On Monday, the New York Times revealed a list of questions that Robert Mueller’s team wants to ask Donald Trump as it continues investigating collusion, obstruction of justice, and other matters related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. The president responded over Twitter, denying collusion and claiming it was outrageous for the questions to be leaked. It currently remains unclear whether the president will agree to an interview.
To discuss what Mueller’s questions might reveal about the investigation, I spoke by phone with Asha Rangappa, a senior lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a contributor to CNN. She was previously an FBI agent who worked counterintelligence cases. (She is also an editor at Just Security, which has a partnership with Slate.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why the Mueller team doesn’t seem to leak, what the questions tell us about how much Mueller knows, and the ways that Trump’s personality might factor into prosecutors’ strategy in dealing with the White House.
Isaac Chotiner: How rare is it to provide a witness questions in advance?
Asha Rangappa: It’s very unusual. The idea of interviewing someone is that you are getting their first off-the-cuff impression or response. You don’t want them to have the chance to really prepare. If you think back to Michael Flynn’s interview, where they called him and showed up and [Flynn] didn’t even tell anyone that they were coming, that’s what you want.
Mueller is in a unique situation with the president because he is the president. Normally you would have the threat of a grand jury subpoena in front of you if you didn’t comply. That is available to Mueller, but it goes down a road that creates confrontation, and the president could delay it. I think providing the questions is a way of showing they are trying to be accommodating and not ambush the president.
So then do you think the questions Mueller would actually ask are closely aligned with the questions we got to see?
I guess I think so. If you look at the arc of the questions, they pretty much follow every act that appears to look like obstruction, or a reason that Trump wants to make this investigation go away. The other questions go to what he knew people in his campaign were doing. No one should be really surprised about what he wants to ask. I think the key is that they are very open-ended, so they leave open—especially for someone who is rambling and unfocused and perhaps not particularly disciplined in what he is going to say …
It leaves the possibility that he could then use follow-up questions to go down roads that may not be explicitly mentioned in the questions themselves. For example, there is really only one question that seems to focus on his finances, about the Trump deal in Moscow. But think about the follow-up questions: Did you have other deals planned before that? How did you secure the loans for those deals? Who was helping you? All those kinds of questions get to other information they might want. As an FBI agent, you don’t want to go in there gangbusters and confrontational. You are going to get a lot more information if you put the subject at ease and allow them to talk.
That’s what I am trying to do here.
Yeah, you establish rapport. You say this is the last step and we need to do this to wrap this up. One of the things about Trump is that he wears his emotions on his sleeve and wants this to be wrapped up. So if it is presented as, “We have to do this so we can wrap this up”—and it’s true, for the obstruction part this is the last step—he may relax.
Does it strike you as weird that they might wrap up the obstruction part of the probe, when he could keep meddling in the investigation and could obstruct it going forward?
That’s true, but remember that the obstruction goes back to what was his intent in firing Comey. He can continue to engage in acts of obstruction that could then become new investigations, I guess. But really, with this particular one, they are focusing on what was his intent and goal in firing Comey, and in many ways what is relevant to that is what was happening immediately before and after, temporally. Mueller is looking at one big act of obstruction. Maybe if Trump were to start pardoning everybody or offering pardons, there could be another obstruction investigation that could arise.
You had a tweet about how if Mueller is asking the questions, he know the answers, which is a lawyer thing. What do the questions about collusion signal to you about what Mueller might already know?
It definitely suggests that all of the actions and events mentioned in those questions are things they have at least explored, and I suspect they do have other evidence on many of them. If they were talking to Russians anywhere near the FBI or any intelligence agency, including our allies’, they likely know at least pieces of what those communications were, and they now have cooperating witnesses who have pleaded guilty who are giving them real-time eyewitness information. They are not going to go in and just, like, say, “I am just real curious about this random thing I haven’t explored at all.” They will have done a lot of homework. Maybe the question of what Trump knew about it is still open.
If the Mueller team was going to indict people in the president’s inner circle for collusion, what would be the pluses and minuses of waiting to do so until you talked to the president?
I think what is driving whether you want to do it sooner or later is whether they have value for other people you want to get. We saw that they indicted Manafort, Flynn, and Papadopoulos. All of these people clearly have information that is valuable to Mueller, so it was in his interest to put pressure on them earlier. I think the determining factor is how much these people have to offer to the rest of the investigation. And if they do, then it is in Mueller’s interest to try to get them on board earlier rather than later.
Did you ever do a counterintelligence investigation that was politically sensitive?
No. What’s unusual about this counterintelligence case is that it is intersecting at so many points with a criminal investigation. When I did counterintelligence investigations, they rarely saw the inside of a courtroom. That wasn’t the goal of them. The goal, first and foremost, is to neutralize your adversary and their operations. Neutralize them, expose them, and ideally get somebody to flip and work for you. And to be successful in those things, it has to be secret. There has been a choice made that they are going to make what they have uncovered and found out public, and I think that is the right thing because it is a case that has great public interest, but it is not your typical counterintelligence investigation.
Are you surprised there has been so little leaking from the Mueller team? I know these people are professionals who are not supposed to leak, but things leak all the time and people love to blab. Does it surprise you at all?
It doesn’t surprise me at all. He has pros. These are all people who have been former prosecutors, or [whom] he has worked with, and I am sure he has read them the Riot Act. It’s a small group, so if there is a leak it will not be hard for him to identify who it was. One of the tidbits I remember with Peter Strzok was when the IG, or maybe a congressional committee, was looking for his texts from some date in July 2016 up until he was assigned to the Mueller investigation, people were wondering why they weren’t looking for texts [after that]. And I was like, I bet [Mueller] made them drop all of their existing devices or something to make sure they are clean. It isn’t just political repercussions from the leaks; the Russians want to know what they are uncovering, obviously. So that kind of security is driving them to be really careful. They are using very sophisticated sources and methods, and they cannot afford for that to be exposed in any way.