clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This week, explained: spies, special counsel, and Flynn

There was just too much news this week.

Robert S. Mueller III, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), speaks at the International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS) on August 8, 2013 in New York City.
Robert S. Mueller III, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), speaks at the International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS) on August 8, 2013 in New York City.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Russia investigation got real this week. Anyone who works in the White House should be nervous — and it looks like they are.

Here’s what we learned this week about Donald Trump’s Russia problems: Trump, it turns out, had a conversation with some Russian officials in the Oval Office last week where he said two of the worst things he probably could. First, he told them he was feeling much better about the Russia investigation since he dumped his FBI director, James Comey, who was overseeing it. Second, he spilled highly classified information about ISIS, provided to the U.S. by Israel. It’s unclear how that conversation could possibly have gone worse.

Trump’s relief presumably faded pretty fast when the Justice Department appointed a special counsel to replace Comey: FBI director Robert Mueller. Mueller is a highly credible figure who happens to be good friends with Comey. Trump’s dream of a better deal was gone in the span of a few days.

Meanwhile, White House lawyers are kicking into gear. They’re looking at a rule that could save Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner from getting sucked into the probe. It’s not looking very likely it’ll work, but the fact they’re doing it is a sign of panic. Even more telling, they’re starting to research impeachment.

Trump himself skipped town Friday afternoon for his first foreign trip. Traditionally, presidents have made their first foreign voyage a quick hop to Canada or Mexico. Trump is heading instead to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Rome for a tour of holy cities that will apparently feature a speech on Islam. What could go wrong?

So while Trump tries to redeem himself on the world stage, meeting with world leaders (not exactly his strong suit), he’s avoiding being at home as his problems here intensify.

The Russia probe reached the White House

The Washington Post reports the investigation into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia or not has reached the White House. A “current White House official” is a significant person of interest, according to the report. And, after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke with members of Congress on Friday, news broke that there might have been a “cover-up,” reports McClatchy.

Meanwhile, the White House lawyers reportedly started researching impeachment, just in case.

These are late-in-the-week wrinkles for a newly important person to deal with. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named as the special counsel to oversee the investigation that apparently just made its way to the heart of American government.

It was a rocky road to get here. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself because he was a part of the campaign. And last week Trump fired James Comey as the FBI director. Because Comey was helping to lead the investigation into the Trump campaign and the Russians, calls for an independent investigation grew.

Mueller is a pro and widely respected by lawmakers and officials from both parties. George W. Bush appointed him to run the FBI back in 2001, and Barack Obama kept him on in 2011.

But this assignment will be a challenge, especially because of the high stakes. He’ll surely be looking into Flynn, especially since Reuters reports that he and other Trump associates “were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails” during the campaign.

Meanwhile, the White House reportedly at least looked at ways to either remove Mueller via federal ethics laws or undermine confidence in him, according to Reuters. Such an effort would face an immediate backlash, but the fact that the White House is even considering it suggests that they’re very worried.

Trump knew Michael Flynn was paid by Turkey. Trump named him the national security adviser anyway.

When Michael Flynn was on Trump’s transition team, he told fellow members of Trump’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. But still, Trump picked him as the national security adviser.

The national security adviser leads the National Security Council staff and is the president’s top White House aide for national security and foreign affairs. It is therefore wildly inappropriate for someone on Turkey’s payroll to serve in that role.

And it appears Flynn didn’t even wait to officially be in power before making decisions that also favored Turkey. McClatchy reported that Flynn might have made military judgments based on his ties to Turkey, although that remains to be proven.

Effectively, Trump had a paid foreign agent run US national security for 24 days, and it affected America’s foreign policy.

Trump gave information from the top anti-ISIS spy to the Russians. He wasn’t supposed to do that.

On May 15, the Washington Post reported that Trump gave “code word” intelligence to Russian officials during an Oval Office visit. He was not supposed to do that, and there were worries that he might have compromised the source who gave away that intelligence.

Well, the Wall Street Journal later reported that many US leaders say the Israeli spy, whose gathered intelligence Trump shared with Russian officials in the Oval Office, is “the most valuable source of information on external plotting by Islamic State.”

That’s a huge revelation. In one meeting, Trump not only gave the Russians sensitive intelligence while angering Israel, a top ally — he also potentially compromised the best source on ISIS plots. The Journal 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.

Expect tense meetings when Trump and Israeli leaders pal around on Monday.

Joe Lieberman might be the next FBI director

The search for a Comey replacement presents Trump with a basic problem. His problem with Comey is that he wasn’t enough of a Trump loyalist, but traditionally FBI directors are people with a reputation for independence and cross-party appeal.

Enter Joe Lieberman. He was a Democrat for most of his career, so he counts as a cross-party pick. But over the past 10 years his always-hawkish politics have tended to veer in the direction of Trump-esque Islamophobic crankdom. He vouched for Sarah Palin at the 2008 Republican National Convention, joined the charge against the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and came out with early endorsement of Michael Flynn and K.T. McFarland as “a very strong leadership team at the National Security Council.”

Perhaps the biggest tell of all is the fact that he wants the job. Lieberman is 75 years old, lacks the normal experience of an FBI director, and is aware that Trump wants a crony in the job, yet is putting himself forward for the position aggressively. Senate Democrats, so far, aren’t buying it, even though many of them like him personally.

Rosenstein told the US Senate his memo didn’t get Comey fired

Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein headed across town to Capitol Hill on Thursday to brief senators on his understanding of the Comey firing.

The key takeaway is that while Rosenstein vouched for the authenticity and sincerity of the memo he wrote arguing that Comey ought to be fired over his handling of the Clinton email investigation, he also confirmed that Trump’s mind was already made up by the time the memo was written. The FBI director, in other words, was not fired on the recommendation of the Justice Department. He was fired because the president wanted him gone, and he then asked the Justice Department to cook up a rationale.

Congressional Republicans keep trying to cut taxes

Even with all this swirling the humdrum work of politics continued apace — meaning largely that congressional Republicans have been working away at their plan to cut taxes. The House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing on the party’s tax reform blueprint and announced further hearings with the IRS’s taxpayer advocate and on improving the “competitiveness” of America’s system of business taxation.

Joshua Bolten, a former top aide to George W. Bush who now heads a major business lobbying group, reassured John Harwood that on taxes the interests of bankers and CEOs “are now aligned, completely aligned, with the average worker.” If you buy that, you might also be interested in a degree from Trump University.

Meanwhile, it emerged that the House of Representatives’ decision to pass a health care bill (which also happens to be a large tax cut) without waiting for a CBO score may come back to haunt them as a technical glitch may require a new vote depending on the outcome of the score. That score is expected in the middle of next week, and if Trump behaves himself abroad, it may be the dominant story to come.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.