Furor over Mueller questions: Why the leak came from Trump World

The White House has been rocked by many self-destructive leaks—any "idiot" can see that—but the spilling of the Robert Mueller questions is in a whole different category.

President Trump quickly denounced the leak to The New York Times as "disgraceful." But by the paper’s own description, the leak came from the Trump side.

Say what you will about the Mueller investigation, he's run an amazingly leak-free operation. Ken Starr's office was practically a sieve compared to this crew.

The paper said the list of four dozen questions "was provided to The Times by a person outside Mr. Trump's legal team." That means—and maybe it's just a coincidence that press-savvy Rudy Giuliani is now on the team—that one of the president's lawyers gave the documents to someone who handed it to the Times.

That's especially obvious since the paper is saying these aren't Mueller's documents but Trump lawyers' notes on their conversation with the special counsel's office about the scope of any potential sitdown with Trump. The notes are based on "direct conversations" the lawyers had with Mueller's team, Times reporter Michael Schmidt said on MSNBC.

So why did the president's side want this out?

Let’s look first at what was reported:

"The open-ended queries appear to be an attempt to penetrate the president's thinking, to get at the motivation behind some of his most combative Twitter posts and to examine his relationships with his family and his closest advisers. They deal chiefly with the president's high-profile firings of the F.B.I. director and his first national security adviser, his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

"But they also touch on the president's businesses; any discussions with his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, about a Moscow real estate deal; whether the president knew of any attempt by Mr. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel to Russia during the transition; any contacts he had with Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser who claimed to have inside information about Democratic email hackings; and what happened during Mr. Trump's 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant."

My instant reaction was this: So Mueller doesn't really have anything beyond what we already know about.

Except for the part about "the president's businesses," these are all topics that have been heavily covered in the media and rather predictably would be on the special counsel’s list.

And that may be the motivation behind the Trump World leak, to show that Mueller isn't sitting on some secret bombshell. The leak may be aimed at an Audience of One, to convince him to reject any sitdown. And obviously the story telegraphs Mueller's concerns to other witnesses, even though he may have different questions for them.

We're not seeing all of Mueller's cards, of course. He may have undisclosed information on any of the subjects he wants to explore with Trump, and followup questions are the most dangerous, given the possibility of perjury.

The full Trump tweet: "So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were 'leaked' to the media. No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see ... you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!"

Well, it's not quite right that there's nothing here about alleged collusion.

The "back channel" to Russia question is in that category, along with knowledge of the Jared/Manafort campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer. One of the questions provided to the Times is: "What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign."

But it is true that most of the queries—on firing Jim Comey and considering the firing of Sessions and Mueller himself—are tied to a theory of obstruction of justice.

I've covered law enforcement and cannot remember a prosecutor's potential questions ever leaking like this.

It seemed for a time that a Trump-Mueller sitdown was growing near. Then the president balked after the FBI raided Cohen's home and offices. Then Rudy was brought in and has since spoken to Mueller. This calculated leak is just the latest chess move.

Footnote: The White House is clearly riled up over the NBC story quoting four unnamed sources as saying that John Kelly has been calling the president an "idiot." Kelly has called it a "pathetic" smear attempt: "I spend more time with the president than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship. He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS."

Are the sources trying to push the chief of staff out of the White House? Carol Lee, one of the NBC reporters, told viewers that the sources' motivation doesn’t matter as long as the information is true.