In an exclusive interview with Reuters on Monday, Aug. 20, President Donald Trump revealed some major clues about his feelings about the probe led by FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The interview came amidst a period of increasing tensions between the White House and the Justice Department, so everyone's eager for clues. And now, President Donald Trump's comments about running the Russia investigation have given some insight into one the biggest questions facing Washington.
Speaking with Reuters in the Oval Office Monday, Trump said he had thus far refrained from getting involved in the investigation into the Trump campaign's connections to Russia leading up to the 2016 presidential election and possible obstruction of justice, but he could if he wanted to. Trump signaled he had the power to control that investigation, saying:
I can go in, and I could do whatever — I could run it if I want. But I decided to stay out ... I'm totally allowed to be involved if I wanted to be. So far, I haven't chosen to be involved. I'll stay out.
In response to the news, legal experts jumped into the fray to assess what the comments by the president might mean — and what further legal risks they may have exposed him to.
"This statement by Trump could be used by Mueller to show Trump is considering actively interfering in the investigation," former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, who is not involved in the Russia investigation, pointed out in a tweet.
Multiple legal experts, in fact, took up similar lines of thinking: That if the president mentioned taking over the probe or perjury, it's probably a good indication he's thought about doing so.
Another former federal prosecutor, law professor Joyce Vance, tweeted, "No one says, well, it might be perjury somehow or another, unless they know it would be."
"When Trump says 'I . . . could run' the Mueller probe 'if I want,' he opens a window into the mind of an autocrat, someone with no sense of legal limits on his own power," tweeted Harvard Law professor Laurence H. Tribe.
"No such person can be trusted with the powers of the presidency."
The interview was the latest indication of the president's reaction to a probe that has inched closer and closer to his inner circle. Trump has been taking to Twitter with increased frequency to bash the investigation and its director, calling him "disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller" in an Aug. 20 tweet. Per Reuters, he continued the same line of name-calling and disparaging during the interview Monday.
Trump also said in the Reuters interview that he "hadn't given it a lot of thought" as to whether he would revoke Mueller's security clearance as he did with former CIA Director John O. Brennan on Aug. 15, and has threatened to do with a handful of other former national security officials. It's not clear what, if anything, the president may exercise his authority to do in regards to the Mueller investigation. But his comments to Reuters seem to have given some on Capitol Hill and in courthouses reason to worry. Democrats Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Adam Schiff both shared tweets about his comments.
In the Reuters interview, Trump didn't say whether he would do an interview with the special counsel, adding that doing so could be a "perjury trap." He expressed concern that if another interviewee — like former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in May 2017 — gave Mueller a contradictory account, it would cast doubt on Trump's answers. Trump said,
So if I say something and he (Comey) says something, and it's my word against his, and he's best friends with Mueller, so Mueller might say: 'Well, I believe Comey,' and even if I’'m telling the truth, that makes me a liar. That's no good.
Until further notice, it's not clear whether Trump will agree to speak with the special counsel — or whether he'll take any other actions around him or the investigation itself. For the moment, thought, it's safe to assume he'll keep tweeting about both.