Taking Stock of Trump/Russia on The Eve of Comey’s Testimony

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With everyone prepping for the big testimony tomorrow, I wanted to share a few miscellaneous thoughts on the testimony and the state of the Trump/Russia investigation.

1. There were a number of news reports yesterday, pretty clearly coming from the same set of sources, saying that James Comey would not accuse President Trump of obstruction of justice but rather approach the hearing purely as a fact witness. This strikes me as wholly unsurprising. It really would not be any witness’s place to draw such conclusions, even if they were in the business of drawing those conclusions in their normal line of work. Again, entirely unsurprising. Going back to my discussion of the Comey Myth and James Comey’s embrace of it which I discussed a few weeks ago, Comey of all people wouldn’t be the one to draw such conclusions. ‘Just the facts, neither fear or favor, no vendettas just bringing you the truth’ is entirely James Comey’s shtick. Calling it a ‘shtick’ doesn’t mean it’s not true. But that’s exactly what the Comey Myth would call for.

Finally, I don’t think you have to be too cynical to detect a certain subtextual messaging with these leaks. I’m not going to say he robbed the bank. I’m going to say what I saw, which is that he came into the bank with the gun, demanded the money and then left in the getaway car. But it’s not my place to draw any conclusions. But if my warning about what I’m not going to say gives you a conceptual model through to understand what I will say I guess that’s not the end of the world. Any thought that Comey is going to be reticent or has somehow become a reluctant witness strikes me as quite misplaced.

2. I’ve heard and seen various of bits of evidence, claims, suggestions and so forth that make it seem increasingly likely to me that Jared Kushner is in a lot of trouble and specifically that that meeting with the government-backed Russian banker was what most people must suspect: Kushner took the opportunity of his father-in-law’s surprise win and the budding relationship with Russia (whatever sort that relationship may turn out to be) to hit up the Russians for money to save his family’s real estate empire – specifically, to help get out of under the losses tied to the big building on 5th Avenue in midtown.

I want to be clear: if I had specific evidence proving that this was the case, I would say so. I do not. I also haven’t seen evidence, which for whatever reason might be unreportable, which would prove it. I am simply saying that a handful of pieces of information I’ve seen and heard in the last few days make me believe this is highly likely to be the case. If that is so, it opens up a number of questions and possibilities, perhaps the most interesting of which is at least the theoretical possibility that President Trump never put his hand on the third rail of cash from a foreign adversary power but that Jared Kushner did. That would be amazing. It also puts his massive government portfolio into a rather different and legally problematic light. Let us assume, for the sake of conversation that Jared Kushner did this and that President Trump didn’t know about it or at least wasn’t party to the request. If a top White House advisor asks for a personal bailout from Russia, the obvious next question is what he did in exchange for the money.

Being responsible, even nominally, for maybe half the things the US government does, leaves quite a lot of possibilities: streamlining government, Middle East peace, Russia and Ukraine. If my predicate is correct, the fact that Kushner’s brief allows him to touch so much of what the US government does leaves an almost limitless number of decisions and actions that might reasonably be inferred as done to help Russia in exchange for the family fortune saving infusion of cash. In an alternative universe maybe Kushner never entered government at all. He was just a close, non-blood relative of the President’s who got a loan from a Russian bank. Terrible in terms of optics but not remotely as problematic as the alternative scenario in which Kushner is made something like the First Minister of the government. And remember, at least that one banker meeting happened before President Trump even took office. So the decision to give Kushner vast powers happened after that.

3. After yesterday’s news breaks, it seems clear that President Trump spent his first months in office making repeated attempts to end the investigation into Russia and his campaign. He asked Comey repeatedly to stop the probe, to pledge his loyalty. He asked the heads of the other major intelligence agencies, DNI, CIA Chief, NSA Chief to publicly discredit the investigation and also to intervene with Comey to end the investigation. He eventually fired Comey, by his own account, to end the Russia investigation. It is hard to imagine what more he could have done to impede or end the probe. It also seems clear that it must have been widely understood among the President’s top advisors that Trump was doing everything he could think of to end the probe.

4. What happened that Sunday night on Air Force One? What am I talking about? Let’s look at the timeline. We know from abundant reporting that in early May (May 6th-7th) President Trump spent the weekend at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. He apparently stewed over that weekend about Comey and came back to Washington Sunday night determined to fire him. He proceeded to do just that. He called in Rosenstein and Sessions the next day (Monday), got Rosenstein’s recommendation memo and promptly fired Comey on Tuesday (May 9th).

This we all know. But that Sunday evening return flight from New Jersey was also the night something kind of odd happened. Air Force 1 left Morristown at 8:02 PM and landed at Andrews at 8:40. But unlike what normally happens, the President didn’t get off the plane. Just before 9 PM Jared and Ivanka got off the plane with their kids. Jared put Ivanka and the kids into a silver minivan and got back on the plane. He got off the plane again at 9:07 and then got back on the plane a couple minutes later. The press pooler for that night filed an update at 9:18 PM updating colleagues and noting that there’d been no explanation what the hang up was or why the President was still on the plane.

Finally, at 9:24 PM the cabinet room opened and the president emerged. Here’s the pool report filed a few minutes later.

Cabinet door opened at 9:24 pm, and POTUS, sans tie, emerged at 9:26,
46 mins after wheels down. He was followed a moment later by Hope
Hicks, Jared Kusher, KT McFarland, Stephen Miller and Dan Scavino.

No immediate explanation from press shop for the delay.

Kushner walked by the press corp, and stopped briefly in front of
reporters. “Every is good. He was just working on something,” Kushner
said.

One reporter asked if he would do any more briefings. “I don’t think
so. I’m not as good as Sean.”

A few minutes later the press cool got this from the press office: “On background, the President was finishing a meeting.”

Here’s a mini-collage I put together the next evening (Monday evening), along with photos posted to Twitter by Mark Knoller of CBS news.

Not a great deal got made of this after that evening. That’s understandable and largely correct. Any number of things could have happened. Maybe they just wanted to finish a meeting. Maybe the President was eating or needed a bathroom break. It was only 45 minutes. Let me also clearly bound my own questions and speculations. I don’t think anything horrible or shocking happened in that 45 minutes. But given the oddity of the event and the fact that Trump returned to the White House and immediately put in process one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency – firing Comey – I think it is highly, highly likely that the two things are connected. As you can see from the pool report, Trump was traveling with what I would call five of his most aggressive and enabling advisers: Hope Hicks, Jared Kushner, KT McFarland, Stephen Miller and Dan Scavino. We know from subsequent reporting that Kushner was a major proponent, perhaps the most voluble proponent of firing Comey. I strongly suspect that the hold up was some on-going discussion, perhaps a heated discussion, of the decision to fire Comey.

However that may be, I think Kushner’s role in all of the entire Trump/Russia story is bigger and more central than most of us have understood. One day will find out what happened in that 45 minutes. And I’ll be happy that day.

5. Let me conclude with a note about the President’s lawyers. Last week TPM’s Alice Ollstein wrote this introduction to the President’s new (and not new) lawyer Marc Kasowitz. Give it a read. It’s good. On the legal and messaging front, the Trump world seems as shambling and improvisational as we’ve learned to expect. There was going to be a war room. It was going to be inside the White House, then maybe outside the White House. For now, the whole project seems to be on hold because Trump and his advisers can’t decide how to do it. But with Kasowitz Trump has gone with comfort and trust. Trump has gone to Kasowitz for years when he’s been sued, when he wants to sue someone, when he gets accused of harassing or assaulting a woman. When things get rough or when he wants to get rough he goes to Kasowitz. Trump goes to Kasowitz when he wants to fight. And as Alice notes, Kasowitz has the reputation of a brawler. The two seem made for each other. To put it in Godfather-speak, Kasowitz is Trump’s war-time consigliere.

This is not how most Presidents do this. (In that sense, it makes sense for Trump.) Most Presidents in comparable situations in recent decades have gone with a lead lawyer who understands Washington and has some experience with big high profile investigations. Neither appears to be the case with Kasowitz. Trump has never been involved in anything remotely like this and neither has Kasowitz. It is quite reasonable to say that Trump has done pretty well so far totally throwing out the presidential playbook and running things as it as he did with his private, wholly-owned business in Manhattan. But the dynamics of legal fighting when you’re a private citizen and when you have no obligations to anything but your wholly-owned private business are quite different from when you are President. Even for the President’s personal lawyer, whose brief is the President as a person, rather than the President as President (that’s the White House Counsel’s brief), an investigation like this is inherently political and the dangers to the client cannot be understood or defended against without taking that dimension into account. This choice of lawyers will, I think, play heavily in the outcome of all of this. And not in a way that is good for Trump.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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