After marveling at the lede of this new Washington Post bombshell – Mueller investigating Trump for obstruction of justice – I went back and read the whole piece again. You would think that news would be enough for a single piece. But when you read it all the way through the picture it paints is actually considerably more dire.
One key point is that Mueller did not start this obstruction investigation. According to the Post, that probe began “days after Comey was fired on May 9…” Mueller was appointed on May 17th. Reading the Post piece closely, I do not think it explicitly says that the probe began prior to the 17th. But the wording and logic of the piece strongly suggests that is the case.
One key point I draw from this is that it was clear to people at the DOJ and FBI almost from the beginning that this was a potential case of obstruction of justice. That makes me consider who then was in place to make such a decision. Once James Comey was fired, the acting Director of the FBI was Andrew McCabe, who remains in that role. If my surmise about the chronology is correct, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein remained in charge of the Russia probe. Thus I think he would have been acting in Attorney General Sessions’ stead to make the decision to authorize such a probe.
This last point isn’t crystal clear to me since this would not necessarily have been considered part of the Russia investigation. In any case, you do not begin such an investigation of a sitting President except at the very highest level. That decision apparently came quickly. We can note here that soon after Comey’s firing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein made statements suggesting that he may have been a witness to something that could be construed as a crime. If my memory serves, McCabe did as well. They are the two logical people to have signed off on an investigation at that point.
What were they going on?
Remember, President Trump gave his interview to Lester Holt two days after the firing on May 11th. It was in that interview that Trump said this: “[Rosenstein] had made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. 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’ve won.”
Reading through this article, contemplating that the President less than five months in office is already being investigated for obstruction of justice, what is so mind-boggling is that the case isn’t even really a he said, he said dispute. How do we know the President fired Comey because of the Russia investigation? He said so on national television! And he said something similar the day before, on May 10th, only this time in a private setting.
On May 19th, the Times reported a White House memorandum summarizing Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office. In that meeting President Trump said “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
This meeting was on May 10th, the day after Comey’s dismissal. The memorandum was likely written later that day. In other words, almost immediately after firing Comey, within the following two days, President Trump made at least two statements in which he essentially admitted or more like boasted about firing Comey with the specific goal of impeding or ending the Russia probe. There are various and highly significant complexities tied to the unique role of the President. He is the only person in the country who can, arguably, obstruct an investigation by exercising his statutory right to fire a members of the executive branch. But on its face, this is essentially admitting to obstruction.
It will be interesting to see whether either or both of these admissions played into the decision to launch a probe and precisely who authorized it. In any case, Robert Mueller has now subsumed it into his broader mandate and purview.
The additional detail about this part of the Russia investigation writ large is that Mueller appears to see this potential obstruction of justice as either including Trump’s requests to DNI Coats and NSA chief Rodgers or in some way evidenced by what he asked these two men to do. The article also says preliminary interviews suggest Mueller’s team is “actively pursuing potential witnesses inside and outside the government.”
What does this mean?
Here’s one guess. We know that President Trump has a number of close friends who he calls frequently to shoot the shit, rant or just unwind. Newsmax owner Chris Ruddy seems to be one of these. There appear to be plenty more. We can see that Trump was far from discreet in sharing his thinking and motivation about firing Comey. He literally said it in a nationally televised TV interview and in a conversation with the Russian foreign minister. We also know that he spent the previous weekend at his Bedminster golf club stewing in his anger at Comey and finally deciding it was time to fire him. Given all this, it seems close to impossible that Trump didn’t stream of consciousness with many of his sundry associates and toadies about what he was planning to do and why.
Those people are all now witnesses.
The one additional part of the WaPo article is broad and vague but in its own way represents the most peril for the President and his entourage. At one point the article reads: “Mueller is overseeing a host of investigations involving people who are or were in Trump’s orbit, people familiar with the probe said. The investigation is examining possible contacts with Russian operatives as well as any suspicious financial activity related to those individuals.” Earlier in the piece, there’s this: “Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.”
The seeming multiplicity of investigations speaks for itself. But it is the repeated reference to “financial crimes” or “suspicious financial activity” that grabs my attention.
Experts will tell you that “financial crimes” can often mean technical infractions, ways of structuring or organizing movements of money, failures to disclose, certain actions that are prima facie evidence of efforts to conceal, etc. This doesn’t mean these are just ‘technicalities’ in the colloquial sense. They are rather infractions the nature of which may be hard for a layperson to understand but which often end up snaring defendants when other crimes are too difficult to prove. But here’s the thing about the Trump world. I don’t have subpoena power. And we’ve yet to assign a reporting crew to the Trump entourage beat full time. But even with my own limited reporting, it is quite clear to me that there are numerous people in Trump’s entourage (or ‘crew’, if you will) including Trump himself whose history and ways of doing business would not survive first contact with real legal scrutiny. It sounds like Mueller sees all of that within his purview, in all likelihood because the far-flung business deealings of Trump and his top associates are the membrane across which collusion and quid pro quos could have been conducted.
As I said, a basic perusal of business in the Trump world makes clear that serious legal scrutiny would turn up no end of problems. Just consider what was from a financial perspective, a tiny island in the Trump archipelago of mischief, The Trump Foundation which David Fahrenthold did so much with. Almost every rock Fahrenthold overturned exposed some self-dealing, at least legal violations and often real wrongdoing and as much as anything a wild level of sloppiness and indifference to doing business like even semi-honest people. From one perspective it’s hard to say Trump knowingly broke the law with the Foundation since the whole conduct of the Foundation seemed to be carried on as though none of the relevant laws even existed. Again, the Foundation was just a sideline for Trump. It’s not where he made his big money and ran off from his biggest obligations. That’s how they do business.
If Mueller is taking a serious prosecutor’s lens to Trump’s financial world and the financial worlds of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn and numerous others, there’s going to be a world of hurt for a lot of people. And that is if no meaningful level of 2016 election collusion even happened.
And I don’t think that’s true.