THE MORNING PLUM:
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is now directly gunning for President Trump — and not just on one front. It appears that Mueller is investigating whether Trump himself committed misconduct or possible criminality on two fronts, and possibly more.
NBC News is now reporting that Mueller has sent a subpoena to an unnamed witness that appears to hint at just how wide a net Mueller has cast. NBC reports that the subpoena suggests Mueller is focused, among other things, on determining what Trump himself knew about Russian sabotage of the 2016 election as it was happening.
The subpoena demands a range of documents that involve Trump himself, in addition to nine of his top campaign advisers and associates. The documents solicited include emails, text messages, work papers and telephone logs dating back to November 2015, about four months after Trump declared his presidential candidacy.
This builds on NBC’s previous report that Mueller’s investigators are asking witnesses questions that indicate that Mueller is examining whether Trump knew Democratic emails had been hacked before that became public, and whether he was somehow involved in their “strategic release.” As NBC’s new report puts it:
The subpoena indicates that Mueller may be focused not just on what Trump campaign aides knew and when they knew it, but also on what Trump himself knew.
In a certain sense, it isn’t that surprising to learn that Mueller is focused on what Trump knew about Russia’s hacking of emails and interference in the election, and any potential conspiracy with them. Mueller is charged with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated” with Trump’s campaign, as well as any other matters that arise from that line of inquiry. This was inevitably going to include what Trump himself knew and when.
But the subpoena’s search for documents dating all the way back to November 2015 and its demand for documents relating to so many of Trump’s top associates “indicates just how wide a net Mueller is casting,” Paul Rosenzweig, who was a senior counsel for Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation into President Bill Clinton, told me today.
Bob Bauer, the former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, added in an interview with me that the subpoena may serve as a reminder of Trump’s centrality to the collusion tale.
Indeed, as Bauer noted, the publicly known facts already point to Trump’s centrality. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. eagerly held a meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer fully expecting that he’d be getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. It has not been established whether Donald Trump knew about that meeting. But recall that Trump himself helped draft the initial statement misleading the nation about the real purpose of that meeting.
Also recall that former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon told author Michael Wolff that, in his view, the “chance that Don Jr. did not walk” the Russians “up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.” (Bannon is one of the advisers whom the subpoena seeks documents about.)
“We have the president apparently involved in drafting a fallacious statement on behalf of Don Jr. about what actually happened in the Trump Tower meeting,” Bauer told me. “We have Bannon speculating — and I think this only stands to reason — that Don Jr. would never have arranged this meeting without his father knowing that it was coming. It is known that the Trump campaign was communicating with the Russians about help for the campaign and that Trump was personally involved in an effort to conceal information about these contacts from the public.”
“The president in particular is right in the middle of questions about Russian interference,” Bauer said.
Also recall that former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos’s plea agreement with Mueller indicated that he had been informed in April 2016 that the Russians collected “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. What’s more, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) — the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — has now openly stated that information gathered by the committee shows that “the Russians previewed to Papadopoulos that they could help with disseminating these stolen emails.” The question is whether Trump campaign higher-ups were told of these things — and whether Trump knew of them.
We don’t know the answer to those questions, and again, it must be stressed that Mueller may find no evidence of coordination. But the already known facts are troubling enough on their own. And it’s obvious that Mueller knows a lot more than we do.
Trump has acted methodically to hamstring the Mueller probe
Indeed, this feeds into the second way that Mueller is investigating Trump — for possible obstruction of justice. We learned last week that Mueller is closely scrutinizing Trump’s state of mind during his repeated efforts to push out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to determine whether the goal was to replace him with someone who would better protect him from the Mueller probe (Sessions had recused himself, enraging Trump). Mueller is trying to determine whether this conduct, along with Trump’s firing of his FBI director, establishes a pattern that constitutes obstruction of justice. As I have argued, we know beyond any doubt that Trump has acted methodically, again and again and again, to constrain or derail the investigation and pulled back only after those efforts were foiled.
That particular conduct can potentially be explained by Mueller’s scrutiny of what Trump and/or his associates knew and when about Russian efforts to sabotage the election on his behalf. This confluence doesn’t prove anything, of course. But as Bauer put it to me: “Trump came into office frantic to deny any collusion with the Russians during the campaign, and from the beginning, he is apparently maneuvering to choke off an investigation by pressuring and then firing Comey, and attacking Sessions over the recusal. And so he added an obstruction inquiry to his problems.”
Beyond all this, we also know Mueller is scrutinizing whether any White House policies might have been shaped by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s business discussions with foreigners during the transition. And who knows where that might lead.
* NOTHING FROM CONGRESS ON ELECTION SECURITY: On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama’s former chief of staff accused Republicans of refusing to forcefully condemn Russian sabotage of the 2016 election. The Post adds this:
Not one congressional panel looking into the Russia probe has released a bipartisan plan for how to strengthen election security, even though the 2018 primary season begins in certain states this month. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russian intervention, is expected to release recommendations later this month, though that will not mark the end of its probe.
And we have heard very little from the administration about its plans, ever since it was reported that Trump has not held a single Cabinet-level meeting on the threat of more sabotage.
* NOTHING FROM STATE DEPARTMENT ON ELECTION SECURITY: The New York Times reports that the State Department has spent none of the $120 million allotted to it for countering foreign sabotage of our elections:
As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department’s Global Engagement Center — which has been tasked with countering Moscow’s disinformation campaign — speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts. The delay is just one symptom of the largely passive response to the Russian interference by President Trump.
Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?
* GOWDY: WE MAY GET ANOTHER SPECIAL COUNSEL: Some Republicans want a second special counsel to examine alleged Hillary Clinton wrongdoing in the fake Uranium One scandal, among other things. Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), the House GOP Oversight Committee chair, told Fox News: “I think we’re trending perhaps towards another special counsel.”
We learned last fall that Sessions was evaluating whether a second special counsel is merited, obviously in response to Trump’s relentless demands that Sessions target Clinton. When are we going to hear back from Sessions on that?
* GOP UNLEASHES AD BLITZ ON TAX PLAN: The Washington Examiner reports that American Action Network, the outside group allied with House GOP leaders, is unleashing a $1 million ad blitz touting the GOP tax cuts in 24 competitive House districts:
Republicans … want voters to make a direct connection between the tax bill and accelerated job and wage growth. … AAN and its sister organization, the super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, are investing tens of millions of dollars to improve the image of the tax bill, viewing it as the key to any success Republicans might have in holding the party’s 24-seat House majority.
But in the special election just outside Pittsburgh, Republicans have shifted away from tax-cut messaging and toward attacks over illegal immigration, suggesting the tax message may be a bust.
* STATES PRESS FORWARD WITH GUN-RIGHTS BILLS: Talking Points Memo reports that numerous states have pressed forward with bills loosening regulations on firearms in the wake of the Parkland massacre. Note this:
Even as gun control legislation remains stalled in Congress, the NRA has campaigned for 15 measures in 11 states that would further loosen gun restrictions. Among other things, the bills would strengthen existing stand-your-ground laws (Wyoming and Idaho), allow people to carry handguns without a permit (Oklahoma), and expand the list of places where people can carry guns (numerous states).
This is yet another reminder that if you want new gun regulations, you should channel some energy into Democratic efforts to win back ground on the state level.
* DACA DEADLINE IS TODAY, AND NOTHING WILL HAPPEN: Today is the day that the protections for the “dreamers” begin expiring, and CNN reports that nothing is going to happen to protect them in Congress today or in the near future:
March 23 is the next government funding deadline, and some lawmakers have suggested they may try to use the must-pass package of funding bills as a point of leverage. But sources close to the process say it’s more likely that efforts will be made to keep a bad deal out of the omnibus spending measure than to come up with a compromise to attach to it, as no solution has a clear path to passing either chamber.
The courts have put Trump’s move on hold and have ordered the restarting of the program, so today’s deadline means less. But make no mistake: The dreamers’ future is still very much in limbo.
* QUOTE OF THE WEEKEND, TRUMP-IS-A-DECISIVE LEADER EDITION: On “Meet the Press,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was pressed to say whether Trump’s decision on tariffs is final. He replied:
“Whatever his final decision is, is what will happen. … If he says something different, it’ll be something different. I have no reason to think he’s going to change. … He has made a decision at this point … If he for some reason should change his mind, then it’ll change.”
The most senior members of Trump’s administration haven’t got any earthly clue where the strong and decisive businessman president will end up.