Trump’s dilemma: Answer for his previous offenses or commit new ones

Mark Joseph Stern writes: hat you don’t know can hurt you very badly, and there is a great deal that Republicans do not know about Donald Trump. From shady business dealings to questionable tax schemes to potential Russian collusion, the president is dogged by scandals whose depth and significance remain unclear. With few exceptions, Republicans are eager to protect Trump from serious inquiries, running interference where they can while pushing through their legislative agenda as quickly and secretively as possible. The GOP isn’t quite sure what it’s helping Trump to cover up—but as long as he promises to sign its bills, the party will condone his outrageous misdeeds.

This strategy now appears poised to backfire spectacularly. On Wednesday, both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Trump’s inner circle for financial crimes. This aggressive shift toward Trump associates’ personal dealings is disastrous news for the president, his allies, and his enablers. At long last, federal investigators will probe Trump’s sprawling network for wrongdoing, picking up where reporters left off, only this time with subpoena power. And Trump can only stop them by firing Mueller—a blatant obstruction of justice that would likely be more damaging than any crime the president may have committed in the past. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller, known for being above the fray, is now in the thick of it

The New York Times reports: Robert S. Mueller III managed in a dozen years as F.B.I. director to stay above the partisan fray, carefully cultivating a rare reputation for independence and fairness. But his appointment as special counsel overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation has thrown him into the middle of the most charged political brawl of his career — especially since his early hires include several prosecutors who have donated to Democratic candidates in the past.

“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history — led by some very bad and conflicted people!” President Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning. The president’s supporters and conservative news outlets have echoed his message that Mr. Mueller’s investigation is unjustified and its staff biased against Mr. Trump.

Veterans of past Washington battles on the borders of law and politics said that the president’s pushback was to be expected, but that its ferocity and timing were unusual. Just one month into the job, Mr. Mueller has not yet finished hiring staff members or installing a computer network — deliberately segregated from the main Justice Department — in the Patrick Henry Building in downtown Washington.

“It’s early in the game to begin to impugn the prosecutors,” said Philip Allen Lacovara, a Watergate prosecutor and a Republican. “It’s a pre-emptive nuclear strike. If you’re afraid of what the prosecutors are going to find out, you try to debunk anything they might come up with in advance by attacking them.” [Continue reading…]

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Special counsel is investigating Jared Kushner’s business dealings

The Washington Post reports: Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, as part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to officials familiar with the matter.

FBI agents and federal prosecutors have also been examining the financial dealings of other Trump associates, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Carter Page, who was listed as a foreign-policy adviser for the campaign.

The Washington Post previously reported that investigators were scrutinizing meetings that Kushner held with Russians in December — first with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and then with Sergey Gorkov, the head of a state-owned Russian development bank. At the time of that report, it was not clear that the FBI was investigating Kushner’s business dealings. [Continue reading…]

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‘Dear God, keep him away from Twitter,’ says senior official shortly before Trump’s latest tweet

The Daily Beast reports: It’s exactly the circumstance Donald Trump tried to avoid. But Trump’s own actions have made an FBI investigation into the president himself a reality.

Firing James Comey, the FBI director, was, by Trump’s explanation, a way to stop a “witch hunt” against his team’s alleged ties to Russia. It led, within weeks, to the appointment of a special prosecutor, Comey’s FBI predecessor, Robert Mueller. And now Mueller is investigating Trump himself for possible obstruction of justice—by firing Comey, who had led the FBI inquiry.

With the crisis engulfing Trump’s young presidency intensifying, senators, Trump aides, former prosecutors, and FBI veterans are sending the White House an urgent warning: Whatever you do, don’t. Fire. Mueller.

News of the obstruction investigation, which was first reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday, comes just days after Trump himself began floating the possibility of firing the new head of the investigation: Robert Mueller, the Justice Department special counsel appointed in the wake of Comey’s firing.

The obstruction investigation has raised the stakes for Mueller’s potential ouster. Firing him now, which would require that Trump personally direct DOJ leadership to do so, would create a political firestorm.

“Firing Robert Mueller right now would be a direct attack on the rule of law by Donald Trump,” Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast. Wyden declined to directly address the Post report.

Trump reportedly floated the possibility of firing Mueller as a way to prod him toward exonerating the president and other Trump associates party to the investigation. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that aides dissuaded him from doing so.

For Ali Soufan, a retired FBI counterterrorism agent, word that Trump is now a target of Mueller’s inquiry explains the trial balloon.

“No wonder President Trump and his surrogates are getting nervous. This explains their sudden attacks on Mueller and the threats to fire him,” Soufan told The Daily Beast.

White House officials are still insisting to the president that he should leave Mueller in his post. “We are all advising him not to [get rid of] Mueller. That has not changed,” one Trump aide told The Daily Beast. “It would be an absolute nuclear explosion if he did.”

Firing Mueller would also put the president in greater legal jeopardy than he already may be in, said former United States attorney Barbara McQuade.

“If Trump were to fire Mueller and it could be shown that his purpose was to impede the investigation, it could be additional evidence of obstruction of justice,” McQuade, who was appointed by President Obama, told The Daily Beast.

But some privately concede that Trump is so unpredictable—and so frustrated with the persistence of the investigation and its cost in political capital—that they’re not ruling it out. Another White House official conceded that it would be “suicide” if Trump sacked Mueller at this point, but “I’d be insincere if I said it wasn’t a concern that the president would try to do it anyway.”

For now, officials are simply concerned with limiting fallout from what is sure to be a thunderous reaction from the president to news that he is personally the target of the FBI’s probe.

Asked what the internal game plan should be, one senior Trump administration official replied, “Keep him away from Twitter, dear God, keep him away from Twitter.”

“The president did this to himself,” the official added. [Continue reading…]

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Special counsel is investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice, officials say

The Washington Post reports: The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said.

The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.

Trump had received private assurances from then-FBI Director James B. Comey starting in January that he was not personally under investigation. Officials say that changed shortly after Comey’s firing.

Five people briefed on the requests, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Daniel Coats, the current director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, and Rogers’s recently departed deputy, Richard Ledgett, agreed to be interviewed by Mueller’s investigators as early as this week. The investigation has been cloaked in secrecy, and it is unclear how many others have been questioned by the FBI. [Continue reading…]

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Robert Mueller chooses his investigatory dream team

Garrett M Graff writes: President Donald Trump had almost certainly never heard the name Aaron Zebley before the announcement that the former FBI agent was joining the special counsel investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. But to those who have followed the arc of the bureau during the past twenty years, Zebley’s is a name that underscores just how far-reaching and dogged—and potentially long—the probe will likely be.

Just ask Steve Gaudin’s ex-girlfriend.

She wasn’t at all happy when Zebley, her boyfriend’s FBI partner, called at 3 one morning in August, 1999. Despite all of Gaudin’s international travel, chasing al Qaeda long before the terrorist group was a household name, he and his girlfriend had managed to settle down in New York City and carve out a life together in between his overseas terrorist hunts. The couple was even looking forward to an imminent, albeit brief, summer vacation.

But then came the call from Zebley.

“I’ve found Ali Mandela,” Zebley said, excitedly. Mandela, the fugitive terrorist suspected of helping execute the previous year’s bombings of US embassies in East Africa, appeared to still be on the continent, he told Gaudin. Somewhere in South Africa. They had to leave immediately.

Angry at yet another sleepless night—and vacation—ruined by the bureau’s demands, Gaudin’s girlfriend gave him some advice: Don’t bother coming back.

But that was just the way it was for the elite agents on one of the FBI’s most storied squads. Nothing could come between them and their search for justice.

The details of that trip—and the subsequent capture of one of America’s most wanted terrorists by Zebley and Gaudin—help illuminate the makeup of the special counsel team that former FBI director Robert Mueller is assembling. It’s a team that contains some of the nation’s top investigators and leading experts on seemingly every aspect of the potential investigation—from specific crimes like money laundering and campaign finance violations to understanding how to navigate both sprawling globe-spanning cases and the complex local dynamics of Washington power politics. [Continue reading…]

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Gingrich on Mueller: ‘superb choice’ as special counsel’; now says GOP must focus on ‘closing down’ investigation

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Secret Service has no audio or transcripts of any tapes made in Trump White House

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. Secret Service has no audio copies or transcripts of any tapes recorded within President Donald Trump’s White House, the agency said on Monday.

The agency’s response to a freedom of information request submitted by The Wall Street Journal doesn’t exclude the possibility that recordings could have been created by another entity.

The Secret Service handled recording systems within the White House for past presidents, including Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

The question of a White House recording system has lingered for more than a month since Mr. Trump first raised the possibility in a provocative tweet about former FBI Director James Comey.

In recent days, the two men have offered differing accounts of whether Mr. Trump asked Mr. Comey in private conversations within the White House complex to ease off the FBI’s probe of former national security adviser Mike Flynn.

On Friday, Mr. Trump kept the tapes mystery alive, telling reporters in the White House Rose Garden, “I’ll tell you about that maybe sometime in the very near future.” He added, “Oh, you’re going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer, don’t worry.” [Continue reading…]

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Forget Comey. The real story is Russia’s war on America

Molly K. McKew writes: Russian state media — eagerly throwing peanuts into the three-ring circus in the days before by endlessly looping Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s mockery of America’s “hysteria” on all things Russia, and on the day after by running headlines of American “collusion” with ISIS — was dead silent on both of this week’s Senate hearings, during both of which intelligence leaders offered bleak and candid assessments of the cascading Russian threat against America.

And this is perhaps the banner flying over the investigations circus: Missing from the investigation of the supposed Russia scandal is any real discussion of Russia.

The starkest aspect of Comey’s prepared statement was the president’s lack of curiosity about the long-running, deep-reaching, well-executed and terrifyingly effective Russian attack on American democracy. This was raised more than once in the hearing — that after Trump was briefed in January on the intelligence community’s report, which emphasized ongoing activity directed by the Kremlin against the United States, he has not subsequently evinced any interest in what can be done to protect us from another Russian assault. The president is interested in his own innocence, or the potential guilt of others around him — but not at all in the culpability of a foreign adversary, or what it meant. This is utterly astonishing.

Since the January intelligence report, the public’s understanding of the threat has not expanded. OK, Russia meddled in the election — but so what? Increasingly, responsibility for this is borne by the White House, which in seeking to minimize the political damage of “Trump/Russia” is failing to craft a response to the greatest threat the United States and its allies have ever faced.

Even if the president and his team were correct, and the Comey testimony definitively cleared the president of potential obstruction of justice or collusion charges — even if that were true, that does not also exonerate Russia. Nonetheless, this is a line the president seems to want drawn. [Continue reading…]

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There’s ‘absolutely evidence’ to begin obstruction of justice case on Trump, says former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara

 

ABC News reports: Former New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said “there’s absolutely evidence to begin a case” for obstruction of justice against President Donald Trump.

The former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York was responding to a question from ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview on “This Week” Sunday.

Stephanopoulos asked whether as a former prosecutor, Bharara believes there is enough evidence for a case claiming that Trump tried to obstruct the FBI investigation of the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

“There is absolutely evidence to begin a case” for obstruction of justice by Trump, Bharara said in his first television interview since being fired by Trump in March. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s unwillingness to uphold his oath to defend the United States

Asha Rangappa writes: Reactions to former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony Thursday mostly seemed to follow predictable, partisan lines. To many Democrats, Comey appeared to be describing a clear case of obstruction of justice by President Trump. To Republicans who support the White House, Comey’s recounting of “leaking” his memos about conversations with Trump showed that he deserved to be fired.

But as a former FBI counterintelligence agent, what I saw as the most explosive aspect of the testimony didn’t involve any legal violation of the U.S. code or questions about whether Comey had broken established Department of Justice protocols. Instead, it was the prima facie evidence that Comey presented that Trump appears unwilling to uphold his oath “to preserve, protect, and defend” the country — which puts the security of our nation and its democracy at stake. In the nine times Trump met with or called Comey, it was always to discuss how the investigation into Russia’s election interference was affecting him personally, rather than the security of the country. He apparently cared little about understanding either the magnitude of the Russian intelligence threat, or how the FBI might be able to prevent another attack in future elections. [Continue reading…]

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Understanding exactly what Trump means

Deborah Tannen writes: At Thursday’s Senate hearing, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) sought former FBI director James B. Comey’s agreement that President Trump did not tell him to drop his investigation of fired national security adviser Michael Flynn: “He did not direct you to let it go.” Comey agreed, “Not in his words, no.” Risch pressed his point: “He did not order you to let it go?” Comey concurred: “Again, those words are not an order.” Yet later in the hearing, in response to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asking whether the president’s words were “a directive,” Comey said, “Yes.”

Was Comey contradicting himself? Based on decades of studying indirectness in conversation — and a lifetime of using language to communicate — I’d say no. Risch was talking about the message: the literal meaning of words spoken. King, and later Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), were referring to the metamessage: what it means to say those words in that way in that context. When people talk to each other, they glean meaning from metamessages. But messages come in handy when someone wants to deny a meaning that was obvious when the words were spoken.

The president’s “exact words,” according to Comey’s notes, were: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Risch cried literal meaning. Zeroing in on the word “hope,” he asked Comey if he knew of anyone being charged with a criminal offense because “they hoped for an outcome.” Though he confessed that he didn’t, Comey said, “I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.” Risch rested his case: “You may have taken it as a direction but that’s not what he said.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, later made the same point in a tweet: “Hoping and telling are two very different things.”

Actually, they aren’t, when the speaker is in a position of power, as Harris noted. Referring to her experience as a prosecutor, she said, “When a robber held a gun to somebody’s head and said, ‘I hope you will give me your wallet,’ the word ‘hope’ was not the most operative word at that moment.” The gun gives the robber power to encourage another to make his hope a reality.

Trump Jr. also tweeted, “Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means.” He’s right. Comey knew exactly what he meant. [Continue reading…]

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The scope of the Russian threat

The New York Times reports: Lost in the showdown between President Trump and James B. Comey that played out this past week was a chilling threat to the United States. Mr. Comey, the former director of the F.B.I., testified that the Russians had not only intervened in last year’s election, but would try to do it again.

“It’s not a Republican thing or Democratic thing — it really is an American thing,” Mr. Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “They’re going to come for whatever party they choose to try and work on behalf of. And they’re not devoted to either, in my experience. They’re just about their own advantage. And they will be back.”

What started out as a counterintelligence investigation to guard the United States against a hostile foreign power has morphed into a political scandal about what Mr. Trump did, what he said and what he meant by it. Lawmakers have focused mainly on the gripping conflict between the president and the F.B.I. director he fired with cascading requests for documents, recordings and hearings.

But from the headquarters of the National Security Agency to state capitals that have discovered that the Russians were inside their voter-registration systems, the worry is that attention will be diverted from figuring out how Russia disrupted American democracy last year and how to prevent it from happening again. Russian hackers did not just breach Democratic email accounts; according to Mr. Comey, they orchestrated a “massive effort” targeting hundreds of — and possibly more than 1,000 — American government and private organizations since 2015.

“It’s important for us in the West to understand that we’re facing an adversary who wishes for his own reasons to do us harm,” said Daniel Fried, a career diplomat who oversaw sanctions imposed on Russia before retiring this year. “Whatever the domestic politics of this, Comey was spot-on right that Russia is coming after us, but not just the U.S., but the free world in general. And we need to take this seriously.” [Continue reading…]

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The implication of Comey’s testimony: Trump is a traitor

Starting at 6 min 38 sec, Christopher Dickey describes why the most important implication of James Comey’s testimony in the Senate is that Donald Trump is a traitor to the United States.

“What [Comey] didn’t say, explicitly, was that he thinks the president is a traitor, but that was implicit in what he was saying, because he said the president didn’t care that the United States was under attack.”

 

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Trump has no grasp on the extent of his ignorance

Fred Kaplan writes: After James Comey’s sworn Senate testimony Thursday, even stalwart Republicans are finding it harder to deny that Donald Trump has no business being president. But it’s not stopping them from defending him anyway or from bringing the nation closer to disaster.

House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to excuse the most incriminating portions of Comey’s statement—the highly detailed claims that Trump pressured him to swear loyalty, to drop the probe of Michael Flynn, and to tell the public that Trump himself was not under criminal investigation—by saying that the president is “just new to this.” In other words, Ryan was saying, Trump isn’t a crook; he’s just ignorant.

Leaving aside the civic bromide that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to breaking the law, Ryan is off the mark, at least in this case. Trump kicked several officials out of his office before twisting the FBI director’s arm. As Comey asked at his hearing, why would he do that if he didn’t know he was about to engage in improper behavior?

New Jersey Gov. (and former Trump transition-team chairman) Chris Christie came closer to honesty, dismissing the president’s exchanges with Comey as “normal New York conversation.” This might indeed be the perception of a man who once prosecuted white-collar criminals, including Jared Kushner’s father, in the New York metropolitan area. In other words, Christie was saying, Trump is just strutting like a slippery operator—not quite the exoneration that he may have intended.

So these are the GOP’s rationales for Trump’s behavior: He was only talking like a felon, he didn’t necessarily commit a crime; and if he did, it’s only because he didn’t know what he was doing. It’s hard to believe that even the likes of Ryan and Christie aren’t a little disturbed by this state of affairs—not only because of what might be uncovered next, but because of what they are facing and abetting right now. By the powers vested in his office, Trump has immense powers (among other things, he has the nuclear codes), and his defenders are tolerating his presence in this office, even while knowing the risks.

Yes, “He’s just new to this,” but that’s the problem, or part of the problem. In fact, all presidents are “new to this.” As most of them have confessed after their terms, no experience quite prepares one for the lonely pressures of the Oval Office. But Trump takes a novice’s limits to new levels. Not only did he enter the job with no knowledge of its nature (despite bragging that he alone could fix everything), he installed an equally clueless entourage. [Continue reading…]

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There’s no indication Comey violated the law. Trump may be about to

Philip Bump writes: President Trump’s declaration that the Thursday testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey was a “total and complete vindication” despite “so many false statements and lies” was the sort of brashly triumphant and loosely-grounded-in-reality statement we’ve come to expect from the commander in chief. It was news that came out a bit later, news about plans to file a complaint against Comey for a revelation he made during that Senate Intelligence Committee hearing meeting, that may end up being more damaging to the president.

CNN first reported that Trump’s outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, plans to file complaints with the inspector general of the Justice Department and the Senate Judiciary Committee about Comey’s testimony. At issue was Comey’s revelation that he provided a memo documenting a conversation with Trump to a friend to be shared with the New York Times.

As the news broke, I was on the phone with Stephen Kohn, partner at a law firm focused on whistleblower protection. We’d been talking about where the boundaries lay for Comey in what he could and couldn’t do with the information about his conversations with the president. Kohn’s response to the story about Kasowitz, though, was visceral.

“Here is my position on that: Frivolous grandstanding,” he said. “First of all, I don’t believe the inspector general would have jurisdiction over Comey any more, because he’s no longer a federal employee.” The inspector general’s job is to investigate wrongdoing by employees of the Justice Department, of which Comey is no longer, thanks to Trump.

“But, second,” he continued, “initiating an investigation because you don’t like somebody’s testimony could be considered obstruction. And in the whistleblower context, it’s both evidence of retaliation and, under some laws, could be an adverse retaliatory act itself.” [Continue reading…]

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Comey testimony raises new questions about Jeff Sessions and Russia

NPR reports: Former FBI director James Comey may have done more potential damage to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday than even President Trump, who Comey publicly accused of waving him off part of the Russia investigation.

Comey said he expected Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation weeks before he did because of reasons that are classified. That does not comport with Sessions rationale when he announced his recusal in early March.

Sessions has been the subject of scrutiny over his failure to disclose meetings with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign, which Sessions has defended as routine — part of his duties as a U.S. senator.

In his opening statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee, released on Wednesday, Comey detailed a private conversation with President Trump in the Oval Office shortly after National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign, in which Comey recalls the president saying, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

This has raised questions as to why Comey didn’t tell others, including the attorney general. Comey said in his opening statement that his leadership team at the FBI agreed not to share this with Sessions for the following reason: “We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations.”

Comey also pointed out that they were right – Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation less than two weeks later.

The question is why Sessions recused himself. [Continue reading…]

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