A questionable ethics move. A fascinating expansion of the Russia-collusion investigation. Unmasking unmasked. And a humiliating experience for Trump's attorney general. President Trump's deal with Democrats took up a lot of bandwidth this week, but there were some big political stories related to the special counsel's Russia investigation you may have missed. Let's run those down.
1. Lobbyists can help Trump staffers pay legal fees for the Russia investigation
As special counsel Robert S. Mueller's team expands to question more and more people in the White House, those people generally need to lawyer up. That can get expensive real quick. So they can set up legal defense funds to offset the cost — think of it as an insider's GoFundMe.
Since the Clinton administration, lobbyists have been able to donate to those funds anonymously. The thinking was that if you don't know which lobbyist gave you the cash, you wouldn't owe them anything.
The Bush and Obama White Houses discouraged that practice. But as Politico's Darren Samuelsohn reported Wednesday, the new head of Trump's Office of Government Ethics revived the rule to make clear that, yes, legal defense funds can accept donations from lobbyists as long as they are anonymous and comply with other gift rules.
OGE spokeswoman Elizabeth Horton emphasized to The Fix that the office didn't change the policy and still encourages organizers of these funds to prohibit anonymous donations.
Ethics experts still aren't pleased that this holdover from the Clinton administration exists. In Washington, someone who wants to curry favor is never anonymous for long. "There's no way you can prevent someone who gave the money from communicating the message: 'Hey, I'm supporting your legal defense fund,'" said Richard Painter, who was chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
2. Russia investigators are looking into Michael Flynn's son
We already know that the elder Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, is the subject of federal and congressional investigations into his ties to foreign governments and whether he appropriately disclosed those. On Thursday, NBC News reported that the special counsel is also looking into Flynn's son, Michael G. Flynn, who traveled with his father on some of the trips in question.
Legal experts say this is a classic example of Prosecution 101 with a witness who isn't cooperating. The elder Flynn is, in many ways, at the center of the Trump campaign's and administration's connections to Russia. Trump fired him in February after just 24 days on the job for not being forthcoming about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador. The FBI was concerned Flynn could be compromised by the Russians.
Frequently, prosecutors use threats of legal trouble with other family members to facilitate cooperation with someone else, said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a white-collar lawyer who represented officials in the Clinton White House.
3. Susan Rice told Congress she unmasked Trump advisers
President Barack Obama's national security adviser told Congress this week that she asked intelligence officials to share the redacted identities of Trump aides in intelligence reports.
Trump seized on the Rice news. He's accused the Obama administration of wiretapping Trump Tower during the campaign, an accusation denied by intelligence and law enforcement officials.
"She’s not supposed to be doing that, and what she did was wrong," Trump told reporters Thursday. "We’ve been saying that. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. She wasn’t supposed to be doing that — the unmasking and the surveillance."
But it's more complicated than Trump lets on. CNN's Manu Raju reports that Rice told House investigators she wanted to know why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York last year, so she requested to know the names of Americans who met with him. Those Americans, it appears, may have been Trump advisers.
Since she was national security adviser, that was entirely her prerogative. And there's no evidence she did it specifically to target Trump officials.
4. Trump blew up at his attorney general over Russia
Okay, you may have heard (and already cringed) about this one. We already knew that Trump was not happy with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing the FBI's Russia investigation. Sessions's recusal gave the deputy attorney general authority to appoint a special counsel.
But the public tweet-bashing that Sessions received from his boss was mild compared to what happened behind closed doors in May, as reported Thursday by the New York Times:
Accusing Mr. Sessions of “disloyalty,” Mr. Trump unleashed a string of insults on his attorney general. Ashen and emotional, Mr. Sessions told the president he would quit and sent a resignation letter to the White House, according to four people who were told details of the meeting. Mr. Sessions would later tell associates that the demeaning way the president addressed him was the most humiliating experience in decades of public life.