Trump team’s goal: pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion of in­no­cence

Strat­egy in­cludes swift co­op­er­a­tion and a halt to bad-mouthing Mueller

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt

WASH­ING­TON — White House of­fi­cials once de­bated a scorched-earth strat­egy of pub­licly crit­i­ciz­ing and un­der­cut­ting Robert S. Mueller III, the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian ef­forts to dis­rupt last year’s elec­tion. Now, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s lawyers are pur­su­ing a dif­fer­ent course: co­op­er­at­ing with the spe­cial coun­sel in the hope that Mueller will de­clare in the com­ing months that Trump is not a tar­get of the Rus­sia in­quiry.

Trump has long sought such a pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion. He fired his FBI di­rec­tor, James B. Comey, in May af­ter Comey re­fused to say openly that Trump was not un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Pub­lic re­la­tions move

The pres­i­dent’s le­gal team is work­ing swiftly to re­spond to re­quests from Mueller for emails, doc­u­ments and memos, and will make White House of­fi­cials avail­able for in­ter­views. Once Mueller has combed through the ev­i­dence, Trump’s lawyers plan to ask him to af­firm that Trump is not un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, ei­ther for col­lud­ing with Rus­sian op­er­a­tives or try­ing to ob­struct jus­tice.

More than a half-dozen White House of­fi­cials, wit­nesses and out­side lawyers con­nected to the Rus­sia in­quiry have de­scribed the ap­proach, which is as much a pub­lic re­la­tions strat­egy as a le­gal one. The pres­i­dent’s le­gal team aims to ar­gue that the White House has noth­ing to hide, hop­ing to shift the bur­den to Mueller to move quickly to wrap up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has con­sumed the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first year.

“The White House be­lieves the spe­cial coun­sel shares its in­ter­est in con­clud­ing this mat­ter with all de­lib­er­ate speed for the ben­e­fit of the coun­try,” said Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer han­dling the re­sponse to Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He said the ad­min­is­tra­tion was co­op­er­at­ing “with hope of bring­ing the mat­ter to a prompt and de­ci­sive end.”

Any pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion by Mueller about the pres­i­dent’s in­no­cence also would be a clear sign that the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion has not broad­ened sig­nif­i­cantly be­yond last year’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to in­clude a close scru­tiny of any of Trump’s past busi­ness deal­ings with Rus­sians.

Whether the strat­egy will work is an­other mat­ter. The plan rests on the premise that Trump has done noth­ing wrong — some­thing the pres­i­dent has re­peat­edly told his lawyers and said pub­licly — and some lawyers con­nected to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion say that Cobb has been too will­ing to take the pres­i­dent at his word. If the White House moves too hastily, they ar­gue, ma­te­ri­als could end up in Mueller’s hands that might dam­age the pres­i­dent and other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

No foot-drag­ging

Don­ald F. McGahn II, the White House coun­sel, pre­vi­ously ex­pressed fears that the doc­u­ment pro­duc­tion could set a bad prece­dent for fu­ture ad­min­is­tra­tions. Cobb has told aides that the White House should move de­lib­er­ately and care­fully, but not drag its feet.

Oth­ers doubt that Mueller will pub­licly clear Trump any­time soon even if the doc­u­ments and in­ter­views do not show that he com­mit­ted a crime. Mueller is build­ing cases against two of Trump’s for­mer ad­vis­ers, Paul J. Manafort and Michael T. Flynn. Should ei­ther man co­op­er­ate with in­ves­ti­ga­tors, it might change Mueller’s view of how Trump fits into the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, the pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers have con­cluded that this strat­egy rep­re­sents their best chance to lift the cloud hang­ing over the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Good for them if they can pull it off,” said Bar­bara Van Gelder, a prom­i­nent Wash­ing­ton white-col­lar lawyer who served in the Jus­tice Depart­ment with Mueller.

“Mueller’s not go­ing to make a state­ment,” she said, “be­cause he’s not go­ing to want to claw it back.”

James Ber­glie / Zuma Press via TNS

Many doubt that Robert Mueller will pub­licly clear Pres­i­dent Trump any­time soon, even if doc­u­ments and in­ter­views do not show he com­mit­ted a crime.

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