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Trump's Lawyers Say He Can't Be Forced To Testify


How far does the president's authority actually go? According to a new report in The New York Times, President Trump and his lawyers sent a 20-page letter to the special counsel Robert Mueller in January which argued that the president cannot legally obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer. On Twitter, the president decried the leak, accusing the special counsel and the Justice Department of being behind it. To talk about what this means, we're joined by The New York Times' Maggie Haberman, who co-reported the story. Good morning.

MAGGIE HABERMAN: Morning. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For those that may not understand all the ins and outs here, tell us what the president's lawyers are arguing in this letter and why it matters.

HABERMAN: Sure. So this letter was written in late January. And it was in response to a series of topic areas that Mueller's team had said they would want to talk to the president about if they interviewed him, which they have been seeking, as you know.

Essentially, what this letter does is it addresses a couple of key areas that Mueller's folks are interested in - the firing of Mike Flynn as the national security adviser; the firing of James Comey, the FBI director; the president's meeting with the Russian foreign minister Lavrov in the Oval Office, where he described Comey as a nutjob and said that the firing had relieved great pressure; his interview with Lester Holt on NBC, where he talked about Russia being in his mind; and finally, the drafting of a statement aboard Air Force One to give to The New York Times about a report involving a meeting with his son, Don Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt about Hillary Clinton.

All of this goes to the president's mindset. What the president's lawyers are saying is, you don't need to interview him. You have all of the information that you would need already, that he has - the White House has denied Comey's version of events. The president actually was - did the right thing in the Flynn case. And even if what you were saying was true, the president can't commit obstruction of justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer of the country. And, therefore, he'd be obstructing himself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So, basically, he's saying, I am justice, and justice is me...

HABERMAN: Correct, which has not been tested by the courts to the extent that they're trying to pit it. If this went ahead, if Mueller subpoenaed the president, which - I think the president's lawyers are divided on whether he actually would - they anticipate a court fight. And we're not sure where that would go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So what we can see from this letter is that the president's lawyers are trying to prevent the president from having to sit down with Robert Mueller to answer questions on whether or not he obstructed justice in the Russia investigation. What are they worried about?

HABERMAN: I think they're worried about a couple of things. Number one, I think that, in general, this is not completely unheard of to see lawyers try to push back and define the scope. But they know they are dealing with a client who has a propensity for, shall we say...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not being able to stick with a story...

HABERMAN: Not sticking with the facts, contradicting himself, sometimes contradicting himself in one sentence, you know? And the issue is always intent or not intent. The risk is that he would expose himself to accusations of making a false statement to federal investigators, which is a potential crime and a potential impeachable offense. So that's what they're worried about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. You know, the tactic seems, though, like it's aimed at calling Mueller's bluff. How far is Mueller willing to go to get the president to testify?

HABERMAN: I completely agree with you. I mean, look. I don't think that necessarily was the original goal. I think that it's certainly where it is now. I mean, where you - what you have seen is this has gotten very drawn out. Mueller has clearly been ready to interview the president since December. So the president's lawyers say they have tried seeking answers from him and couldn't get them, which is why this has dragged on. But at the same time that the - that you're seeing the president's folks not submit, you know, easily to an interview, they're also saying Mueller is taking too long. So it's an interesting tactic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. That's Maggie Haberman from The New York Times. Thank you so much.

HABERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.