This column has been updated.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and CIA Director Mike Pompeo ought to follow the lead of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and recuse themselves from the special counsel's investigation into possible collusion between President Trump's campaign and the Russian government in the 2016 presidential election.
The two Cabinet members are linked to the investigation through the agencies they run, which are assisting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's wide-ranging probe. Mnuchin and Pompeo should step aside for the same reason Sessions took himself out of the picture: potential conflicts of interest.
In explaining his recusal, Sessions said he was following the recommendation of Justice Department ethics officials. "They said that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation," he said.
Mnuchin is in the same boat.
The treasury secretary served as national finance chair for Trump's presidential campaign and on the Trump transition team. What's more, Mnuchin has a personal relationship with Trump and his immediate family members, and has political relationships that extend to Trump transition advisers and campaign aides who could be affected by Mueller's investigation.
Pompeo has his own conflict challenge. A far-right Republican elected to Congress in the tea party wave of 2010, Pompeo touts his personal relationship with Trump and key administration officials. He is an Oval Office favorite.
A serious question of partiality arises in the cases of these Trump appointees.
As it stands, Mnuchin and Pompeo are in a position to closely monitor where the investigation is headed — because Treasury and the CIA are in the thick of it.
Those government agencies are key providers of support for the special counsel's investigation into possible contacts, money transfers and business relationships, including any money laundering, among a variety of Russian officials and Trump associates.
One Treasury bureau, the Financial System Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, is especially equipped to help unearth possible entanglements among Trump, his associates and Russia — or any suspicious financial activities of Trump and his associates. The Internal Revenue Service, another Treasury bureau, is a critical investigative asset because of its access to tax returns and familiarity with tax evasion and gamesmanship with money derived from illegal activities — the stuff of which convictions are made.
The CIA is similarly situated with the special counsel's office. Last month, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani noted that the FBI and the special counsel's office are leading the law-enforcement investigation into Russian involvement in the election, but he confirmed: "CIA is providing relevant information in support of that investigation."
Which gets us back to two of Trump's most obeisant Cabinet members, Mnuchin and Pompeo, and the matter of their recusal.
Do they monitor the work of their agencies with the special counsel's office? Do they know the contents of the information shared with the special counsel's office? If so, what are they doing with that information?
I raised these questions this week with tpress offices at Treasury and the CIA. I also asked whether Mnuchin or Pompeo — or a designee — has disseminated any of the information to White House officials, including the president, his family members, legal advisers or any other administration official. The CIA did not respond. On Friday, spokesman Seth Unger said Treasury "declined to comment."
My questions were not without cause.
While Mnuchin and Pompeo should expect to be kept informed of investigations conducted by their agencies, the fruits of those investigations should be disseminated only to duly authorized prosecutors, not the White House.
The country has a dark history of that rule having been violated. And it was a major part of what led to a committee of Congress in 1974 approving articles of impeachment against a president of the United States.
To recall: President Richard M. Nixon was charged with "disseminating information received from officers of [the U.S. government] to subjects of investigation . . . for the purpose of aiding and assisting such subjects in their attempts to avoid criminal liability."
The facts, according to the House Judiciary Committee documents: On April 16, 1973, then-assistant attorney general Henry Petersen went to the White House and relayed to Nixon evidence implicating his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and Haldeman's aide Gordon Strachan in Watergate.
Minutes after Petersen left, Nixon met with White House assistant John Ehrlichman and informed him of Petersen's revelations. Ehrlichman then took steps to gather as much information as he could about the events regarded as potentially incriminating by the prosecutors.
Nixon, the committee concluded, had spoken falsely to Petersen when he assured him that secret prosecutorial information would not be discussed with anyone. Nixon, in fact, informed former aides who were grand jury subjects of mounting evidence against them. Hence, the articles of impeachment.
Mnuchin and Pompeo might enjoy their access to the president. But they shouldn't be foolhardy. Because of their jobs, they also might be in a conflict situation and a position to aid and abet individuals who could face criminal liability.
Brownie points and candy from Trump may be dandy, but recusal is better.
Update: Sept. 18, 2:30 p.m.
The CIA contacted me to comment on this column following its online publication Friday. On Monday, Dean Boyd, director of the agency's Office of Public Affairs, provided the following response, including an answer as to whether CIA Director Mike Pompeo has discussed with President Trump the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign:
"Communications between the president and the director are entitled to confidentiality, as recognized by the courts, so that the president may receive unvarnished advice and also provide unvarnished feedback. The director has never been asked by the President to do anything inappropriate.
"CIA's updated Executive Order 12333 Attorney General Guidelines state clearly that the CIA is not authorized to and shall not engage in any intelligence activity, including dissemination of information to the executive office of the president, for the purpose of affecting the political process in the United States. Director Pompeo has always complied with this directive and has made clear to his officers that they must always do the same.
"CIA has no comment on the ongoing House, Senate or special counsel investigations into this issue. CIA is not leading these investigations, and any suggestion that the CIA or its director would interfere with them is ridiculous and unfounded. Director Pompeo has ensured that CIA has provided, and will continue to provide, to those authorized to receive it, the information they need to conduct their investigations. This is the agency's duty, and the director has made clear that his team must execute it relentlessly."
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