The Trump White House is already reeling from a weeks-long onslaught of bad news. Last night, it got even more — and one particular development now threatens to bring the Trump presidency to a premature end.
Let’s do a quick summary of the past 24 hours. The Justice Department tapped former FBI Director Robert Mueller to be a special counsel with broad powers to investigate Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The New York Times reported that Trump picked Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser even though his team knew Flynn was under investigation for secretly working as a Turkey lobbyist.
Wednesday night, we learned the “code word” intelligence Trump shared with the Russians in the Oval Office came from Israel’s best anti-ISIS spy, threatening the safety of the operative and making Israel — and other US allies — potentially less likely to share valuable intelligence with the Trump White House.
It doesn’t stop there. The Washington Post reported that in 2016 — in the heat of the presidential primaries — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told his colleagues that Trump might be on Putin’s payroll.
Reuters reported that Trump’s team made at least 18 previously undisclosed contacts with Russians officials. Finally, during the presidential transition, McClatchy reported that Flynn had put a halt to a military operation Turkey opposed. This raises red flags due to Flynn’s ties to Ankara.
It’s a lot of news, on a lot of different Trump-related scandals, to track, and it’s understandably hard to digest it all. What follows is a summary of what was reported, what we know so far — and the implications of it all.
Robert Mueller was selected as the special counsel
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller will serve as the special counsel to oversee the investigation into what Russia may or may not have done during the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller is a pro and widely respected by lawmakers and officials from both parties. David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security, wrote at Lawfare that Mueller was an “excellent choice” to head the probe. Mueller received bipartisan votes of confidence in the past. George W. Bush appointed him to run the FBI back in 2001, and Barack Obama kept him on in 2011.
After the announcement, praise for the decision continues to pour in from both sides of the aisle. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, who last week claimed appointing someone like Mueller wasn’t a smart move, now says his “priority has been to ensure thorough and independent investigations are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead.”
Ryan’s about-face tracks closely with the White House’s sentiments. Three days ago Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said there was “frankly no need for a special prosecutor.” But after Mueller’s appointment was announced, the president put out this statement:
As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.
If it looks like Trump was begrudgingly accepting the news, that’s because he was begrudgingly accepting the news. Vox’s Jeff Stein showed how Trump’s statement was a lot less gracious than the statements of former presidents in similar situations. Then this morning, the president — as he is wont to do — took to Twitter:
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
Clearly, Trump is unhappy. And that makes sense. The last thing any administration wants is someone with the ability to criminally prosecute it taking a close look at what it does.
Especially when it’s someone like Mueller. After all, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave Mueller the gig. That’s an important point to keep in mind.
When Trump fired James Comey as the FBI director, the White House said it was because of a memo Rosenstein co-authored with his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which made the case to let Comey go.
But here’s the thing: Trump told Rosenstein and Sessions to write that memo. So when the White House tried to pin Comey’s ouster on Rosenstein, it didn’t sit too kindly with him, and he even considered resigning. (Later, though, in true Trump fashion, the president contradicted the official story. In an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt, Trump said he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.)
So now Mueller is on board to look into "the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election," per the formal DOJ order. And while Rosenstein said assigning Mueller to this task does not imply any belief that the administration did anything criminal, it’s Mueller’s job to find out.
He has considerable resources. As my colleague Jennifer Williams noted last night, it’s “a powerful post. Mueller will be able to issue subpoenas, forcing people to testify and turn over documents. Whether he chooses to do so, of course, remains to be seen.”
Still, Williams noted that “[a] special counsel is weaker than an independent special prosecutor.” Indeed, Mueller “can pursue criminal indictments in grand jury investigations,” she notes, “but the attorney general can fire them at any time and overrule any decisions they make when it comes to investigating or prosecuting the case.”
Sessions, the attorney general, recused himself from this probe, so it falls to Rosenstein to make decisions to hire and fire the special counsel, or even overrule the decisions he makes. Trump, of course, also has the ability to let Rosenstein go and mess with the investigation.
So this is something to watch very, very closely. Surely something historic, one way or the other, lies at the other end of the investigation Mueller now leads.
Trump’s team knew Michael Flynn was under investigation
When Michael Flynn was on Trump’s transition team, he told fellow members of the president-elect’s inner circle on January 4, 2017, that he was under investigation for lobbying on behalf of Turkey and for failing to disclose that he was paid to do so. Note that this was just weeks before the president’s inauguration.
The Justice Department let Flynn know he was under investigation about a month before he told Team Trump. Still, Trump picked him as the national security adviser, one of the most powerful posts in Washington.
The national security adviser, who leads the National Security Council staff and is the president’s top White House aide for national security and foreign affairs, has immense access to the nation’s top intelligence, high-stakes military operations and planning, and sensitive diplomatic interactions. In essence, Flynn gets to see almost everything the United States is doing that affects the country’s national security.
It is therefore wildly inappropriate for someone on Turkey’s payroll to serve as the national security adviser. And it appears Flynn didn’t even wait to officially be in power before making decisions that also favored Turkey. McClatchy reports that Flynn might have made military decisions based on his ties to Turkey, although that remains to be proven.
Either way, the people Flynn told about the Justice Department’s investigation into his Turkey dealings today serve in high-level positions in the administration. Obviously the president, but also White House counsel Don McGahn, who was also the transition team’s top lawyer after the election.
This is yet another disgrace for Flynn. After only 24 days in his capacity as the national security adviser, he was fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But he likely should’ve been fired sooner.
Then acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House Flynn’s lie may have “compromised” him, meaning the lie made Flynn vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. After Yates’s warning, it took the White House 18 days to let Flynn go.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said to Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
It appears no matter how bad it gets for Flynn, Trump will have his back — so much so that Trump is willing to put a paid Turkish agent into one of the White House’s top posts.
And it may get even worse for Flynn. He and former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort are “subjects” of a FBI criminal investigation, according to NBC News. If someone is a “subject” in an investigation, they “may be suspected of a crime,” the report continued.
Also, the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Flynn’s documents relating to the committee’s investigation into Russia and the 2016 presidential election. Earlier, the committee asked the Treasury Department to look into Flynn’s finances and those of his business associates.
The more the FBI and the committee investigate — and the more the media continues to publish stories like this one — the worse it looks for Flynn. It’s quite the fall from grace for someone who had reached the top not that long ago.
Trump shared intelligence from Israel’s best anti-ISIS spy
It was known that Trump revealed “code word” intelligence to the Russians, giving Moscow some of the top information America has about its counter-ISIS operations. It is also known that the intelligence came from a key US ally: Israel.
But what we just learned in the past 24 hours was how vital this Israeli source is. The Wall Street Journal reports that many US leaders say the Israeli spy is “the most valuable source of information on external plotting by Islamic State.”
That’s a huge revelation. In one Oval Office meeting, Trump not only gave the Russians sensitive intelligence while angering a top ally — he also potentially compromised the best source on ISIS plots.
The Journal also notes that this source “was particularly valuable for tracking the Islamic State’s attempts to place explosive devices on commercial airplanes.”
Giving up that information to the Russians was not a smart move. After all, while Russia claims to be an ally in the fight against ISIS, defense experts agree that is not the case. Instead, Russia’s goal in Syria is to prop up the Assad regime. The anti-ISIS fight gives Moscow an excuse to intervene in the conflict there. (My colleague Zack Beauchamp has a good explainer — and video! — on the complexities of the war in Syria.)
Plus, the Russians have a great intelligence program of their own. It’s so good that their counterintelligence capabilities are quite elite, and the information Trump provided may allow Moscow to find out the source’s identity. That would mean the source is compromised, and the valuable intelligence the source provided would go away.
It is because of this source and other intelligence that the ban on laptops and other electronic devices from 10 Middle Eastern countries was put into effect. US officials are now thinking that the ban may also need to apply to fights between America and Europe.
Meanwhile, Trump will soon go on a flight of his own, heading to Israel as part of his first foreign trip in office. It should be a walk in the park for a US president whose politics generally align with those of Israel’s conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
It won’t be: The fact that Trump may have compromised an enormously valuable Israeli intelligence asset could lead to some very tense meetings — and have long-term repercussions on information sharing between the two close allies.
After Trump shared that intelligence with Russian officials, Vox’s Yochi Dreazen noted that the president “is a serious threat to American national security.” Based on the effect this might have on the best source against ISIS attacks aboard flights to and from the United States, that may well be the case.
In 2016, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Putin was paying Trump
One month before Donald Trump locked down the Republican presidential nomination, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a shocking comment.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” he said in a meeting among GOP leaders, as reported by the Washington Post, which obtained a recording of the exchange.
Rohrabacher, by the way, is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), someone Politico last year named “Putin’s favorite Congressman.” After all, Russia specifically targeted Rohrabacher to help remove Sergei Magnitsky’s name from a global anti-corruption bill.
Magnitsky was a lawyer who uncovered massive fraud by Russian tax officials and police officers. He was then arrested for reporting his findings and later died in custody.
That McCarthy felt Trump should be mentioned in the same breath as Rohrabacher was no small thing. The comment implies top Republican leadership was also worried about Trump’s affinity for Russia.
House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately understood the significance of what McCarthy said and quickly interjected after McCarthy’s comment. He stopped McCarthy from speaking and asked that there be “no leaks” from the meeting.
“This is how we know we’re a real family here,” Ryan said. He did not want it to look like Republicans also had reservations about the leading Republican presidential contender, even though they clearly did.
After the story broke, McCarthy followed in Trump’s footsteps and took to Twitter to defend himself.
This was an attempt at humor gone wrong. No surprise @WashingtonPost tried to contort this into breaking news.— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) May 17, 2017
He doubled down on that defense, telling reporters that his comments were “a bad attempt at a joke.” Brendan Buck, a spokesperson for Ryan, also argued it was all in jest, saying, “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor.”
It seems the GOP is telling a lot of jokes lately.
A bunch of Congress members defended Trump’s request of Comey to stop investigating Flynn, claiming it was likely a joke. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told Trump yesterday that he should use the saber presented to him during a Coast Guard graduation on the press. That was laughed off as a joke too.
Whether McCarthy’s comments were meant to be humorous or not, they show that key Republican leaders worried about how close Trump may have been to Putin.
The Trump campaign didn’t disclose at last 18 contacts with Russian officials
Flynn’s woes just won’t end.
Reuters reports that “Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.” These contacts occurred between April and November 2016, at the height of when Russia was meddling in the presidential election.
These interactions were not publicly known until Reuters broke the story. But it appears the FBI and congressional investigators knew about the interactions and are now reviewing them as part of their investigation.
Recall that Flynn got fired for lying about his meetings with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. Well, Reuters notes that six of those 18 contacts were telephone calls with the ambassador, Flynn, and Trump advisers.
After Trump won the election, both Flynn and Kislyak “discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the US national security bureaucracy,” per the Reuters piece.
There are other weird contacts described in the story. One is with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and politician who liaised with an unnamed Team Trump member about US-Russia relations.
This blows away any notion that Flynn was the only bad egg in the bunch. Even if he was the leader, there was a concerted and sustained effort to maintain contact between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. It is hard to know if any of Russia’s interests eventually became Trump policy pronouncements.
However, Flynn was one of the top advisers to Trump during the campaign. It’s hard to imagine that none of what Flynn, Trump campaign members, and the Russians talked about made it into the campaign’s foreign policy discussion on the trail.
Surely the FBI and the congressional investigators will find out soon enough the extent of the discussions and the effect they may — or may not — have had on the Trump campaign.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
The past 24 hours have struck at the core of the Trump administration’s integrity. There will be investigations into the White House — the same White House that hired a foreign agent to be the top national security aide. A top Republican in Congress thought Trump was on the Russian take, and based on the campaign’s multiple, undisclosed interactions with Russia, it is not an incredibly far-fetched notion.
And to top it all off, the president may have put lives at risk by giving Russia intelligence the United States received from one of the anti-ISIS coalition’s best sources.
The pace of these revelations is only increasing — as is the size of these posts. It’s all too possible that the next 24-hour period will be as dramatic as the past one has been.