The Scandal Noose Tightens: What Did Trump Know & When Did He Know It?

In late June of 1973, Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the special Senate committee convened to investigate the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building, uttered the immortal words that would assure his place in history: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” 

Fast forward 45 years and that again is the raging question following a week of developments that tightened the noose around the embattled Donald Trump’s neck:

  • District Judge Beryl Howell extended the term of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s grand jury, which was empaneled in July 2017 to investigate Trump campaign-Russia ties and has approved multiple indictments against Trump associates and Russian spies and trolls, for up to another six months.   
  • Paul Manafort’s lawyers inadvertently revealed in a court filing that he shared internal campaign polling data with suspected spy Konstantin Kilimnik, laying out the pathway Trump’s campaign manager used to give Russia access to the data it needed for its social media-based campaign against Hillary Clinton. 
  • The Supreme Court refused to intercede in a mysterious fight over a sealed grand jury subpoena to a foreign corporation issued by a federal prosecutor who probably is Mueller, raising the possibility that Trump may not be able to rely on the high court to protect him. 
  • Benjamin Wittes, editor of the Lawfare blog and a leading legal scholar, wrote that no attorney general will stand in the way of releasing Mueller’s hugely anticipated final report to Congress and the public because there is no plausible legal basis to cover up crimes of “monstrous criminality.”      
  • The New York Times reported that in the days after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, law enforcement officials became so concerned by Trump’s behavior that they opened an investigation into not just whether he was obstructing justice, but whether he was secretly working on behalf of Russia. 

The White House reaction to The Times blockbuster was predictably disingenuous. 

“Unlike President Obama, who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement, adding that the report was “absurd.” 

Trump, meanwhile, unleashed a tweetstorm of criticism against Comey and the FBI on Saturday morning that had earmarks of being written by his lawyers given that the tweets actually were literate and contained no ALL CAPS.   

Yes, yes, yes.  You’ve read over and over that the gig was up for Trump.  That the ax was about to fall. 

But what is different this time, and this time happens to be contemporaneous with the greatest of Trump’s innumerable self-inflicted wounds — the longest government shutdown in history over his Great Wall of America — is that our accumulated knowledge of the scandal enables us to reach the inescapable conclusion that Trump was intimately involved in his campaign’s collusion with Russia and that, as the Manafort court filing boo-boo revealed, Mueller certainly knows a great deal more about that than we do.   

And arguably even more importantly, after becoming president, Trump was acting on a pro-Russia agenda.   

This possibly included promises made to Vladimir Putin to pursue an isolationist foreign policy beneficial to the Kremlin (which is exactly what has happened), shut down the FBI’s nascent investigation (which has not happened despite Trump’s many efforts) and move on eliminating the Obama era sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy and negatively impacting on the Russian president’s popularity at home (which has not happened because of Congress and pre-existing laws Trump cannot unilaterally scrap). 

The onslaught of bad news for the president comes as he and the Trump Organization bring on 17 new defense lawyers, a number of whom actually appear to be competent, in anticipation of a whole lot more bad news with additional Mueller indictments expected, an onslaught of investigations from newly-empowered House Democrats just getting under way and protracted court fights over executive privilege.   

The hiring of former White House lawyer Stefan Passantino by the Trump Organization this week underscores the vulnerability of the president’s family businesses, which he has never divested himself from and are run by his two oldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump.  This raises a host of legal issues because of the overlap between the Trump Organization and decisions made by the White House.  Then there is the involvement in both by Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer turned cooperating witness for both the special counsel and New York prosecutors and announced witness at a forthcoming House hearing into Trump’s business ties. 

The idea of the sitting U.S. president being investigated as an agent of a foreign nation, let alone Russia, should leave us gasping for air.  Are you? 

“It’s mind-blowing and . . . any determination that the president of the U.S. had been or was a Russian agent would be out of The Manchurian Candidate,” said former U.S. attorney Harry Litman as he gasped for air.  “And I would have to imagine it would make it untenable for him to be president but it would also be the political scandal of all time.” 

There are two big takeaways from the week the noose tightened. 

First, despite much admirable work, the news media — including The Times and WaPo — have kept missing the big picture, and The Times will never live down the October 31, 2016 whopper of a headline 

Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia

although the marginally comprehensible story beneath it did not exactly support that. Then there were subsequent stories and a public editor column that sought to distance the Gray Lady from the burgeoning scandal while being overly tough on Clinton in a number of weakly reported stories. 

Second, in the context of Putin working to elect the vulnerable-to-blackmail Trump because he would help his agenda, the big picture is that the Russia scandal investigation has never really been about obstruction of justice on the one hand and collusion on the other.  As The Times bombshell revealed despite its maddening nuanced-ness, the investigation has been primarily a counterintelligence investigation with ancillary criminal aspects, including obstruction of justice.   

In other words, the obstruction was a big part of the collusion.  With what Donald Trump knew and when he knew it right in the bullseye.  

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on January 12, 2019 on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.

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