While it may not be a common opinion among liberals like myself, I've long suspected that President Trump may not have been directly involved in whatever sad excuse for a conspiracy his campaign engaged in with the Russians during the 2016 campaign. The campaign was a chaotic mess, and while we already know about multiple contacts between staffers and both Russian officials and those with connections to Russian officials, so far we haven't seen evidence that Trump himself was a part of what appears to have been a rather bumbling attempt at international intrigue.
That's not to say such evidence won't ultimately appear, just that we haven't seen it yet. On the first major question being addressed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation — was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and if so, what and who did it involve — the president might turn out to be innocent.
But that's just the beginning of Mueller's probe, and its other areas of focus render Trump much more vulnerable. Which is why Mueller wants to interview Trump personally — and why Trump's lawyers are probably terrified at the prospect.
It's one thing for Trump to say (and tweet) that the Russia scandal is all a hoax made up by Democrats. It's another thing entirely for him to be forced to answer specific questions under oath by an experienced prosecutor who has gathered a huge amount of evidence and testimony from other witnesses.
If you want to see how it might go, you can read this account of the time in 2007 when Trump was foolish enough to follow through on his threat to sue a reporter over something unflattering the reporter had written, and was deposed by the reporter's lawyers. They homed in on his obvious lies and forced him to admit them — a remarkable 30 times. In the end, his credibility was destroyed and his lawsuit was tossed out of court.
There are many reasons that Trump hasn't done a one-on-one interview with an unfriendly interviewer in a long time, but one of the obvious ones is that Trump's aides are well aware that if he's being questioned by someone who isn't a Sean Hannity-level sycophant, it doesn't go well. Sometimes it isn't even because he's being backed into a corner; you may recall that when he was being interviewed by Lester Holt of NBC News, Trump blurted out that he fired former FBI Director James Comey because "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story," which is about as close as you'll get to a president admitting on national television to obstructing justice.
Obstruction is the second major area of Mueller's investigation, and you can bet he has lots of questions to ask about it — about why Trump fired Comey, whether he instructed former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to lie to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, why he went to such extraordinary lengths to protect Flynn, why he put pressure on other officials to proclaim his innocence, and presumably much more.
Then there's the final area Mueller is investigating, which we might refer to as "everything else." He is authorized to pursue any other potential crimes he may have come across in the course of his investigation, including those involving the president's unusually complicated financial history — much of which just happens to involve a series of shady Russian characters.
So if you were Trump's lawyer, the best-case scenario is for your client not to testify at all. The trouble is that such a refusal might not be politically tenable. You could imagine Mueller making the formal request, Trump turning it down, Mueller issuing a subpoena, Trump refusing to comply, and before you know it we have a gripping showdown that plunges the scandal into Watergate territory.
There's another option they may pursue: limited testimony, where Mueller will only have a small amount of time and be restricted to certain topics. There's something of a precedent for this, with how former President George W. Bush testified before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush agreed to testify only before the panel's chair and vice-chair; only for a single hour and no more; only if the interview weren't recorded; and only if Vice President Dick Cheney would be there to keep an eye on things.
That wasn't a criminal matter, and Bush could have refused altogether. Trump, on the other hand, may not be able to impose those kinds of conditions on Mueller, nor may Mueller accept them if he tries. But you can bet that Trump's lawyers will be pushing hard to restrict the interrogation as much as they can.
They may have one big problem, however: Trump's own hubris. He's spent a lifetime getting away with things he wasn't supposed to get away with and believing that rules are for other people. It would be no stretch to imagine him saying, "Let Mueller ask me whatever he wants. I'm a very stable genius. This whole Russia thing is made up. I'm going to be completely exonerated, believe me."
If that's the position Trump takes, the result could be fascinating. But it probably won't go as well as he hopes.