If President Trump is interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a step that appears increasingly inevitable in the Russia investigation, he’ll square off with prosecutors who have spent decades firing questions at corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen and organized crime leaders.
But the prosecutors wouldn’t be the only seasoned veterans in the room. By his own account, Trump has sat for dozens of depositions in his career as a bellicose business mogul in New York, one who routinely drew legal challenges from aggrieved competitors, contractors, customers and state attorneys general.
He would hardly be the first president questioned in a criminal case. In 1876, Ulysses S. Grant gave a deposition in defense of his private secretary during a trial over whiskey distillers evading taxes. Grant’s probity was so unquestioned that he effectively ended the prosecution’s case.
Trump may have a more difficult time. Lawyers who have grilled him in the past describe him as charming and focused, but also arrogant, glib and dishonest, characteristics that could prove troublesome if Mueller’s team finds he has a clear conflict with the truth.
In June, Trump said he would be “100%” willing to testify under oath. He appeared to waffle on Jan. 10, however, saying “we’ll see.”
“When they have no collusion, and nobody has found any collusion, at any level, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview,” Trump told reporters.
White House lawyer Ty Cobb sent a different message this week. He told CBS that Trump is “very eager” to meet with Mueller and answer his questions.
Legal experts say Trump almost certainly will have to submit to some form of questioning before Mueller wraps up the probe. The president is likely to give as good as he gets.
“He’s going to have his A game on,” said Jay Itkowitz, a lawyer who represented ALM Unlimited, a licensing company that accused Trump of stiffing it on revenue from his clothing line in 2008.
Trump behaved like “a gentleman” when Itkowitz deposed him in a Trump Tower conference room in 2011, the lawyer said. But he felt Trump provided false information.
“He’s obviously capable of being very charming and have an outward demeanor of respectfulness even while he’s totally lying,” Itkowitz said. A judge later ruled in Trump’s favor by dismissing ALM’s lawsuit.
A Miami lawyer, Elizabeth Beck, said she got less respect when she deposed Trump in a separate lawsuit in 2011 involving a failed real estate deal in Florida.
Trump called her questions “very stupid,” according to a transcript. In an interview, Beck said he “got red in the face” and “ran out of the room screaming” when she needed to take a break to pump breast milk for her newborn.
He was more polite when they resumed the deposition three months later. He was “a completely different person,” Beck said.
He also turned on the charm when the case went to trial in Broward County, Fla., in 2014. While reading a document on the witness stand, Trump asked the judge to borrow his glasses.
“Can I use your glasses again, your honor? Is that possible? I hate to do this to you,” Trump said.
When he finished testifying, the judge dismissed Trump by saying, “You’re fired,” the trademark line from Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice.” The jury ruled in Trump’s favor.
“People underestimate him,” Beck said. “I saw grown men, attorneys, become gelatinous in front of him.”
It’s unlikely that Mueller, a former Marine Corps officer who fought in Vietnam, will turn weak in the knees. In 2004, Mueller famously threatened to resign as FBI director if President George W. Bush reauthorized a warrantless wiretap program without making changes. Bush backed down.
Mueller is also far more powerful than lawyers in civil cases.
In addition to collecting a vast number of documents, the special counsel’s office has secured cooperation from George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide, and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor. Both pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russians or suspected Russian intermediaries during the campaign or the presidential transition.
“Mueller holds the cards here,” said Alan Dershowitz, a constitutional and criminal law scholar who is an emeritus professor at Harvard Law School.
Trump is famously loose with the facts, sometimes shading the truth or fabricating his own. Doing that in an interview with federal investigators is a potential felony, even if the president is not under oath.
“The main risk is that he will admit to certain facts that will fill gaps for the prosecution, or he’ll say things that are contradicted by other witnesses or other evidence,” Dershowitz said. He has previously suggested that Trump’s legal position, particularly over whether he obstructed justice, may not be as dire as the president’s critics suggest.
It’s unclear how much Trump would prepare for an interview to get his story straight.
“My impression is that he walks into those situations with little preparation, feeling like he can just wing it,” Benitez said. Both sides ultimately settled the lawsuit without disclosing the terms.
Trump’s lawyers have said they are cooperating with Mueller, but wouldn’t comment on reports about a potential Trump interview. If the president refuses to talk, Mueller could subpoena him to appear before a federal grand jury that is hearing evidence in the probe.
Trump’s lawyers “could go to court and say you can’t subpoena a sitting president,” said Randall D. Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who teaches white collar criminal law at George Washington University. “Most people would say that wouldn’t prevail. But they could make an argument and tie it up for months.”
Moreover, if Trump refuses to honor a grand jury subpoena, it could spark a political and legal firestorm that would consume the White House and Congress, creating chaos for the administration.
“You’re going to send U.S. Marshals to bring the president in?” Eliason asked. “There’s a potential for a constitutional crisis right around the corner in all of these things.”
Trump’s lawyers could try to arrange for the president to answer written questions from the prosecutors — a process that lets the president’s team vet the answers — but legal experts suggest it’s improbable Mueller would agree to that.
In any case, granting an interview may be the only way for Trump to resolve an investigation that he considers a stain on his administration.
“He should be pursuing closure,” Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, said on CNN. “And he doesn’t get closure until he talks to Bob Mueller.”
“It is inevitable that Robert Mueller and his team will want to talk to the president in order to reach some closure,” he said.
Other presidents have spoken with investigators in various settings for various scandals.
In 1987, President Reagan spoke with an independent commission, and answered written questions from special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, about the Iran-Contra scandal. The scheme involved illegal funding of anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan rebels with profits from the covert sale of missiles to Iran, which was under an arms embargo.
Walsh ultimately brought charges against employees of the CIA, the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as several private individuals. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush preemptively pardoned Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and pardoned five other figures in the case.
In 2004, George W. Bush met for more than an hour in the Oval Office with special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. He was trying to identify who had leaked the identify of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative, to discredit her husband’s claims about faulty intelligence before the invasion of Iraq.
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators. Bush commuted Libby’s prison sentence in 2007, but he did not pardon him.
Bill Clinton was the first sitting president to testify to a grand jury investigating his own conduct.
In August 1998, independent counsel Ken Starr sent his deputy, former federal prosecutor Solomon Wisenberg, and two other lawyers to interview Clinton at the White House for the grand jury. They questioned the president about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.
“You obviously try to show as much respect for the office as possible and get the information you’re trying to get,” said Wisenberg.
Starr had agreed to limit the testimony to four hours, something Clinton tried to use to his advantage.
“President Clinton is one of the great speechifiers of all time,” Wisenberg said. “He knew he could give lengthy answers to questions.”
One month later, the House Judiciary Committee released a videotape of Clinton’s testimony and thousands of pages of supporting evidence, including sexually explicit material.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House approved two articles of impeachment against Clinton, for lying under oath and obstructing justice. He was acquitted in the Senate in February 1999 and served out his presidency.