The news that special counsel Robert Mueller wants to interview President Donald Trump regarding his Russia probe is just the latest major signal that the issue that has followed Trump since before the 2016 election isn’t going away.
Some have called it the central challenge to the Trump presidency.
It has shadowed the president through the first 12 months of his tenure, despite his regular calls for the investigation to be halted. Indications are the probe might not just be about election collusion but also obstruction of justice and, some believe, money laundering.
“This is all about money laundering,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and campaign CEO, is quoted as saying in “Fire and Fury,” a book about the administration’s first year that has roiled Washington and national politics. “It’s as plain as the hair on your face.”
Trump hasn’t directly responded to Bannon’s claim — nor one in which Bannon called a meeting between Trump campaign figures and Russians in 2016 potentially “treasonous” — but instead said his former aide has “lost his mind.”
As Trump reached the anniversary of his inauguration, Russia has been the issue he can’t shake.
Mueller, who took over the case after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, is leading a criminal probe of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
The administration has acknowledged various meetings and communications with Russian officials — especially a meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan in summer 2016 regarding Hillary Clinton emails, a confab Bannon said he saw as treasonous — but it has denied any collusion and has called the inquiry “fabricated” and “politically motivated.”
As it stands, two people have pleaded guilty. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and George Papadopolous, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, each has admitted lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials. Each man has agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Two others have been indicted. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner, face multiple charges involving alleged money laundering, conspiracy against the United States, and failure to disclose lobbying activities on behalf of a foreign power.
The Senate and House also are conducting separate hearings, though the House especially has been marked by partisan wrangling. Bannon testified before the House Intelligence Committee last week.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the House has “dozens” more witnesses to question; Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) recently said it’s hard to predict when the Senate will wrap up.
Susan Hennessey, executive editor of the Lawfare blog and a national security law expert, laid out where the case stands and the possible directions it might take in a recent podcast on Vox.com.
- In what she calls the “most innocent” version, a “group of amateurs” — the Trump campaign team — bent on winning the election begin sharing efforts with Russian agents who are looking to help Trump or maybe just stir up election chaos. Being political outsiders, the Trump team doesn’t know it shouldn’t be working with the Russians — that working with a foreign power is different from working with unions or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to influence an election. Plus, Trump himself likes Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, when the meetings, emails and other communications become public, the Trump team doesn’t come clean but instead “thinks the most politically expedient thing is to lie.” And in the end, the “cover-up is worse than the crime.”
- The darker version, Hennessey said, is that the Trump campaign was “infiltrated” with people like Manafort who have associations and financial ties to a foreign power and, further, the Trump Organization had financial ties to Russia. (Donald Trump Jr. was quoted in 2008 as saying Russians accounted for a “disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”) And that those in the campaign were working to advance foreign interests while trying to win the election or just turning a blind eye to the financial entanglements and, as a result, “decision-making at the top of the executive branch is not . . . being guided by the best interests of the American people, but by a different set of interests.”
Mueller’s work with a grand jury continues. As 2018 opened, reports surfaced that his team is interested in interviewing the president himself.
Last summer, Trump, in defending his firing of Comey, said he was “100 percent” willing to testify under oath about his conversations with the former FBI director (who told Congress Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty and to end a probe of Flynn).
Trump’s response changed in January. “When they have no collusion and nobody’s found any collusion at any level, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview,” Trump said Jan. 10, adding that he would speak with his attorneys and “we’ll see what happens.”
Trump continued to contend that the probe is driven by Democrats who can’t accept the election results and call on Republicans essentially to end it, tweeting recently: “Republicans should finally take control!”
On Wednesday, however, Trump told reporters: “I’m looking forward to it, actually.” As for timing, he said, “I guess they’re talking about two or three weeks, but I’d love to do it.”