‘Russia thing’ refuses to come to a head – and for Donald Trump that’s a problem

Paul McGeough

Washington: Another week in Washington – and what could possibly go wrong?

Donald Trump broke his Twitter silence early on Sunday, to renew his attacks on James Comey. He fingered the former FBI director as the source of more leaks than one which he volunteered in Senate testimony last week.

“I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible. Totally illegal? Very cowardly!” Trump tweeted, though many legal scholars argue that, as a former government employee, Comey was within his rights in making unclassified material available to The New York Times.

The President and his surrogates have made selective use of Comey’s sensational appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee and a television audience of more than 19 million, to claim vindication; and to attack Comey’s credibility.

“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication,” Trump tweeted on Friday.

“There was no ‘there’ there,” tweeted Jay Sekulow, a member Trump’s “Russia thing” legal team. “There was no basis upon which an obstruction of justice charge can be raised by what was allegedly said.”

Legal experts are divided on Sekulow’s claim of no case to answer.

But there are many “theres” to prime the pump of speculation and analysis in a new week.

There was Preet Bharara, the hard-hitting US attorney for the Southern District of New York whom Trump sacked in March, telling the Sunday talk shows that, like Comey’s nine encounters with Trump, he felt that the President was attempting to “cultivate some kind of relationship” – a process the New York attorney brought to a halt by the simple expedient of refusing to take Trump’s calls.

Bharara told ABC’s This Week that, as president-elect, Trump had called twice, “ostensibly just to shoot the breeze”.

It was Trump’s third call, in March that Bharara refused to take, explaining: “It’s a very weird and peculiar thing for a one-on-one conversation, without the Attorney General, without warning, between the President and me or any United States attorney who has been asked to investigate various things.”

Quizzed on Comey’s claim that Trump pressured him to abandon the FBI investigation of disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Bharara said: “No one knows right now whether there is a provable case of obstruction [of justice by Trump. But] I think there’s absolutely evidence to begin a case.”

There were Republican senators Susan Collins and James Lankford warning on Sunday that, if Trump doesn’t clarify his reference to the possible existence of tape-recordings of his encounters with Comey, he could face a subpoena to produce them to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I don’t understand why the President just doesn’t clear this matter up once and for all,” Collins told CNN. “[Trump] should voluntarily turn them over.”

Lankford, meanwhile, was telling CBS: “We’ve obviously pressed the White House.” 

But Trump still plays a guessing game on the tapes – on Friday he teased reporters: “I’ll tell you about that maybe sometime in the very near future.” 

And there was Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General, putting up his hand to give evidence to the same Senate committee. This came after Comey alluded to the possible existence of a previously unknown reason or reasons that would have required Sessions to recuse himself from any Justice Department consideration of the “Russia thing”. This reason was different from his two known meetings with Russian officials, one of which he failed to disclose.

Sessions is scheduled to appear on Tuesday – possibly in open session; maybe behind closed doors. This was the Comey drop on Comey: “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”

And there’s speculation that Trump’s lawyers might have gone too far in their claims that Trump has been exonerated. Their insistence that Comey lied under oath most likely guarantees that special counsel Robert Mueller will want sworn testimony from Trump – which, the President declared on Friday, he is happy to provide. 

Prominent Republican senators – including John McCain, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham – who have previously questioned aspects of Trump’s conduct, joined the circling Republican wagons.

“I don’t believe the President is under investigation for colluding with Russia, I don’t believe there’s anything to investigate when it comes to obstruction of justice,” Graham said.

“What he did was wrong, it was inappropriate, rude and crude, but not a crime.”

And holding to an emerging Republican defence that Trump is merely inexperienced in the ways of Washington, Texas Senator John Cornyn told reporters: “It’s no secret to anybody that this President is a novice in public office.”

The trouble for Trump is that the myriad congressional investigations and the Mueller probe will go on for months – maybe years.

If history is a guide, there’s a risk that what emerges at the end of these inquiries will bear little resemblance to the initial reason for their existence.

When the Clintons’ Whitewater investigation began, Monica Lewinski was unknown to the world and when it came to a House vote on impeachment, the Clinton wrongdoing was the lies he told.

Ditto Richard Nixon – he went down for the cover-up, not for the Watergate break-in.

The “Russia thing” inquiries have yet to get up a head of steam.

But already rafts of evidence are piquing investigative and prosecutorial interest and a parade of Trump’s current and past associates are in the gun.

His son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner; his sacked campaign manager Paul Manafort; former adviser Carter Page; the scandal-prone Flynn; White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House Counsel Don McGahn, Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein; and probably Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers.

Despite assembling a single-purpose Russia legal defence team, Trump wants to move ahead, tossing off tweets on how well the US economy is performing and retweeting the opinion of Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who seems to argue that all Justice Department investigations are subject to presidential whims. 

Here’s Dershowitz’s Friday tweet: “We should stop talking about obstruction of justice. No plausible case. We must distinguish crimes from pol sins.” 

Trump’s voter approval ratings continue to languish at historic lows for a new president – in the mid- to high-30s. And while Republican and Democratic voters have locked-in views of the President, his standing with independent voters is likely to suffer as Comey’s damning critique of “the nature of the man” percolates in political discourse.

Trump’s poor ratings overseas have become a problem, too, seemingly impacting on his decisions on where to go in the world.

Recently returned from Saudi Arabia, where he was lionised with a royal welcome, Trump has an invitation from the British government to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

But the White House is reportedly considering scrapping that opportunity for more pomp and ceremony, because of a savage backlash in Britain, after Trump’s tweeted criticism of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, following the most recent London terrorist attack in which eight died.

 

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