According to multiple sources cited by The Washington Post, Department of Justice special prosecutor Robert Mueller has informed President Donald Trump’s legal team that the president is not currently being considered a criminal target of the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
That assurance reportedly came during a meeting last month between Mueller and attorneys seeking to set the parameters of Trump’s possible testimony.
Though he is not being treated as the target at the time, sources say Mueller did describe Trump as a subject of the investigation. Analysts warn that this could be a precarious position for the president should he decide to sit down for an interview with Mueller’s team.
Some of Trump’s advisers are reportedly interpreting the disclosure as good news, telling the president that he is unlikely to face criminal charges. Others, however, take the cautionary position that the subject of an investigation can become a target quickly with one wrong answer to an investigator’s question.
In the March meeting, Mueller reportedly also made it clear that his team needs to interview Trump, specifically to determine whether he attempted to obstruct the investigation thus far.
Princeton University politics professor Keith Whittington explained why Trump’s testimony could be problematic. If he were in the president’s position, he said he “would be very reluctant” to view Mueller’s assurance as evidence that he will never face criminal charges.
“My sense of it is the president — given that information — ought to have pretty fair warning anything he’s saying in the deposition would be legally consequential,” Whittington said. “Depending on what he says, it could wind up changing how the special counsel is thinking about him.”
Even if Trump were to become a target of the investigation, however, some legal scholars cite Department of Justice opinions dating back to the Watergate scandal in making the case that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime.
In a Fox News Channel interview, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Oversight Committee, blamed a “political environment” for Mueller’s comments, suggesting such an assurance from a prosecutor is uncommon.
“You generally don’t tell people you’re not under investigation because you don’t know what the next witness is going to say,” Gowdy said.
In light of increased pressure for Trump to answer the special counsel’s questions, the attorneys on his team have reportedly been divided in their advice.
John Dowd, who urged the president not to agree to an interview, quit last month, leaving Trump represented by Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow. Both remaining attorneys have indicated that they believe the president should sit down with Mueller’s team.
Two sources close to the situation say Mueller is also planning to release a report that addresses possible obstruction of justice as well as Trump’s behavior since his inauguration. It would be up to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to decide whether the details in that report would be made public.
“They’ve said they want to write a report on this — to answer the public’s questions — and they need the president’s interview as the last step,” a source cited by The Post said.
A subsequent report focused on any evidence of Russian meddling in the U.S. election is also expected to come out of the special counsel’s office.
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