As its trail of arrests gets closer to U.S. President Donald Trump, the Russia investigation is facing a multi-front assault. The attacks have ramped up following news that Trump’s close confidant Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty and become an informant.
The president’s defenders are now seeking to poke holes in, and undermine, the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. Here are six avenues of attack:
1. Mueller is biased: “It’s so disturbing and troubling,” Trump aide Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Monday. She was speaking about weekend news that the Mueller probe removed a top investigator over the summer, after the discovery of texts to a lover blasting the president. This is atop reports that the same FBI investigator, Peter Strzok, was a key figure in the emails investigation that yielded no charges against Hillary Clinton. And there’s more: a paper trail of political donations shows several senior probe employees have a history of donating to Democrats. Another report said Strzok was involved in interviewing Flynn. Said Republican lawmaker Ron DeSantis: “It was almost as if they bent over backwards not to make the case on Hillary. With the Mueller probe, they’re just scorching the earth finding whatever little ticky-tack charge they can find on anyone… (Strzok’s role) undercuts the legitimacy of both those investigations.”
2. Presidents can’t be charged for obstructing justice: This is potentially a key question. There’s evidence Trump tried thwarting an investigation into Flynn. The argument here is he’s allowed to. Trump lawyer John Dowd expressed it via the Axios website: “The president cannot obstruct justice.” Harvard scholar Alan Dershowitz says Trump has constitutional power — to pardon Flynn himself, to fire the FBI director, and to issue instructions to the Justice Department. So what’s the legal problem if he orders the FBI to lay off Flynn, Dershowitz asks: “We’d have a constitutional crisis (if Trump is charged with obstruction),” he told Fox News. “You cannot charge a president with obstruction of justice for exercising his constitutional power.” He says presidents can only be charged with obstruction that involves innately illegal acts — like the Nixon White House destroying evidence and paying hush money. Other legal scholars call this a laughable, quasi-regal, anti-democratic argument. One headline on the Vox website said, “Trump’s lawyer: the president can’t obstruct justice. 13 legal experts (say): yes, he can.” A list of law professors cited legal precedents, and the fact that the president’s power comes from the Constitution — the same Constitution that says he must faithfully execute the law. Peter Shane of Ohio State University called the Dershowitz-Dowd argument “nonsense.”
3. It’s a nothing-burger: They say this investigation is built on a flawed foundation. Mueller’s probe was struck to examine collusion with Russia — during the election. His critics note that four people are now charged — two for financial crimes predating the election, two for lying to the FBI after the election. This view is articulated in a Washington Examiner piece, “Was it all about the Logan Act?” In this narrative, the root of the probe is a dust-gathering, never-used law from 1799, the Logan Act, which forbids people from undermining U.S. foreign policy: Flynn spoke with Russians during the presidential transition; the FBI then questioned him about it; Flynn lied; he and Comey were forced out; Flynn was charged; now he’s a co-operating witness against Trump. A closely related argument involves the notorious Steele dossier — a document filled with jaw-dropping allegations that the Russians spent years recruiting Trump as an asset, and collecting blackmail material on him. The document was gathered by a former British spy and handed to the FBI. But his original customers were Trump campaign opponents. Critics now argue that any evidence stemming from this dossier is illegitimate. Others say this entire line of attack is wishful thinking — there are already several documented communications during the campaign with Russians, or suspected Russian intermediaries like Wikileaks, and some other investigation targets, like Paul Manafort, had reportedly been under surveillance for years.
4. Cut off funding: This is reportedly the route suggested by Steve Bannon. Trump’s ex-staffer, and still-ally, doesn’t want him to fire Mueller. He’s publicly said so. What he’s urging, reports say, is that Congress slash Mueller’s funding. That view is articulated by pro-Trump senator Steve King, who told Politico: “For them to say to us, ‘Vote for an open-ended appropriation into a Mueller witch hunt,’ I think you’ll see significant objection.”
5. Fire Mueller: Canadian friend of Trump Conrad Black suggests how to make this happen. Deriding the investigation as a “never-ending fishing expedition,” Black proposed a chain-reaction of moves, starting with Rex Tillerson’s removed as secretary of state — shift the CIA director to the State Department; appoint to the CIA Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from Russia-related matters; have Dershowitz replace Sessions; have Dershowitz kill the probe.
6. Rally the base: Ultimately, politics could decide all of this. Trump’s fate could eventually rest with Congress, given the legal realities — the president’s power to pardon; doubts about whether a sitting president can be charged; and the aforementioned debate about obstruction of justice. Impeachment, the ultimate political punishment, requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress. That’s 290 in the House, 67 in the Senate. It means more than 100 Republicans would have to turn on their president. And the full-throated assault on Mueller — from Trump’s Twitter feed, Fox News, and conservative news outlets — provides a daily rallying cry for the ranks to remain united.
John Bolton Ordered Staff to Report Trump and Guiliani Because of Illegal Ukrainian “Drug Deal.”
The New York Times is reporting that, responding to the Ukraine scandal, Trump aide John Bolton warned “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everyone up.”
Seems he was fired because he would have no part of President Donald Trump’s off-the-books shadow government Ukraine extortion scandal. Bolton also apparently implicated both the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and the president’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvany.
“I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton told senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs Fiona Hill to tell White House lawyers, The New York Times reports in a bombshell article late Monday night.
Bolton, who resigned from the Trump administration hours before President Trump tweeted he had fired him, instructed Hill “to notify the chief lawyer for the National Security Council that Mr. Giuliani was working with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on a rogue operation with legal implications,” Hill told House of Representatives investigators on Monday.
EMERGENCY: Turkey Holding US Nukes Hostage
The military situation near the Turkish border in Syria remains in flux, with allegiances shifting quickly amid uncertainty of how everything will shake out. But the fast-moving developments also have drawn attention to a lesser-known fact of US foreign policy:
The Pentagon has about 50 tactical nuclear weapons stored in Turkey at its Incirlik Air Base, reports Business Insider. The big question: Is it still safe to keep them there now that US-Turkey relations are fraying? Related coverage:
- Under review: Officials in the State and Energy departments have begun “quietly reviewing” plans to evacuate the weapons, reports the New York Times. “Those weapons, one senior official said, were now essentially Erdogan’s hostages,” writes David Sanger. “To fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance. To keep them there, though, is to perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago.
- In vaults: The bombs have been stored in underground vaults at Incirlik since the 1960s, per a backgrounder in the New Yorker. That goes back to the days when Incirlik turned into a crucial Cold War base. The story says the vaults “hold about fifty B-61 hydrogen bombs—more than 25% of the nuclear weapons in the NATO stockpile.”
This intervention has precipitated an all-new crisis in the region, prompted the start of at least a tactical withdrawal of U.S. forces from much of the country amid concerns they could be caught in the fighting, and led to calls for an arms embargo and major sanctions on the Turkish government.
Matt Gaetz Caught Spying for Trump
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was reportedly booted from a closed-door interview of President Donald Trump’s former top Russia aide, Fiona Hill.
According to CNN’s Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Rajuand others, Rep. Gaetz, known as a vociferous defender of President Trump and his agenda, was ejected just before the proceeding began.
“Matt Gaetz emerges from closed-door interview with Fiona Hill saying he was kicked out by House Democrats [because] he’s not a member of the three committees conducting the interview,” Raju reported just before 11 a.m. Monday morning. “He said he consulted with the House parliamentarian, who ruled that he could not be there.”
Hill was testifying in front of the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees as part of their impeachment inquiry into Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and subsequent efforts to conceal the content of the conversation. Hill was subpoenaed by the committees.
Rep. Gaetz is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and does not sit on any of the committees that subpoenaed Hill. Gaetz, as you’ll see, was quick to point out that House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) claimed to have begun an impeachment inquiry before Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) backed one and before the three other committees got involved.
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