WASHINGTON - Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s team told President Donald Trump’s lawyers recently that prosecutors do not believe they can charge a sitting president with a crime under Justice Department guidelines, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said Wednesday.
The special counsel’s conclusion signals that it would be left to Congress to address any finding of wrongdoing by Trump in the investigation. Mueller’s team is scrutinizing Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether the Russians coordinated with any Trump associates and whether the president has sought to thwart the probe.
Mueller indicated in a meeting a few weeks ago that he concurred with the view that a sitting president cannot be indicted under past legal opinions issued by the Justice Department, Giuliani told the Washington Post.
Giuliani said that Mueller at first tried to be “coy” when Giuliani asked the special counsel for his stance on the issue. One of Mueller’s aides responded that the special counsel would follow Justice Department guidelines, he said.
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment.
Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted mobsters in New York, said Mueller appeared displeased when the deputy spoke up. He compared the special counsel’s reaction to that of Vito Corleone, the mob boss that Marlon Brando played in the movie “The Godfather.”
“He didn’t seem to want to give the answer,” Giuliani said. “It reminded me of that scene in ‘The Godfather,’ with Sonny and the Godfather, where he said, ‘Oh, you’re going to take care of us? We can take care of ourselves.’ One of his assistants broke in and said, ‘Well of course, we’re bound by Justice Department policies.’ Mueller looked at him like, ‘Don’t interrupt me.’ “
Giuliani said the issue was left as an “open question” during the meeting, but that a deputy to Mueller followed up a few days later in a phone call to clarify that the special counsel plans to follow the Justice Department guidelines.
The special counsel’s stance was first reported by CNN.
Most legal experts have assumed Mueller would follow the Justice Department’s guidelines that bar such a prosecution. The two opinions, written in 1974 and in 2000, argue that a president must be immune from criminal prosecution from his executive branch while in office. If a president had to consider the possibility of criminal jeopardy, the opinions argue, he might be dangerously constrained in making decisions that are critical to his role as commander in chief.
The opinions were written by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel amid investigations into President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton.
The Constitution provides another remedy for wrongdoing, the opinions conclude: Congress can hold a president accountable with impeachment proceedings, if necessary.
Under special counsel regulations, Mueller is required to report his conclusions confidentially to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has the authority to decide whether to release the information publicly.
Last month, The Post reported that Mueller had told Trump’s lawyers in March that he needed to interview the president to finalize a report about Trump’s actions while in office and potential obstruction of justice.
The chances of such a sit-down appears to be narrowing.
On Wednesday, Giuliani described the standoff between the two sides over a presidential interview as increasingly tense. Mueller’s office is seeking to sit down with Trump for 2 1/2 hours, he said.
The president is “probably the most enthusiastic about doing it,” Giuliani said, but Trump’s lawyers are not encouraging the idea.
“You know what’s changing our strategy? Their lack of responsiveness,” Giuliani added. “We’ve written five letters to them, two while I’ve been there and three before. They haven’t responded to any of them. They don’t want to respond to any of them.”
The letters are memos outlining the testimony and documents that Trump’s lawyers believe answer the questions Mueller has for the president, as well as requests for details about the questions and information about the scope of Mueller’s mandate, he said. The most recent was sent May 10.
Giuliani said he doesn’t see why Mueller needs to question the president at all.
“He’s got everything,” he said. “Look, our position has changed a little bit in that we’ve gone through all of the documents now. They lay out a complete picture of what happened. If you don’t want to accept reality, then we’re walking into never-never land.”