For months, President Trump's lawyers have been confidently assuring him that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election was about to wrap up. It'll be done by Thanksgiving, they promised him. Definitely by the end of 2017. Any day now, it'll be over.
With those predictions came an implicit (or perhaps explicit) reassurance: He's not going after you, sir, you have nothing to worry about. And indeed, the idea that he wasn't personally under investigation has been nothing short of an obsession with Trump. He repeatedly asked former FBI Director James Comey whether he was under investigation, and when he fired Comey last May, he took the time in his brief letter to write, "I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation." In July he told The New York Times, "I'm not under investigation. For what? I didn't do anything wrong." In November he told the paper, "I'm not under investigation, as you know." "Everybody tells me I'm not under investigation," he said last month. "Maybe Hillary is, I don't know, but I'm not."
Spoken like a man who's awfully afraid that should someone investigate him, they might find some interesting things. And there's so much there to examine, particularly his long history of dealings with shady characters whose names just happen to end in the letter V. As Trump's lawyers try desperately to shield him from Mueller, no prospect is more horrifying than Mueller and his team sitting down to ask the president questions. Specific questions, with follow-ups.
Though Trump has said publicly that he'd welcome the opportunity to sit down with Mueller, the Times reports that his lawyers are advising him against agreeing to such an interview, because they "are concerned that the president, who has a history of making false statements and contradicting himself, could be charged with lying to investigators."
Wise counsel there, Matlock.
An interview with Mueller is obviously a minefield, particularly since these days just about the only person who's allowed to ask Trump multiple questions at a time is Sean Hannity. Mueller is a serious prosecutor who by all accounts has been pursuing his investigation diligently. You can be sure that he has a great many things he'd like to ask the president, and he's unlikely to be fooled by Trump's attempts at evasion.
We also know that for all his success as a performer, Trump doesn't do particularly well in depositions. In 2007, lawyers deposed him in a lawsuit he filed against a journalist who wrote that Trump had inflated his wealth. In the deposition, they forced him 30 separate times to admit that he had lied about something (he lost the case). In 2016, his deposition in the Trump University lawsuit featured an ironic highlight, in which Trump said he couldn't recall so many events and statements that the plaintiff's lawyer finally asked him whether he had claimed to have the world's greatest memory. Though Trump had in fact said that just weeks before, he said he couldn't recall saying it. He lost that case, too, by agreeing to pay $25 million to the victims of his scam.
Some of Trump's allies worry that any interview with Mueller would be a setup. "Don't do it," Rush Limbaugh advised. "It's just a perjury trap." Trump buddy and longtime dirty trickster Roger Stone warned that Mueller is setting "an obvious perjury trap." But here's the thing about a perjury trap: You can't fall into it unless you're willing to commit perjury.
That's hardly the only potential danger. Mueller may want to establish the "corrupt intent" necessary to prove obstruction of justice. While it might not produce a moment out of A Few Good Men, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Trump damning himself with his own words on that subject.
So what we have here is a conflict between Trump's lawyers' well-founded fears that their client will destroy himself as soon as he submits to questions, and Trump's own hubris in believing (as he surely does) that he's such a very stable genius that he could emerge triumphant from any interrogation. But let's say they convince him not to submit to Mueller's questions. What happens then?
The answer is that Mueller could issue a subpoena for Trump to appear before the grand jury, and as precedent has established, even presidents have to obey subpoenas. That's what happened in 1998: After negotiations over how Bill Clinton would answer independent counsel Kenneth Starr's questions dragged on, Starr eventually issued a grand jury subpoena ordering Clinton to appear. With that prospect concentrating his attention, Clinton agreed to an arrangement under which he would be deposed in the White House with his lawyers present.
If Trump refuses to allow Mueller to interview him, a subpoena is Mueller's next option. Given Trump's contempt for people telling him what to do, I wouldn't be surprised if Trump simply refuses to obey it. It would eventually be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the law applies even to Republican presidents, and though their record on such matters is less than stellar, in this case it seems unlikely they'd issue Trump a "Get out of jail free" card.
So we may get to see Trump squirm after all, as he's presented with damning evidence and forced to answer for his lies and (possible) misdeeds. It should be fascinating to watch.