The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A tale of 3 Trump-Russia ‘smoking guns’ in 36 hours

President Trump's denials about former national security adviser Michael Flynn are raising new questions about obstruction of justice. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It's been a frantic few days for those watching the Russia investigation. And for those eager to see President Trump brought to his knees, it included a 36-hour period filled with good tidings of great joy.

And it wasn't just former national security adviser Michael Flynn's guilty plea early Friday — a move that signaled Flynn is cooperating with the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — it was also three things that came along with it. In the day-plus that followed Flynn's plea, there were no fewer than three events that some quickly hailed as smoking guns:

By the time the dust settled, the first of the three quickly revealed itself to be merely the latest smoking gun to be all smoke and no gun, and the last seemed less damning than initially thought. The middle one, though, clearly left the White House scrambling and has led to plenty of legitimate, unanswered questions.

ABC's report fell apart shortly after it was announced on-air by investigative reporter Brian Ross. The report wasn't even included on ABC's website, and by Friday evening Ross and ABC issued a clarification and then a correction indicating they'd relied upon one errant source who had misstated that it was candidate Trump rather than President-elect Trump who had direct Flynn to contact Russia. The key difference there, of course, is that the former would seem to indicate possible collusion when it came to the 2016 election, while the latter would not. Ross has been suspended for four weeks.

Similarly, the McFarland email initially seemed like an admission that Russia had tipped the scales for Trump in the 2016 election. In a paragraph that quickly spread like wildfire on social media:

On Dec. 29, a transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K.T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.

But the Times noted in the next paragraph that White House lawyers explained that McFarland was merely paraphrasing Democrats' arguments. And upon review of the full email, they had a pretty compelling case.

Here's the relevant section:

It's possible McFarland just gave away the game, sure. But even if the Trump campaign sought Russia's help or gladly accepted it, do we believe Trump's transition team went around suggesting they wouldn't have won without it? That's a claim even Trump's opponents don't really make and can't readily prove, despite the intelligence community's firm conclusion that Russia interfered on Trump's behalf. In addition, the language used and the fact that the bullet points began “Obama is doing three things politically” suggest that McFarland was indeed summarizing Democratic arguments.

Which brings is to the biggest open question here, Trump's tweet.

The tweet admitted something we hadn't known for sure: That Trump knew Flynn was in legal jeopardy when he fired Flynn. That's significant because the day after Trump fired Flynn, he reportedly went to then-FBI Director James B. Comey and suggested Comey be lenient with Flynn. Trump said, “I hope you can let this go,” according to Comey's notes.

It wasn't reported publicly until a couple of days later that Flynn had misled the FBI in his interview with them in late January. So this seemed to be an admission that Trump made a pretty unmistakable suggestion about the direction an ongoing criminal matter of which he was clearly aware — in other words, another potential obstruction of justice.

As I noted Saturday, it wouldn't have been terribly surprising that Trump knew about Flynn being under investigation. Then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates had told White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI and had lied to the White House about his Russia contacts, though she said she didn't give McGahn details of Flynn's FBI interview. It was also possible Flynn himself knew and told Trump about what was going on. And why would Trump suggest leniency for Flynn if he didn't at least strongly believe Flynn was facing actual legal problems?

Still, the tweet seemed to put the White House on the record that Trump 100 percent knew about Flynn's investigation when he talked to Comey. And the White House quickly distanced itself, with Trump's personal lawyer, John Dowd, saying he drafted the tweet rather than Trump. Trump, meanwhile tweeted a denial that he had asked Comey to take it easy on Flynn. And now Dowd is even arguing publicly — rather remarkably — that a president cannot obstruct justice simply by virtue of being president.

In other words, the White House is clearly concerned about where this is leading and is trying to disassemble the puzzle that was put together by media reports, Trump's tweet and Comey's testimony. This is, at the least, something that has set off a panic.

Regardless of the ratio of smoke to gun here, what we seem to have is another possible piece of legitimate evidence that points in the same direction that previous alleged “smoking guns” have: toward obstruction of justice. There was Trump telling Lester Holt that Russia was on his mind when he fired Comey. There was The Washington Post's report that Trump had told Russian leaders in the Oval Office that firing Comey had taken pressure off him. There was Comey's testimony about Trump's Flynn request and Trump asking him for loyalty. There are all the times Trump seemed to want to call off the dogs on the Russia investigation — comments by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) last week revealed another instance of that.

It all points pretty clearly to a president who was willing to at least hint (and strongly suggest) at how he wanted this Russia thing to go away — for both Flynn and perhaps by extension for him. Whether all of this evidence passes legal muster is the question that matters.