Outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller speaks during an interview at FBI headquarters on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, in Washington. The nature of terrorism has changed in Robert Mueller’s dozen years as FBI director, but his concerns for the future are much the same as when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, merely a week after he’d taken over the bureau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
One of the ongoing points of negotiation between the White House legal office and special counsel Robert Mueller is over President Trump making himself available for an interview. Since the change in management of the White House legal team, the position has been that Mueller has all the information he needs from other sources and therefore there is no legitimate reason for the President to be interviewed. There are, of course, other threads running through here. From my observation of Trump, he has the ability to shape reality into his reality. It isn’t that he lies, per se, because I think he can pass a polygraph on his statements. He simply believes what he wants to believe. I’m not the only one to think that, his own lawyers in the past testified in a deposition that they always met Trump in pairs so they had witnesses to what he said.
Now it seems that the same team thinks they have an advantage--53% of Americans say Mueller’s investigation is politically motivated–and they are pressing it.
President Trump’s lawyers want the special counsel’s office to promise to end its investigation within two months after an interview with the president, adding another demand to tense negotiations that have dragged on for months.
“We got pretty close on the amount of time they would need to write a report, which roughly was about 60 days after they finished their investigation,” Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told TIME on Wednesday.
There are reasons to think this could happen. Mueller’s flagship case against Concord Management and Consulting is going south fast. Mueller obviously indicted the company never expecting to have to prosecute it and now the company as retained US legal counsel and is mauling Mueller’s team in court. This is critical because this is the only case, thus far, that seems even vaguely connected to the 2016 campaign. Congress is making unpleasant noises over the Flynn indictment, apparently [shocked face!!] the FBI and Justice were less than candid with the Senate Judiciary committee and are now refusing to show documents buttressing Flynn’s indictment even though the investigation there is over.
But direct evidence against Manafort is almost nonexistent. Saying “we should talk” and “I want to give you an update” or a “heads-up” is hardly the stuff that true witness-tampering charges are made of. And, more to the point, if the entire conversation in which Manfort participated lasted for less than a minute and a half, he’d have to be a very, very fast talker to have accomplished tampering.
So what is going on here? Why would Mueller’s team, whose actions to date have been premised on overwhelming evidence, take this risk and go out on this evidentiary limb?
My speculation is simple: This is a sign that they are feeling pressure. Possibly from Trump. Possibly from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Possibly just from their reading of the public tea leaves. Whatever the source of the pressure, they have an increased sense of urgency to move quickly.
And that translates to the want, and need, for Manafort’s cooperation. Not later but now. And the only way to get that cooperation now is to ramp up the pressure. The motion, if successful, would put Manafort in jail sooner rather than later, at the end of what promises to be a lengthy trial. That would concentrate Manafort’s mind quite a bit—and this is the type of pressure tactic that prosecutors use all the time. So that isn’t a surprise.
What is surprising, as I have said, is how thin the factual basis appears to be for these charges. I hope that the Mueller team isn’t rushing its effort. Now is no time to panic.
I don’t think Manafort can “flip” on Trump mainly because there is nothing there for him to flip on. But, if he does cooperate and they can link him, even tangentially, with anything that could be mistaken as Russian in dim light, then they have accomplished their mission. They have tied Trump’s campaign manager to Russia.
I’m sure right now that the pardons slipping out of the White House give Manafort hope. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Papadopoulos and Flynn receive pardons or commutations after they plead guilty. And patience–the public’s, Congress’, Sessions’, and, I imagine, Rosenstein’s–is running out on Mueller. This offer might be the best one he’s likely to get.