Everybody is missing something about Mueller’s questions, and it’s something big

First the caveats: we have to assume that the questions obtained by the New York Times were 1) recorded accurately by Trump’s lawyers, who were reportedly writing the questions down as Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s team was reading them off, and 2) reported accurately by the Times–in other words, that nothing was lost in translation. I’m betting that the questions were recorded accurately by Trump’s lawyers, because they’re lawyers, and they know the importance of how a question is phrased; and I’m assuming the reporting is accurate, because it’s the Times.

Speaking of phrasing questions, indeed this is something any good lawyer will work on meticulously, and we have to keep in mind that, at this stage of the investigation, Mueller is not asking questions that he hasn’t already more or less answered himself. These questions aren’t about information gathering; they’re about giving Trump a chance to talk his way out of whatever trouble he’s already in. In other words, the chance Trump has been given to answer these questions is a courtesy that’s been extended to him.

With all that in mind, see whether you notice something interesting about these questions (this is just a sampling):

What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?

During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?

What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

Did you see something interesting going on there? You should have, because–and I can’t emphasize this enough–the words chosen here very carefully (if subtly) express not just what Mueller would like to know from Trump, but what he already knows.

Here is how I would have expected these questions to look (think about the differences):

Did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

Did you have discussions with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

Did you have any involvement in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

Did you have any communication with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?

During the campaign, did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?

Did you have any knowledge of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

There is a big difference in the legal world between Did you know and What did you know. If Muller wanted to know whether Trump was involved in creating the bogus Don Junior story about meeting with Russians in Trump Tower to discuss adoption policy, then he would have asked, “Did you have any involvement . . ..” But he didn’t; he asked, “What involvement did you have . . ..” That’s because he already knows that Trump was involved, and he just wants Trump to tell him how deeply involved he was. (To be sure, Trump can say “I had zero involvement,” but his lawyers had better tell him that, given the way the question is phrased, his interlocutors will know that he’s lying.)

All of Mueller’s questions are phrased that way, which means he knows that Trump knew about or talked about or participated in every episode covered by the questions; he doesn’t want to know whether Trump was involved, because he already knows that. He just wants to know how deeply Trump was involved, or at least how deeply involved Trump will admit to having been.

It’s no wonder Trump’s lawyers freaked out when they heard these questions. The questions don’t just show that Mueller is casting a wide net; they also show that he’s already got the goods.

-bb

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