WASHINGTON—In January, President
legal team and special counsel Robert Mueller were zeroing in on the terms of a presidential interview: the last Saturday of the month, at Camp David, on a narrow list of topics, for maybe between two and six hours, with time set aside for bathroom breaks, according to people familiar with the matter.
The lawyers presented the terms to the president, who was described by one person as “optimistic” about the prospect. Ultimately, though, the deal was never sealed as members of the legal team were divided over the wisdom of letting him testify, the people said. Mr. Mueller’s office declined to comment.
Now, a new crop of lawyers for Mr. Trump is again in an intense phase of negotiations with Mr. Mueller over the terms of a possible interview as the special counsel pursues his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election campaign and whether the Trump campaign colluded with that effort. Mr. Trump denies collusion, and Moscow says it didn’t meddle in the election.
The discussions today are, if anything, even more difficult.
In April, the FBI seized records from the president’s personal attorney,
in an investigation by the Southern District of New York that was referred in part by Mr. Mueller.
Prosecutors are examining whether the president’s lawyer committed bank fraud or campaign-finance violations. Mr. Cohen has denied wrongdoing.
Mr. Trump’s legal team also has undergone a makeover, bringing a more combative style toward the Mueller investigation. Newly hired
is playing an influential role and wavering, at times day to day, on whether Mr. Trump should sit for an interview.
More recently, the president has voiced anger at reports that a suspected Federal Bureau of Investigation informant, an American academic named Stefan Halper, made contact with his campaign aides during the 2016 race, a development he calls “Spygate.” He has continued to dismiss the Mueller probe as tainted, tweeting “WITCH HUNT!” on Wednesday.
Emmet Flood, the White House special counsel who replaced Ty Cobb this month, on Thursday attended the start of a classified briefing at the Justice Department over the use of the confidential informant—which is now factoring in to whether there will be an interview with Mr. Mueller.
“We need to know how bad it is, and how much it infected the whole investigation,” Mr. Giuliani said in an interview Thursday. “How much are they going to rely on it? We’re walking into a trap, if we don’t know.”
Still, the January episode offers a guide to the considerations at issue. Some things haven’t much changed. On one side is a special counsel eager to interview Mr. Trump; on the other, a president impatient with the investigation and surrounded by lawyers tasked with protecting his interests.
In January, some of the president’s lawyers believed that Mr. Mueller was willing to narrow the questions to Mr. Trump’s firing of FBI Director
and to former national security adviser
contacts with Russian officials. No questions would be asked about Mr. Trump’s business interests—an area he has deemed a red line that prosecutors shouldn’t cross.
The two sides were searching for a compromise over the number of hours the session would last: Mr. Mueller was talking about six; the Trump team, two. Negotiators homed in on Camp David, the presidential retreat, as a possible location. By January’s end, though, Mr. Trump’s legal team balked.
the president’s lead outside attorney at the time, said he sent a 20-page letter to Mr. Mueller at the end of January rejecting an interview and laying out the legal and constitutional reasons the president didn’t need to testify.
That left some others on the team disappointed: They saw the scuttled interview as a lost opportunity to perhaps wrap up the Trump-focused piece of the Russia probe more quickly.
In March, Mr. Dowd resigned his position. Mr. Giuliani joined the team a month later, and said he had an explicit mandate from the president to bring the investigation to a speedy close.
Mr. Giuliani said that when he joined the legal team, there was “so much difference between the two parties” that it was “hard to believe” they had been so close to arranging an interview earlier in the year.
In recent months, Mr. Mueller’s team outlined for the president’s legal team more than 40 questions that investigators would want to ask the president, focusing on Mr. Trump’s decision to fire Mr. Comey last spring and on his awareness of contacts between his associates and Russians during the campaign.
Write to Peter Nicholas at email@example.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com
Appeared in the May 25, 2018, print edition as ‘Mueller Nearly Had Deal on Interview.’