The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said.
The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.
Former FBI director James B. Comey, in his testimony last week, quite clearly was laying the factual predicate for a possible obstruction charge — detailing Trump’s efforts to persuade Comey to drop the investigation of Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and when that did not work, firing Comey with a false pretextual explanation.
The president and his surrogates are already on the warpath, falsely suggesting that Comey engaged in improper or illegal conduct in leaking his memos and, putting out the line via Kellyanne Conway, that members of Mueller’s legal team had given to Democratic politicians (and therefore were biased). None of that will prove successful, in large part because there reportedly are a parade of other witnesses. (“Daniel Coats, the current director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, and Rogers’s recently departed deputy, Richard Ledgett, agreed to be interviewed by Mueller’s investigators as early as this week.”) These witnesses are likely to provide an account not unlike Comey’s in which the president wanted them to interfere with Comey’s Russia investigation.
No wonder Trump is still ruminating about firing Mueller. His aides correctly point out that this would be politically disastrous, fueling impeachment fever. But Trump certainly has one thing right: His presidency is imperiled so long as Mueller compels witnesses to testify, accumulates written evidence and traces the myriad of ties between the Trump team and Russians.
Onlookers have assumed that any obstruction was intended to prevent evidence of “collusion” or Russian infiltration of Trump’s campaign from surfacing. However, the subject matter of the underlying investigation may extend to financial crimes, putting Trump’s and his associates’ international business dealings under the microscope.
The addition to Mueller’s team of a prosecutor including Andrew Weissmann, Supreme Court advocate and criminal law expert Michael Dreeben, and others experienced in complex fraud and international bribery cases suggests that the probe may be looking at more than “collusion” between Russian officials and Trump team members. For example, “it appears he has recruited an experienced Justice Department trial attorney, Lisa Page, a little-known figure outside the halls of Main Justice but one whose résumé boasts intriguing hints about where Mueller’s Russia investigation might lead. Page has deep experience with money laundering and organized crime cases, including investigations where she’s partnered with an FBI task force in Budapest, Hungary, that focuses on eastern European organized crime. That Budapest task force helped put together the still-unfolding money laundering case against Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, a one-time business partner of [Paul] Manafort.”) News reports speculate that Mueller could be investigating potential money-laundering by Trump team members.
It bears repeating that only Mueller and his team know the exact contours of an investigation. A counterintelligence inquiry into Russian interference now extends — as these things inevitably do — to possible financial dealings of Trump and his associates and possible “procedural” crimes (e.g. obstruction, perjury, lying to the FBI). The president might want to consider finding an actual expert in criminal law to represent him; this investigation is extensive, serious and possibly career-ending for a growing list of figures, which now certainly includes the president.