For any president, one of these headlines would be very bad news. For President Trump, they all came in a span of 12 hours:
- “Justice Department to appoint special counsel to oversee probe of Russian meddling in 2016 election”
- “House majority leader told colleagues last year: ‘I think Putin pays’ Trump”
- “Flynn stopped military plan Turkey opposed — after being paid as its agent”
- “Trump Team Knew Flynn Was Under Investigation Before He Came to White House”
- “Israeli Source Seen as Key to Countering Islamic State Threat”
- “Trump campaign had at least 18 undisclosed contacts with Russians — sources”
It was a dizzying Wednesday night for political reporters and followers alike, with a bevy of new information being thrown at them on multiple fronts. And it continued into early Thursday morning with that last headline, from Reuters.
Trump's opponents have often accused the media of allowing Trump to distract them with the insignificant, shiny objects that Trump dangles in front of them. At this point, the bigger problem may be that there are too many very real stories to keep up with.
So here's a quick summary of why each of these stories is significant, and what it means going forward.
1) The special prosecutor
This is the day the White House — and apparently congressional Republicans — hoped would never come. The White House said just three days ago that there was “frankly no need” for a special investigator to look into Russian meddling, and very few in the GOP signed off on one, even after the drama of Trump firing FBI Director James B. Comey last week.
The reasons they didn't want one are: a) The investigation had previously been handled only by Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, and by the FBI, which is at least within the chain of command in the Trump administration. A special prosecutor lends much more seriousness to the proceedings and carries the kind of independence from political influence that simply didn't exist before.
And as I argue, it's a pretty direct rebuke from Trump's own Justice Department of his heavy-handed approach to this whole thing, something opponents have argued amounts to obstruction of justice.
2) Kevin McCarthy's 'Putin pays' Trump line
Even if you acknowledge this was a joke, which House GOP leadership say it was, it shows that Republicans were joking about Trump colluding with Russia even before WikiLeaks. That's a story line even Democrats didn't really pick up until much later.
It's not difficult to see Democrats using this to argue that Republicans buried whatever curiosity they had about ties between Trump and Russia as they were working to elect him president.
3) Flynn directly influenced White House policy in a pro-Turkey direction after Turkey paid him
Michael T. Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump's national security adviser, is the opposite of the gift that keeps on giving. He's the infestation that no exterminator can get rid of.
We've gradually learned more and more about his work for the Turkish government, which he failed to disclose and could face legal trouble for. Now McClatchy points out that he not only did not disclose the $500,000 he was paid, but he also pushed the White House in a pro-Turkey direction very early on. Here's more:
The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.
Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.
If Flynn explained his answer, that’s not recorded, and it’s not known whether he consulted anyone else on the transition team before rendering his verdict. But his position was consistent with the wishes of Turkey, which had long opposed the United States partnering with the Kurdish forces — and which was his undeclared client.
According to this telling, an agent of a foreign government, Flynn, affected official U.S. military action benefiting his sponsoring country when that arrangement was still a secret. That's bad for Flynn, and it's very bad for the administration, for a reason we're about to get to …
4) White House counsel knew Flynn was under investigation even before he was hired
This arrangement may not have been known to the public, but the New York Times reports that not only was the Trump team aware, but that it knew he was under investigation for it.
Here's the crux:
Michael T. Flynn told President Trump’s transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the case. …
Mr. Flynn’s disclosure, on Jan. 4, was first made to the transition team’s chief lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, who is now the White House counsel. That conversation, and another one two days later between Mr. Flynn’s lawyer and transition lawyers, shows that the Trump team knew about the investigation of Mr. Flynn far earlier than has been previously reported.
This makes the above and everything that came before it just remarkable. How could Trump hire Flynn for a national security job knowing this? How could the White House let him weigh in on policy affecting Turkey? How could the White House have waited so long to terminate Flynn when his problems grew on that second big issue, his contacts with Russia?
And very troubling for Vice President Pence, who led Trump's transition, how in the world do you explain this?
5) The source whose highly classified information Trump shared with Russia is a valuable Israeli one
From the Wall Street Journal:
The classified information that President Donald Trump shared with Russian officials last week came from an Israeli source described by multiple U.S. officials as the most valuable source of information on external plotting by the Islamic State.
“The most valuable source of information on external plotting by the Islamic State.” Some officials think Trump compromised this source with what he shared with Russia. Whether he did that or not, it's becoming clear that it was a hugely significant source of intelligence from a top ally.
6) 18 undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia
Anonymous officials tell Reuters that there were at least 18 previously undisclosed phone calls and emails between the Trump campaign and Russia during the final seven months of the 2016 campaign. Several of these involved Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The Trump team has previously denied any contact with the Russians during the campaign on multiple occasions. Here's a sampling:
- “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.” — Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks in November
- “The campaign had no contact with Russian officials.” — Hicks, also in November
- “This is a nonstory because, to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened.” — White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in February
And here's the money quote in the Reuters story from Richard Armitage, a former top State Department official in the George W. Bush administration: “It’s rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power.”
Add this to the long paper trail of contradicted White House statements on Russia.