WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – President Donald Trump said on Wednesday (Jan 24) that he was willing and eager to be interviewed by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, insisting that he has done nothing wrong.
“I’m looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said of talking to Mueller, answering months of speculation over whether he was willing to submit to questions from the special counsel, who is also believed to be looking into whether the Trump campaign aided Moscow’s effort and whether the president sought to thwart the inquiry itself.
“Here’s the story, just so you understand,” Trump said during an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters in the West Wing. “There’s been no collusion whatsoever. There’s no obstruction whatsoever, and I’m looking forward to it.” Trump suggested that his efforts to defend himself against damaging allegations had been unfairly misinterpreted as wrongdoing.
“You fight back,” he said, and such a response is characterised as, “’Oh, it’s obstruction.’” The president’s surprise exchange with about 20 reporters served as a reminder of the extent to which Trump sees the Russia inquiry as simply an invalidation of his electoral victory, and feels a deep sense of bitterness about the narrative surrounding his presidency.
His lawyers have been negotiating for weeks with Mueller’s team about the prospect of having him answer questions in the inquiry, including what topics would be covered. Trump said last year he would be willing to speak with Mueller, but has more recently suggested that should not be necessary because the allegations being examined were baseless.
While there are risks for the president submitting to such an interview, some senior White House officials have argued that Trump should do so in the interest of bringing a swift end to an investigation that has cast a shadow over his presidency. People familiar with Trump’s thinking have long described private conversations with the president in which he has said he is eager to meet with Mueller, a product of his belief that he can sell or coax almost anyone into seeing things his way.
“I would love to do that – I’d like to do it as soon as possible,” the president told reporters on Wednesday of the prospect of being interviewed by Mueller, adding that his lawyers have told him it would be “about two to three weeks” until it takes place.
Almost as an afterthought, he added, any such interview would be “subject to my lawyers, and all of that”. Many of the potential questions relate to whether Trump obstructed justice, people briefed on the discussions have said. They have said they expect the interview to be completed by the end of February or early March.
Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer leading the response to the investigation, said Trump was speaking hurriedly and intended only to say that he was willing to meet.
“He’s ready to meet with them, but he’ll be guided by the advice of his personal counsel,” Cobb said. He said the arrangements were being worked out between Mueller’s team and the president’s personal lawyers.
The White House has made many witnesses available for interviews with prosecutors, and officials have said there are no discussions about Trump speaking before a grand jury, which is how prosecutors speak to witnesses under oath. Interviews with agents and prosecutors are not conducted under oath, but lying to the FBI is a felony.
Pressed on whether he would be willing to answer questions under oath, Trump first asked a reporter whether Hillary Clinton, his 2016 campaign rival, had done so in the investigation into her use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state. Clinton gave a voluntary interview to FBI investigators in July 2016, and was not under oath, as is typical for such sessions.
President Bill Clinton testified under oath in 1998 about his relationship with a White House intern. He was questioned on camera in the White House Map Room and the testimony was broadcast to a Washington grand jury room.
Trump spoke with reporters in the doorway of his chief of staff’s office, interrupting a background briefing with a senior administration official on immigration with his own roughly one-minute informal news conference before he departed for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Trump also said he did not recall questioning Andrew McCabe, the deputy FBI director, during a job interview about how he voted in the 2016 presidential election, after White House officials conceded on Tuesday that the president had, in fact, asked the question.
“I don’t think so; no, I don’t think I did,” Trump said, adding, “I don’t know what’s the big deal with that.” Added Trump: “I don’t remember asking him the question. I think it’s also a very unimportant question.” The two met after the president fired the FBI director, James Comey, as Trump was deciding if he would name McCabe the acting director of the bureau. Trump’s query was an unusual and overtly political one for a discussion with a senior official in the Justice Department, which is supposed to operate independent of political influence.
But Trump appeared to concede that he was concerned about McCabe’s political affiliation, noting that his wife ran for office in Virginia in 2015 with political support from Terry McAuliffe, a close ally of the Clintons.
“The wife got US$500 (S$660) from Terry,” Trump said. “Terry is Hillary.”
As he wrapped up the session, the president asked one TV reporter to make sure she aired a “nice piece” about him, expressing his frustration that journalists do not acknowledge his strength as a candidate.
“There’s no collusion,” Trump said as he left. “I couldn’t have cared less about Russians having to do with my campaign.” “The fact is, you people won’t say this, but I’ll say it: I was a much better candidate than her,” the president went on, referring to Clinton. “You always say she was a bad candidate; you never say I was a good candidate. I was one of the greatest candidates.”