But Trump’s own words and actions are what led directly to both the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Muller III and to the fact that Trump’s own conduct is now being scrutinized. What’s more, Trump’s claims of persecution should be taken as more than mere deflection or an effort to stoke his supporters’ grievances. They hint that Trump could still try to remove Mueller, a possibility that must be taken more seriously now that Trump is a target.
The Post story reports that the FBI investigation of Trump for possible obstruction began “days” after he fired former FBI director James B. Comey on May 9, and Mueller has now taken that up. Mueller will interview Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other officials about reported conversations in which Trump allegedly asked them to help get Comey to back off his probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s Russia ties. The Post also notes that Mueller has collected Comey’s memos — in which he recounted that Trump demanded his “loyalty” and pressed him to drop the Flynn probe — as part of his own investigation.
The Post story also says that “accounts by Comey and other officials of their conversations with the president could become central pieces of evidence if Mueller decides to pursue an obstruction case” and that investigators will examine Trump’s public and private statements “about his reasons for firing Comey” in the context of his “concerns about the Russia probe.”
In other words, Trump’s own words, in multiple settings, are potentially key pieces of evidence against him. Trump publicly admitted he fired Comey because of unhappiness with the Russia investigation. Comey testified that Trump’s demand for “loyalty” came in the context of a conversation about whether Comey would continue to serve as FBI director at his pleasure. Comey also said he took Trump’s request that he drop the Flynn probe as “direction” and an “order.”
Benjamin Wittes, editor of the Lawfare Blog, notes that it’s important to remember that, in obstruction investigations, the sum total or pattern of facts is often critical. “When you’re doing an obstruction investigation, all the facts are important,” Wittes told me today. A reasonable prosecutor, Wittes noted, won’t look at this “as a discrete series of interactions,” and instead is likely to ask, “Is there some pattern of behavior that constitutes obstruction? If you’re looking for a pattern of behavior that constitutes obstruction, you want to know the entire pattern.”
To be sure, some of these facts are in dispute. Trump has denied demanding Comey’s loyalty, and his advisers have said (ludicrously) that Trump merely asked Comey to drop the Flynn probe.
But there is a set of shared facts that are not in dispute, which we can now consult, and those already constitute a pattern of conduct that is deeply problematic, whether or not they end up amounting to obstruction.
Here are those facts: Trump did fire Comey. Trump and the White House did contradict themselves about the rationale for that firing. They both did originally say that Trump fired Comey at the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy Rod J. Rosenstein, who created a memo detailing that recommendation rooted in Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe. After that story fell apart, Trump did subsequently tell NBC News that he was going to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation and that he did so over the Russia probe. Thus, Trump and the White House themselves did create the strong impression that Trump tried to recruit Sessions and Rosenstein to create a cover story for the Comey firing, and this (among other things) did leave Rosenstein no choice but to appoint a special counsel.
The meeting between Trump, Sessions and Rosenstein
The interaction between Trump, Sessions and Rosenstein over Comey’s fate, by the way, could prove important. The Post has reported that the three met just before Comey was fired and that Trump — having already decided to fire Comey — demanded that Rosenstein memo as a rationale. One key question is whether Trump made it clear in that meeting that he’d already made his decision due to his unhappiness with the Russia probe. Both Sessions and Rosenstein have refused to detail these interactions before Congress, citing privileged conversations. Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe emails me:
The conversation Trump had with Rosenstein and Sessions just before firing Comey would clearly be important to Mueller’s probe into whether Trump obstructed justice because it would bear directly on whether Trump acted “corruptly” in “endeavoring to influence or impede the due administration of justice” (to use the language of 18 USC 1503) by firing Comey.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to fire Comey — which reportedly emerged from a highly irrational, grievance-saturated flight of anger at Comey for failing to make the Russia probe disappear — plainly is what led the special counsel to focus on possible obstruction. All of this was Trump’s doing.
Why Trump’s claims of persecution matter
The fact that Trump continues to claim persecution is a cause for worry beyond concerns about Trump’s grasp on reality. Here’s why: The New York Times reports that people around Trump believe he could still try to remove Mueller, if he comes to “believe the investigation has been compromised.” But how hard would it be for Trump to move from deciding that the investigation is a “witch hunt” being orchestrated by his enemies — as he appeared to tweet today — to deciding that it has been “compromised,” meaning that it is illegitimate, giving him ample grounds to move to end it? In Trump’s mind, the line between those two things is surely hazy to nonexistent.
* TRUMP DOUBTS RUSSIAN MEDDLING: The Wall Street Journal reports that the special counsel will interview former deputy National Security Agency director Rick Ledgett about Trump’s private conversations with NSA chief Mike Rogers:
While Mr. Ledgett was still in office, he wrote a memo documenting a phone call that Mr. Rogers had with Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. During the call, the president questioned the veracity of the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia had interfered with the election and tried to persuade Mr. Rogers to say there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russian officials, they said.
The intelligence community not only widely concluded that Russian sabotage happened but also said Russia will try to do it again. Yet our president refuses to allow it happened at all.
* LARGE MAJORITY SAYS TRUMP OBSTRUCTED PROBE: A new Associated Press poll finds that Americans believe by 61 percent to 37 percent that Trump tried to “impede” the investigation into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia. They disapprove of his firing of Comey by 52 percent to 22 percent. And 62 percent say they are extremely or moderately confident that Mueller’s probe will be “impartial.”
That last one should be kept in mind, as Trump and his allies in the media are sure to escalate their efforts to cast doubt on Mueller’s handling of the investigation and cast Trump as the victim of political persecution.
* MUELLER IS LOOKING AT POSSIBLE MONEY-LAUNDERING: The New York Times adds this little nugget to the reporting about the special counsel’s probe:
A former senior official said Mr. Mueller’s investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates. The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials would most likely have been in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payments, probably by routing them through offshore banking centers.
Unfortunately, the Times adds no further details, so we’ll just have to wait to find out what this means, if anything.
* WHY SESSIONS CAN REFUSE TO GIVE ANSWERS: Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to answer questions at his hearing about his private conversations with Trump. But Sessions also said the president had not invoked executive privilege to protect those conversations. He was merely preserving Trump’s ability to do that later.
Charlie Savage has a good explainer detailing why this is probably okay, legally at least: A 1980s executive branch regulation says officials should decline to answer in order to protect that privilege, and executive branches in both parties have done so. Congress could probably try to force the issue, but ultimately, it would likely fail.
* GOP SENATORS BLAST HEALTH-CARE BILL SECRECY: NBC News reports that the secrecy shrouding the GOP Senate repeal-and-replace bill has gotten so bad that even GOP senators are condemning it:
Some Republican senators have said they’ve had difficulty getting information about the legislation and wished there were more public opportunities to register concerns. “Would I have preferred a more open process? The answer is yes,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters … Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that he’s complained to leadership about the lack of transparency. “I would have liked to have seen a public process — get buy-in from the public,” he said.
No worries. They’ll probably get a few days to look at the legislation before voting for it (whatever it contains).
* THREE GOP SENATORS COULD STOP THIS ABSURD SECRECY: E.J. Dionne Jr. makes a great point about the ongoing code of silence around the Senate bill:
Because Democrats have 48 votes against dismantling the existing law, any three Republican senators could put a stop to this fantastically anti-democratic process. They could walk into McConnell’s office and say they’ll oppose any bill that is not made public for at least a month of real scrutiny and discussion. Is this too much to ask of legislation that could threaten the health care of countless Americans (the exact number being unknowable because the bill’s architects won’t admit to what they’re doing)?
Which, of course, makes the protestations coming from GOP senators about this secrecy ring hollow.
* GEORGIA SPECIAL ELECTION ON KNIFE’S EDGE: Sabato’s Crystal Ball says the special House election in the Atlanta suburbs is a tossup, though Democrat Jon Ossoff might have a slight edge over GOPer Karen Handel:
He has led several recent public polls and is at or slightly above 50% in three of them … he has raised an absurd amount of money and is decisively winning the ad war … and we’re in a national environment that is generally anti-Republican and/or pro-Democratic … However, the race clearly is close enough that it could go either way … Internal surveys reportedly show a very tight race.
If Democrats lose here on June 20, the national press coverage will be absolutely brutal, even though Republican Tom Price won this district in 2016 by 23 points.