By Timothy L. O'Brien
President Donald Trump held an impromptu press briefing in the White House early Wednesday evening, popping into a meeting of reporters and his chief of staff and telling the group that he's "looking forward" to speaking “under oath” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
That's the Robert Mueller who is overseeing a Justice Department investigation into whether Trump's presidential campaign colluded with the Kremlin to tilt the 2016 election in his favor. That's the Robert Mueller who is examining whether Trump and others in his orbit obstructed law-enforcement efforts to examine that matter. And that's the Robert Mueller scouring the president's businesses and finances. He’s already indicted four former Trump insiders for a variety of crimes, including lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Yet the president mustered the bravado to tell reporters last night that he "would love to" sit down with Mueller in two or three weeks.
Sometimes love is blind.
Whether he realizes it or not, Trump is in a perilous position. He presides over a chaotic White House stocked with competing interests and egos, he's mired in a complex investigation and he's advised and protected by a relatively scanty phalanx of private attorneys. If the president goes mano-a-mano with Mueller, the outcome of that encounter is likely to hinge on how careful, credible and capable he is under oath.
Speaking from experience, I think the president's attorneys should grab their worry beads. Trump sued me for libel in 2006 for a biography I wrote, "TrumpNation," alleging that the book misrepresented his business record and understated his wealth. Trump lost the suit in 2011, but during the litigation my lawyers deposed him under oath for two days in 2007. We had the opportunity to ask Trump about his business and banking practices, his taxes, his personal finances and his professional relationships.
Trump's attorney then was Marc Kasowitz, who also briefly represented the president when the Justice Department investigation first got rolling in Washington. My attorney was Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor steeped in many of the same legal traditions and courtroom experiences as Mueller. It didn't go well for the future president.
Hammered by White and her deputies, Trump ultimately had to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff: how much of a big Manhattan real estate project he owned; the price of one of his golf club memberships; the size of the Trump Organization; his wealth; his speaking fees; how many condos he had sold; his debts, and whether he borrowed money from his family to avoid going personally bankrupt. He also lied during the deposition about his business dealings with career criminals.
Trump's poor performance stemmed in part from the fact that he was being interrogated by shrewd attorneys wielding his own business and financial records against him. But there were lots of other things that went wrong as well.
Trump is impatient and has never been an avid or dedicated reader. That’s OK if you’d rather play golf, but it’s not OK when you need to absorb abundant or complex details. Lawyers typically prepare binders full of documents for their clients to pore over prior to a deposition, hoping to steel them for an intense grilling. My lawyers did that prior to my own deposition in the Trump lawsuit. But Trump didn’t appear to be well prepared when we deposed him, a weakness that my lawyers exploited (and that Mueller surely would as well).
Trump, for example, had submitted a document to the court from his accountant outlining his assets and liabilities. He was proud of the document’s glowing conclusions but hadn’t seemed to have read most of it prior to sitting down with my lawyers – including a section that said that the report wasn’t a reliable gauge of his wealth. Trump seemed surprised when my lawyers pointed that out.
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