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Trump's Not A Criminal Target In Russia Probe, 'Washington Post' Reports

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn to another development we're following this morning, news that special counsel Robert Mueller recently told President Trump's lawyers that the president is not a criminal target in the Russia investigation at this time. That is according to a story in The Washington Post. That story was co-reported by Robert Costa, who is in our studio this morning. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT COSTA: Morning.

GREENE: So what was the context for this conversation? What exactly did Mueller's team tell the president's legal team?

COSTA: It was Robert Mueller himself. In early March, he had a conversation with President Trump's attorneys, and he told them that the president is a subject of the investigation, not a target. And this came amid talks between these two camps about a possible presidential interview.

GREENE: OK. Subject, but not a target. Help me understand the distinction between those two labels.

COSTA: In brief, if you're approached by an investigation like the special counsel, you could be a witness to provide information. You could be a subject, which is the next level up, which was someone who the probe is looking at not in a criminal way yet to indict, but someone who could be suspicious with regard to their intent on certain actions. Or you could be a target, and a target usually means legally that you have the possibility of imminently being indicted.

GREENE: OK. So subject is somewhere along the lines of Mueller is suspicious of something and wants to know more about what the president did or did not do, but he's not thinking about criminal charges, at least at this point.

COSTA: Based on our reporting, Mueller has told Trump's attorneys, the president's attorneys, that he needs to find out more about key decisions the president made while in office, including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. The context of all of this is that Robert Mueller is working on a report about the president's conduct and a possible obstruction of justice, and he wants to fill in those gaps.

GREENE: OK. So why did you also report that members, some members of the president's legal team aren't actually nervous about this. You suggested that the possibility here that they might be worried about is that Mueller could actually be baiting the president.

COSTA: Indeed. There's a real divide in the president's camp. You have the president talking to some of his friends and associates saying, I want to do the interview. If I'm only a subject, he has said privately, then I want to clear my name and sit down and talk with the Mueller team. Other people in Trump's inner circle are saying to the president, no, sir, do not sit down. Mueller is just trying to get you to interview under oath. He's trying to get more information about you. He may not have a case. Do not have the legal vulnerability of sitting down with him.

GREENE: So they're actually worried that the president could make himself even more vulnerable, potentially even for that distinction between subject and target to change, if he actually sat down and talked to Mueller and revealed something?

COSTA: Certainly. Because they look at the Mueller investigation so far and they see people being indicted or even going to jail because of lying to the special prosecutor during these interview sessions. And they worry that the president, who, as we know based on his history, has a tendency to exaggerate at times and sometimes make false statements, that they worry in the heightened atmosphere of a special counsel interview, if he makes any mistake, he could move from being a subject to a target.

GREENE: And you in this reporting, Robert, are actually helping us potentially understand some of the shakeup in the president's legal team and the resignation of John Dowd, who was leading the president's effort here in the Mueller investigation, right?

COSTA: This comes amid about a month of reporting, the culmination of about a month of reporting, of trying to understand what was actually happening with Robert Mueller's communications with the Trump legal team. And we saw in recent weeks John Dowd, the president's top attorney on the Russia probe, he stepped down. Why did he step down? Based on our reporting, it's because of this core disagreement. When Mueller reaches out in early March, it divides the Trump camp to cooperate or not. Dowd, a veteran white shoe Washington attorney, was telling the president do not sit down with Mueller, this would not be a smart move legally. But the president continues to insist privately he wants to do it.

GREENE: All right. Robert Costa, a reporter for The Washington Post, moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS. We always appreciate your time, Robert. Thanks a lot.

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

Corrected: May 31, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the Web summary misspelled Washington Post reporter Robert Costa's last name as Costas.