What did President Donald Trump know and when did he know it? Special Counsel Robert Mueller may already know some of the answers to those questions.
A list of 49 questions Mueller’s team would like to ask Trump, obtained by the New York Times, show that Mueller may know more than the public does about Trump campaign activities related to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, former federal prosecutors tell VICE News.
“If that information is accurate, it could be that the evidence of collusion is stronger than the public is aware,” said former federal prosecutor Barb Mcquade.
One question in particular suggests that Mueller has information about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort soliciting assistance from Russia during the campaign, something that has not yet been reported.
What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?
Mueller has charged Manafort with a long list of crimes, including money laundering and tax evasion, but none of the charges so far have to do with Russian meddling in the U.S. election. If Manafort did in fact ask Russia to help Trump win the election, that action itself not a crime, but the type of assistance Russia may have provided could be criminal.
The special counsel’s office read their list of 49 questions out loud to the Trump legal team in March as part of ongoing negotiations about whether Trump will agree to be interviewed, according to Times reporter Michael Schmit. It’s not clear which side leaked the list of questions to the Times.
Former federal prosecutor Brett Tolman worked closely with Mueller when Mueller was FBI director. He thinks the only way Mueller would have leaked the information is as a last ditch effort to get Trump to agree to an interview by eliciting public pressure.
“I could see perhaps if it was their only strategic move left, but in all of my interactions, he ran a very, very tight ship,” Tolman said. “I imagine Mueller is mortified that that’s out there.”
A possible motivation for the Trump team to leak the questions would be to show just how far the investigation has sprawled. The questions touch on years of Trump’s activity, and include his private business dealings and, most importantly, his inner thoughts and motivations, likely part of the obstruction of justice probe.
“One of the key and hardest parts of proving an obstruction of justice case is a corrupt purpose,” Mcquade said. “He fired James Comey, fired Michael Flynn, but the key is to prove he did it with corrupt intent. A lot of the questions are getting at that.”
Perhaps sensing what Mueller is up to, Trump tweeted Tuesday, "it would seem very hard" to obstruct justice if there is no underlying crime.
In fact, no underlying crime is required for an obstruction of justice case, Tolman said. If someone tries to derail an investigation on purpose, they can still be charged with obstruction. Although, most legal experts agree that a sitting president can't be indicted, which raises questions about how this investigation will end.
Trump has repeatedly asked for assurance from Justice Department officials that he is not a target in the investigation, and the Times reports that Trump’s attorneys received that assurance as recently in March, meaning he is still a subject, not a target, Toman said. The outcome of an interview with Trump could move him from the subject category to the target category, depending on what is said.
“If you’re a defense attorney, why would you ever, ever let the president go into a meeting and answer those questions?” Tolman said. “It’s a no win situation. You can only dig the hole you’re in bigger.”
Cover image: FBI Director Robert Mueller III testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a oversight hearing on Capitol Hill December 14, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.