Over the past week or so, the world has glimpsed some of the president's private conversations about the Russia probe, and what we've seen has one common theme: A president appearing to veer across the double-yellow DO NOT CROSS lines that separate the investigative section of the federal government and his White House.
The latest must-read revelation comes Monday from The Washington Post's Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima.
In March, President Trump asked the nation's top intelligence officials to tell the public there was no evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
Trump's request came after then-FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress that the FBI was investigating potential collusion between Trump and Russia, an investigation that has now risen to Trump's inner circle.
Nakashima reports that the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and the head of the National Security Agency, Mike Rogers, both refused to comply with the president's request, which they both deemed to be inappropriate.
This news, of course, follows a series of other revelations that have raised questions about how Trump has handled the fact his campaign is under investigation by the FBI:
- The Washington Post reported Friday that a senior White House official close to the president is being investigated by FBI agents related to possible Trump-Russia collusion.
- The New York Times reported on Friday that Trump told Russian officials that firing former FBI director James B. Comey relieved “great pressure” on him. Trump also called Comey a “nut job.”
- Reports surfaced last week that Comey said in a memo that Trump asked him to lay off a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
- The Justice Department has appointed a special counsel with wide latitude to investigate all of this.
- Also on Monday evening, The Post reports that Trump is looking into lawyering up to help him navigate the various investigations by the FBI, the special counsel and Congress.
With every revelation, it feels as if current and former intelligence officials are being more candid with reporters about just how big of a deal all this is.
And to that effect, here are three paragraphs that raised my eyebrows (my emphasis added in bold):
- A senior intelligence official said that Trump’s goal was to “muddy the waters” about the scope of the FBI probe at a time when Democrats were ramping up their calls for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, a step announced last week.
- Current and former officials said either Trump lacks an understanding of the FBI’s role as an independent law enforcement agency or does not care about maintaining such boundaries.
- Trump’s effort to use the DNI and the NSA director to refute Comey’s statement and to say there is no evidence of collusion echoes former president Richard Nixon’s “unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA. Smith called Trump’s actions “an appalling abuse of power.”
Trump doesn't care or doesn't know about the rules. He's abusing his power in a Nixonian way. He's deliberately trying to muddy the waters. These are startling comments about the president of the United States, and some of them are coming from inside Trump's own administration.
It sounds like the alarm bells are ringing among those in-the-know in Washington.
The argument that Trump may have obstructed an investigation isn't new to this particular piece of news.
Legal analysts were saying as much last week if a memo Comey wrote that said Trump asked him to lay off the Russia probe is true. Here's what one of them told The Post's Matt Zapotosky:
“There’s definitely a case to be made for obstruction,” said Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who now does white-collar defense work at the Perkins Coie law firm. “But on the other hand you have to realize that — as with any other sort of criminal law — intent is key, and intent here can be difficult to prove.”
And George W. Bush's ethics lawyer, Richard Painter, argued this on Friday after the Times reported Trump told the Russians that firing Comey took great pressure off the president.
Giant caveat. Right now, all we have to base any of this on is a week's worth of reporting — mostly citing anonymous sources — and experts on the outside looking in, offering their judgments about said reporting.
The special counsel that the Department of Justice appointed last week could conceivably look into whether Trump tried to stop an FBI probe into his campaign.
Making that kind of case against a sitting president won't be easy, and we have no idea if special counsel Robert Mueller plans to anyway. (He has wide latitude to investigate whatever he wants under the umbrella of Trump and Russia, and he's expected to do it mostly behind closed doors.)
As my colleague Aaron Blake has pointed out, it's almost as if Trump has done everything in his power to ask the FBI and the special counsel to take up this line of investigation.
The increasingly alarmed comments from people on the inside of this unfolding drama suggest they, too, would like to see some kind of accountability for the president's recent actions.
And that's why this story in particular, out of all the revelations this past week, is so damning.