Russia collusion inquiry faces a big 2018 – but will Trump let Mueller finish the job?
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From his starting point in May through the end of 2017, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted two former top aides to Donald Trump and made plea deals with two others, including the president’s former national security adviser.
Mueller’s work is almost done, the White House says – but almost no one else thinks that.
Mueller is investigating alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign during the election. He also spearheads an older counter-intelligence investigation into Russian tampering with the election.
Twenty-eighteen is going to be a big year for Mueller, former FBI and White House officials predict. They expect further indictments and, perhaps, a face-to-face interview with the president himself. They expect the investigation of the White House to run through the summer at least, and the investigation of Russia’s election-tampering activities to last longer.
What are the dangers for Trump from the Russia investigations?
The most likely price Trump would pay, if he were perceived guilty of wrongdoing, would be a 2020 re-election loss. He can’t afford to lose many supporters and expect to remain in office. Any disillusionment stemming from the Russian affair could make the difference. His average approval rating has hung in the mid-to-upper 30s. Every president to win re-election since the second world war did so with an approval rating in the 49%-50% range or better.
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. The president, and Kushner, deny wrongdoing.
And that’s if things unfold smoothly. There is an alternative set of scenarios widely regarded as plausible, in which the president decides to fire Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, Mueller’s direct supervisor in the justice department. In such a scenario, a desperate struggle will be joined, in public and in secret, to preserve the essence of Mueller’s investigation, even as the national discourse explodes with alarm over what kind of slide the country is on and what is at the bottom.
In one scenario, said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent and senior lecturer at Yale University, Mueller uncovers evidence of criminality on the part of Trump personally, and then – what?
“If he [Mueller] gets to the point where there’s maybe enough evidence to bring charges, there’s a big question mark on what he does with that,” said Rangappa. “Because it’s not entirely clear as a matter of constitutional law whether you can indict the president. So what does he do at that point?
“It will create basically a big constitutional crisis.”
The key events in the Trump-Russia investigation
Britain’s spy agency GCHQ becomes aware of suspicious “interactions” between people with Trump ties and Russian intelligence operatives. In late 2015, GCHQ warns US intelligence.
The first phishing emails begin to hit Democratic individuals (the Democratic National Committee having been hacked months earlier). Hundreds or thousands of impostor accounts appear on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Trump is told about the Russian contacts of at least one aide, and Jeff Sessions shoots down a possible Trump-Putin meeting, according to multiple people present. Later Trump and Sessions repeatedly deny there had ever been such contacts by anyone in the campaign with Russian operatives.
Top Trump campaign advisers including Donald Trump Jr meet at Trump Tower with Russian operatives, having been promised “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.” A Russian present says sanctions were discussed.
The convention convenes in Cleveland, Ohio. Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak attends. Top Trump campaign aides vociferously deny contacts with Russian operatives. WikiLeaks releases 44,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee.
Across the Fall, outlets including WikiLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks publish tens of thousands of emails stolen from Democrats and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
As Russian impostor accounts spread divisive propaganda throughout social media over the Fall, the Trump campaign experiments aggressively with micro-targeting on Facebook, making on an “average day” 50,000-60,000 ads, according to former digital director Brad Parscale
Top Trump campaign aides Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner and others have dozens of contacts with Russian operatives that are repeatedly denied in public across the Fall. “It never happened,” a campaign spokeswoman said two days after the election. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
Donald Trump is elected president of the United States.
Trump aides keep up contacts with Russian operatives on matters of policy and appear to hide those conversations from the US government and public. Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about the conversations, then later admitted that Jared Kushner had directed him to seek certain policy commitments from the Russian ambassador.
Trump fires the FBI director. “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’,” Trump tells an interviewer two days later.
Unlike for example Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor whose labors culminated in a 222-page report to Congress outlining 11 “acts that may constitute grounds for an impeachment” of Bill Clinton, Mueller is not explicitly authorized, and may be unable, to report to Congress, experts said.
“I’m not 100% sold that he has the authority to issue a report to Congress,” said Andrew Wright, a former White House associate counsel under Barack Obama and a professor at Savannah Law School, adding: “I’m not sure he doesn’t.
“Traditionally, Department of Justice regulations don’t allow for a report like that in a criminal investigation, because the indictments speak for themselves and they speak in court. That same principle could potentially govern the special counsel’s office.”
Mueller’s clear imperative is to submit a report to Rosenstein detailing what charges he has decided to bring, what charges he has declined to bring, and why. But that scenario, in turn, assumes that Rosenstein is around to receive the report, which is not a given.
The Washington Post reported in mid-December that behind closed doors, Trump has called Rosenstein weak and ranted that the deputy attorney general is a Democrat, though he is in fact a Republican. Similarly irascible rants by Trump, in public, about the former FBI director James Comey were followed by Comey’s termination.
But for all the suspense attached to the endgame, Mueller does not appear to be more than midway through his work, analysts said.
“These are complex investigations,” said Rangappa. “I think we have many more months to go.”
Michael Flynn and Russia: what we know so far
Michael Flynn is the fourth Donald Trump aide to face criminal charges in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and any alleged collusion.
Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI – ‘making false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements’ about his contacts with Russia.
Flynn, as part of Trump’s transition team between the November 2016 election and the January 2017 inauguration, had secret contact with the Russian ambassador on at least two topics – shaping US and Russian policy on sanctions, and attempting to influence a UN vote about Israeli settlement-building.
Flynn is cooperating with investigators, and under the terms of his deal agreed to take polygraph lie-detector tests and appear as a witness in all relevant cases.
He admits that he discussed with another senior Trump transition official what he should say to the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
At least two members of the Trump transition team were briefed by him after his contact with Kislyak.
Flynn faces a maximum prison sentence of six months under the terms of his deal and a fine of up to $9,500.
While new information reveals secret contact with the Russians, it does not shed light on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia’s interference in the US election.
A plea deal with Michael Flynn, in which the former national security adviser agreed to meet with investigators as frequently as needed to describe activity inside the Trump campaign and White House, is one month old. The revelation that Mueller had procured tens of thousands of emails from the presidential transition team is even more recent.
Major investigative activity surrounding figures close to the president, including Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner, has yet to come to fruition, while whole oceans of information that Mueller has access to – tax documents, banking information, intercepted communications, tales from cooperating witnesses – have yet to come to public light.
“We just don’t know what we don’t know,” said Wright. “But it’s hard for me to imagine that this thing concludes without interviewing the vice-president and president at some point. And to my knowledge that hasn’t happened yet. And so to me, that’s going to be a signal that they’re near the end of the White House phase.”
What is clear is that the temperature between Trump and Mueller is rising, notwithstanding assurances earlier this month by a Trump lawyer that “we have been cooperative and transparent with the special counsel’s office and will continue to be”.
“It’s pretty clear that the president has had an inside-outside game,” said Wright. “The White House lawyers are doing the classic cooperation speech. Meanwhile, the president’s allies are all on Fox News just bashing the heck out of the special counsel, really in a very coordinated smear campaign.”
The best strategy for Trump may not be, in this case, the one with the most visceral appeal, said Rangappa.
“It’s very risky for Trump to kind of go all out against Mueller,” she said. “Because if it backfires, like I said, this investigation is not going to go away.
“So the last thing Trump wants is another event added as evidence to a potential obstruction of justice charge. So he’s got to be very careful. Because I think he learned a very hard lesson from firing James Comey. That was a completely self-created debacle.”