Special counsel Robert Mueller notified President Trump’s lawyers last month that the president is being investigated as part of the Russia probe, but a source familiar with the situation says they were told Trump was not a criminal target at that time.
The source declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter but did confirm the details first reported by the The Washington Post.
There have been ongoing discussions between Trump’s lawyers and Mueller’s team about the president sitting for an interview as part of the investigation. Trump has said he wants to speak with Mueller. Asked on March 22 whether he still wanted to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump said: “Yes. I would like to.”
John Dowd, the lawyer who had been leading Trump’s legal team until he resigned late last month, reportedly was at odds with the president and others on the legal team about whether it was a good idea for Trump to sit for an interview with Mueller. Dowd was against it.
Asked about the Post story, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said: “We do not discuss real or alleged conversations between our legal team and the Office of Special Counsel.” Ty Cobb, the lawyer in the White House handling the Mueller probe, declined to comment.
The Washington Post story also says Mueller told Trump’s lawyers that he is preparing a report about the president’s actions while in office and potential obstruction of justice and that he needed to interview Trump to complete that phase of his investigation. NPR has not confirmed this part of the story. The Washington Post report adds:
The president has privately expressed relief at the description of his legal status, which has increased his determination to agree to a special counsel interview, the people said. He has repeatedly told allies that he is not a target of the probe and believes an interview will help him put the matter behind him, friends said.
However, legal experts said Mueller’s description of Trump as a subject of a grand jury probe does not mean he is in the clear.
Under Justice Department guidelines, a subject of an investigation is a person whose conduct falls within the scope of a grand jury’s investigation. A target is a person for which there is substantial evidence linking him or her to a crime.
There also remains a legal question about whether a sitting president can be indicted for a crime. As NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported last year, it is a debate as old as the country itself:
Most constitutional lawyers agree a president can be investigated. But the consensus breaks down when it comes to what happens next. “The president cannot be indicted, prosecuted and tried while serving in office,” Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told Fox News last month.
Dershowitz pointed out the Justice Department has twice concluded that indicting a sitting president would undermine the executive branch and its duties under the Constitution.
“The only mechanism the Constitution provides is he could be impeached and once impeached and removed from office he could then be charged with a criminal trial,” Dershowitz said.
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