Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin could destroy each other
If Vladimir Putin did help to put Donald Trump in the White House, it would be the ultimate intelligence coup. Yet, it might also prove to be the ultimate own goal. An operation designed to ease the pressure on Mr Putin’s government by installing a …
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If Vladimir Putin did help to put Donald Trump in the White House, it would be the ultimate intelligence coup. Yet, it might also prove to be the ultimate own goal. An operation designed to ease the pressure on Mr Putin’s government by installing a friendly face in the White House has instead led to a tightening of sanctions on Russia, and a dangerous increase in the domestic political pressure on the Russian president.
As for Mr Trump, his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia may have aided his electoral victory at the risk of destroying his presidency. It would be a strange irony if the intimacy of the Putin and Trump camps ultimately ended both presidents’ political careers.
Of course, the Russian government and Mr Trump’s diehard defenders still deny that any such collusion took place. But the US intelligence services are certain that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic party emails.
It seems likely that the hack influenced the course of a tight election. I was in Philadelphia on the eve of the Democratic convention in July 2016 when the first leaked emails were released. The revelation that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, had been privately disparaging the Bernie Sanders campaign forced her resignation, and ensured that the convention got off to a chaotic start.
Mr Sanders’ supporters were convinced that their man had been robbed. And Sanders voters who switched to the Republicans, were crucial to Mr Trump’s victories in the vital states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. We now also know that Russian operators used Facebook and Twitter to spread anti-Clinton messages.
Throughout the campaign, Mr Trump was consistently sympathetic to the Kremlin. Whether he was motivated by ideology, investment or some embarrassing secret has yet to emerge.
But the Russian connection set off the chain of events that may ultimately unravel his presidency. Alarmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe into his Russian contacts, Mr Trump sacked James Comey, the head of the FBI.
The backlash against the Comey sacking led to the appointment of Robert Mueller, a former head of the Bureau, as a special prosecutor to look into the Trump-Russia connection. And the remorseless progress of the Mueller inquiry is likely to spark indictments and resignations. That, in turn, could lead to the impeachment of Mr Trump — and the destruction of his presidency.
As for Mr Putin, the moment it became clear that his gamble might backfire was when Mr Trump was forced to sack General Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, for not disclosing contacts with the Russian government. From that point on, it became politically impossible for Mr Trump to help Russia by easing sanctions. On the contrary, the backlash against Russian interference in the US election has led to the intensification of sanctions, with a distrustful Congress ensuring that Mr Trump cannot lift these measures unilaterally.
Indeed, for the Republican Congress getting tough on Russia seems to have become a surrogate for getting tough on Mr Trump. The sanctions added over the summer were aimed specifically at the Russian mining and oil industries, In response, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, accused the US of “a declaration of full-fledged economic warfare on Russia”.
So far from improving under Mr Trump, US-Russian relations are now as bitter as at any time since the height of the cold war. Realising that the Trump administration will not be able to lift sanctions, the Kremlin resorted to a mass expulsion of US diplomats in response to an earlier expulsion of Russians by the Obama administration. The prospect that the US might supply arms to Ukraine has become much more real. And Russia is about to embark on some major military exercises in eastern Europe, which will heighten US fears.
The irony for Mr Putin is that, if he had simply let events take their course, sanctions on Russia could have been eased in the natural run of events — even with Hillary Clinton in the White House. Mrs Clinton had already tried one “reset” with Russia as secretary of state, and might have been prepared to try another. Many in Europe were also tiring of sanctions on Russia.
When the Mueller inquiry reports, there is likely to be a renewed spike in American outrage towards Russia. The most obvious threat is posed to Mr Trump. But the Mueller inquiry also poses an indirect threat to Mr Putin. He will contest a presidential election in March and faces a re-energised opposition, led by the popular and daring Alexei Navalny, and a deteriorating economy that has hit Russian consumers hard. Even though very few people expect Mr Putin to lose the election, the pro-Putin euphoria of a couple of years ago is clearly fading. Articles about the post-Putin era have begun to appear in the Russian media.
Above all, the most powerful economic interests in Russia now know that there is no longer any light at the end of the sanctions tunnel. In fact, things are likely to get worse. Something radical will have to change to get sanctions lifted. And that change might be the removal of Mr Putin from the Kremlin. Indeed, it is only when Mr Trump and Mr Putin both go that it may truly be possible to reset US-Russian relations.
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The Trump-Russia Investigation has accelerated. Armed with more evidence, and assisted by many of the most talented prosecutors and investigators in the country, special counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., to investigate whether President Trump and his associates colluded with Russian operatives to win the White House.
The fact that a federal grand jury has been impaneled is a significant development by itself; prosecutors don’t ordinarily convene grand juries unless there is a compelling reason to do so. The grand jury probe has expanded to include whether Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey. And it is also reasonable to believe that Mueller’s team is presenting evidence to the grand jury relating to financial connections between Trump, the Trump Organization, and Trump’s business associates with Russia and Russian interests.
We have a fairly good picture of where the grand jury investigation will go. Although it is not known who all has been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, many of them have already made statements, and we can reasonably assume that many of them already have been interrogated by federal investigators. We do not know whether any of these individuals has sought immunity from prosecution, been granted immunity, and has given testimony. Also, the fact that investigators obtained a search warrant to search Paul Manafort’s home in July is quite significant. Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager and had the most far-reaching financial ties with the Ukraine and Russia. Prosecutors in order to obtain a warrant must demonstrate probable cause to believe that Manafort committed federal crimes.
But clearly the most critical witness of all, and a likely target of the investigation, is Trump himself. As the grand jury investigation accelerates, and it focuses on Trump’s role, he will almost certainly be subpoenaed, and his testimony demanded. When that happens, what follows is unclear. Given Trump’s almost pathological contempt for the rule of law and for Mueller’s investigation, which Trump has repeatedly disparaged as a “witch hunt,” it is reasonably predictable that Trump’s lawyers will flout the grand jury’s investigation, mock Mueller, and refuse to testify. Will Trump succeed in spurning the process?
It should be emphasized that Trump has no legal privilege to avoid testifying before the grand jury. A grand jury, the most formidable investigative body in the United States, has the power to compel testimony from anyone, even a president, as Bill Clinton was compelled to do for the first time in U.S. history in the 1998 investigation by independent counsel Kenneth Starr into whether he lied about having an inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. And the Supreme Court has consistently reaffirmed the awesome powers of the grand jury, stating that “the public has a right to every man’s evidence,” including the president.
Although Trump’s lawyers most likely will advise him to resist testifying, probably claiming, as did former President Richard Nixon, some type of executive privilege, they will almost certainly lose. The Supreme Court decisively rejected that claim when Nixon refused to comply with a grand jury subpoena for records of conversations with White House associates.
When Trump is summoned, and presumably despite his resistance if ordered by a court to testify, will he comply? If not, will he be held in contempt? If Trump and the prosecutors try to negotiate some compromise, it is conceivable that the prosecutors will grant him immunity and thereby compel him to testify. As long as the prosecutors are careful, giving Trump immunity will not necessarily have any significant legal impact on the investigation, or the ability of prosecutors to charge Trump with crimes.
Immunity prevents the prosecutors from using Trump’s testimony against him, and from using any evidentiary leads gained from his testimony. But assuming that proof of Trump’s criminal offenses has already been discovered—such as proof of his obstruction of justice in seeking to halt the Flynn investigation or firing Comey—then despite giving him immunity, that proof can legally be used to prosecute him. And despite immunity, Trump can be prosecuted for perjury for giving false testimony.
Based on information that already is known, and reasonable inferences from other information that has likely been discovered (such as Trump’s financial records and testimony from other witnesses), these are some of the general areas that Trump likely would be questioned about. It is important to note that each of these areas is a relatively core subject, and would likely be the foundation to develop peripheral questions:
– Did Trump know when he was running for president and hired Paul Manafort as his campaign manager that Manafort had extensive financial dealings and lobbying work with Ukrainian and pro-Russian officials? Did he discuss Manafort’s connections with anyone?
– What was the basis for Trump’s decision to fire Comey? With whom did he discuss the firing? Did he discuss the firing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions?
– Did Trump know that his son Donald Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Paul Manfort met with a Russian lawyer during the campaign and allegedly obtained damaging information about Hillary Clinton? When did he learn about the meeting? From whom? What was his response?
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– Did Trump alter Don Jr.’s initial statement about the Russia meeting, in which Don Jr. stated that he met to discuss Russian adoption but then changed this fabricated story to a new explanation that he wanted to judge Clinton’s “fitness.”
– Did Trump know that during his campaign his company was seeking to develop a real estate project in Moscow? What was he told? By whom?
– Did Trump have any financial dealings, projects, loans, and any other financial or other interests with Russia, Russian officials, and Russian business interests?
– Did Trump know of any contacts between persons involved in his campaign and Russian intelligence operatives? Who were these persons? Did he have any conversations with them?
As with so many other grand jury investigations, it is possible that the substantive offenses that the grand jury is investigating—here the principal focus is collusion between the Trump team and Russian officials to undermine the presidential election—may not be able to be proved conclusively. Nevertheless, when confronted with specific questions about their knowledge of certain facts, their previous statements, previous meetings, and numerous other relevant albeit peripheral details about subjects that reasonably should be memorable to the witness, it is not uncommon for the witness either to claim lack of memory, or lie.
And if Trump becomes a grand jury witness, and given his abundantly documented penchant for lying, brazenly, and almost reflexively, it is very likely that the prosecutors will be able to pose clear, specific, and non-ambiguous questions to Trump of which he might claim an inability to remember, but which he also might answer falsely and thereby commit a felony. Indeed, that is exactly how Independent Counsel Starr was able to lay the foundation for the impeachment of President Clinton by in effect trapping Clinton into lying about his conduct with intern Lewinsky.
Whether Trump will be indicted, for what, and the legal consequences, are not clear or predictable. Indeed, the question of whether a sitting president can be prosecuted at all has been hotly debated. Whether Trump is able to claim some type of presidential immunity from prosecution may ultimately have to be ruled on by the Supreme Court, as was the case with Nixon. The court did hold in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit that Clinton enjoyed no immunity from civil liability for unofficial acts committed before he became president. The lesson in that case is that no person is above the law, even a president. Whether that lesson applies to Trump may likely be decided soon.