The Comey firing is rightly dominating the news. Amazingly, though, it wasn’t the only major development in the ongoing and intensifying Trump-Russia scandal.
The official reason for FBI Director Jim Comey’s dismissal is that he mishandled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, something many Democrats surely agree with. But the more convincing explanation is that Comey had infuriated the president by having the FBI launch a formal criminal probe into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
But the Comey story buried other huge Russia-related developments that came to light yesterday and this morning that you should really be following. What follows is a quick guide to what you need to know to stay on top of what happened — and why it all matters.
Tuesday night: federal prosecutors subpoena associates of Michael Flynn
Last night, CNN dropped a bombshell: Federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to colleagues close to Michael Flynn, Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser, asking for business records.
This is a really big deal. The investigation into Flynn’s ties with Russia has been ongoing since July, but this is indicates the probe is picking up steam and that prosecutors may be growing more confident that there’s enough out there to build a criminal case against the disgraced retired general. The focus appears to be on Flynn’s business relationships with people in Russia and Turkey.
That makes sense. Flynn already has a shady record with his own disclosures, financial and otherwise, and they involve exactly those two countries. He didn’t reveal a $45,000 payment for giving a speech in Moscow from Russia Today, a government-run news channel seen by many in the United States as a propaganda arm of the Putin regime. Flynn sat comfortably next to Vladimir Putin at the gala where he delivered his remarks.
After he was fired by Trump, Flynn revealed he was paid $500,000 to work as a foreign agent representing Turkish interests. He had not disclosed that information to the Justice Department.
Flynn also famously lied to Vice President Mike Pence about discussing US sanctions against Russia with Moscow’s Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the administration began. After news of that came out, Trump finally fired Flynn, who now holds the record for shortest tenure as national security adviser at 24 days.
It’s unclear what, if anything, the investigators will find. Frankly, asking for subpoenas is a common step in any investigation.
But that’s why this story is so big. Flynn was a close Trump associate who became one of the most powerful people in Washington, and investigators feel the need to take this routine step to keep investigating him. In other words, there is a there there, and so the investigators want to keep digging.
Fake news this is not.
Also Tuesday night: Senate investigators ask Treasury to look for any financial ties between Team Trump and Russia
To paraphrase Lester Freamon from The Wire, if you follow the money, you don’t know where it might lead you. That’s the advice Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is taking.
"We've made a request, to FinCEN in the Treasury Department, to make sure, not just for example vis-a-vis the president, but just overall our effort to try to follow the intel no matter where it leads,” Warner told CNN.
"You get materials that show if there have been, what level of financial ties between, I mean some of the stuff, some of the Trump-related officials, Trump campaign-related officials and other officials and where those dollars flow — not necessarily from Russia."
FinCEN stands for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the arm of the Treasury Department with the hard task of tracking and stopping the illicit use of money, including money laundering, as well as focusing on the financial side of national security issues.
Getting FinCEN involved is a big step for those conducting the Russia-Trump team investigations.
So far, four people appear to be at the center of it all:
- Flynn, naturally
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, who we already knew worked as a political consultant on behalf of Russian interests
- Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser who reportedly told Trump to fire Comey, and celebrated the news with a cigar
- And Carter Page, another former Trump adviser who found the Comey dismissal “encouraging”
Again, this seems like a logical step for any thorough investigation to take. That Warner made the ask is not the real story. That Warner felt it was appropriate to ask — because the investigation needed more information — is.
Amid all this Russia-related news, it would make sense for Trump to stay away from all things Russia. Well…
Wednesday: Trump met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Trump just had the highest-level in-person contact with a Russian government official since becoming president.
At 10:30 am today, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, sat in the Oval Office with Trump to discuss Syria, US-Russia relations, and other global issues.
Lavrov came from a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, where they discussed Ukraine and Syria. Many expected that meeting to be frosty, since during the most recent meeting the two had, Tillerson said relations between the two countries were at a historic “low point” due to a “low level of trust.”
While mending fences, they will surely also chat about Comey. Before they sat down, Lavrov was asked for his thoughts on the Comey sacking. His reply, worthy of seeing below, was perfect: "Was he fired? You're kidding! You're kidding."
That America and Russia have a lot to talk about would be an understatement. The wars in Ukraine and Syria are already on the docket, as are the bilateral relations between the two countries. They surely also chatted about Russia’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, fighting ISIS, and — oh, yeah — that whole Russia-potentially-meddling-in-the-US-election thing.
Lavrov has been Russia’s foreign minister since March 2004. He’s the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking leader with close ties to Putin. Putin will be very interested in what goes on in Lavrov’s two meetings with Tillerson and Trump.
The optics of this could not be worse. But then again, this is the same administration that did not expect any sort of political blowback from the Comey firing.
In the context of everyday American politics, the past 24 hours — which included a president firing the very person investigating him and his administration — were truly remarkable. It’s the type of day that would have been unthinkable in any other administration. The fact that it was in some ways just a normal day for the Trump White House is the most alarming thing of all.