As top intelligence and law enforcement officials testify in front of Congress this week, one big question looms: Did President Trump attempt to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation?
It's a question with all kinds of legal ins and outs and is very unlikely to be resolved in the next two days. But from a political and appearance perspective, Trump just suffered another major setback.
The Post's Adam Entous reported late Tuesday night that Trump in March asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to intervene in the Russia investigation by asking then-FBI Director James Comey to back off the agency’s focus on Michael Flynn. Coats reportedly told associates about Trump's request shortly afterward.
This, of course, is not the first time Trump has been reported to have made apparently unsavory requests of Coats and other top officials (up to and including, most notably, Comey). The Post had previously reported Trump approached Coats and National Security Agency head Michael Rogers in a failed effort to get them to say publicly that there was no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. It has also been reported that Trump approached Comey in February about ending the Flynn investigation, according to contemporaneous notes kept by Comey.
But here's why the latest news is particularly bad for Trump: It erases any idea that the Comey request was just a one-off. We have now learned that Comey isn't the only top official whom Trump approached in an effort to free Flynn from his investigation.
One approach could perhaps be understood as Trump going over his skis while standing up for a close political ally and top former adviser; two approaches show that he made a concerted effort to try to release Flynn from scrutiny. And the Coats request reportedly came weeks after the Comey one, suggesting this idea was on Trump's mind for some time.
The question from there becomes why — why did Trump feel so strongly about getting Flynn off the hook? And there are basically two good answers to that question:
- Trump is excessively loyal to Michael Flynn, to a fault
- Trump fears what could come of the Flynn investigation
Before we go any further, it's important to clarify that there is still no publicly available smoking gun when it comes to possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. And that's really only part of the reason Flynn has become the focus of investigators — the other big one being his work on behalf of the government of Turkey and his failure to disclose it.
As for Possibility No. 1, it's worth noting that Trump is a notoriously fickle political operator with few true friends and bulletproof advisers. He dispatched two of his chief campaign aides — Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort — when it suited him. And as president he has made pretty clear his unhappiness with top adviser Stephen K. Bannon and even, according to reports this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was way out front of almost every other congressional Republican in supporting Trump’s candidacy. He's also distanced himself from longtime political confidant Roger Stone.
Put plainly: The president known for his "You're fired" catchphrase as a reality TV star hasn't exactly shown that excessive loyalty is among his chief faults. Could he perhaps be uniquely loyal to Flynn for some reason? It's possible. But against this backdrop it would seem odd that Flynn would be the one Trump aide whom the president seems to be unwilling to toss under the bus when it made sense to, politically speaking. (The White House has been quick to distance itself from almost every other aide facing scrutiny in the Russia probe.)
Possibility No. 2 is the much worse option for the White House. If Trump isn't burdened by some strangely large amount of loyalty to Flynn, that suggests he worries about what could come of an investigation into Flynn.
A little refresher: Flynn provided an early landmark in the Russia investigation when it was revealed that he spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after the election and was later revealed to have misled Vice President Pence by telling Pence that he and Kislyak hadn't discussed sanctions. There are also questions about his decision to appear alongside Vladimir Putin back in December 2015 at a 10th anniversary celebration for the Russian state-backed TV station Russia Today. (Philip Bump has your full timeline here.)
Precisely how the Flynn investigation might be so troubling for Trump is sure to be the subject of plenty of speculation, given Entous's report on Tuesday night. One tempting conclusion is that Trump worried Flynn would seek immunity, which Flynn eventually offered his testimony in exchange for in late March, and spill whatever beans he might have. But if that's the case, what are those beans?
Whatever the case, we now know that Trump sought on two separate occasions with powerful top officials to put it all to an end. And apparently when Trump didn't get anywhere with Comey, he went to the then-recently confirmed Coats to try to get him to put his thumb on the scale.
The most charitable reading of all of this is that an amateur politician-president driven by personal loyalty and ignorance went too far in trying to get intelligence officials to vouch for him and help out a friend. But Tuesday night's report is the latest brushstroke in what, through Trump's own doing, looks more and more like a cover-up.