Two blockbuster stories have cast an entirely new light, and new urgency, on the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Muller III.
In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.
The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.
Mueller inherited the FBI investigation, meaning whatever the FBI learned or concluded went into his bank of evidence in an investigation that was both a criminal and a counterintelligence inquiry. Constitutional scholar Larry Tribe tells me, “Under settled FBI protocol, no such investigation, whose purposes include protecting America from future attack, can be opened without a strong evidentiary basis and careful internal clearance or closed without either effectively ‘neutralizing’ its target — an impossibility with a sitting president as long as he remains in office — or clearing that target.”
In essence, as Lawfare’s Ben Wittes put it, “It was about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop." The obstruction of the investigation was not simply to protect Trump, in this telling, but also was part of the pattern of collusion, cooperation and conspiracy between Trump and his associates, on one hand, and, on the other, the Kremlin. Trump didn’t fire James B. Comey just because Comey was going to find incriminating information on him; he did it also to protect the Russians and his relationship with the Russians — or so the story goes.
The FBI decision to undertake such an unprecedented inquiry, writes former Justice Department lawyer David Kris, wasn’t out of bounds, given the evidence: Russian meddling, the Steele dossier, the Carter Page warrant, the firing of Comey, the confession to Lester Holt that Trump fired Comey because of Russia and, finally, Trump telling Russians in the Oval Office that Comey was a “nut job” and his firing took off “great pressure because of Russia." Kris argues that “the FBI was not merely justified, but actually compelled, to investigate the president." He explains:
Such a decision is very sensitive; it has to be done very carefully; there are serious concerns about the security establishment investigating an elected official. It is a horrendous situation and terribly fraught. It is shocking, even if not surprising. There is no good outcome available. But at some point, the choice is either to pursue the investigation or to let it go, and I cannot see how the FBI could have let it go. Pursuing the investigation seems to me to have been the least worst option available.
A Cold War novel? An unbelievable movie plot? Perhaps, but it does not mean it isn’t true. “It is staggering to learn reliably that the FBI had enough specific evidence to open a counterintelligence investigation into the sitting president of the United States as an unregistered and obviously secret agent of the Russian government (and not only into the president’s obstruction of justice)," Tribe observes.
Likewise, former FBI agent Asha Rangappa writes for The Post: “If the counterintelligence case against the president was eventually closed because it found that Trump did not pose a threat to U.S. national security, Trump should welcome Mueller’s report reaching Congress. This conclusion would stop the speculation about Trump’s relationship with Russia and reassure the American public that his loyalties remain with the United States.” However, if it wasn’t close and “the threat to national security is ongoing, then informing Congress of the nature of the threat is paramount.” In short, releasing the Mueller report would then allow Congress to “determine whether it should take the ultimate step to neutralize the damage that the president could inflict on the nation — through impeachment and removal from office.”
The Post added to the suspicion mounting over Trump’s relationship with Russia when it reported:
President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
Trump did so after a meeting with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg that was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. …
The constraints that Trump imposed are part of a broader pattern by the president of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States’ main adversaries.
In other words, in Trump’s concealing and perhaps destroying of records of conversations with Vladimir Putin, the question is raised: Was he destroying evidence of collusion and in fact continuing to collude with Putin? “I’m at a loss to figure out a legitimate much less reassuring explanation for the impounding of his interpreter’s notes,” former federal prosecutor Harry Litman tells me. “How could intelligence agencies, not to mention the American people, not react to that with extreme alarm?”
There is no logical reason that Trump would be going to such efforts to keep everyone else from knowing what he told Putin if there was not something untoward, embarrassing and/or incriminating in those discussions. Otherwise, those records would be essential for his own senior staff in formulating Trump’s desired Russia policy. Not knowing what was said would mean his own aides might work at cross purposes with the president and/or not take advantage of Putin’s own words. You tie your administration up in knots in this way only if the discussions didn’t concern U.S. policy (but instead Trump’s private affairs) and/or there was something compromising in the discussions. The very fact that Putin knows what was said and we don’t raises the potential for blackmail.
Let’s remember where we started: “No collusion.” Since then we’ve learned of: more than 100 contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, Moscow Trump Tower dealmaking that continued through the 2016 campaign, a June Trump Tower meeting where Russians offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, and Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort sharing polling data with a Russian linked to Kremlin intelligence operations.
As if that were not all bone-chilling enough, we saw Trump refuse to flat-out deny he was a Russian agent when asked by Fox News gadfly Jeanine Pirro. Republican senators, when asked on Sunday, didn’t offer a complete rebuttal. Far from it. (Asked about subpoenaing the translator to report on the Trump-Putin Helsinki meeting, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz weakly replied, “You know, I think it’s premature for that. I’ve seen the allegations. I want to find out a little bit more about what happened there. I want to learn more than just the allegations in the press.”) Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), invariably sober and circumspect, declined to rule out the possibility that the president was knowingly or unknowingly a Russian asset. He said: “Well, Jake, that’s the defining question of our investigation and the Mueller investigation.”
To many this seems like a bad movie plot. “The Manchurian Candidate scenario, by its very nature, has always been highly implausible,” Litman acknowledges. “But the question seems to be becoming ‘Is it the least implausible explanation for a long chain of bizarre and worrisome actions by the President?’”
The two reports may have several ramifications. First, even if they don’t say it out loud, sentient Republicans on the Hill increasingly understand the Mueller investigation is extremely serious and has the potential to bring the president down. They may hope it is a nothingburger, but they aren’t dumb people. They know that what has already come out is disturbing, and they know that there is more coming. Second, we should put aside the assumption that no matter what is in the report Republicans will not turn on Trump and seek his removal. Not until we know what Trump said to Putin, what Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik discussed, what former White House counsel Don McGahn, Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn shared with Mueller in dozens of hours of discussion and a whole lot more will we be able to predict what Republicans will and will not do. Third, it is imperative in his confirmation hearings that attorney general nominee William P. Barr pledge to allow Mueller to complete his work and to make his report public. And finally, if it were not obvious before, this is already the biggest scandal in American presidential history. No other president has so closely aligned himself with a hostile foreign leader, and no campaign has been so intertwined with Russian operatives. Even Richard Nixon didn’t do that.