TSG IntelBrief: Nine Tumultuous Days in Washington
May 18, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the FBI’s ongoing investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
• The appointment represents an acknowledgement from the Justice Department of the importance of a full and impartial investigation into Russian interference in the election.
• In the nine days since President Trump fired FBI Director Comey, the White House has been rocked by nearly non-stop disclosures and scandals.
• While concerns remain over partisan influence in the ongoing Russia-related investigations in the House and Senate, the appointment of Mueller—well-known for his objectivity and integrity—restores some level of faith that at least one of the investigations will be credible.
In Washington, DC, a city long known for legislative gridlock, the rapid speed of events and reporting concerning the investigation into possible inappropriate contacts between the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump and Russia is remarkable. On May 9, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey—a move that was technically within the president’s authority yet unprecedented and extremely problematic given the context in which it took place. On May 17, after nine whirlwind days of public outrage and continued gaffes from the White House, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of Robert Mueller, a well-respected former FBI director, as special counsel to oversee the FBI’s investigation into improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Amid the near-daily revelations of possible wrongdoings by the Trump administration, some important details about the Russia-related investigations have been increasingly lost in the noise. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein is the acting attorney general for the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election because of the fact Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the matter. Sessions—who had initially been overseeing the Russia investigation despite his close ties to the Trump campaign—folded to public pressure calling for his recusal in early March, but only after it was revealed that he had not disclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings. President Trump had fired a previous acting attorney general, Sally Yates, in January after she refused to implement the administration’s legally-challenged travel and immigration ban. In sworn testimony on May 8, Yates testified that she had warned the White House that then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was compromised by lies he made about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, and was therefore vulnerable to blackmail. The White House ignored her warning, only asking for Flynn’s resignation when the news of his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak became public.
According to a New York Times report, former FBI Director Comey kept notes regarding his meetings and conversations with President Trump. The day after Flynn’s resignation, the notes reportedly indicate that President Trump asked Comey to stay behind after a meeting to talk privately. In that private meeting, Trump reportedly asked Comey if he could drop the investigation into Flynn. If such a request was in fact made by the president, it would arguably cross the line from poor judgment and veer into obstruction of justice. On May 17, it was also reported that the Trump administration, which has repeatedly stated it was not aware of Flynn’s legal issues concerning an unrelated and undeclared lobbying contract with the Turkish government, had been told by Flynn himself that he was under FBI investigation. It now seems that President Trump appointed Flynn as national security advisor despite these warnings and concerns.
The May 9 firing of Director Comey was initially spun by the Trump administration as nothing more than a sensible decision made on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. By the end of the week, however, President Trump had contradicted his administration’s own account of the rationale for firing Comey, stating in an interview with NBC News that he had been planning to fire the FBI director ‘no matter what’ and that the Russia investigation was on his mind while deciding to do so. Such an admission also veers into the hazy area of possible elements of obstruction of justice. As concerns over the Justice Department’s ability and willingness to investigate the Trump administration have only grown larger since May 9, the May 17 appointment of former FBI Director Mueller provides an exceedingly necessary degree of independence to the leadership of the investigation. The nine days between the firing of one FBI director over—in the president’s own words—the Russia investigation, and the appointment of another former FBI director to lead the very same investigation, are without precedent in U.S. history.
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