One Way or Another, Donald Trump Will Have to Testify About Russia

Unsurprisingly, President Trump’s lawyers are dead set against having the fabulist-in-chief sit down for an interview with Robert Mueller:

His lawyers are concerned that the president, who has a history of making false statements and contradicting himself, could be charged with lying to investigators. Their stance puts them at odds with Mr. Trump, who has said publicly and privately that he is eager to speak with Mr. Mueller as part of the investigation into possible ties between his associates and Russia’s election interference, and whether he obstructed justice.

Mr. Trump’s decision about whether to speak to prosecutors, expected in the coming weeks, will shape one of the most consequential moments of the investigation. Refusing to sit for an interview opens the possibility that Mr. Mueller will subpoena the president to testify before a grand jury, setting up a court fight that would drastically escalate the investigation and could be decided by the Supreme Court.

This has been the state of play for a while. What I don’t get is what the court fight would be about. Why do Trump’s attorneys think he could refuse a subpoena?

They are convinced that Mr. Mueller lacks the legal standing to question Mr. Trump about some of the matters he is investigating, like the president’s role in providing a misleading response last summer to a New York Times article about a meeting Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. had with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. The advisers have also argued that on other matters — like the allegations that the president asked James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director, to end the investigation into the former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn — the president acted within his constitutional authority and cannot be questioned about acts that were legal.

By an odd coincidence, this year is the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s testimony before a grand jury after Kenneth Starr subpoenaed him. I suppose my memory might be foggy, but I’m pretty sure Republicans back then insisted unanimously that Starr did indeed have the standing to subpoena Clinton. Right? Help me out here.

The president’s lawyers are playing a weak hand here. If they decline an interview and Mueller issues a subpoena, Trump has to testify without benefit of counsel. That’s the last thing they want, and Mueller knows it. With the Starr precedent to back him up, all Mueller has to do is give them a simple choice: Trump can testify either voluntarily with counsel or under subpoena without counsel. What’s it going to be?

Trump is on thin ice for another reason: he can tweet all he wants about this being a witch hunt, but Republicans control every branch of government. This investigation isn’t being run by Democrats and Mueller wasn’t appointed by a bunch of liberals. Unless you believe that the FBI is a hotbed of socialism—and nobody believes that except for Trump’s true believer fans—this whole thing is a conservative show from start to finish. Hillary Clinton isn’t involved. Nancy Pelosi isn’t involved. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders aren’t involved. There’s just no way to credibly paint this as a partisan inquisition.