This is my third column for The Intercept about the Trump-Russia case. Given all the conspiracy theories, false controversies, and Trump’s other efforts at distraction – which the media dutifully reports in mind-numbing detail in excruciatingly narrow and incremental stories – it is easy to lose the thread of the Trump-Russia narrative. My objective in this series of columns is to step back and look at the big picture.
While Trump tries to make you look the other way, I want to remind you of the big events, like the fact that Trump fired the FBI director to stop the Trump-Russia inquiry.
This third column is very straightforward. It is about whether Trump has attempted to impede the efforts, first by the FBI under then-Director James Comey and now by Mueller, to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians win the White House.
The answer, unequivocally, is yes.
There are many open questions about other aspects of the Trump-Russia narrative, but not about this. Trump has been trying to block the investigation from the very start.
There are many open questions about other aspects of the Trump-Russia narrative, but not about this. Trump has been trying to block the investigation from the very start. The only real questions about this aspect of the case are whether Trump’s efforts to impede the inquiry will meet the legal definition of obstruction of justice, whether he will be criminally charged with obstruction of justice, and whether he will face impeachment in Congress.
And one more: Will Trump fire Mueller if he thinks he is getting too close to making the case for obstruction?
Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation have been very public and are becoming increasingly unbalanced.
Trump’s current focus on what he calls “Spygate” is straight from the playbook he has been using since the investigation began. He is trying to distract the public from the substance of the investigation by publicly spouting conspiracy theories and other wild claims.
During the 2016 campaign, the FBI asked Stefan Halper, an American who was an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, to act as an informant in its fledgling investigation of Russian election interference and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Halper, a former Republican operative, was asked by the FBI to talk to Trump foreign policy advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both of whom the bureau believed were in contact with the Russian government.
Halper’s informal talks with the Trump advisers don’t seem to have yielded much. But press reports about his role as an FBI informant gave Trump and his loyalists fresh ammunition to attack the FBI.
Trump purposefully and falsely branded Halper as a “spy” planted inside his campaign. To sway public opinion, he tried to make Halper’s role and the FBI’s inquiry sound far more nefarious than it was.
Giuliani recently acknowledged in a television interview that Trump and his camp are waging a battle to discredit Mueller’s investigation if the case ends up going to Congress for impeachment proceedings, which are, by definition, political and subject to the whims of public opinion. “Eventually, the decision here is going to be: impeach [or] not impeach. Members of Congress, Democrats, and Republicans are going to be informed a lot by their constituents. So our jury … is the American people. And the American people … Republicans largely, independents pretty substantially, and even Democrats, now question the legitimacy of [Mueller’s probe],” Giuliani said on CNN last weekend.
Trump so successfully cast the Halper episode as a right-wing fever dream that congressional Republicans demanded briefings on Halper’s role in the investigation. The FBI and the Justice Department gave in and agreed to brief some Democrats as well. Afterward, like so many Trump conspiracy theories before it, the Halper case began to fizzle. Most Republicans had little to say, while Democrats said the briefings showed that there was no substance to Trump’s charges. Eventually, even some Republicans began to break with Trump on the Halper matter. Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged that there was no evidence that the FBI had been spying on the Trump campaign. Most surprisingly, Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and Draco Malfoy lookalike who has long been one of the GOP’s leading conspiracy theorists, now says that the FBI’s use of Halper was appropriate.
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
“Spygate” is just the latest in a long string of actions by Trump designed to impede the investigation.
Before Mueller, Trump went after Comey when he was running the Russia investigation. Like Mueller, Comey quickly came to see Trump’s similarity to the mob bosses that he had pursued as a prosecutor in New York, particularly after Trump began trying to pressure Comey to do his bidding.
Unlike the close-mouthed Mueller, Comey has been very public and explicit in comparing Trump to a mobster. In his recent memoir, Comey describes one meeting with Trump this way: “As I was sitting there, the strangest image filled my mind. I kept pushing it away because it seemed too odd and too dramatic, but it kept coming back: I thought of New York Mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Cafe Giardino. I couldn’t shake the picture. And looking back, it wasn’t as odd and dramatic as I thought it was at the time.”
The Trump-Comey relationship got off to a rocky start, when Comey had to brief the president-elect on the contents of the infamous Steele dossier. Comey told Trump about an unconfirmed allegation included in the dossier that during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, Trump had spent a night at the Ritz Carlton with prostitutes and been filmed by Russian intelligence. Days later, after BuzzFeed published the dossier, Trump called Comey to vent about it.
About two weeks later, on January 27, 2017, Trump again called Comey and asked him to come to the White House for dinner that night. When Comey arrived, he discovered that he was the only guest.
Over dinner, Trump asked Comey whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director. Since Trump had previously asked him the same thing, and Comey had already told him that he did, Comey rightly suspected that this was a veiled threat.
“Now it was pretty clear to me what was happening,” Comey writes in his book. “The setup of the dinner, both the physical layout of a private meal and Trump’s pretense that he had not already asked me to stay on multiple occasions, convinced me this was an effort to establish a patronage relationship.”
“I expect loyalty,” Trump told him over dinner.
Comey says he responded: “You will always get honesty from me.”
Comey came away from the dinner feeling like he had just met with a Mafia boss who was trying to strong-arm him.
“I thought of New York Mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Cafe Giardino.”
On February 14, Comey met Trump again at the White House, this time with a group of other officials. At the end of the meeting, Trump asked Comey to stay behind for a private talk. When everyone else had left the room, Trump told Comey that he wanted to talk about Gen. Michael Flynn, his onetime national security adviser, who had resigned the day before amid questions about his contacts with Russia and for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about them.
Trump told Comey that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in his dealings with the Russians, and then made a statement that sounded to the FBI director a lot like an effort to obstruct justice: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey says he replied only that Flynn was “a good guy,” but did not say that he would let the matter go.
Gen. Michael Flynn (right), former national security adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, leaves federal court on December 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russia, in a dramatic escalation of the FBI’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
“At the time, I had understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December,” Comey writes in his book. “I did not understand the president to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency. Imagine the reaction if a President Hillary Clinton had asked to speak to the FBI director alone and urged him to back off the investigation of her national security advisor.”
On March 30, Trump called Comey and told him that the Russia investigation, then being run by the FBI, was a “cloud” over his presidency, and asked what could be done to “lift the cloud.” Trump also asked him to make public the fact that Trump was not personally under investigation, which Comey had previously told him privately.
On April 11, Trump called Comey again and made another veiled threat, saying: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know.” This was apparently a reference to their dinner in which Trump had demanded Comey’s loyalty.
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It was the most public and consequential action taken by Trump in the growing obstruction case against him. It ultimately led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel to conduct an independent investigation into the Trump-Russia case.
At first, Trump suggested that a Justice Department memo criticizing Comey for his handling of the Clinton email investigation prompted the firing. But Trump couldn’t control himself and soon admitted to a television reporter that he was really thinking of “this Russia thing” when he fired the FBI director.
The day after he fired Comey, Trump told visiting Russian officials: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” according to a memo describing the discussion.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
During those early months, Comey wasn’t the only person Trump sought to pressure on the Russia investigation.
In March 2017, before he fired Comey, Trump asked two top intelligence officials — the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and NSA Director Mike Rogers — to say publicly that they saw no evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russians. Both declined.
After he was fired, Comey decided he would go to the press, at least indirectly. He used a law professor friend as an intermediary. The friend told the New York Times about Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice by pressuring Comey to drop the investigation of Flynn. The resulting media firestorm prompted Rosenstein to appoint Mueller to investigate the Trump-Russia case. Rosenstein’s decision so angered Trump that he has reportedly wanted to fire him ever since.
Trump also wanted to fire Mueller almost as soon as he was appointed. He was only stopped when his own White House counsel said he would quit rather than carry out the order.
If Mueller gets enough evidence to make an obstruction case against Trump but still can’t prove the underlying case of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the obstruction case will ring hollow.
Trump has gone to great lengths to quash the investigation, even getting directly involved in crafting a misleading statement to the press about the purpose of a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer, Donald Trump Jr., and campaign officials. The meeting was designed to get dirt on Clinton, but the press statement said it was about Russian adoption policy.
It seems unlikely that Mueller will seek to criminally charge and prosecute a sitting president. But if Mueller writes a report to Congress that could be used in impeachment proceedings, there is historical precedent for a focus on obstruction. During Watergate, the first count in the impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon included charges of obstruction of justice.
The big question in this case will be whether Trump’s actions meet the legal definition of obstruction. As president, he has the power to hire and fire senior officials, like the FBI director. And given all of Trump’s various early explanations, including the laughable notion that he fired Comey because of his handling of the Clinton email case (which, incidentally, almost certainly helped Trump win the election), it may be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt what exactly drove him to fire Comey. Trump has been so public and said so many contradictory things that it will also be difficult to parse his words and intent on many other actions.
What’s more, if Mueller gets enough evidence to make an obstruction case against Trump but still can’t prove the underlying case of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the obstruction case will ring hollow. Trump’s supporters will almost certainly rally to him, claiming he is just being punished for his efforts to fight back against a partisan takedown.
It’s important to remember what Trump thinks of his voters and how strongly he believes they will always side with him. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”