President Donald Trump’s everyday demeanor and his tweets, meetings, rallies and media interviews all make it hard to imagine he will suddenly reply with candid accuracy to factual questions posed by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The dodgy allegations, fact-challenged stories and conspiracy theories he’s spouted since taking office all suggest Trump might not be willing or even able to completely answer hard questions and their follow-ups, under oath or otherwise.
Perhaps the most generous way to put it is that Trump demonstrates an exceptional need for help whenever a straight question requires a straight answer.
He shuns conventional presidential news conferences (the last one last year), tweets unfounded claims (of wiretapping and voter fraud), clings to one news network (Fox) and makes contradictory statements (such as over why he fired an FBI director).
The queries that Mueller put to team Trump, as leaked to The New York Times, were fairly predictable, and give the president the advantage of being able to prepare — and even crowdsource — his answers if he chooses.
And yet it still looks like a minefield for the president.
The potential trouble comes not so much from the text of the questions but their context and what Mueller may do with his answers.
When Mueller, for example, proposes to ask Trump the purpose of his Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with then-FBI director James Comey, the underlying question is whether Comey was dismissed for refusing to shut down a legitimate investigation.
When Mueller asks Trump about contacts with intelligence officials, he really wants to know whether the president was lining up allies to kill the probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election.
When Mueller asks with whom he discussed the prospect of getting Attorney General Jeff Sessions to quit, the underlying question is whether he was punishing him for recusing himself from the Russia probe.
The wrong answers by Trump could suggest obstruction.
Mueller will have statements and evidence from other people, including those who have pleaded guilty to charges and agreed to cooperate, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, with which to compare Trump’s answers — should an interview take place.
Questions about the 2016 campaign’s Russian contacts involve figures already in the news. These include lawyer Michael Cohen, business associate Felix Sater, campaign aide George Papadopoulos, ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort, and billionaire businessman Erik Prince.
This isn’t a candidate debate. Any lie by Trump in this forum can be deemed perjury. Any evasion could make it look — at best — as if the president was living on a different plane of reality from those who work for him.
Getting past this inquiry in a principled way could require a kind of conduct we have yet to see from the 45th president.