The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Russia investigation is getting serious — and President Trump is feeling the heat

President Trump dismissed allegations of collusion between his campaign and Russia at a rally in Huntington, W. Va., on Aug. 3. (Video: The Washington Post)

When President Trump is feeling put-upon, he retreats to his happy place: standing before a crowd of enthusiastic supporters who will cheer wildly for him and allow him to feel as though it’s still the 2016 campaign. So last night he went to West Virginia so that he could feel the love and be able to dismiss the widening and deepening investigation as nothing more than a witch hunt. But if it’s a witch hunt, there are an awful lot of people around the president who just happen to be wearing pointy hats.

Let’s run down everything that we’ve learned just in the last day about where the Russia investigation is going:

  • “Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began using a grand jury in federal court in Washington several weeks ago as part of his investigation of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign,” which allows him to subpoena testimony and documents. While this is not a surprise (that’s how special counsels work), if nothing else it shows that the initial phase of the investigation produced enough evidence to keep going.
  • The grand jury “has issued subpoenas in connection with a June 2016 meeting that included President Donald Trump’s son, his son-in-law and a Russian lawyer, two sources told Reuters on Thursday, signaling an investigation is gathering pace into suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.”
  • The grand jury has also subpoenaed documents related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s business dealings, and Flynn “filed an amended federal financial disclosure report late Thursday providing new details about his contracts with the Trump presidential transition, a company connected to an Iranian American businessman, and the parent company of a data science firm that worked for the Trump campaign.” Funny how people like Flynn and Jared Kushner keep remembering things they forgot to include on their disclosure forms.
  • According to CNN, FBI “investigators turned up intercepted communications appearing to show efforts by Russian operatives to coordinate with Trump associates on damaging Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, officials said. CNN has learned those communications included references to campaign chairman Paul Manafort.”
  • Vox reports: “Shortly after the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller in May, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told several of the highest-ranking managers of the bureau they should consider themselves possible witnesses in any investigation into whether President Donald Trump engaged in obstruction of justice, according to two senior federal law enforcement officials.” As one senior law enforcement official described it to Vox, “This has never been the word of Trump against what [James Comey] has had to say. This is more like the Federal Bureau of Investigation versus Donald Trump.”
  • “Two bipartisan pairs of senators unveiled legislation Thursday to prevent President Trump from firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III without cause — or at least a reason good enough to convince a panel of federal judges.” Although it may be hard to imagine Trump signing such a bill, it’s a clear signal that even some in his own party want him to understand that firing Mueller would probably set off a constitutional crisis.

What we have here are three separate tracks of investigation, any one of which could produce evidence of acts that are politically scandalous at a minimum, but could even be criminal. The first is the original justification for the probe: the possibility of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. What we know for certain so far is that Russia engaged in an effort to help Trump get elected and that those closest to Trump were at the very least interested in obtaining Russia’s help (the now-infamous meeting Donald Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort took with a group of shady Russians because they believed they would be provided with dirt on Hillary Clinton).

The second track is the question of whether the president himself obstructed justice in his efforts to shut down the Russia probe. What we know so far may or may not constitute obstruction, but it’s certainly damning. The president admitted on national television that he fired Comey in order to stop the investigation into Russia. He also tried to enlist the Director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to discredit the probe. We don’t know what else he may have done or whose help he got.

The third track, which will likely wind up being the most complicated one, is whether there is any other wrongdoing — particularly financial — that is uncovered in the course of investigating the first two tracks. If the special counsel finds evidence suggesting that some crimes have been committed, even if they don’t relate directly to the original purpose of the investigation, he has an obligation to pursue them and find out whether there’s anything there.

The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig explains that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team has requested that the White House retain records of a meeting with a Russian lawyer. (Video: Victoria Walker, Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

No one who has even a passing familiarity with Trump’s business dealings and history believes that once you turn over that rock there won’t be lots of slimy creatures squirming about. Some of that may have to do with Russia, since the country’s oligarchs and mobsters seem to have been unusually eager to buy Trump properties and invest in Trump projects over the years. But there may also be questionable or criminal dealings that have nothing to do with Russia, and if Mueller comes across them, we can assume he’ll pursue them.

And it isn’t just Trump himself. Others like Flynn and Manafort have some rather interesting finances, and once Mueller starts pulling on those strings, who knows where they’ll lead. Manafort in particular could wind up being the key to the whole scandal, given that his firm has received millions of dollars from interests tied to Russia, and he turned up in those intelligence intercepts.

At that West Virginia rally last night, Trump told his supporters, “The Russia story is a total fabrication. It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.” He then said, “What the prosecutors should be looking at are Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails,” at which the crowd erupted in a positively orgasmic cheer that then turned into chants of “Lock her up!” It was as if they were transported back a year, when they could feel the adrenaline rush of pure hatred flowing through them and everything was simple. But after it was over, the president flew back to Washington, where nothing is simple and the noose is tightening around him.