Choose the truth instead of taking sides in the Trump-Mueller drama  

From The Hill:

Last week, former acting attorney general Sally Yates denounced President Trump for his tweet “demanding” an investigation into allegations of spying on his campaign. Yates is correct that the president, again, crossed a long-honored separation between the White House and the Justice Department. Yates, however, is hardly a compelling voice on the maintaining of proper institutional roles in such cases.

Indeed, her controversial record is a case study of how officials, not just presidents, can exceed their authority in the handling of federal cases. Yates was fired for good cause by Trump after ordering the Justice Department not to defend the president’s travel ban at the start of his administration. Ironically, both Trump and Yates assumed that they had far too much inherent authority, yet, where Trump’s harm was rhetorical, Yates’s harm was institutional.

One of the most interesting aspects of Trump’s controversies over presidential power is the line between the rhetorical and the actual. If you take away Trump’s often jarring language, his actions are not that dissimilar from other presidents. Trump has complied with court orders and he has not fired special counsel Robert Mueller or others associated with the Russia investigation, at least following his disastrous decision to fire FBI director James Comey. President Obama advanced even more sweeping claims of executive authority in federal court and took equally sweeping unilateral actions. […]

Yates is the inverse of Trump in that her rhetoric is reassuring but her actions were ruinous for her institution. There was no ethical or legal basis for her actions during her short term as acting attorney general. Yates showed a fundamental misunderstanding of her role in shutting down Justice Department in defiance of Trump. She simply declared that, “At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with [my] responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.” In other words, convince me.

Our system does not work that way. In taking her unprecedented action, Yates seemed to confuse her personal and her professional judgment on the defense of this federal policy. Absent a clearly unconstitutional act, she had a duty to defend the policy. This is not a judgment call where reasonable minds could disagree. It must be an act that is so clearly and demonstrably unconstitutional that no good-faith argument can be made in court. That clearly was not the case with the travel ban litigation, in which good arguments were presented on both sides.

The respected Office of Legal Counsel had concluded that the president’s order was lawful. Yates chose to disregard those career Justice Department lawyers. Many legal experts believed the existing precedent favored Trump’s right to take the action despite personal reservations over the policy itself. Ultimately, judges divided on the question, though most courts ruled against the administration. The issue is now pending a decision from the Supreme Court, and is likely to divide the justices.

Read the whole thing …

Michael Cohen met with a Russian oligarch in Trump Tower 11 days before Trump’s inauguration

From Business Insider:

Eleven days before he attended President Donald Trump’s inauguration, a prominent Russian oligarch met with Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer to discuss improving US-Russia relations under Trump, The New York Times reported Friday.

The Russian energy tycoon Viktor Vekselberg met with Michael Cohen at Cohen’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, the American businessman Andrew Intrater told The Times.

Intrater, a relative of Vekselberg who donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee, is the head of the US investment firm Columbus Nova. The company paid Cohen approximately $500,000 in consulting fees between January and August 2017 and is a subsidiary of Renova Group, a Russian conglomerate founded by Vekselberg. […]

Intrater told The Times that Vekselberg and Cohen met three times. The second time was during Trump’s inauguration, which was attended by at least six Putin-allied Russians, including Vekselberg.

Shortly after the inauguration, Columbus Nova signed a $1 million consulting contract with Cohen, a deal that’s now under the scrutiny of federal investigators, the Times report said. […]

Mueller interviewed Vekselberg earlier this year after the businessman landed at a New York area airport. The special counsel’s focus on Russian oligarchs comes as investigators are looking into whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled money, either directly or indirectly, into Trump’s campaign or inauguration. Prosecutors are also said to be interested in whether wealthy Russians used American donors or US companies with political action committees to infuse money into the election.

Read the whole thing …

Trump’s relentless attacks on law enforcement are doing lasting harm

From The Atlantic:

If Donald Trump was elected with any mandate, it was to shake up the orthodoxy — to challenge the establishment and its established ways of operating. To drain the swamp. What he actually delivers, however, may be transformation that even many of his supporters come to regret.

Nowhere has the mandate for change been more forcefully exercised than in the field of criminal and counterintelligence investigations of the president and his closest associates. His last tweet of the day on May 20 sounded more like a proclamation:

The tweet provoked complaints that the president was breaching norms essential to the functioning of our democracy: As The New York Times wrote, it “ratcheted up his willingness to impose direct political control over the work of law enforcement officials.” And yet it seems that much of America shrugged, apparently either supportive or tolerant of the president’s efforts to stick it to the man. One person’s hallowed tradition is another’s hidebound ritual. Why should they care? […]

Since Nixon, every president, from Carter to Trump, has adopted policies limiting interactions between the White House and the Justice Department to protect the independence of prosecutorial decisions. The president may set law-enforcement priorities and policies — but regardless of who is president, a bank robbery is still a bank robbery, and the American people have a reasonable expectation that crimes will be investigated and prosecuted in keeping with the president’s constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The Federalist Papers’ famous warning about the dangers of factionalism, which also recognized that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” expressed the principle that “no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” And the same is true, of course, of prosecutors: We do not trust anyone to investigate herself.

Whether these limitations survive beyond Trump’s tenure may depend less on him and more on what follows after him. He will do as much as he can for as long as he can to advance his own interests. If his term ends in disgrace, and the American people look back on this period as a mortifying moment of temporary insanity, the net result may be a backlash that produces even stronger protections for the rule of law. This is what happened after Nixon. If not, however, we should expect to see the sincerest form of flattery from future occupants of the highest office in the land.

For now, the core of the problem is that a substantial number of Americans believe, to one degree or another, that Trump is being railroaded. They so deeply mistrust the establishment, including establishment institutions like the FBI and establishment figures like Robert Mueller, and they so strongly support Trump’s iconoclasm, that they will side with him on almost anything. It may be only a slight exaggeration to say, as the president has, that they would be with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.

Whatever the origins of this mistrust — years of denigrating government by the Republican Party, the constant striving of the news media for Pulitzer-worthy tales of government malfeasance, the decline in life expectancy and standards of living for some Americans — it has propelled Trump to the presidency and it is ultimately what protects him now. Democrats have pinned their hopes on the Mueller investigation, in hopes that a compelling and complete account of grotesque malfeasance will cause the bottom to drop out from under the president. In the meantime, however, he continues to chip away at the foundations of American democracy.

Read the whole thing …

Trump’s assault on American governance just crossed a threshold

Trump is thumbing his nose at the rule that “Presidents don’t get involved in individual criminal investigations, as well as targeting a probe that involved him, his family, and his colleagues.”

From The New Yorker:

Since Donald Trump entered the White House, American democracy has sometimes been described as dangerously fragile, but that isn’t necessarily true. Having survived for two hundred and forty-two years, American democracy is more like a stoutly built ocean liner, with a maniac at the helm who seems intent on capsizing it. Every so often, he takes a violent tug at the tiller, causing the vessel to list alarmingly. So far, some members of the ship’s crew — judges, public servants, and the odd elected official — have managed to rush in, jag the tiller back, and keep the ship afloat. But, as the captain’s behavior grows more erratic, the danger facing the ship and its passengers increases.

In the past forty-eight hours, Trump has demanded that the Justice Department open an investigation into its own investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The Justice Department has already — partially, at least — acceded to his wishes. It feels as though an important threshold has been crossed. […]

That is not to criticize Rosenstein or Christopher Wray, the director of the F.B.I., who were left in an unenviable position by the President’s weekend barrage of tweets, in which he called the Russia investigation a “Witch Hunt” and a “scam,” and then said he would officially demand on Monday “that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

Trump has been railing against the Mueller investigation for months now, of course. But this demand, which followed the revelation that the F.B.I., in the summer of 2016, used a former Cambridge University professor named Stefan Halpern to approach three people connected to the Trump campaign who were suspected of having communicated with Russians, represented a significant escalation. Not only was Trump violating the rule that Presidents don’t get involved in individual criminal investigations, he was targeting a probe that involved him, several of his family members, and many of his closest colleagues.

Read the whole thing …

A plane linked to the Russian government flew into the Seychelles the day before a secret meeting that Mueller is investigating

“A Russian plane with ties to the Kremlin flew to the Seychelles before a secret 2017 meeting between a Trump associate and a Putin ally, according to a report.”

From Business Insider:

A plane owned by a now-sanctioned Russian billionaire who serves in the country’s legislative body flew to the Seychelles the day before a secret 2017 meeting between an associate of President Donald Trump and a top Kremlin ally, NJ Advance Media reported on Thursday, citing airport flight data.

The meeting, along with several others in the Seychelles islands around the same time, has drawn scrutiny from the special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Mueller was tipped off by a witness that the Seychelles meeting was arranged to establish a back-channel of communication between the US and Russia, The Washington Post reported in March.

Read the whole thing …

Mueller rejects Trump request to answer questions in writing

According to Giuliani, “If negotiations are not successful and Mr. Trump is subpoenaed, he will fight it.”

From CBS News:

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is now on President Trump’s legal team, told CBS News correspondent Paula Reid Monday afternoon that special counsel Robert Mueller’s office has rejected proposals to allow Mr. Trump to answer questions from investigators in writing.

The president’s legal team has previously signaled that this would be their preferred format for a possible interview as it helps protect Mr. Trump from the possibility of lying or misleading investigators, which is a criminal offense. […]

If negotiations are not successful and Mr. Trump is subpoenaed, he will fight it, Giuliani said. The case would likely end up at the Supreme Court.

Giuliani is not suggesting that Mr. Trump would ignore a subpoena, but rather that they will use it as another opportunity to negotiate an interview on their terms. If that does not work, they will challenge it in court.

Read the whole thing …

Trump throws Rudy Giuliani under the bus: ‘He’ll get his facts straight’

“The president contradicted his lead attorney in remarks Friday.”

From Huffpost:

Rudy Giuliani put it all out on the table this week. And now, after days of confusion and speculation that he may have exposed President Donald Trump to new legal jeopardy, he’s gathering it all back in.

In remarks to the media Friday, Trump contradicted statements the former New York City mayor made earlier in the week regarding a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels just before the 2016 election.

“He just started yesterday,” Trump said of Giuliani, who started as the lead attorney regarding issues related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in late April. “He’ll get his facts straight.”

On Wednesday, Giuliani made waves when he told Fox News the president had in fact repaid his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for the funds. Trump had previously denied all knowledge of the payment.

Trump seemed to initially confirm Giuliani’s statements in a series of tweets on Thursday morning.

As of Friday, though, Trump’s explanation is apparently that Giuliani didn’t know what he was talking about.

“When Rudy made the statements ― he’s great ― but Rudy had just started and he wasn’t totally familiar with everything,” Trump said. “And Rudy ― we love Rudy ― he’s a special guy. What he really understands is this is a witch hunt.”

“But when he made certain statements, he just started yesterday,” the president went on. “So that’s it.”

“It’s actually very simple,“ Trump added. “I say, you know what, learn before you speak. It’s a lot easier.”

Read the whole thing …

Trump’s Russia strategy: Bash Mueller to beat impeachment

“Giuliani and the White House fear Congress more than criminal charges.”

From Politico:

President Donald Trump and his lawyers have made a strategic calculation that their fight against special counsel Robert Mueller is more political than it is legal.

They’re banking that the lead Russia investigator will follow long-standing Justice Department practice that a sitting president can’t be indicted, and that the only real threat to Trump’s survival is impeachment.

So long as that theory holds, Trump’s plan is to forcefully challenge Mueller in the arena he knows best — not the courtroom but the media, with a public campaign aimed at the special counsel’s credibility, especially among Republican voters and GOP members of Congress.

“The public strategy has now subsumed the legal strategy,” said a source who has worked with the president’s lawyers. “The public stance is fight, fight, fight. So the legal strategy is now fight, fight, fight.”

Trump’s legal team — now led by a talkative Rudy Giuliani — increasingly sees their goal as fighting potential impeachment proceedings by a Democratic-controlled Congress next year, according to multiple sources close to the White House.

And while talks are continuing with Mueller on the prospect of a presidential interview, his lawyers are also lining up to battle Mueller all the way to the Supreme Court if the special counsel elevates the issue with a subpoena.

Read the whole thing …

Mueller ‘threatened Trump with subpoena’ amid Russia probe

“Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned he could issue a subpoena for Donald Trump to appear before a grand jury as part of a probe into alleged Russian election meddling, US media report.”

From the BBC:

Mr Mueller suggested the move during talks with Mr Trump’s lawyers in March.

He said the subpoena would compel the president to face investigators, the Washington Post reports.

It is believed to be the first time the special counsel raised the possibility of forcing Mr Trump to testify.

During the meeting in March, Mr Trump’s lawyers insisted that the president was under no obligation to face questions by federal investigators in relation to the Russia inquiry, according to the Washington Post, which cited four people familiar with the encounter.

However Mr Mueller’s team reportedly responded by suggesting they would issue a subpoena if Mr Trump declined. They agreed to provide the president’s lawyers with more specific information about the questions they wished to ask Mr Trump.

The president’s former lawyer, John Dowd, also told Reuters news agency on Tuesday that Mr Mueller mentioned at the meeting the possibility of forcing Mr Trump to face questions.

Mr Dowd, who resigned about a week and a half after the meeting, said he told investigators that the probe was not “some game”, adding: “You are screwing with the work of the president of the United States.”

Read the whole thing …

Here’s the question on Mueller’s list that’s raising new concerns about Trump and Russia

The consensus of opinion of a number of pundits is that Mueller already knows the answer to the question he wants to put to Trump — and which relates to whether Trump’s campaign “initiated, rather than merely accepted, contact with President Vladimir Putin’s regime” and whether Trump himself was also involved.

From CNBC:

Despite President Donald Trump’s insistence to the contrary Tuesday, potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is, indeed, a focus of four dozen questions special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly submitted to Trump’s legal team.

One question in particular is raising new concerns about whether Trump’s campaign actively sought help from Moscow — and highlights campaign chief Paul Manafort in the process.

“What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?” the question asks. […]

Prior media reports have documented attempts from Russian sources to reach out to Trump’s campaign. Most notably, Trump campaign officials, including Manafort and Donald Trump Jr., met Kremlin-connected lawyers in a now-infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. The Russians had promised damaging information on Trump’s political opponent, Hillary Clinton.

But the question about campaign outreach to Russia flips the script, giving a new thrust to the much-debated possibility that Trump’s campaign may have initiated, rather than merely accepted, contact with President Vladimir Putin’s regime. […]

While Trump said the “phony crime” of collusion “never existed,” David Shapiro, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that lawyers generally stick to the “rule of thumb” of “never ask a question unless you already know the answer.”

Read the whole thing …