The New York Times published a series of questions on Monday night that were given to President Donald Trump’s legal team by special counsel Robert Mueller as they negotiate an interview. The list gives the clearest picture yet of Mueller’s secretive inquiry and its current focus. But what Mueller isn’t asking the president is just as interesting.
The Times categorized the questions into four groups: the legal troubles surrounding former national security advisor Michael Flynn; Trump’s interactions with former FBI Director James Comey; Trump’s contentious relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and what Trump knew about Russian electoral meddling during the 2016 campaign.
It’s unclear who provided the list to the Times. The newspaper’s account says the questions were “read by the special counsel investigators to the president’s lawyers, who compiled them into a list.” That list was then “provided to The Times by a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team,” which could mean a White House staffer or a former member of the president’s legal team. (A member of Mueller’s team would presumably not have access to the Trump legal team’s compilation of those questions.)
That game of telephone raises two caveats. First, the questions listed in the Times may not be verbatim, so nuances in their original phrasing may have been lost. Second, the list is not a binding document for Mueller. In an interview with the president, the special counsel could add, subtract, or modify questions as he sees fit.
Nonetheless, the more than 40 questions serve as an effective recap of the Russia-related twists and turns that punctuated Trump’s first year in office. And yet, not every major revelation made it into the special counsel’s list. Here are five of the most notable omissions.
What did Trump know about George Papadopoulos’s interactions with Russian intermediaries?
Papadopoulos, a foreign-policy aide on Trump’s campaign, agreed to cooperate with investigators when he signed a plea agreement with Mueller’s office in October. In court filings, Papadopoulos revealed his encounters with two Kremlin-linked Europeans, apparently with the campaign’s blessing, who later offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. A casual conversation between him and an Australian diplomat in May 2016 first alerted the FBI to potential Russian meddling.
It’s possible that Papadopoulos’s interactions are covered by broader questions like, “During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?” But Mueller also made more specific inquiries about Russian contacts with Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort. That makes the Papadopoulos omission somewhat curious.
What did Trump know about Carter Page’s trip to Moscow?
Page, while serving as a foreign-policy consultant for Trump’s campaign, traveled to Russia to deliver a commencement address at Moscow’s New Economic School in July 2016. In emails with other Trump campaign staffers, he described meeting with Russian officials, but later dismissed those meetings as “a very brief hello to a couple of people.” Page also plays a significant role in allegations made in the dossier of allegations against Trump compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
Page has denied any wrongdoing and said he wasn’t acting in an official capacity, but the trip’s timing brought a wave of scrutiny. It’s possible that, like Papadopoulos, his actions could be covered under broader questions about Russian hacking. It’s also possible that Mueller doesn’t see Page as a significant part of the investigation at this time, at least where Trump himself is concerned.
What efforts has Trump taken to pressure Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein?
Mueller’s questions probe what Trump knew and thought about actions taken by Sessions, Comey, and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates at various stages of the Russia investigation. Trump’s treatment of FBI Director Christopher Wray and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe also comes up. Mueller even asks about the president’s efforts to fire Mueller himself.
But one high-profile name never appears: Rod Rosenstein, the current deputy attorney general and Mueller’s boss. Rosenstein wasn’t part of the Justice Department leadership during the Flynn saga, but he played a key part in the ouster of James Comey. Like Mueller, he’s also been targeted and threatened with removal by Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. One possible explanation for the absence: Questioning Trump about Rosenstein could revive the tricky question of whether Rosenstein should recuse himself from the probe.
What’s up with all those money laundering allegations?
Federal investigators have reportedly subpoenaed the Trump Organization for any Russia-related documents and Deutsche Bank’s records on transactions involving Trump and his businesses. Those moves led to speculation that Mueller may be looking for evidence of financial improprieties as part of his investigation. “This is all about money laundering,” former Trump adviser Steve Bannon told journalist Michael Wolff in the controversial book Fire and Fury.
As this magazine reported last year, there are numerous questions surrounding Trump’s real-estate empire, purchases by Russian oligarchs, and the cash that flows between them. But none of them appear to have made it to the top of Mueller’s list for interviewing the president. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC last night that he found the lack of questions about Russian financing to be “striking.”
What did Trump and Putin discuss at the G20 last year?
In the Times’ list, Mueller asks only one question about the president’s contacts with Russia since taking office: “What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Comey had taken the pressure off?” That infamous conversation between Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is proof, some argue, that Trump obstructed justice in firing Comey.
Presidential communications with foreign leaders are typically conducted with other U.S. officials present to ensure a reliable record is kept. A notable exception came during last year’s G20 summit in Hamburg when Trump had a private conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a dinner gathering. The chat lasted for “nearly an hour” and took place through a Russian translator, leaving no American witnesses to recount the topics of discussion other than the president himself.