(UPDATE III) The Wizard Is In Yuge Trouble As Charges Loom In The Fake-News Russia Probe
Would it surprise you to know that three months after Congress slapped veto-proof sanctions on Russia, the Trump administration has yet to implement them? That six months after three congressional committees began investigating the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign they are hopelessly bogged down in White House-fueled partisan feuding? That nearly one year after Trump was elected, states are moving to guard against future election hacking while Trump is sitting on his small hands? And that he continues to aid and abet Vladimir Putin by insisting that the whole thing is fake news and a witch hunt?
Indeed, to the casual observer, it would seem like Donald Trump has contained the greatest threat to his presidency, the so-called Russia scandal, with a propaganda-sodden pushback centering on the lie — easily the most over the top of the scores that the Trump and his mouthpieces have told — that it actually was Clinton who colluded with Moscow.
This preposterous meme is being dutifully echoed by Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, among other congressional lapdogs, while the pushback has been nicely helped along by confirmation that the infamous Steele dossier was bankrolled by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee. Playing conveniently to the White House’s faux outrage, the lawyer who acted as a go-between had lied about who underwrote the dossier for months, as well as Clinton herself having feigned shocked over it while still on her quest to lose the presidency.
Meanwhile, up on Capitol Hill, House Republicans announced investigations into unproven allegations that the Clinton Foundation received donations in exchange for Clinton’s support as secretary of state for a business deal giving Russia control over a larger share of the U.S. uranium production and another (yes, yet another investigation) into how the FBI investigated Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Putin has dutifully kept up his end of the Trump-Putin bromance by claiming that, among other things, American officials had ignored Russian tax fraud allegations against an American firm because two of the owners were major Clinton donors, while the chief Russian prosecutor asserts that the owners had illegally used Russian money to lobby for the new sanctions law the Trump administration has yet to enforce.
But Trump has not contained the threat and any public relations gains are pyrrhic.
The dossier news is a year old, while is the dossier itself is neither “a hoax” nor means that Clinton colluded with Russia, as Trump fantastically insists. In fact, the president, his closest associates and family members may be in substantial legal peril because of the mass of evidence gathered by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.
A federal grand jury in Washington on Friday approved the first charges brought by Mueller, according to CNN and The Wall Street Journal, among other media outlets. The charges are under seal on the orders of the federal judge who approved them, while plans are being prepared for anyone charged to be taken into custody as early as Monday. It is not known if the charges involve one or more people, but the consensus view is that former campaign manager Paul Manafort is the most likely target.
All of this makes the use of former British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier as a Trumpian cudgel seem especially ham-handed. It requires people to focus on who paid for the dossier, which Trump’s myopic base and alt-right news media is happy to do, while ignoring its explosive contents as storm clouds gather.
Nothing in the information rich 35-page dossier save for a couple of relatively minor points of fact has been discredited. That, of course, is different than the bulk of the dossier being validated, but the product of Steele’s labors is a strikingly accurate outline of what we know — and most importantly what Mueller appears to have independently confirmed — about the Trump campaign’s embrace of a small army of Russians with ties to Putin and his cyberassault on Clinton and voters most vulnerable to barrages of fake news.
So what will Mueller be able to do with all this?
In one respect, using the Clinton-DNC aspect of the Steele dossier is a deft move by Trump because it makes the possibility of impeachment even less likely.
The president, in a series of angry tweets on Sunday morning in anticipation of the first charges in the scandal and his ongoing frustration that his campaign is receiving greater scrutiny than Clinton, alluded to the dossier revelation in demanding that she be pursued more forcefully by congressional investigators, writing “DO SOMETHING!”
Trump’s approval ratings are the lowest since he took office, according to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, and are down 5 percentage points to 38 percent from September. Some 58 percent of respondents disapproval of his job performance.
As it is, Congress is thoroughly paralyzed despite the Republican lock on power. It has passed no significant legislation and has been content, beyond a few rebellious lame duck Republican voices, to let Trump kick sand in its face. So even the most damaging bill of particulars from Mueller — and the evidence that Trump obstructed justice is particularly strong — probably would not rouse Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities.
A further burden on Mueller is that there no legal meaning to the term “Russian collusion.”
Manafort and Michael Flynn, the campaign operative and Trump’s short lived national security director, to name two of the most likely perps, would not be charged as part of a group that joined in a big, bad conspiracy.
This leaves Mueller to make the case that as individuals these players, who may also include Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, longtime Trump confidante and dirty trickster Roger Stone, business associate Felix Sater, and possibly the Trump Organization as a business entity, as well, broke federal law and should be so charged. This could involve a range of charges, including criminal liability, breaking tax and banking laws, failure to register as an agent of a foreign government, lying on security clearance forms, and making misleading statements, which in any event seem much more likely to succeed than impeachment.
The always classy Stone had his Twitter account suspended on Saturday after lashing out at CNN personalities with derogatory slurs, calling the news that Mueller had obtained indictments “fake.”
Mueller’s mandate is broad under the order appointing him.
Once he decides to ask for an indictment, his Washington grand jury would vote on whether to approve it (the votes of only 12 of the 16 grand jurors are required to indict) using the standard of probable cause. He does not need Department of Justice approval, although Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has oversight over the Russia investigation, would have been made aware of the charges brought Friday cited by CNN.
What all this could mean is that at the end of the day, Mueller may end up with indictments unrelated to Russia’s election interference and the campaign’s role in that interference. In other words, a crippling but not devastating blow to the Trump presidency unless Flynn, Manafort or other indicted players can be flipped by Mueller and help him land the biggest fish of all.
There is an outside chance that the sealed indictment charges Trump himself.
Obstruction of justice — specifically Trump’s multiple efforts to try to end the investigation that led to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and Mueller’s appointment — would be the likely charge. But since a sitting president cannot be held to answer criminal charges in court and may only be impeached, a sealed indictment so charging him would be unsealed only on the day he leaves office. What a drag.
What is certain is that Mueller has only fired an opening salvo and the charges are only the beginning of a lengthy litigation process and not the end of the investigation.