DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump has repeatedly trashed Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump has said it makes the country look bad. He has called it a hoax. Well, he may soon play a more direct role in it. Mueller has signaled he wants to talk with President Trump before he finishes his work. And last night the president told reporters he's game.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm looking forward to it, actually.
GREENE: He did add a big caveat, though - that he is going to take advice from his lawyers. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So what exactly are the rules when the Justice Department is interested in interviewing the president of the United States?
JOHNSON: Well, it's happened before. Remember, a special counsel interviewed George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney as part of that investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA operative. President Bill Clinton was interviewed by Ken Starr in the Whitewater investigation. And if Robert Mueller wants to interview President Trump, he can make that request. Investigators are usually pretty accommodating, David. If it's a voluntary interview, the president's lawyers can be in the room and the FBI can come to the Oval Office instead of making the president go to some dumpy government building (laughter).
GREENE: (Laughter) Well, then I guess it's more convenient for the president. So the president last night saying that he's game, even suggesting he would talk under oath, although his lawyers backed away from that a little bit. But those aren't official, like, commitments. I mean, the president could still say no if he wants to.
JOHNSON: The president did leave himself some room, and in fact he's been all over the map on his level of desire to talk with Robert Mueller. If the president ultimately says no, the special counsel could issue a grand jury subpoena basically compelling the president to show up. That would be hardball, and the president could fight the subpoena legally, but most experts think he would eventually have to talk or at least show up.
But he wouldn't have to talk, David. The president can assert the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination. That's a constitutional right for everyone, including Donald Trump. But clamming up could pose a political problem for him. That's because during the campaign and a trip to Iowa in September 2016, Trump brought up the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server, and he pointed out then that some of her aides had taken the Fifth.
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TRUMP: So they have five people taking the Fifth Amendment, like you see on the mob, right? You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?
JOHNSON: Trump also told comedian Bill Cosby on Twitter back in 2014, why are you taking the Fifth? You look guilty as hell. But, David, there's another view that the legal risks of talking could outweigh any political consideration. There's a risk of making a false statement, exposing yourself to criminal charges for lying, even if you maintain, as the president does, that he didn't do anything else that was against the law.
GREENE: So a lot to calculate here if you're the White House once this request comes through, if indeed it does. Carrie, I know you've been talking with lawyers in the past few days about this, people who have been on both sides of these kinds of high-stakes investigations, right?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Bill Jeffress has been a criminal defense lawyer in Washington more than 30 years. He told me he can't remember a politician asserting his right against self-incrimination while he's still in office. Jeffress thinks it might be better to try to manage this process by sitting for a voluntary interview where your lawyer can pop up and help you. On the other hand, there's Peter Zeidenberg. Zeidenberg was a longtime public corruption prosecutor.
He told me he's not sure that President Trump will pay any political price if he ultimately decides not to talk to Mueller. Zeidenberg says, compared to all the other norms that President Trump has broken this year and last year asserting the Fifth, really isn't all that remarkable. And what's more, he says, the president and his allies are already laying the groundwork to try to discredit the Russia investigation by attacking the FBI.
GREENE: What is the morale inside the FBI and inside DOJ, you know, which you cover, right now under attack like that?
JOHNSON: Hearing words like under siege and unimaginable - these are people who chose to work in civil service, could make more money, really fighting in some ways in their own White House at this point.
GREENE: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joining us this morning. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.