Had today’s news out of the Justice Department come six months or a year ago, President Trump might have had reason for optimism that he might be one giant step closer to his fondest wish — to shut down the special counsel’s investigation into the Russia scandal.
Instead, coming as it does now, it may indicate just how powerless Trump is to escape accountability for what happened during the 2016 campaign and in the early days of his presidency. The Post reports:
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein has told people close to him that he expects to depart the Justice Department if a new attorney general is confirmed, though there are no concrete plans in place or a timeline for him to do so, according to people familiar with the matter.
Rosenstein has been the No. 2 Justice Department official since April 2017, his tenure defined by his appointment of Robert S. Mueller III to lead the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the attacks he incurred from President Trump for doing so. Incensed by Mueller’s work, Trump periodically toyed with the idea of ousting his deputy attorney general, though Rosenstein managed to avoid the ax time after time.
We shouldn’t forget that Rosenstein was appointed by Trump, but it was one of those appointments that was doubtless delivered to him by others who knew Rosenstein as a respected professional, and that Trump came to profoundly regret. Rosenstein probably would have done his best to oversee the Mueller investigation in an objective manner regardless, but Trump’s constant public outbursts on the subject and regular expressions of contempt for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself no doubt made Rosenstein even more determined to avoid even the appearance of succumbing to Trump’s pressure.
And so the investigation proceeded largely unimpeded. Now, by all appearances, it is nearing its completion, with a growing pile of indictments, guilty pleas and evidence that people around Trump were in regular contact and even coordination with Russia throughout the campaign. Trump put in place an acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, who may have gotten the job because the president was pleased with his criticism of the Mueller probe, and announced that William P. Barr, who had also been critical of the investigation, will be Sessions’s permanent replacement. But not only has all the attention to the potential for meddling made it harder for either of them to shut Mueller down, by now it’s too late.
That brings us to the absolutely extraordinary news we learned late Tuesday that while he was chairman of the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort was feeding internal polling data to his associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who is widely suspected to be a Russian intelligence asset. Let me point you to this paragraph from the New York Times' report, which also refers to Rick Gates, the deputy campaign chairman who has pleaded guilty to crimes and is cooperating with Mueller:
Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to the Kremlin and who has claimed that Mr. Manafort owed him money from a failed business venture, the person said. It is unclear whether Mr. Manafort was acting at the campaign’s behest or independently, trying to gain favor with someone to whom he was deeply in debt.
So to repeat: The Trump campaign was giving internal polling data to a likely Russian intelligence asset so he could pass that data to a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.
Manafort may well have been trying to “gain favor” with Deripaska; we know that he offered Deripaska private briefings on the campaign in an attempt to “get whole,” i.e., pay off his debts to Deripaska in some fashion. But it’s critical to keep in mind that Deripaska wouldn’t have had any use on his own for internal polling data from the Trump campaign. You know who would? Vladimir Putin.
Since Russia was mounting an effort to boost Trump's presidential bid that included targeting voters in key states through social media, particularly Facebook, any information that could aid in that targeting would have been extremely useful. So it seems likely that the whole point of giving the polling data to Deripaska was so he could pass it to the Kremlin, and they could then use it in their campaign to help Trump get elected.
We should say that it’s possible this all happened without Trump’s knowledge, just as it’s possible that he didn’t know about it when his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman met with a group of Russians in an attempt to get dirt on Hillary Clinton they believed was to be provided by the Russian government. (Evidence strongly suggests he did know about that beforehand, and he certainly lied about it afterward.) So yes, the full extent of the president’s involvement in his campaign’s collusion with a hostile foreign power in its attack on our election is something about which there are still some unanswered questions.
But about whether there was collusion, there is no more doubt. Even the president’s lawyer knows it. As Gabriel Sherman reports, “Rudy Giuliani recently told a friend that he expects Mueller’s report to be ‘horrific.' "
He’s probably right. But by now, even with the people he wants in place in the Justice Department, there’s almost nothing Trump can do to stop it.