Bigger than Watergate? Or a transparent sham? Whatever else it may be, the story of Donald Trump and Russia comes down to this: a sitting president or his campaign is suspected of having coordinated with a foreign country behind the scenes of the election that put him in office.
Trump strongly denies all wrongdoing and calls the inquiry a “witch-hunt”. But prosecutors see red flags everywhere.
The affair has the potential to eject Trump from the White House. But with the president protected by Republicans in Congress and impeachment a longshot historically, Trump’s fate probably lies in the ballot box.
It’s important to note that the work of the special counsel is secret, and the public has no way of knowing for certain what charges prosecutors may be weighing against the Trump team or, in what would be an extraordinary development, against the president himself.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and related matters. In other words, potential collusion during the 2016 election.
But so-called “collusion” is only part of it. The special counsel has the broad authority to build a prosecution wherever the inquiry may lead. The investigation has already resulted in charges against former Trump aides such as tax fraud that do not relate directly to election activity.
In the course of the investigation, Trump’s past business practices have also come under scrutiny. With his first indictments of people in Trump’s orbit, the special counsel has demonstrated an appetite for the prosecution of alleged white-collar crimes. The president has denied all wrongdoing.
As long as Republicans are in charge, Trump is not likely to face impeachment proceedings or to be removed from office. A two-thirds majority in the Senate is required to remove a president from office through impeachment.
If public opinion swings precipitously against the president, however, his grip on power could slip. At some point, Republicans in Congress may, if their constituents will it, turn on Trump.
Apart from impeachment, Trump could, perhaps, face criminal charges, which would (theoretically) play out in the court system as opposed to Congress. But it’s a matter of debate among scholars and prosecutors whether Trump, as a sitting president, may be prosecuted in this way.
Robert Mueller is believed to have Trump’s tax returns, and to be looking at the Trump Organization as well as Jared Kushner’s real estate company. It’s possible that wrongdoing unrelated to the election could be uncovered and make trouble for Trump.
“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!” Trump tweeted in June. Elsewhere, Trump has decried what he says is the waste of taxpayer money on the case.
But prosecutors in the case have already uncovered criminal behavior and alleged criminal behavior (although not, so far as we know, by Trump personally). A 53% majority of US adults in a November poll thought early arrests in the case “represent broader wrongdoing”, suggesting that the public does not think the investigation is a “witch-hunt”.
Additionally, court documents in cases involving former top Trump aides detail extensive alleged criminal activity, and revelations of previously unknown contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia continue to come to light a year after the election, despite Trump and his aides’ denials of such contacts.
But could Trump still be right about the broader allegations of collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives? Is this a witch-hunt?
Your answer to the question probably depends on your party identity. But an objective analysis might take into account other factors. What do we know about Trump’s past in Russia? How can we judge the conduct of the investigators? And how credible is Trump as a plaintiff – have his other attacks on the justice department been vindicated?
What’s in the Michael Flynn plea deal?
In a major breakthrough for the special counsel investigation, former national security adviser Michael Flynn announced he was cooperating with Robert Mueller on 1 December 2017 and pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements to the FBI. The deal, which can be read here, brought Mueller’s investigation inside the Oval Office for the first time.
The relatively low-level charge to which Flynn was invited to plea – he and his son Michael Flynn Jr appeared vulnerable to much more serious charges – fed the perception that whatever Flynn had to offer prosecutors in return was significant. “I think the news means there’s definitely someone even closer to the president in Mueller’s crosshairs,” one analyst said.
However the deal does not necessarily indicate further charges to come against Flynn or anyone else. “It may be that the Mueller team has… decided ‘You know what, this is what we have right now’… and that might be it,” said former US attorney Preet Bharara on his podcast.
As for what Flynn might be able to offer prosecutors in the deal, the former insider could probably testify about the frequency and nature of contacts between the campaign and Russian operatives. If there was any collusion, Flynn would have been in a good position to see it.
Attached to the plea was a statement of offense describing Flynn’s crime. It documents that conversations Flynn had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which he lied about to the FBI, were carried out at the direction of two figures on the presidential transition team, since identified as Jared Kushner and KT McFarland.
The revelation of top Trump aides coordinating communications with Russia dramatically belied Trump’s repeated denials of any such contacts and sharpened the question of what understanding the Trump campaign may have had with the Russians.
Legal analysts have noted that Flynn’s plea deal does not guarantee his immunity to prosecution for yet unnamed offenses, and does not mention immunity for his son, although those may be part of the understanding.
Why was James Comey fired?
On 9 May 2017, FBI director James Comey was preparing to speak at an FBI recruitment event in California when he saw on TV that he had been fired.
Trump was leery of Comey in part because the FBI was investigating Russian tampering in the US election. In late March and again in April, Comey said, the president called to ask him to make a public statement that Trump was not personally under investigation, which Comey would not do. Separately, Trump has said that he was feeling pressure from the Russia investigation and it was on his mind when he fired Comey.
Their brief relationship was a series of awkward interactions, including a private White House dinner in which Trump requested Comey’s loyalty, which Comey declined to pledge, Comey later testified.
In a separate meeting, Trump asked Comey to let go of an FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, which Comey again declined to do, he later testified.
Trump has denied Comey’s version of events in a tweet.
Trump’s publicly stated rationale for firing Comey evolved quickly. On 10 May, Vice-President Mike Pence said Trump had simply acted on Rosenstein’s recommendation. But that same day, Trump told Russians in the Oval Office, “I just fired the head of the FBI … He was crazy, a real nutjob. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
The next day, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the president said “regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” calling Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander” who was “not doing a good job”.
“And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’,” Trump said.
On 8 June 2017, Comey testified before the Senate: “I take the president at his word that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt, created pressure on him he wanted to relieve.”
Eight days after Comey was fired, Rosenstein appointed special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump has said Mueller “is very, very good friends with [James] Comey, which is very bothersome.”
Contacts were low-level or incidental
After the election, Trump and his aides flatly denied any communication between the campaign and any foreign entity. “It never happened,” said spokeswoman Hope Hicks. But as evidence of many contacts has emerged, Trump and aides have argued that the contacts were literally forgettable. The contacts in question include an adviser traveling to Moscow with the campaign’s approval to meet Russian officials; multiple people meeting with the Russian ambassador; the president’s son meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton and exchanging private messages with WikiLeaks; the former campaign chairman offering “private briefings” on the campaign to a Russian oligarch; and the Trump Organization signing a letter of intent to develop a Moscow property during the campaign.
But none of that amounts to a collusion plot, Trump defenders argue.