Trump is abroad, but revelations continue
He will return to the US amid a cloud of controversy
President Donald Trump may have nothing to hide when it comes to alleged links between his campaign and Russia – but he is behaving in a way that makes it look like he does.
The President is now facing questions about two potential incidents of obstruction of justice: applying pressure on and eventually firing FBI Director James Comey, and separately leaning on National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to publicly deny any collusion between his aides and a Russian operation to disrupt the election last year, according to sources cited by The Washington Post and CNN.
Of all the rapid-fire revelations, these could be the most serious. They indicate not just a single decision, but a possible pattern of behavior – the scope of which appears to be broadening. A key question moving forward will be whether the President or his advisers had intent to influence the investigation into contacts between Russia and his campaign, or whether Trump’s actions were solely an attempt to manage a bad public relations cycle.
The eye-opening new chapter in the swirling Russia saga unfolded as Trump was trying to recast the political narrative of a young presidency already facing an existential crisis.
But as he basked in red carpet welcomes – and some favorable headlines – in Saudi Arabia and Israel on his first foreign tour, his political and possibly legal plight back home seemed to be inexorably worsening.
Sources with knowledge of the events confirmed Washington Post reporting Monday that Trump spoke to the two men after then-FBI chief Comey testified in March that the bureau was investigating whether there had been cooperation between the Russian operation and members of Trump’s campaign team.
For Democrats, the new revelations added to the rapidly accumulating pile of evidence that Trump conspired to obstruct justice. They also highlight Trump’s decision to fire Comey, and subsequent comments in an NBC interview that he did it out of frustration with the Russia probe.
The disclosures over the past few days also include sensational reports last week that Trump told a high-level Russia delegation in the Oval Office that firing the “nut job” Comey had relieved “great pressure” over the Russia investigation.
Trump’s critics are using the latest claims to bolster their contention that the White House is sailing into deeply questionable legal waters. The prospect of impeachment, distant though it may be, was once little more than a liberal pipe dream, but is now at the center of many conversations in Washington.
Most of all, the sheer pace of the revelations, driven by almost daily reports by newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and by CNN, has made it impossible for the White House to frame a workable defense – even when the President was in the country.
After all, Trump’s administration is only four months old. To have this kind of a drumbeat of scandal and revelation this early in a presidency is highly unusual.
“I’m as shocked as anybody else, but it keeps coming,” Democratic Sen Joe Manchin told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday night.
“This is coming at a pretty fast pace right now.”
Calculating or naïve?
What nobody, possibly apart from Trump himself can know, is what lies behind his actions.
But there are at least two possible opposing rationales.
The most serious rests on the possibility that Trump does indeed have something to hide – some past link to Russia or involvement in the hacking scheme either personally or by one of the people in his inner circle.
In logical terms, that would at least explain the decision to sack Comey, his comments to NBC and leaked accounts of his conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
Such a scenario would also validate Democratic claims that Trump has already abused his powers or obstructed justice, offenses that were at the centerpiece of articles of impeachment against Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.
In its Monday night article that first revealed Trump’s conversations with Rogers and Coats, The Washington Post reached for another historical analogy that will also trouble Trump’s supporters.
It quoted Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel of the CIA as saying that Trump’s move recalled President Richard Nixon’s “unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds.” Smith described Trump’s actions as “an appalling abuse of power.”
Trump’s West Wing was unable or unwilling to provide any explanation that diminished the impact of the latest bombshell.
“The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals,” said a White House spokesperson who declined to be named. “The President will continue to focus on his agenda that he was elected to pursue by the American people.”