White House officials once debated a scorched-earth strategy of publicly criticizing and undercutting Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian efforts to disrupt last year’s election. Now, President Trump’s lawyers are pursuing a different course: cooperating with the special counsel in the hope that Mr. Mueller will declare in the coming months that Mr. Trump is not a target of the Russia inquiry.
Mr. Trump has long sought such a public declaration. He fired his F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, in May after Mr. Comey refused to say openly that Mr. Trump was not under investigation.
The president’s legal team is working swiftly to respond to requests from Mr. Mueller for emails, documents and memos, and will make White House officials available for interviews. Once Mr. Mueller has combed through the evidence, Mr. Trump’s lawyers plan to ask him to affirm that Mr. Trump is not under investigation, either for colluding with Russian operatives or for trying to obstruct justice.
More than a half dozen White House officials, witnesses and outside lawyers connected to the Russia inquiry have described the approach, which is as much a public relations strategy as a legal one. The president’s legal team aims to argue that the White House has nothing to hide, hoping to shift the burden to Mr. Mueller to move quickly to wrap up an investigation that has consumed the Trump administration’s first year.
“The White House believes the special counsel shares its interest in concluding this matter with all deliberate speed for the benefit of the country,” said Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the response to Mr. Mueller’s investigation. He said the administration was cooperating “with hope of bringing the matter to a prompt and decisive end.”
Any public declaration by Mr. Mueller about the president’s innocence would also be a clear sign that the special counsel’s investigation has not broadened significantly beyond last year’s presidential campaign to include a close scrutiny of any of Mr. Trump’s past business dealings with Russians.
Whether the strategy will work is another matter. The plan rests on the premise that Mr. Trump has done nothing wrong — something the president has repeatedly told his lawyers and said publicly — and some lawyers connected to the investigation say that Mr. Cobb has been too willing to take the president at his word. If the White House moves too hastily, they argue, materials could end up in Mr. Mueller’s hands that might damage the president and other administration officials.
Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, previously expressed fears that the document production could set a bad precedent for future administrations. Mr. Cobb has told aides that the White House should move deliberately and carefully, but not drag its feet.
Others doubt that Mr. Mueller will publicly clear Mr. Trump anytime soon, even if the documents and interviews do not show that he committed a crime. Mr. Mueller is building cases against two of Mr. Trump’s former advisers, Paul J. Manafort and Michael T. Flynn. Should either man cooperate with investigators, it might change Mr. Mueller’s view of how Mr. Trump fits into the Russia investigation.
Nevertheless, the president’s advisers have concluded that this strategy represents their best chance to lift the cloud hanging over the administration.
“Good for them if they can pull it off,” said Barbara Van Gelder, a prominent Washington white-collar lawyer who served in the Justice Department with Mr. Mueller. She said he was highly unlikely to give the White House any assurances as long as the investigations into Mr. Manafort and Mr. Flynn were open.
“Mueller’s not going to make a statement,” she said, “because he’s not going to want to claw it back.”
Mr. Comey had similar concerns. While F.B.I. agents investigated whether Mr. Trump’s associates had any connection to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Comey privately told Mr. Trump and members of Congress that the president was not personally under investigation. At least twice, however, he refused requests by Mr. Trump to say so publicly. Mr. Comey later told Congress that he did not want to make a public declaration that he might have to amend after further investigation.
SOURCE: MATT APUZZO and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
The New York Times