WASHINGTON — President Trump’s lawyers rejected the special counsel’s latest terms for an interview in the Russia investigation, countering Wednesday with an offer that suggested a narrow path for answering questions, people familiar with the matter said.
Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, confirmed that a response was sent but declined to comment on its content. The president’s lead lawyer in the case, Rudy Giuliani, noted the documents that the White House has already provided and said, “We’re restating what we have been saying for months: It is time for the Office of Special Counsel to conclude its inquiry without further delay.”
The letter marked the latest back and forth in the eight months of negotiations between Trump’s lawyers and the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Last week, Mueller proposed a slightly altered format to the expansive interview he wants to conduct with the president.
Trump’s lawyers did not reject an interview outright but included the narrower counteroffer, one person familiar with the response said. However, Trump’s lawyers do not want him answering questions about whether he obstructed justice, according to the person, who did not want to be named describing the private negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The response indicated how far apart the two sides remain. Mueller wants to question the president on a range of issues, chiefly his associates’ contacts with Russia; possible coordination between his campaign and Moscow’s election interference; and the intent behind presidential actions that could be construed as attempts to obstruct the inquiry, including firing the FBI director.
But the president’s lawyers are concerned that if he is interviewed, Trump could perjure himself. That concern is in part driving the ongoing negotiations. They had been prepared last week to tell Mueller that Trump would decline an interview, but the president, who believes he can convince Mueller that he is innocent, pushed his lawyers to continue negotiating.
By making another counterproposal after months of promises that they were just weeks away from deciding about an interview, Trump’s lawyers run the risk that Mueller could conclude they are negotiating in bad faith to prolong the investigation. In a meeting with Trump’s lawyers this year, Mueller threatened to take the extraordinary step of subpoenaing the president if he did not sit for a voluntary interview.
Only one president, Bill Clinton, has been subpoenaed while in office; he eventually agreed to a voluntary interview to avoid a prolonged court fight. The Supreme Court has never decided whether a sitting president can be subpoenaed for testimony.
Law enforcement officials who have worked with Mueller — a longtime federal prosecutor and the head of the FBI from 2001 to 2013 — believe that he will try to use every tool he has to get the president to answer questions and that he will probably subpoena him to testify if he does not agree to be questioned voluntarily.
Some of Trump’s lawyers believe that Mueller will not subpoena their client out of fear of losing a court fight that could undermine the investigation’s legitimacy to the public.
The president’s lawyers have said they would fight a subpoena — a battle that could eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.