Politics

Analysis: An Odd Sequence of Russia-Related Events

There were signs aplenty that something was coming in the Russia inquiry

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is leading the probe into Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The puzzle pieces were strewn about the board late last week, several small fragments waiting to be put together. There were signs aplenty something was coming in the congressional and federal probes into Russia’s 2016 election meddling, but in isolation, each piece failed to reveal much.

A relatively quiet day at the White House was upended Friday evening by a CNN report that Justice Department special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is poised to reveal formal charges against individuals who once had ties to or remain close to President Donald Trump. Other major media outlets matched the report, which came after several brow-furrowing developments that suggested increased activity in the federal inquiry.

The signs began to emerge Thursday afternoon. Richard M. Burr, the North Carolina Republican leading the Senate’s Russia probe, had a light but noteworthy encounter with reporters.

As members finished their work week, Burr walked in the Senate basement toward the subway tunnel. Perhaps surprised that he was unmolested by journalists who have been eager to buttonhole him over the last several months about the investigation, he held up his hands and made a face.

“Aren’t you going to ask questions?” he said in a jocular tone, addressing a small group of reporters who lingered. When one reporter replied that he never answered, Burr shrugged and said, “Yeah, but you can still ask,” acknowledging his recent tight-lipped approach. The group laughed, and Burr made his way to the train heading to the Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings, seemingly in a breezier mood than he had displayed of late.  

That was followed in the evening by a House Intelligence Committee member’s cryptic response to Republicans’ coordinated attempts to make 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton the focus of the Justice Department investigation.

The Republican National Committee’s official Twitter account on Thursday told its 1.5 million followers: “The script has flipped on the Russia investigation. Now Hillary and the DNC have explaining to do.”

But California Democrat Eric Swalwell, who has been a leading voice as the House Intelligence panel conducted its own Russia probe, responded with what appeared to be one part mockery and one part riddle. He urged his own 140,000 Twitter followers to “save this tweet,” telling people to “trust me.”

Friday, an unusually still day at the White House, brought even more possible clues.

Carter Page, the Trump-connected energy consultant who came under scrutiny in 2016 for alleged questionable ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government while he was part of the Trump campaign, met privately with the Senate Intelligence Committee staff for around five hours.

As he did so, the House Intelligence Committee made an announcement about his testimony before that panel, which is scheduled for Thursday. It will be closed to the press and members of the public — but a transcript will be released later.

Another puzzle piece hit the table Friday night when word surfaced that Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who was thrust into the temporary top role at the DOJ earlier this year, abruptly announced he would resign. Boente briefly replaced acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January after Trump fired her, meaning he had oversight of the department’s Russia probe, which was then being overseen by FBI Director James B. Comey before Trump fired him as well.

Boente, who has been serving as acting assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s National Security Division since April, will remain in his posts until successors are confirmed. A 33-year veteran of the Justice Department, he had not previously indicated a desire to leave public service.

Then came the CNN report, followed by multiple outlets confirming that an indictment could be served as early as Monday.

While all indications are that the president has yet to be interviewed by Mueller, the probe has touched a number of his top 2016 campaign aides, current and former White House aides and longtime confidants who could be rounded up by Mueller’s men. (The White House declined to comment for this report.)

Here are five of the likeliest outcomes.

Leading indicators

Paul Manafort is indicted. The former Trump campaign chairman has plenty of ties to Russia and other onetime clients in the region, including former senior Ukrainian leaders.

Most recently, reports surfaced of alleged business dealings totaling $60 million over the past decade between Manafort and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close ties to Putin. Manafort worked for Deripaska from 2005 to 2009, The Associated Press reported.

Mueller has reportedly warned Manafort, who is said to have supplied the Putin-connected Deripaska with briefings on the 2016 campaign, that he likely will be indicted.

Michael Flynn is indicted. The retired Army three-star general was once a well-respected military intelligence officer. He rose through the ranks to lead the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Then, former aides and confidants have told NPR and other outlets, something changed.

Flynn became enamored with the kind of conservative conspiracy theories that helped power Trump to the White House. Flynn brought to the campaign a list of questionable decisions, many involving his ties to Russian officials, as a general turned consultant. House Democrats have pressed for their Republican counterparts to subpoena the White House for documents they allege will show Flynn’s “egregious conflicts of interest” due to his business dealings with foreign governments. One is Turkey. Another is Russia.

Page is indicted. Though Page has denied any nefarious links to Russian officials, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he planned to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination if called to testify in that panel’s Russia probe. While he is slated to appear before the House Intelligence panel next week, he has given no indication if he’ll be cooperative in its investigation.

The long shots

Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr. is indicted. The latter is the president’s eldest son and the former is his son-in-law and a senior White House adviser. Both were involved with a July 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who allegedly came with Kremlin-supplied dirt on Clinton.

Following nearly three hours of testimony before Senate Intelligence staffers on July 24, Kushner stood outside the White House and denied colluding with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, saying all of his actions were both legal and proper: “I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so.”

Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russia operations, on Friday took to Twitter to summarize what might have gotten Trump Jr. in legal hot water when it came to that July 2016 meeting: “Don Jr took a mtg to get info Russians wanted to give.”

An email exchange surfaced this summer with a former Russian business partner of his father that shows Trump Jr. enthusiastically accepting the man’s offer to pass the alleged Kremlin-provided information on Clinton to the Trump campaign.

If Mueller is targeting the commander in chief, going after his son or son-in-law this early would be a way of getting Trump’s attention.

Trump fires Mueller. Trump has already ousted Comey, who has said the president asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn.

“No, not at all,” Trump told reporters on Oct. 16 when asked if he was considering firing Mueller.

But that was before the president, who values and rewards loyalty, was facing the immediate prospect of indictments in the Russia probe. And Trump made clear that day his disgust for the ongoing DOJ investigation.

“I’d like to see it end. Look, the whole Russian thing was an excuse [by the Democrats],” he said. “So there has been absolutely no collusion.”

There is a modern precedent, though controversial and presidency-ending, for such a move.

The modern standard-bearer is Richard Nixon, the president whom Trump’s critics often cite when pointing to his rhetoric and missteps. The so-called Saturday Night Massacre in 1973 went down after Nixon’s insistence that the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate cover-up be fired and ended with the Justice Department’s top two officials quitting in protest. Nixon eventually resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee reported articles of impeachment but before the full House could vote.

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