In a tense meeting in early March with the special counsel, President Donald Trump's lawyers insisted he had no obligation to talk with federal investigators probing Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. But Special Counsel Robert Mueller responded that he had another option if Trump declined: He could issue a subpoena for the president to appear before a grand jury, according to four people familiar with the encounter.
Mueller's warning - the first time he is known to have mentioned a possible subpoena to Trump's legal team - spurred a sharp retort from John Dowd, then the president's lead lawyer.
"This isn't some game," Dowd said, according to two people with knowledge of his comments. "You are screwing with the work of the president of the United States."
The flare-up set in motion weeks of turmoil among Trump's attorneys as they debated how to deal with the special counsel's request for an interview, a dispute that ultimately led to Dowd's resignation.
In the wake of the testy March 5 meeting, Mueller's team agreed to provide the president's lawyers with more specific information about the subjects that prosecutors wished to discuss with the president. With those details in hand, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow compiled a list of 49 questions that the team believed the president would be asked, according to three of the four people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly. The New York Times first reported the existence of the list.
The questions focus on events during the Trump campaign, transition and presidency that have long known to be under scrutiny, including the president's reasons for firing then-FBI Director James Comey and the pressure he put on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.
Now Trump's newly reconfigured legal team is pondering how to address the special counsel's queries, all while assessing the potential evidence of obstruction that Mueller might present and contending with a client who has grown increasingly opposed to sitting down with the special counsel.
Without a resolution on the interview, the standoff could turn into a historic confrontation before the Supreme Court over a presidential subpoena.