Special counsel Robert Mueller's team didn't make a traditional prosecutorial judgement on whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice. But bestselling author Michael Wolff insists an indictment of the sitting president was contemplated, with legal arguments discussed at length in a 56-page "memorandum of law" Wolff claims to have in his possession.
In an interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Wolff, the author of "Fire and Fury" and the forthcoming book "Siege: Trump Under Fire," defended an explosive claim in the book that had already been called into doubt before its publication.
Last week, after Wolff's description in the book of a "draft indictment" leaked out, Peter Carr, the spokesman for Mueller responded by saying "the documents described do not exist." The rapid pushback from the special counsel's office was a rare and forceful statement from an office that only once before in its two-year existence issued such a categorical denial (the first being a Buzzfeed story earlier this year that said President Trump had ordered his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress).
When asked about the denial by Inskeep, Wolff now says Carr's statement and the document he describes are not in conflict. "It is quite possible that they responded accurately but that nevertheless this document exists" because calling it a "draft indictment" was just a shorthand for a more notional document. Wolff says it is a memo that outlines the legal arguments that could have been made if the special counsel's team had chosen to seek an indictment of President Trump and if Trump's lawyers then challenged it based on the long-standing Justice Department opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
"It assumes that the president has been indicted. It assumes that the president has gone into court and made a motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that a president cannot be indicted. And this is the response to that motion," Wolff told Inskeep in the interview.
Wolff goes on to explain that the document has two parts. "The first part outlines all of the particulars of the indictment, hence my characterization of this as a draft indictment," Wolff said. "And the second part is an argument, an incredibly powerful argument by the way, about why the special counsel can in fact indict a sitting president."
Since the special counsel's office first issued a denial about the existence of Wolff's document, special counsel Robert Mueller stepped down and his office has been dissolved, leaving Carr's earlier statement as the last word. NPR did not receive a response from a Justice Department spokesperson.
Mueller himself, in announcing the end of his work, said indicting the president wasn't something his office ever considered.
"Under longstanding department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional," Mueller said. "Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited. A special counsel's office is part of the Department of Justice, and by regulation, it was bound by that department policy. Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider."
In the book, Wolff does not quote directly from the document except for what he says was the title of the imagined indictment "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – against - DONALD J. TRUMP, Defendant," instead of the "v." (short for "versus") that is standard language used in criminal cases. In the NPR interview, Wolff says he pulled that wording directly from the document but wouldn't say whether it was given to him in paper or electronic form to protect his sources.
"I'm not going to speculate on the motives of my source or sources here, just to say that the source is a very, very good one," Wolff told Inskeep.
It was one of many times during the interview when Inskeep pressed Wolff on his sourcing and Wolff defended his methods without getting into much detail about how he is able to capture the thoughts and utterances of close Trump advisers and even the president himself.
"Everything in this book is something that I concluded is accurate and true," Wolff explained. "And that's a process of 'Do I trust my source?' Number one. And remember, I'm not beginning at ground zero here. I've written one book that has been, I think, largely confirmed by all subsequent accounts. So I'm pretty familiar with, if not extremely familiar with, everybody I'm talking to here. And then I like to hear it a couple of times and in the situation of people I trust of hearing things more than once and then it gets into the book."
The claim about Mueller's investigation is but one of many eyebrow-raising moments in "Siege." In the growing and prosperous cottage industry of insider accounts of the Trump White House, Wolff has found greater success than most, in part with his colorful descriptions of Trump and those around him.
In the Morning Edition interview, Wolff says those who have spent the most time with President Trump describe him as "vile and ludicrous." Wolff says over the course of writing two books he has come to believe Trump is governing on impulse and whim, that there is no method to the madness and that someone who is "functionally a madman" is president of the United States.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Michael Wolff insists his second book on President Trump is all true. His first, "Fire And Fury," described a dysfunctional White House. The president threatened to sue. Other journalists questioned Wolff's facts. But it was a huge seller. His second book is called "Siege: Trump Under Fire." Wolff no longer has the White House access that led to his first book but says he interviewed sources around the president. He also makes an explosive claim - special counsel Robert Mueller's office prepared a, quote, "draft indictment of the president." Mueller's spokesman denied that, only the second time Mueller ever denied a news story. So we went into our talk wondering what Wolff knows and how he knows it.
What do people who have spent a lot of time close to the president think of him?
MICHAEL WOLFF: They think he is vile and ludicrous.
INSKEEP: What do you mean by that word?
WOLFF: I mean there's no logic to what he does. There's no way to anticipate what he's going to do. Often, what he ends up doing defies logic, defies everybody's expectations, defies explanation.
INSKEEP: When you hear this from people who've been around the president, is there a but anywhere? Do they say, I love this man, but?
WOLFF: There used to be. Remember - so I've done - this is my second book. This is effectively a sequel. I've spent the last three years pretty much non-stop talking about Donald Trump. And there used to be buts. There are no buts now. I might make a reservation for some of the most sycophantic people around him. But even they, if you push them a little, get to the vile and ludicrous pretty quickly.
INSKEEP: I'm thinking of a description attributed to a former senior White House official, Steve Bannon, describing the president the United States and the president of Russia, Putin and Trump, quote, "two narcissistic, cult leader-type presidents. Both had populist talents, yet both were ultimately out for their own benefit." And then a key line here, I think - of the two, Putin was the far cleverer one. It sounds like even Steve Bannon, who did so much to promote the president's career, doesn't seem to think he's very bright.
WOLFF: Well, particularly Steve Bannon. And Steve appears throughout this book. And he's, to me, one of the fascinating figures of this moment, partly because he is so conflicted. It goes very deep, what Steve Bannon feels about Donald Trump. And it would be in part that he is vile and in part that he is ludicrous, but also in part - and maybe this is the but that you were looking for - that he is somehow magical at times. He somehow pulls the rabbit out of the hat when everyone would expect that he would not be able to.
INSKEEP: As has been widely reported already, you note that there was a draft indictment drawn up in the office of the special counsel that was looking into Russian interference and possible obstruction of justice by the president. What was that indictment?
WOLFF: Well, let me explain the document in my possession. It's a memorandum of law. It assumes that the president has been indicted. It assumes that the president has gone into court and made a motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that a president cannot be indicted. And this is the response to that motion. And the document - it's a 56-page document - has two parts. The first part outlines all of the particulars of the indictment, hence my characterization of this as a draft indictment. And the second part is an argument - an incredibly powerful argument, by the way - about why the special counsel can in fact indict a sitting president.
INSKEEP: I think I've learned something here. You're telling me that the Office of the Special Counsel was thinking through the eventualities - if we indict the president and if he says, I can't be indicted, here is our notional response. That is the document that's in your possession.
WOLFF: That is the document in my possession.
INSKEEP: Which might help to explain why the Office of the Special Counsel has said that the document described does not exist because you wrote in the book it was a, quote, "draft indictment," which sounds like something a little different.
WOLFF: Well, yeah. I guess it depends upon how you define a draft indictment. Yes. And I think it's very possible. I mean, the special counsel, when it responds, has become quite a gifted prevaricator. It is quite possible that they responded accurately but that nevertheless this document exists and goes to trying to understand a very significant moment in the thinking of the special counsel.
INSKEEP: So the statement from Peter Carr, Robert Mueller's spokesman, is the documents described do not exist. You insist you have a document in your possession and maybe the difference here is on the word described. He thinks you described it wrong.
WOLFF: It is quite possible, yes.
INSKEEP: There is only one quote from this document in your book, and it is headlined, United States of America against Donald J. Trump, defendant. Is that, every word of that, a quote?
INSKEEP: In a legal document, wouldn't it be more normal to say, United States of America versus Donald J. Trump, defendant?
WOLFF: I, you know, can't tell you that. I know that this is precisely what it says. That's word for word.
INSKEEP: OK. What was your standard for sourcing? I mean, you must have heard a ton of things, and some of it, you decide, is hearsay, and some of it, you don't believe and some of it you do believe. How did you decide what went in this book and what didn't make the cut?
WOLFF: Obviously, everything in this book is something that I concluded is accurate and true. That's a process of, do I trust my source? No. 1. And then I, you know, like to hear it a couple of times.
INSKEEP: I'm thinking of the famous Watergate stories by Woodward and Bernstein. It was said that their standard was they wanted to hear two sources. Was that your standard? Anything in here is by two sources?
WOLFF: Most everything in here is either by multiple sources or, in some cases, by someone I absolutely trust.
INSKEEP: Does the president talk to you anymore?
WOLFF: He does not.
INSKEEP: Did you ask, for this book?
WOLFF: I did not. And I think it's important to explain why - that Donald Trump, on my last book, tried to stop the publication of that.
WOLFF: So I decided, in this instance, better not play with fire.
INSKEEP: Do you feel you've learned something about the president that you didn't know in the course of this book as opposed to the previous one?
WOLFF: That's a good question. When I went into the first book, I thought that there was some rationality about Donald Trump, a method to his madness. I no longer believe that.
INSKEEP: Is that more troubling to you than if he had a grand plan?
WOLFF: It is more troubling, yes. I mean, we might, in the end, be safer for it. You know, the narrative when this administration began is that he was a right-wing despot and thug who would bring terrible policies to the United States. And I think there's probably less of a chance of that because everything shifts from moment to moment, and he has no grand intentions here. Whatever irrational moment he has now might as well be reversed by another irrational moment to come.
INSKEEP: Michael Wolff is the author of "Siege: Trump Under Fire." Thanks so much.
WOLFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.