Updated on February 27 at 12:05 p.m. EST.
As of the latest indictments and plea agreements, the picture of what may have happened in the 2016 election, and the path that special counsel Robert Mueller is on, are becoming clearer. Washington is impressed with the airtight secrecy of Mueller’s operation—showing that this is possible among professionals who aren’t playing party games.
For example, the announcement on Feb. 16 of the indictment of thirteen Russian individuals and companies came as a bolt from the blue. This could probably be explained by the absence of lawyers for the Russians—unlike those for the Americans whom Mueller wants to talk to, who can be seen coming and going from the federal courthouse and are the sources for most of the stories about the special counsel’s investigation. Consider the contrast with Capitol Hill, where appearances before even closed sessions of the intelligence committees—especially on the House side—leak like the veritable sieve. (This may well explain why Stephen Bannon only appeared before the House intelligence committee under a broad interpretation of immunity, but has talked at some length to the prosecutors. Bannon knows well that his testimony would quickly be reported to the White House by one of its stooges on the committee.)
The picture of the Russia investigation has been filled out by the further indictments last week of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his former top assistant Rick Gates, who then decided to cooperate with the special counsel. As Maggie Haberman of The New York Times has pointed out, the significance of this is not just what Gates can tell prosecutors about Manafort. In Manafort’s testy public statement about Gates’s decision to flip, he made it clear that he’s worried about what Gates might tell the prosecutors about him. But Gates had stayed with the Trump team after Manafort was fired in August of 2016, remaining during the transition and then working for a Trump PAC, with access to the White House. That makes it highly likely he has plenty of material of interest to the prosecutors about Trump himself. Otherwise the terms of Gates’s deal with the counsel wouldn’t have been so lenient. (Mueller has since moved to have all charges against Gates dropped.)
When Manafort joined the Trump campaign as manager of convention activities in March of 2016 (he was named full campaign chairman in May), Trump either was impressed with a man apparently wealthy enough to offer to work for no pay (though as it happened Manafort was at the time deeply in debt to a Russian oligarch) or, just possibly, had been encouraged, directly or indirectly, by Russians or their American contacts to take him aboard. What the indictments make clear is that once Manafort was in charge of the campaign various attempts were made by Russian figures to infiltrate it. This could of course be coincidental. But at the least one must ask why Manafort, who was beyond broke, offered to manage the campaign of a then-unlikely Republican presidential candidate, one who’d been spurned by almost all of the Republican establishment.
Manafort had been a business partner of Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump, but Stone isn’t exactly a member of the Republican establishment. At the time Manafort joined the Trump campaign I perhaps naively thought that it was because of his relationship with Stone. But it’s the volunteer aspect of it that I can’t get past now. Of course numerous people help out presidential campaigns in the hope of having useful access to the next administration, but Trump wasn’t looking like a future president at the time that Manafort signed up. So, what made Manafort think that Trump had a chance to win the nomination, much less the presidency? Did he perhaps have information that the public didn’t know about?
This is one of the major questions yet to be answered. Is one clue Manafort’s apparent participation in a change in the Republican Party platform that made it more favorable to Moscow vis-a-vis Ukraine? And is another Manafort’s offer to brief his previous Russian benefactor, Oleg Deripaska, to whom he was deeply in debt, on the doings of the Trump campaign?
If Trump is innocent of any involvement with Russia’s activities he certainly hasn’t acted like it. One could list numerous examples, but to take a few: his admission that he fired FBI Director James Comey because of “this Russia thing”; his order last summer that Mueller be fired (headed off by his counsel, Don McGahn); his various attempts to spring former national security advisor Michael Flynn from a serious investigation; his frequent and often non-germane insistence, “No collusion”; his virtually barring his aides from bringing up Russia in meetings; his peculiar defenses of Vladimir Putin, of which the most head-snapping was, “We kill people, too.”
If Trump is innocent of any involvement, direct or indirect, in Russia’s activities to affect our election, why has the White House taken such an interest in the testimony of various figures before the congressional investigating committees? Why the strong reluctance of his lawyers to allow him to testify to the special counsel? Why has the president declined to implement the sanctions on Russia passed by overwhelming margins by Congress, so large that Trump had to sign it since a veto would have been overridden? The whole thing defies reason if the president wasn’t, as candidate or president, involved in, cooperative with, or at least approving of activities that abetted Russian interference in our election.
Why, in fact, did he (with one momentary exception in January) deny that the Russian activities even occurred until Mueller’s indictment of numerous Russians on grounds that they had interfered? Even then, Trump’s acknowledgment of Russian involvement in the election was reluctant, and he pretended that the indictments showed that his campaign hadn’t been helped by the Russians.
Then there’s something else: Trump’s own income, then and now. It has been reported that the FBI is investigating whether Russia funneled money to the Trump campaign through the NRA. And as CNBC recounted in mid-February, not only is it widely known that large amounts of Russian money has gone into Trump properties, but, even more interesting, “Recent reports have shown that money continues to move into Trump-branded properties from obscured sources like anonymous LLCs and shell companies.” CNBC’s report went on to say, “One such report found that since Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016, the fraction of anonymous purchases of his properties through shell companies has ‘skyrocketed’ from 4 to 70 percent.”
CNBC pointed out: “The public can only guess at the source of these funds, whether they be foreign governments or wealthy domestic interests—and to what extent unknown sums pouring into other Trump businesses are being used to curry favor with the president.” Is it any wonder that Trump has refused to release his income taxes?
While I’m on the subject, the assurances by many, in and out of the government, that Russia’s efforts didn’t change the outcome in 2016 are based on air. There’s no knowing the answer to this: Even people who were influenced by the WikiLeaks disclosures, such as they were, or the many tweets and Facebook ads, wouldn’t be able to say what it was that made up their mind. The voter is bombarded with ads and news and robo-calls, and can be influenced by friends. The margins by which Trump won the final critical states of Michigan and Wisconsin were narrow enough to have been been caused by any manner of things. Anyway, if the Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election and sow chaos and distrust among the citizenry had no effect, why would they be continuing their efforts now, aimed at the November midterms?
That said, there may not turn out to be a “smoking gun”—a specific piece of evidence that makes it incontrovertibly clear that Trump collaborated with Moscow in its interference of the 2016 election. If this or the next Congress follows precedent and reads history correctly, that won’t matter. In the case of Richard Nixon, the House Judiciary Committee had already voted to impeach him on three Articles of Impeachment before a recording emerged of Nixon telling an aide to order Pentagon officials to call the FBI to urge it to call off their investigation of Watergate on the grounds that it was jeopardizing national security. This was proof—as if any more was needed—that Nixon had participated in obstructing justice, the basis for the first Article of Impeachment.
Furthermore, there’s a second precedent from 1974 in Article II, which said that a president could be held accountable for the acts of his subordinates, if there’s been a “pattern or practice” of a certain type of activity. This is why it didn’t matter whether Nixon knew in advance about the invasion of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building by hoodlums hired by the White House—he was still accountable for it. His aides knew what he wanted done.
Trump wouldn’t have had to do much to let his aides know that cooperation with Russia was OK. But he may not have been oblique in letting his aides know that such cooperation had his approval. This is what we don’t yet know and presumably what the special counsel is seeking to find out.
I initially thought that an impeachment proceeding against Trump was more likely than I do now. Depending on what Mueller finds and recommends, it may well be out of the question that this Congress, at least, would proceed with an impeachment. It’s virtually impossible that this Senate would come up with the needed two-thirds vote to ratify an impeachment by the House and remove Trump from office. I didn’t expect the congressional Republicans to be so fearful of him—or if not him, of his base. It’s not for nothing that Trump governs for the base.
In fact, depending on what’s found out, this could well be a scandal greater in proportion and import than Watergate. In Watergate the crimes and impeachable behavior (which aren’t the same thing) involved an attempted domestic coup by the Nixon White House to fix the outcome of a presidential election, whereas the Russia scandal involves an attempt by a foreign country to do the same. The mega-difference is that one involved a hostile foreign power. Some of the other alleged untoward acts by the people around Trump—and perhaps by Trump himself—had to do with pledging to help the Russians loosen the yoke of sanctions that Barack Obama’s White House placed on Russia as punishment for its meddling in the election. (So much for Trump’s claims that Obama didn’t do anything about Russian interference.)
Another similarity between the Russia scandal and Watergate is the atmosphere of fear in Washington. In the case of Nixon, the fear stemmed from the knowledge that he was using federal agencies (such as the IRS) to punish his real and perceived enemies, and that for no other apparent reason private citizens’ phones were being tapped; in the case of Trump, the fear is more about his possible use of distractions to deflect from Mueller’s investigation, even including outright use of military force. In fact, though it drew little attention, Nixon ordered two worldwide nuclear alerts during his Watergate tribulations. As is now well known, his secretary of defense told military officers not to carry out any orders that came to them directly from the White House. Trump is learning his way around the federal agencies, and might increasingly use them, as well as the military, for his own political purposes, in particular the Justice Department and the FBI. One example is Justice’s renewed interest in the Clinton Foundation.
The current special counsel is paid more attention than the prosecutors were during Watergate, and the workings of Capitol Hill less so. Therefore, we are guaranteed more surprises.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Stephen Bannon had not appeared before any congressional committee investigating the Russia scandal. We regret the error.