Sep 27th 2017

The Shape of Charges to Come?

WASHINGTON, DC – When the news broke last week about the specific documents sought by Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading the federal investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Kremlin, a chill fell over Trump’s already jittery White House. The documents to be turned over covered some familiar events that could well lead to Trump being charged with obstruction of justice, or might show that his campaign was, at the very least, interested in playing with the Russians.

The possible or even likely obstruction charge would derive from Trump’s various efforts to block the investigation. In particular, Trump asked FBI director James Comey to go easy in his investigation of retired General Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser whom Trump reluctantly fired, ostensibly because he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of post-election telephone calls with the Russian ambassador.

Pence then reassured the country that Flynn and the ambassador had simply exchanged small talk, such as Christmas greetings. In fact, they had discussed the possibility of Trump lifting sanctions that outgoing President Barack Obama had imposed on Russia as punishment for its interference in the election. Mueller no doubt wants to know if Trump was aware of or consented to Flynn’s discussions.

Trump also asked senior US intelligence figures to try to convince Comey to go easy on Flynn. One mystery is why Trump was so anxious to protect Flynn. Does Flynn have compromising information about the president?

Then there was Trump’s firing of Comey in May, followed by misleading statements from White House aides regarding why he had done so. But then Trump blurted out in a television interview that when he fired Comey, he had in mind “this Russia thing.” The next day, at a meeting in the Oval Office, Trump told senior Russian officials that firing Comey had relieved “great pressure” on him.

It’s definitely not a good idea, as Richard Nixon learned during the Watergate scandal, for a president to fire his own investigator. Trump’s firing of Comey saddled him with Mueller, a former FBI director in Democratic and Republican administrations, praised by politicians in both parties for his integrity.

Trump is just one of the people at risk of criminal charges as a result of Mueller’s investigation. Others in Mueller’s sights are Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump (said to be the president’s favorite child), have offices in the White House, and Kushner is involved in an absurdly broad array of issues, from resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict to reorganizing the federal government.

Mueller has hired experts on financial crime – an ominous development for other targets. While Mueller is investigating Kushner’s campaign activities, he is also understood to be taking a close look at Kushner’s immense real estate business. A few years ago, Kushner and his father bought the most expensive building in New York City, 666 Fifth Avenue, leaving them enormously indebted and unable to finance the mortgage. Jared Kushner’s eagerness to secure the large sums needed to stay afloat has led him to seek foreign lenders, including a Russian banker close to Vladimir Putin.

Mueller is also known to be putting the squeeze on Manafort, a lobbyist and political consultant with a history of helping dictators. One of his most infamous clients was the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, who, upon winning the presidency of Ukraine, imprisoned his main rival, the previous prime minister, on trumped-up charges. Mueller’s team is poring over Manafort’s business dealings – projects around the world, debts, funds stashed in foreign tax shelters, suspected money laundering, and more.

To put pressure on Manafort, Mueller even staged a pre-dawn raid on his home in northern Virginia and let him know that he’ll be indicted – presumably to persuade him to give up information about Trump. Although Manafort was dropped from the Trump campaign last August, following embarrassing news stories about his work in Ukraine, Trump, acting against the advice of aides, continued to talk with Manafort into the early months of his presidency. Also, it was recently revealed that in 2016, while Manafort was still campaign chair, he offered to conduct briefings for a Russian oligarch about the presidential campaign. Campaign chairs are usually too busy for such a task.

Mueller obviously hopes to “flip” both Flynn and Manafort. And the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., is also at risk in the sprawling scandal. Of particular interest to Mueller is a meeting held in Trump Tower in June 2016, between the Trump campaign’s top brass and a Russian lawyer with close Kremlin ties, who had offered Donald Jr. some dirt on Hillary Clinton, a prospect that excited the candidate’s son. (“I love it,” he emailed in response.)

Donald Jr. first described the meeting as having been a discussion about adoptions of Russian babies by Americans (which Russian President Vladimir Putin banned in 2012). In fact, there had been a discussion of the sanctions and other matters of interest to Russia. Though Kushner and Donald Jr. said nothing came of the meeting, that has not been established. Mueller is also interested in Trump’s role in crafting, on Air Force One on his way back from Europe, a statement that once again misled the public about what was discussed at the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians.

For more than a year, Trump has been adamant that he has no business interests in Russia and has received no loans from the country. But his softness toward Putin remains puzzling. Recently, it was discovered that Trump’s business had been trying to build an enormous Trump Tower in Moscow, an effort that continued into his candidacy, before being dropped for lack of permits and land.

The attention paid to Mueller’s Russia investigation waxes and wanes in Washington, DC. But the inquiry won’t stop until Mueller is satisfied that he knows all he needs to know.

Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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