Jules Witcover: Trump's lawyer rightly feared a perjury trap

Bob Woodward in his inside-the-White-House book, "Fear," explains why lawyer John Dowd resigned from President Donald Trump's defense team. It was, he writes, because "Dowd knew he could not bring himself to tell the president: 'You're a f---ing liar.' "

The profane explanation summed up what Mr. Dowd previously had told special counsel Robert Mueller: that he opposed Mr. Trump testifying before his inquiry into alleged collusion in Russian elections meddling and other matters.

It was Mr. Dowd's emphatic judgment that Mr. Trump could not survive such an encounter, which the president was considering. Mr. Dowd warned him that Mr. Mueller was trying to set "a perjury trap" for him, into which Mr. Trump's persistent lying would easily ensnare him.

Mr. Dowd earlier had asked Mr. Mueller to submit questions that Mr. Trump would answer in lieu of appearing before a federal grand jury. According to Mr. Woodward, Mr. Dowd told Mr. Mueller: "Bob, here's my point. You're asking me to sit next to the president who'll get to the third question (and) screw it up."

Mr. Dowd went on: "The fact is, I don't want him looking like an idiot. I'm not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot."

Mr. Dowd told Mr. Woodward he had asked Mr. Mueller for one question he wanted to pose that "no one has answered." Mr. Mueller said he wanted to know if Mr. Trump had "corrupt intent" in his actions, which obviously would be obstruction of justice.

Mr. Dowd said he replied: "Bob, so you think he's going to say yes? Because on his behalf, I'm telling you no. And if you want me to get an affidavit that he had no corrupt intent, I'll give it you." Mr. Mueller replied, according to Mr. Dowd: "Let me think about it. I hate to think that you would be playing us."

But in the end, the Mueller team dictated 49 questions ranging from "Trump's attitude, opinions (to) conclusions on major players" in the saga that Mr. Woodward said "validated what the news was reporting" on the Mueller investigation.

Mr. Dowd thought that they were "second-year law school questions," many of them already answered, according to Mr. Woodward. "To have Trump answer them, of course would be a catastrophe," the lawyer said, "because Trump could erupt and say absolutely anything,"

After much back and forth, Mr. Trump tried to convince Mr. Dowd that he should testify, and that he was up to it. "That's where I'm at," he said at one point. "I think the president of the United States can't be seen taking the Fifth," referring to the likely negative reaction from his loyal voting base. "The guys out there are not going to be happy if I don't testify."

Mr. Dowd rejoined by asking: "What are they going to think when Mueller requests an indictment for 1,001 violations?" (meaning false statements). But Mr. Trump insisted: "No, no, I'm a good witness." Mr. Dowd bluntly shot back: "You are not a good witness," finally punctuating it with his explicitly vulgar indictment of him as a serial liar. "Mr. President," he told him, "I'm afraid I can't help you," and resigned.

Mr. Dowd departed telling Mr. Trump he remained devoted to him "and I wish you the very best, but if you're not going to take my advice, I cannot represent you."

Months later, at present, Donald Trump has not yet testified before the Mueller inquiry, with his current defense lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, holding the line as Mr. Mueller presses on,

The special counsel appears to be attempting to close the ring on the embattled president, with Mr. Dowd's parting observation a late encouraging word to Mr. Trump: "They're not going to impeach you. ... They're a bunch of cowards, the whole town. The media, the Congress, they're gutless.

"What's the impeachment going to be, for exercising Article II?" -- running the executive branch. "I want to hear Speaker Ryan take that one up before the Rules Committee and the Judiciary Committee."

To the end, John Dowd, though rebuffed, went down still saluting Mr. Trump all the way.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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