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.

RELATED: People who have left the Trump administration

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Notable people who have been fired or resigned from Trump's administration
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Notable people who have been fired or resigned from Trump's administration

White House Communications Director Hope Hicks reportedly announced her resignation after testifying about her job and being required to tell "white lies."

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned from his position on July 5, 2018 after a number of ethics scandals.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Rob Porter resigned as White House staff secretary in February 2018 amid abuse allegations made by his ex-wives.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by President Trump in March 2018.

(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

White House Counsel Don McGahn

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

H.R. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton as national security advisor in March 2018.

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

White House aide Kelly Sadler left her position in June 2018 after reportedly mocking Sen. John McCain.

(REUTERS/Leah Millis)

Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn announced his resignation in March 2018 after becoming a key architect of the 2017 tax overhaul 

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Sally Yates was fired from her post as acting attorney general when she refused to enforce President Trump's travel ban. 

(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russian officials. 

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

President Trump announced David Shulkin was out as secretary of veterans affairs by sending a tweet announcing he had nominated his personal physican, Ronny Jackson, to replace him on March 28, 2018.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in early May.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned in July.

(June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus resigned in July.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Former advisor to President Donald Trump Steve Bannon resigned in August.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Anthony Scaramucci, former White House communications director was fired in July after just 10 days on the job. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trump fired Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh amid White House leaks in April.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Files)

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned in late September. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House aide Omarosa Manigault insists she resigned and was not fired from her role in December 2017.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Trump fired U.S. Attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara in March.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Mike Dubke resigned as White House communications director in late May.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Walter Shaub, former Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics in Washington, DC resigned in July.

(Photo Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka resigned in August 2017. 

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Rick Dearborn, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs, left the White House in December 2017.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

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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.

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