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Updated at 10:34 a.m. EDT
Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller may have developed evidence not yet public about contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government as it attacked the 2016 election, based on questions published Monday by The New York Times.
The Times obtained more than 40 questions evidently submitted by Mueller’s office to Trump’s legal team. Someone “outside” the legal team then gave the document to The Times, which described its contents, although not verbatim.
If, according to one common theory about Mueller’s investigation, the presidential interview is the last one in the process, the questions for Trump are suggestive about evidence the special counsel already has — which investigators might wish to test with Trump in person.
The questions allude to Trump’s discussions about sanctions on Russia during the campaign, Trump’s awareness during 2016 about Russia’s active measures and “any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign.”
Prosecutors have connected Trump’s former campaign chairman, Manafort, to at least one person they say has ties to Russia’s intelligence services, but Manafort has not been charged with conspiring with the Russian attack.
The reference to “outreach” suggests the Justice Department may have more evidence it has not yet revealed. Manafort is facing federal charges that focus on alleged money laundering and has pleaded not guilty.
Most of the questions The Times printed focus on whether Trump may have obstructed justice or tried to frustrate the FBI’s Russia investigation, including whether he asked then-FBI Director James Comey to lay off then-national security adviser Mike Flynn; leaned on others to pressure Comey; why he fired Comey and more.
The special counsel’s office made no comment about the questions or The Times report. Trump appeared to confirm the account with a series of tweets on Tuesday morning.
So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were “leaked” to the media. No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see…you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2018
“So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were ‘leaked’ to the media,” Trump wrote. “No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see … you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!”
Trump’s tweet is not correct because there are questions about collusion, but it is correct in that “collusion” is not a crime, nor a legal term that prosecutors formally might invoke in an indictment.
Mueller has, however, described overtures from Russian agents to Trump campaign aides in past court documents — just some of the contacts known to have taken place — and also charged a number of Russian cyber-operatives with “conspiracy to defraud the United States” in the context of the election.
Trump’s reference to “illegally leaked classified information” is an allusion to the memos Comey kept about his interaction with the president. Trump and his supporters say those documents included official secrets and so the descriptions about them in the press after his firing, and since then by Comey, amount to an improper breach.
A White House spokesman, Raj Shah, said later on Tuesday morning that the Times report was “troubling.” He also echoed Trump’s complaint that the special counsel investigation has gone too far afield.
“The entire premise of this investigation was on this topic of collusion and the overwhelming focus of the questions is not on that topic.”
The appearance of the questions — and Trump’s reaction — may be the last nail in the coffin for a prospective interview between the president and the special counsel’s investigators.
Last week, Trump hailed the verdict of the House intelligence committee’s Republican majority that there was no conspiracy between his campaign and the Russian attack. The Senate intelligence committee and Justice Department investigations that continue, he says, represent a “witch hunt.”
It would seem very hard to obstruct justice for a crime that never happened! Witch Hunt!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2018
Trump has said in the past that he wanted to talk with Mueller but that he would follow the advice of his attorneys. Outside lawyers have said they’d counsel Trump against talking with Mueller. The dangers are too great, in this view, that if the president exaggerated or prevaricated, he’d fall into a “perjury trap.”
The special counsel’s office has already concluded guilty pleas with a few people in the Russia matter — including Flynn — that were based upon acknowledgements about lying to the FBI.
The door, however, may not be completely shut. One of Trump’s newest lawyers, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, reportedly has met with Mueller to hasten the end of the special counsel investigation and kept alive the prospect of an interview with the president.
NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe contributed to this report.