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Analyzing Mueller’s list of questions for Trump

Special counsel Robert Mueller has prepared a list of almost 50 questions to ask President Trump as part of the federal investigation into possible ties between his campaign and Moscow, and obstruction of justice. What do Mueller's questions, reported by the New York Times, suggest about the state of the probe? Judy Woodruff talks to former federal prosecutor Matthew Olsen.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    According to a New York Times report out today, special counsel Robert Mueller has a list of almost 50 questions for President Trump as part of the investigation into possible ties to Russia and obstruction of justice.

    Mr. Trump's legal team has not publicly confirmed if he will sit down for an interview. But the president did weigh in on Twitter, calling release of the questions — quote — "so disgraceful" and repeating that the probe is a Russian witch-hunt.

    We examine some of the questions and what their release represents with former federal prosecutor Matthew Olsen. He also served as senior counsel to Robert Mueller in 2005.

    Matt Olsen, thank you for being back with us.

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    Thanks for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We appreciate it.

    So what do you make of those questions overall? The New York Times said that they were read by the special counsel's investigators to the president's lawyers, who then compiled them into a list. Do they seem authentic?

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    Well, my initial reaction, looking at them, is that it's a little unusual, actually quite unusual, for a prosecutor to give a witness a list of questions written out or even verbatim in the way these questions.

    It does strike me as unusual. It would be more common to give a witness maybe a couple of topic areas or subjects, but these are very specific questions, so it strikes me as odd.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, of course, it raises the question, what — what was the genesis of this? And if — The New York Times hasn't said, of course, who the source was. But if the source believed them to be accurate, then it leaves one wondering how this all came about.

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    It sure does.

    But, at some level, even regardless of how we got them or how The New York Times received them, they do offer a really fascinating look inside where the special counsel's investigation is at this stage.

    For one, it shows how wide-ranging the scope is. It extends obviously from whether there was collusion during the election all the way to the obstruction of justice potential charges. So it's a wide-ranging scope.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And I wanted to ask about that. So what are the signposts that you see here, because they range? There are questions about — in fact, there are questions that point to possible collusion.

    The president tweeted today they prove that's not what Mueller is after, but one of the questions was about, you know, did you know that your former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was approaching the Russians for some sort of assistance?

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    Yes, exactly right, Judy. At least a dozen of the questions really go directly to this question of coordination or collusion between the campaign and the Russians.

    And, in particular, they specifically go to the president's own state of mind. What did he know about whether Paul Manafort and others were cooperating with the Russians? At what point did he learn about that? What was his reaction to those events as they were playing out during the first year of his presidency?

    So the signposts are that they're very interested in — the special counsel is very interested about learning what the president knew and when he knew it, reminiscent of the Watergate question.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And there were questions for the president's close friend Roger Stone, who was advising him at different points during the campaign, his connections with WikiLeaks. There are just all sorts of points where there could have been a Russia connection there.

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    Absolutely.

    And it goes to — if you look at the questions as reported in The New York Times, it talks about what the president was doing and what he knew about people like General Flynn, Jim Comey, you know, and at each stage, what did the president know about those individuals during the time frame that they were actually involved in, whether in Flynn's case being fired or — and in Comey's case being fired as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Which seems to point to questions of obstruction of justice, the firing of Comey, the Flynn situation, and a number of others, even the treatment of Jeff Sessions, the attorney general.

    Is that how you see some of these questions?

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    That's exactly how I see it.

    If you look at what happened during the first year of the Trump presidency and basically what the president was saying and what he was doing, these questions go to what was in his mind, what was his intent?

    And in any criminal probe, the critical question is, what was the intent of somebody who is suspected of wrongdoing? Very hard to prove, often proved circumstantially by incidents or events around those acts, but in this case, those questions go directly to asking the president what was in his mind, and, you know, apparently in order to understand whether his intent was corrupt or not.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And there were also a couple questions around the president's business dealings with Russia, financial connections with Russia. What would that say to you?

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    So, potentially again, not knowing exactly, but potentially that would say to me, what was the motive here? Does the president have a motive or does the campaign have a motive to curry favor with the Russians?

    What was behind some of the actions that were taking place during the campaign and during the last year that might explain why the president took some of the steps he did?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We're in such a realm of speculation now, because we don't know what's going on inside the Mueller investigation.

    But if these questions were provided — you said it was unusual, but if they were provided to the president's lawyers, could it have been part of an attempt to make the president feel more comfortable about cooperating, sitting down for an interview?

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    Absolutely. It is unusual. Of course, the president is a highly unusual witness.

    So it wouldn't surprise me if there was a high degree of collaboration and cooperation between the Mueller team and the president's lawyers to have some ground rules where there would be a degree of comfort for the president to sit down and engage in this kind of conversation.

    Now, I would expect that to occur at the tail end of an investigation. Remember, at some point, this is going to wrap up, and, at that — the point at which you would talk to somebody like the president under these circumstances would be as you were finishing or getting close to the end of the investigation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we don't have a sense of where they are along the road.

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    That's right.

    But one thing we do know is that the Mueller investigation has a lot of information that we don't have. And that's where I think there is some high degree of risk for the president.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    No question.

    Matthew Olsen, it's great to see you. Thank you very much.

  • MATTHEW OLSEN:

    My pleasure. Thanks.

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