No matter what President Donald Trump seems to do — or how angry he seems to get — the Russia investigation just won’t go away. That became even more apparent over the past 24 hours, when news reports showed matters are only getting worse for the commander in chief.
That’s because the Washington Post reported Wednesday night that special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of all-stars are expanding their Russia probe and now directly investigating whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice when he fired former FBI Director James Comey.
In addition, the New York Times reported yesterday that the investigation is looking into whether Trump associates laundered money they’d received from Russia, presumably as part of a payoff for colluding with Moscow during the campaign. If Trumpworld had been in cahoots with the Kremlin, any likely payments would be done in a secretive, hidden manner.
And to top it all off, there’s a National Security Agency memo detailing a conversation in which Trump said he still doesn’t accept that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election — even though the US intelligence and law enforcement communities unanimously believe it did.
So it wasn’t Trump’s best 24 hours. In case you missed these developments — especially because of yesterday’s attack on Republican lawmakers and staffers in Northern Virginia — don’t worry. We’ve got you covered so you can get caught up.
Trump may have obstructed justice. The special counsel will find out.
The special counsel’s office looking into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, has widened its probe. Citing five unnamed sources, the Washington Post reports the special counsel is investigating if Trump tried to obstruct justice when he fired now-former FBI Director James Comey.
Recall that Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week — under oath — that he felt pressured by Trump to drop the probe of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. Flynn is known to have at least $68,000 worth of financial ties to Russia, which is partially why he’s become a central figure in the whole drama.
The investigators clearly believe there’s something worth looking into on the obstruction piece. Until Trump fired Comey, the president wasn’t under investigation, the Post noted. Comey even told Trump as much, which the president happily wrote in his May 9 pink-slip letter to Comey.
But the president didn’t help himself later on. His first rationale for the firing, which he mentions in the same letter, is that he let Comey go on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
Trump soon changed his story. Two days later, he told NBC’s Lester Holt that he let Comey go not because of the recommendations, but because of the Russia investigation.
“In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Trump told Holt in May. “It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should've won.”
It’s since become clear that Comey wasn’t the only one Trump spoke to about Flynn. In March, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told his colleagues that the president asked him to intervene with Comey to get him to stop the Flynn probe, the Washington Post reported. The story also says that Trump approached Adm. Michael Rogers, the head of the NSA, with the same request.
So now investigators are bringing them in to discuss the obstruction matter. The Post reports Mueller will speak to Coats and Rogers along with Richard Ledgett, the recently departed NSA deputy, who may speak with the special counsel as early as this week.
Both Coats and Rogers were coy with the Senate Intelligence Committee last week about this exact issue. They refused to answer senators’ questions about whether Trump pressured them into halting the Flynn investigation. It appears, though, that they will be more open to talking about it in private with the special counsel.
The president, as expected, is unhappy with the new development. He took to Twitter Thursday morning to show his displeasure.
You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2017
Never mind that Mueller and his team are widely respected. Ken Starr, who headed the investigation into Bill Clinton’s associates during the 1990s Whitewater controversy, had only nice things to say about him. "Bob Mueller has the integrity to call them as he sees them," Starr told ABC.
GOP Sen. John Thune also came to Mueller’s defense while pushing back on the president’s epithet for the whole ordeal. “It’s not a witch hunt, no,” Thune told Mark Halperin on MSNBC. “You know, I think that he’s [Mueller] got a job to do. I think we all understand that. And I think it’s in everybody’s best interest if we let him do his job, and we do ours.”
It appears that Trump has only himself to blame for why he’s now under investigation by top-notch federal probers. While watching that unfold will be fascinating, the Trump campaign–Russia connection remains important, too. And a new detail was learned about it last night.
Money laundering is part of the Mueller investigation
From the beginning, the entire saga has centered on possible connections between members of the Trump campaign and Russians. The New York Times reported Wednesday night that investigators are looking into a specific type of connection: money laundering.
If they find evidence that members of the Trump team received money from Moscow and then tried to hide it, the implications would be hugely significant. It would show there were money transfers worth hiding — and you don’t do that if what you’re doing is lawful.
Let’s first be clear about what money laundering is. Money laundering, in its simplest form, is making it seem like money that comes from X place actually comes from Y place. It can help make an illegal money transfer appear like it was a run-of-the-mill, everyday exchange. Without laundering, the illegal money transfer would connect the lawbreaking parties, making it easier for law enforcement to identify the wrongdoers.
So what if the investigators do find evidence of money laundering in this case? It would mean Trump associates and Russians knew what they were doing was illegal, and purposely tried to hide their financial connections. That discovery, if found to be true, would make the investigation worth it.
It’s hard to know, though, exactly what payments to Russians, or vice versa, would be for — but that’s for the investigators to find out.
Trump still doesn’t believe Russia tried to influence the election
That tidbit is based on a memo written by Ledgett during a Trump call with Rogers, reports the Wall Street Journal. During their conversation, Trump doubted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia tried to influence the election. (Trump also asked Rogers to state publicly that there was no Trump-Russia connection, which Rogers declined to do.)
Denying the Russian influence campaign is a common Trump refrain, despite evidence to the contrary. Back in January, the CIA, NSA, and FBI released a report saying Russia had tried to impact the election’s outcome.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the report stated. It went on to claim that Russia made moves to harm Hillary Clinton and, by extension, help Trump.
But Trump isn’t buying it. As he told Holt, he thinks the whole thing is a Democratic excuse for why they lost the election. He also thinks the cyber realm is too complex to understand. In his mind, it could’ve been the Russians, but it also could’ve been anybody, including China or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
He said as much during one of the presidential debates:
This remains one of the top examples of Trump’s distrust of the intelligence community. He blamed the IC for providing false evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, one of the main reasons cited by the George W. Bush administration for the war.
He also gave away top intelligence to Russians about an ISIS plot, which angered intel professionals. The WSJ’s latest revelation won’t mollify those upset professionals in the intelligence community. It might even perturb them more.
Trump could bounce back from these past 24 hours, but it will take some time. The Mueller investigation is ongoing, but it will be a while before it’s ready to make its findings known.
In the meantime, Trump could begin by repairing his poor relationship with the IC. But with comments like the ones he made to Rogers, that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.