Dream on, Don - there’s no escape from Mueller’s shadow
- Credit: AP
Why POTUS' attempts to evade questions on the special counsel and the Russian Connection investigation are futile.
'Fake news, folks…fake news.' Donald Trump felt the need to say it twice as reporters tried to question him at Davos over whether he tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Fake news, Mr President? Not according to the New York Times, other US media organisations or even the president's beloved Fox News who now report it as a fact.
Even after that Davos speech, his curious encounter with Piers Morgan and his crucial first State of the Union address, in which the president was desperate to 'bigly' up the US economy, the Mueller question and the fate of the Russian Connection investigation overshadowed everything.
According to several sources, the only thing that prevented the president from firing the special counsel back in June last year was a threat to resign by the White House's top lawyer, Donald McGahn. Significantly, McGahn has said nothing to refute the reports. He is said to have warned Trump that sacking Mueller would trigger a constitutional crisis, open the door to an obstruction of justice impeachment and that he (McGahn) would quit on principle.
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The significance? It completely contradicts repeated denials by Trump and White House mouthpieces that he's ever contemplated firing Mueller… although those denials sit uncomfortably alongside myriad intemperate presidential tweets branding the special counsel investigation a 'witch hunt'. Not to mention thinly-veiled threats aimed at attorney general Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from overseeing the Russian Connection probe because of his own undisclosed Russian links, and against deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to whom Mueller formally reports.
Further leaks now suggest Trump also talked about firing Rosenstein – who he labelled a 'Democrat' even though the deputy attorney general is actually a Republican – until he was again prevailed upon not to do so. The president, it is alleged, wanted to promote the justice department's number three, Rachel Brand, who he considers 'more loyal', to replace Rosenstein.
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In another twist, the FBI's long-serving, well-respected deputy director Andrew McCabe abruptly resigned on Monday amid a running personal vilification campaign against him by the president. McCabe, whose paediatrician wife is a friend of Hillary Clinton and ran for office in Virginia, had attracted Trump's ire because of POTUS's obsessive, ongoing insistence the FBI didn't properly investigate Clinton's emails.
It is being reported – although Trump denies it – the president had demanded to know how McCabe voted in the presidential election. At the time, McCabe was acting FBI director and the question echoed the allegation by former FBI director James Comey that the president demanded 'personal loyalty' from him and tried to get him to drop the Russian Connection investigation. The subsequent sacking of Comey is a key element of the special counsel's inquiry and many legal experts are convinced the circumstances surrounding the sacking have already established a prima facie 'obstruction of justice' case against Trump personally.
Of more immediate concern are the negotiations over the president's formal interview, as part of Mueller's probe. Initially Trump made an off-the-cuff public boast to reporters that he was 'looking forward' to being interviewed as soon as possible and 'under oath'; an impulsive reaction that surprised and alarmed the president's small army of private lawyers and pro-Trump allies on the GOP's Capitol Hill right wing.
The White House have since been busy backtracking, arguing Trump only meant he was willing to be interviewed in principle, subject to his personal legal team's advice and that they would be 'working on arrangements' without any fixed timeframe.
Trump's personal legal 'army' is split on how to proceed. Some doubt the wisdom of Trump being interviewed at all; some are opposed to it being conducted under oath for fear an impulsive, loose-lipped POTUS could expose himself to a potential perjury charge later; others are pressing for the bulk of the questioning to be conducted via written exchanges with only a limited face-to-face dimension.
Tactically, Trump's legal team are set to seek extensive advance detail of Mueller's line of questioning; something the special counsel, who has a reputation for playing his cards close to his chest, may well resist.
Team Trump are concerned that Mueller already has the president's former national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, collaborating with him as part of a plea bargain deal and suspect that others among the dozens of former campaign officials and White House staffers past and present who have been questioned may now also be co-operating with the special counsel. Steve Bannon is believed to have been questioned secretly this week.
So, while Trump may have succeeded in surprising the world with his relatively restrained, almost statesmanlike, follow-the-script performances in Davos and in his State of the Union address debut, the Russian Connection shadow and the prospect of facing Mueller's forensic questioning remains the dark spectre haunting the White House.
The prospect is also splitting GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Some now favour stepping up congressional legal measures to protect the special counsel from any move by the president to dismiss him and derail the investigation. Trey Gowdy, Republican chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, warned those colleagues who seem hellbent on discrediting Mueller they 'should leave him the hell alone to get on with the job'.
But in another development that exemplified the growing tension and sense of crisis, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have increased their attacks on both the FBI and the Justice Department's handling of the investigation.
Against Democrat protests, they voted to make public a GOP-crafted memo that accuses the Department of Justice of 'surveillance abuses' – including the alleged use of the controversial dossier on Trump and Russia compiled by former British spook, Christopher Steele.
Both the Democrats and the Justice Department have slammed the move as 'irresponsible' and argue it potentially compromises US national security and intelligence operations.
The leading Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Adam Schiff, has called it an unprecedented, partisan 'declassification process' aimed primarily at undermining the Mueller investigation and helping the president.
Significantly, the move to make the memo public has been spearhead by the committee's Republican chair, Senator Devin Nunes – a staunch Trump ally previously criticised for allegedly 'leaking' confidential details of the committee's own inquiries back to the president without the consent of the committee as a whole.
It is becoming clear that there are those on the GOP right who share Trump's paranoia about a 'Deep State' conspiracy to 'destroy' him.
The Democrats, who claim Nunes' memo is based on misleading 'selective' extracts, have drawn up a counter-document, but the GOP majority on the committee say they'll ban that being published at all.
And, intriguingly, the final decision on whether the classified material should be made public rests with, er, Trump himself. It is a decision he must make within a few days.
Previously, against the advice of some of his lawyers, Trump has enthusiastically tweeted his support for the idea, but now he faces the challenge of whether to do so with the Justice Department, the FBI and other US intelligence agencies strongly warning against it on national security grounds.
Both the FBI and the CIA have also briefed the White House that they expect the Kremlin will again attempt to interfere in the November mid-term elections.
And just hours before Trump's State of the Union speech a CNBC report that claimed Trump's talking of demanding Attorney General Sessions should prosecute Mueller had Capitol Hill buzzing. Nobody could quite figure what possible grounds there could be, but the fact it was taken seriously was a sign of extraordinary times.
All this as another constitutional row is looming after Trump's State Department suddenly announced it won't be imposing a bipartisan bill passed in mid-2017, and grudgingly signed off by the president, ordering a tougher sanction regime against Russia over its cyber-hacking, election-meddling operations. But since then the president has stalled on actually enforcing the sanctions without producing any convincing rationale for defying Congress.