Is President Donald Trump a Russian agent?
By Frank Vogl
You might say the suggestion is ‘ludicrous.” That is the word which chief White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders used.
Donald Trump’s “tweeted” response was, characteristically, full of scorn at the temerity of The New York Times to release late on Friday evening a story headlined “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia,” a suspicion this publication has had for quite some time.
This is the stuff of novels, but to the consternation of many in Washington the investigations of Donald Trump become ever more sensational.
If the story is accurate, then Trump would be the first U.S. president investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under its counter-intelligence mandate. Such investigations are rare and there are a series of protocols within the Department of Justice that need to be followed when such an investigation is launched.
Confirming a new attorney general
The story has many implications for the investigations now being pursued by both Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller as well as by powerful committees of the U.S. House of Representatives that are now under the control of the Democrats.
In addition, in coming days, William Barr, Trump’s nominee to be Attorney-General and the presumed new head of the U.S. Justice Department, will face confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate.
Barr will be pressed forcefully by committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, to not only provide assurances that he will not interfere with the Mueller investigations and suppress Mueller’s final report — whenever it is ready. He will also be asked to recuse himself from oversight of the investigation.
At the same time, President Trump could well withdraw the nomination if Barr agrees to recuse himself. After all, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions precisely because he did this and left oversight to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, for that reason. Unfortunately from Trump’s vantage point, Rosenstein has courageously protected the Mueller probes.
The alleged counterintelligence investigation by the FBI was launched, according to The New York Times, soon after Trump fired former FBI chief James Comey and stated publicly in May 2017. The ostensible reason was that he did so because Comey refused to close-down the FBI investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 president campaign.
The FBI was also influenced by a memorandum developed in mid-2016 by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, who suggested that the Russians had material that they could use to blackmail Trump.
Steele had worked closely with the FBI and U.S. intelligence over many years and is respected. He provided important information to the FBI, for example, some years ago on alleged Russian bribery of FIFA, the world soccer authority, as it awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia.
Quite apart from the many occasions over the last two years when Trump has publicly praised Vladimir Putin or taken policy actions that might benefit Russia (such as the sudden announcement that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syria), there are a series of factual events that Mueller is currently investigating and that must be of grave concern to Trump.
None of the leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives have said they are ready to launch an impeachment process, but one important date to keep in mind in that regard is that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former corporate lawyer, will testify publicly before the House’s Oversight and Reform Committee on February 7.
The “just follow the money” trail
Mr. Cohen, who has been found guilty of assorted crimes and is on his way to at least a three-year prison term, will be asked to provide details, among other things, on the negotiations he conducted on behalf of the Trump Organization through mid-2016 to secure a Moscow property deal.
Trump has repeatedly stated he had no business dealings with the Russians as he campaigned for the presidency. However, Cohen’s court sentencing statement flatly contradicted this.
The “follow the money” trail has always been part of the Russian investigation and involves both top officials who worked in Trump’s election campaign as well as of the Trump Organization itself (never mind Jared Kushner and his real estate dealings).
It may in the end very well be what leads to what Americans call “the smoking gun” — the raw, hard evidence that ties together all the nefarious activities and proves that there was collusion between Trump and the Russians in the campaign.
One albeit counterintuitive indicator for that may well be that Mr. Trump, almost daily declares “no collusion.” As it says in Hamlet, of all plays, “the lady doth protest too much.”
Then, in a truly bizarre event, lawyers for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort made a mistake and failed to delete references in a recent court filing to the fact that Manafort had provided the Russians with confidential Trump campaign opinion poll data in 2016.
That data was almost certainly used by the Russians to target their social media and election hacking efforts, which have been highlighted in separate indictments of more than a dozen Russian intelligence agents by Mueller.
Manafort worked for many years for pro-Russian businessmen and politicians in Ukraine. A number of them were invited to Trump’s January 2017 inauguration and at that time had a series of briefings with senior Trump officials.
At that time, Trump’s then new National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, may also have had dealings with these people. It is clear that he lied to the FBI about his associations with Russians for which he was criminally indicted. Flynn now awaits sentencing.
Business as usual
Trump’s Tweet reactions to the New York Times story included:
Wow, just learned in the failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!
Meanwhile, as Trump refuses to compromise with Congress over the funding of his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, the U.S. government has been shut down for the longest period in history.
Unperturbed by the shutdown, which Trump has promised could last forever, the White House is hiring 17 more lawyers to assist it with the multiple hearings and investigations of the Trump Administration’s alleged unethical activities and mismanagement that various committees of the House of Representatives are about to launch.