The Russia Probe Is a Vast Lava Flow Moving Toward Trump

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office of the White House, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office of the White House, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Below, I wrote about yesterday’s WaPo blockbuster which confirmed what seemed likely: that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether President Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey and taking other actions with the aim of ending or diverting the Russia probe. Two other articles came out yesterday evening – one in the Times and another in the Journal – which added a few more details.

The pieces mainly follow and rehash the WaPo piece. But let me focus on a couple points.

First, the Journal article has one passage that jumped out at me. (Ledgett is NSA Chief Rogers former deputy.)

While Mr. Ledgett was still in office, he wrote a memo documenting a phone call that Mr. Rogers had with Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. During the call, the president questioned the veracity of the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia had interfered with the election and tried to persuade Mr. Rogers to say there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russian officials, they said.

We know from numerous public statements that the President is either skeptical of Russia’s role in the 2016 election or refuses to credit the evidence for it or the US intelligence community’s judgment about it. We know this. But for the President to push back against this judgment in a confidential phone call with the chief of the nation’s signals intelligence agency strikes me as a different thing. I do not see this and I doubt investigators see this as a narrowly legal issue. But the President saying ‘I don’t believe that’ or ‘That’s not true’ cannot help at some level, intentional or not, send the message: change your answer, change what you think the evidence says.

I think we can understand that even if President Trump is totally innocent he would resist the Russia connection premise simply because it throws the legitimacy of his election into some question. We should need no convincing that pride and status and accomplishment means everything to Trump. This undercuts what he must see as his life’s greatest accomplishment. So doubting this or even undercutting it publicly does not necessarily imply guilt. But I cannot imagine that hearing the President push this argument privately with his spy chiefs comes off as highly disturbing and troubling. Again, here I do not mean this in a narrowly legal sense but, for his spy chiefs, just a sense of “What is the President up to?” “What’s the root of this resistance?” How can they not wonder?

The Times mainly follows the Post. But it gets interesting in the last two grafs …

While Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has not said what exactly prompted him to appoint Mr. Mueller, his decision came after The New York Times published details about an Oval Office meeting Mr. Comey had with the president at the White House in February. During the meeting, the president brought up Mr. Flynn and told Mr. Comey, “I hope you can let this go,” according to the memo. Mr. Comey told the Senate that he viewed that as a clear directive from the president to drop the investigation.

A former senior official said Mr. Mueller’s investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates. The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials would most likely have been in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payments, probably by routing them through offshore banking centers.

In the first graf, it suggests Rosenstein may have felt required to appoint a Special Counsel when he learned from the Times reporting about the ‘Flynn ask’ conversation on February 14th in the Oval Office. Remember that this is the article based on Comey’s leaked memo and Comey said that he leaked the memo to spur this result. Is this how it happened? I don’t have any definitive conclusion about this. The piece in question was published on May 16th. Mueller was appointed on May 17th. I would be curious to hear from people with relevant DOJ or legal knowledge. Because I am not sure about this. But Mueller taking this on was a major life commitment. I’m skeptical that Rosenstein could have made it happen from scratch in less than 24 hours. Not impossible. Maybe totally more doable than I imagine. But it sounds off to me.

Remember the timeline. Comey is fired on May 9th. Trump tells Lavrov he fired the “nutjob” and relieved the “pressure” on May 10th. Trump told Lester Holt on national TV on May 11th that he fired Comey because of Russia. It seems hard to figure to me that these didn’t play a big role in Rosenstein’s decision. It would be instructive and helpful to know what pushed Rosenstein over the line.

But let’s look at that last graf from the Times. Mueller and his investigators believe that the payoff for Russia collusion would be found in money laundering channels. Me too! That makes perfect sense. What’s interesting here is what is that these investigators appear to be taking it as a given that there is money laundering by Trump associates. The question is whether it’s vanilla money laundering or part of election tampering collusion.

I grant I’m making some significant assumptions here. Perhaps this is simply the way the reporters crafted the sentences and we can’t draw any inferences. But I doubt it. As I’ve noted a few times, I’ve crafted a Trump-specific version of the old Army adage: Few members of the Trump crew could survive first contact with real legal scrutiny. You can’t read up on these guys and not realize this. This paragraph doesn’t prove anything. But it certainly suggests to me what I would have expected, which is that investigators have quite quickly found illicit financial transactions (or prima facie evidence of the same) by those in Trump’s inner circle or those he hooked up with during the campaign. The question now is whether those transactions were part of collusion with Russia. Either way, they become a tool to break people with information about Trump and make them cooperate. Those are crimes either way.

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