One year into the Mueller inquiry and rattled Trump faces a fight to outrun the investigation, writes PAUL CONNEW.
Last month Donald Trump confessed (or boasted?) on Fox News (where else?) that he’d been ‘too busy’ to buy First Lady Melania a birthday present. Well, he certainly wasn’t going to miss marking the first anniversary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
It came via a Twitter tirade in which he described the inquiry as ‘the greatest witch hunt in American history’. If that does suggest a rather significant failure to understand the nature of the investigation (and American history) it does at least indicate that the president grasps its scale. And as the probe enters its second year, it is already abundantly clear that it will be even more explosive than the first.
Guaranteeing this is a president – hooked on hubris and surrounded by a similarly reckless inner circle – who has settled on a simple strategy of attacking Mueller. Even if Trump and his outriders cannot risk actually sacking the special counsel and his boss, deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein, they can try to fatally undermine them before November’s mid-term elections, on which the president’s long-term fortunes rest.
Like drowning men spying a lifebelt, the president and his men have seized on New York Times and Washington Post reports that a long-standing FBI informant provided early information to the Bureau’s investigation into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. The informant is alleged to have held several meetings with two former Trump campaign advisers, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. The latter has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts, the former is still the subject of ongoing investigation by Mueller’s team.
The reports triggered a Trump Twitter rant: ‘WOW, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI ‘SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT. If so, this is bigger than Watergate!’ It was followed up with another Twitter assault and a demand that: ‘The Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ [Department of Justice] infiltrated or surveilled the campaign for political purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama administration.’
Presidential pressure paid off with the Justice Department agreeing to its inspector general assessing whether ‘political motivation’ had tainted the FBI’s initial ‘counterintelligence investigation of persons suspected of involvement with Russian agents who interfered in the 2016 presidential election’.
Most legal experts interpreted the move as a cautionary measure designed to head off a bigger legal showdown with the president down the line, depending on the final outcome of the Mueller investigation, which post-dates the ‘infiltration’ allegations.
It does, however, play handily – for now, at least – into the narrative that Trump, his new legal team and ‘loyal’ Republican conservatives on Capitol Hill are determined to promote: that of an FBI, Justice Department and other US intelligence agencies involved in political dirty tricks designed to prevent his presidency.
It is an accusation strongly refuted by the agencies themselves, but repeated on-air by Trump’s chief lawyer and political strategy adviser, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claimed it could soon render the whole Mueller investigation ‘completely illegitimate’.
In a swipe at both the FBI and the Justice Department, Giuliani alleged: ‘The prior Obama government did it, but the present government, for some reason I can’t figure out, is covering it up. I don’t know why the current attorney general and current director of the FBI want to protect a bunch of renegades that might amount to 20 people at most within the FBI.’
The president, Giuliani and Republicans from the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus are demanding the FBI identify their ‘informant’ or ‘spy’ (as some around the president prefer to depict the FBI source). They are also painting the picture of an agent provocateur working to entrap Republican campaign figures in a ‘Russian Collusion’ plot… even though that sits uneasily alongside the unanimous view of all US intelligence agencies that Kremlin-linked Russian elements were involved in sinister efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favour.
FBI director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, hit back when he appeared before a Senate committee. ‘The day we can’t protect human sources is the day the American people start becoming less safe,’ he said. ‘Human sources, in particular, who put themselves at great risk to work with us and with our foreign partners, have to be able to trust that we’re going to protect their identities and in many cases their lives and the lives of their families.’
FBI sources privately contend the informant’s role was ‘perfectly legitimate’ and flag up that there were a number of sources and that the agency and other US intelligence services were already alert to, and probing, allegations of illicit Russian interference in the American electoral system prior to 2016, and long before the Mueller investigation was launched in the wake of Trump firing FBI director James Comey.
Some US media outlets claim the informant is an American professor based at Cambridge University, Stefan Halper. He worked for Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign and had reportedly succeeded in infiltrating Jimmy Carter’s administration while feeding back valuable insight to Team Reagan, thus adding to an already colourful cast of characters in the unfolding drama.
The rising tension around the Mueller investigation is exemplified by Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, branding Trump’s allegations against the FBI ‘nonsense’. He added: ‘The president’s demand the Department of Justice investigate something they know to be untrue is an abuse of power and an effort to distract from his growing legal problems.’ Meanwhile, the Democrats’ Senate leader Chuck Schumer criticised the president’s ‘witch hunt’ accusation (Stat check: Trump has used it in more than 40 tweets since the investigation started), declaring: ‘I would say to the president, it’s not a ‘witch hunt’ when 17 Russians have been indicted. It’s not a ‘witch hunt’ when some of the most senior members of the Trump campaign have been indicted. It’s not a ‘witch hunt’ when Democrats and many Republicans agree with the intelligence community that Russia interfered in our election to aid President Trump.’
At this point, it is worth a reminder of the milestones and markers the special counsel has laid down in his first year. He has charged 19 people, secured five guilty pleas and one man is already in jail. There is no sign of a let-up in tempo, and strong rumours that several more indictments are on the horizon, with Donald Trump Jnr and son-in-law Jared Kushner said to be among them.
Among senior figures pleading guilty in plea-bargain deals so far have been former national security adviser General Mike Flynn, former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.
Up to this week, Mueller and his 17-strong legal team have interviewed around 50 members of Trump’s campaign staff, past and present White House staffers, business associates and family members, with more to follow. It is also believed they may have gained access to Trump’s elusive tax and bank records. They are also scrutinising documents, recordings and email messages running into the millions.
It is also looking likely that the president’s long-time New York personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who brokered the $130k hush money deal with porn star Stormy Daniels, is seeking a plea bargain deal in return for his co-operation. The FBI has been investigating allegations that Cohen, who handled much of the Trump family’s business empire dealings for decades, struck his own multi-million dollar deals with Russian figures with links to Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.
One of those figures is Felix Sater, a business ally of Trump and an ex-felon with ties to the Kremlin. Officials have been investigating whether – contrary to the president’s previous public denials – Cohen and Sater were still secretly working with the Trump organisation about building a Trump Tower hotel in Moscow during the 2016 election.
It is significant that Mueller marked his investigation’s first anniversary by persuading Jeffrey Yohai, the former son-in-law of Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, to cut a plea deal in return for his co-operation.
Manafort faces a string of serious charges – including tax evasion, bank fraud, money-laundering and conspiracy to defraud the US – and faces around 100 years in jail if convicted. He is, so far, fighting the case. But the president and his lawyers are worried that he may finally be tempted to strike his own plea bargain deal with Mueller, especially now his former son-in-law has joined others in being ‘flipped’ by the special counsel. That would count as the investigation’s biggest coup to date.
Many legal experts are convinced the special counsel already has enough evidence for a prima face case of ‘obstruction of justice’ against Trump – the grounds that brought Richard Nixon down. That is based primarily around his dismissal of FBI director Comey after he refused to pledge personal loyalty to the president and back off the Russian Connection investigation, plus the president’s complicity in concocting a false statement around his son Donald Jnr’s Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
But such is the leak-proof wall around Mueller’s team that few legal experts hazard a guess over the scale of evidence he has uncovered on the alleged ‘Russian connection’ itself, and whether he has enough to implicate the president personally on that score.
It’s worth noting that Trump’s addiction to Twitter is countered by his personal aversion to email, so a final analysis of what the president knew, or didn’t know, about Russian election meddling could well hinge on the collective candour of others. It is known that the special counsel and Trump’s legal team – led by Giuliani – are still locked in fraught negotiations over whether or when the president will sit down for a full, under-oath questioning session, and the parameters for it. But Mueller is rumoured to have privately repeated his warning that he could seek a grand jury subpoena against the president if he ultimately refuses.
In yet another television appearance this week, Giuliani suggested that, if terms for an interview could be agreed, the investigation could wrap up by the start of September. Very few legal experts buy into that time-frame.
Meanwhile legal analysts are divided on whether Mueller has the power to directly charge a sitting president, or whether – more likely – he could produce a detailed report for the Justice Department, recommending any criminal charges he considers justified. Such a report would, in turn, end up before Congress to decide on whether Trump should be impeached.
All of which explains the new, aggressive, against-the-clock strategy by Trump and his team of undermining public and political trust in both the FBI and Mueller’s investigation before the mid-term elections this autumn. They are aware that although opinion polls still show strong support for the special counsel probe, the majority is slowly sliding.
If the Democrats win, Trump faces impeachment. If they don’t, he may be able to face down the inquiry. The fate of his presidency, then, rests on politics, as much as it does on the inquiry itself.