Mueller just scored a massive win in the Russia investigation
- Defense attorney John Dowd was the biggest roadblock standing in the way of an interview between President Donald Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller.
- Dowd's resignation on Thursday likely indicates Trump will agree to an interview with Mueller, which could yield new leads and bolster Mueller's obstruction-of-justice case.
- Trump's confrontational persona and mounting frustration toward the investigation have prompted him to publicly lash out at Mueller in recent days.
- Legal experts warned that if Trump does the same during an interview, strays off script, or makes baseless statements, the consequences could be "tragic."
President Donald Trump's lead defense attorney, John Dowd, resigned from Trump's legal team on Thursday. And it may be the most significant victory, as it relates to Trump, for the special counsel Robert Mueller in recent months.
Dowd was the lawyer in charge of handling communications between Trump and Mueller. He was also the member of Trump's team who was the most vocally opposed to a face-to-face interview between the president and the special counsel.
Dowd and Trump's other defense attorney, Jay Sekulow, had been working for months to sidestep or significantly narrow the scope of an interview with Mueller, out of fear that their client, who has a history of making misleading and exaggerated claims, could land himself in legal jeopardy.
Trump, meanwhile, has reportedly been "chomping at the bit" to talk with Mueller, and he recently hired Joseph diGenova, a controversial Washington lawyer and conservative media personality with the same take-no-prisoners approach to handling the Russia investigation.
Legal experts said Mueller would likely have been successful at securing an interview with or without objection from Trump's team. But they strongly urged caution on the president's part in the event that he faces off against some of the country's most skilled prosecutors.
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Written answers to questions can be "carefully drafted, edited, analyzed and re-analyzed, whereas a face-to-face interview is unpredictable," said Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert in criminal law. "This is especially true for Trump who resists sticking to a script and is notoriously unpredictable."
"His word-salad approach to interviews could get him in real trouble in a Mueller interview if he says something that turns out to be a deliberate lie," he added. "If I were one of his lawyers, I would insist on a written interview and refuse the in-person interview at all costs."
Mueller's recent push for an interview also signifies that the obstruction case is likely nearing its end.
"The president is clearly the last, or one of the last people, an investigator would like to question," said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the US Department of Justice.
Dowd's resignation kicks off Trump's new legal approach
A source familiar with the matter told Business Insider on Thursday that Dowd resigned because he grew increasingly frustrated that Trump was not following his advice about avoiding a sit-down with Mueller.
With Dowd out of the picture and diGenova in the game, Trump seems poised to agree to an interview, and it could yield massive leads for the special counsel, especially as it relates to the obstruction-of-justice case he has been building against the president since last year.
The investigation stems from Trump's decision to fire FBI director James Comey in May. Though the White House initially said Comey was fired because of how he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Trump later told NBC's Lester Holt that "this Russia thing" was a factor in his decision. He also reportedly told two top Russian government officials that Comey's firing had taken "great pressure" off of him.
Comey's firing is one of four key events Mueller's team wants to question Trump about. The other three areas are the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn; Trump's role in crafting a misleading statement aboard Air Force One that his son, Donald Trump Jr., put out regarding his meeting with two Russian lobbyists in June 2016; and Trump's knowledge of the circumstances of the meeting, which was pitched as "part of Russia and its government's support" for Trump's candidacy.
Trump's lawyers said last year that he had no knowledge of the meeting. But at least two former campaign and administration officials have indicated that Trump may have known about the meeting when it occurred. And Mark Corallo, the former Trump legal team spokesperson, told Mueller in January that former White House communications director Hope Hicks may have hinted at concealing evidence from the Russia probe during a conference call with him and Trump aboard Air Force One.
Trump's knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the meeting, as well as those surrounding the firings of Comey and Flynn, will constitute critical evidence for Mueller as he continues building his obstruction case.
Following news of Dowd's departure on Thursday, Trump said he would like to testify before Mueller.
"Yes, I would like to," Trump told reporters.
Trump's confrontational persona and mounting frustration toward the probe, as well as his view that Mueller and the FBI are undermining him, have prompted him to lash out at the special counsel in recent days.
If he does the same during an interview, strays off script, or makes baseless statements, the consequences for him or his associates could be "tragic," Cramer said.
So far, 19 individuals have been charged and five have pleaded guilty in the Russia investigation. Four out of the five pleaded guilty to at least one count of making false statements to investigators.
More from Business Insider:
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- 5 times the Trump administration actually was tough on Russia
- Trump's top lawyer John Dowd resigns as Trump says he wants to testify before Mueller