investigation.
“I’m looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said.
Even if White House lawyers have reservations about an interview with Mueller, who previously ran the FBI for a dozen years, it might be in the president’s best interest to agree anyway, experts said. That’s because Mueller has the power to compel Trump to talk by subpoenaing him for grand jury testimony. And it helps Trump to agree to an interview instead because he can have his lawyer present, as opposed to appearing before a grand jury, where his lawyers would not be allowed.
“So if you’re Trump’s legal team, you cooperate and you sit in for the interview and you show that you’re cooperating,” explains Solomon Wisenberg, who was deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation and conducted grand jury questioning of President Bill Clinton.
One risk for Trump is the focus of Mueller’s questioning. Some have speculated that Mueller is interested in Trump’s controversial firing of former FBI Director James Comey for possible obstruction of justice charges. The New York Times first reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was interviewed by Mueller’s team last week.
As Mueller’s office continues its investigation and interviews more of the president’s associates, “certainly Mueller would be derelict in his duty if he didn’t interview Trump at some point,” says Wisenberg.
But for all their eagerness to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, Trump and his lawyers will also have to be careful of certain mistakes people have made in the past in special counsel interviews.
“What any decent lawyer wants to do in this situation is to avoid two things,” says Wisenberg. “One, you want to avoid an admission of some fact that could help Mueller make a case. And number two, you want to avoid a false exculpatory statement, because the false statement to a federal investigator is a crime in and of itself.”
The second pitfall has already claimed victims in Mueller’s investigation: he’s brought charges against four of Trump’s former aides, all of which include charges of lying to the authorities. And two of the aides – Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos – pleaded guilty to making false statements during the course of this Russia investigation.
President Bill Clinton provides another cautionary tale for any president facing a special counsel interview. In 1998, Clinton denied under oath during an independent counsel investigation that he had sexual relations with a White House intern. The independent counsel accused him of perjury and obstruction of justice, which led to his impeachment.
Clinton isn’t the only other president to have answered sworn questions of this nature: with the exception of Barack Obama, every president since Richard Nixon has been involved in a federal criminal investigation while in office, Politico reports. Ronald Reagan answered questions under oath on multiple occasions during the Iran-Contra investigation, for example, and George W. Bush was interviewed by the special counsel in 2004, not under oath, during the probe about the leaking of CIA Operative Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity.
Trump is no stranger to giving testimony; he has been deposed numerous times over the course of his business career. And there’s much we don’t know about the exact circumstances about how an interview as part of Mueller’s investigation would be conducted: whether or not it would be under oath, for example, or whether it would be recorded for a transcript or video. (Even if Trump is not under oath during the interview, it would still be a crime to lie to investigators.)
That’s the most important lesson to take from Clinton’s experience, Wisenberg says: “Don’t lie.”