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The Trump-Russia probe is now looking into a top White House adviser

President Trump Departs White House En Route To Give Commencement Address At Coast Guard Academy Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

At the end of a week full of big Trump-Russia news, the Washington Post dropped yet another bombshell, reporting on Friday that a current “senior White House adviser” is a “significant person of interest” in the law enforcement investigation into potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia. That’s fancy talk for “potential suspect.”

This is a first. So far, all of the names who have been publicly identified as persons of interest in this investigation were out of government: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and political strategist Roger Stone.

But the Post has confirmed that someone else — someone currently serving at the top levels of the US government — is now being looked at by federal investigators.

Now, just because the FBI is “interested” in someone in the White House doesn’t mean that person is necessarily guilty of colluding with the Russians (or any other crime). We don’t even have hard evidence that there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But it shows that this scandal, already huge, could potentially get much, much bigger.

What this actually means

To understand the Post story, you need to understand a few key phrases in the piece:

  • “Person of interest”: A term without specific legal meaning, this could refer to anyone involved in the case: Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg told Slate that the government uses the term when it wants to say “that it can't do anything to you yet.” But the Post further specifies that this unnamed White House official is “under scrutiny by investigators,” suggesting they are a suspect that the Post’s sources don’t want to officially label as such just yet.
  • “Law enforcement investigation”: This means the FBI’s investigation.
  • “Senior White House adviser”: This is the closest the Post comes to formally identifying the person in question. This could be a lot of different people, but the use of the word “senior” indicates that the person in question is a heavy hitter. Indeed, the Post says that it’s “someone close to the president.” Not many people get close access to Trump, so we’re talking at the level of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, senior strategist Steve Bannon, senior adviser Jared Kushner, etc., or possibly a rung or two down.

Once when you read between the lines like this, a clearer picture emerges: The FBI appears to suspect a top figure in the Trump administration of possibly being involved in the Russian campaign to hack Hillary Clinton allies and publish politically damaging emails. If true, that would be incredibly damaging to the Trump administration. It would make the classic Watergate question — “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — even more vital.

It’s worth noting, as my colleague Dylan Matthews does, that it’s not even clear if President Nixon personally ordered the Watergate break-in. Nixon faced impeachment because he covered it up: because he protected the people close to him who were responsible for the break-in. If Trump is currently sheltering someone he had reason to believe was involved with the Russians — well, that would be quite bad.

We are, however, a long way away from this sort of thing. Identifying an administration official as a “person of interest” is not proof of guilt; not even close. But it shows that this investigation is getting more and more serious — and that firing James Comey did not, as the Trump administration seems to have hoped, derail it.

In fact, the Post reports, it’s only speeding up.

“The revelation comes as the investigation also appears to be entering a more overtly active phase, with investigators shifting from work that has remained largely hidden from the public to conducting interviews and using a grand jury to issue subpoenas,” write the Post’s Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky. “The intensity of the probe is expected to accelerate in the coming weeks.”

Buckle up.

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