While you were distracted by the end of summer Labor Day weekend, a couple of new important developments in the Trump-Putin campaign investigation occurred.
First, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has enlisted an elite investigative unit of the IRS in his investigation. Exclusive: Mueller Enlists the IRS for His Trump-Russia Investigation:
Special counsel Bob Mueller has teamed up with the IRS. According to sources familiar with his investigation into alleged Russian election interference, his probe has enlisted the help of agents from the IRS’ Criminal Investigations unit.
This unit—known as CI—is one of the federal government’s most tight-knit, specialized, and secretive investigative entities. Its 2,500 agents focus exclusively on financial crime, including tax evasion and money laundering. A former colleague of Mueller’s said he always liked working with IRS’ special agents, especially when he was a U.S. Attorney.
And it goes without saying that the IRS has access to Trump’s tax returns—documents that the president has long resisted releasing to the public.
Potential financial crimes are a central part of Mueller’s probe. One of his top deputies, Andy Weissmann, formerly helmed the Justice Department’s Enron probe and has extensive experience working with investigative agents from the IRS.
Martin Sheil, a retired IRS Criminal Investigations agent, said “When CI brings a case to a U.S. Attorney, it is done. It’s wrapped up with a ribbon and a bow. It’s just comprehensive.”
It’s been widely reported that the special counsel’s team is trying to “flip” Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign CEO, in hopes he will provide evidence against his former colleagues. Former federal prosecutors tell The Daily Beast one of Manafort’s biggest legal liabilities could be to what’s called a “check the box” prosecution. Federal law requires that people who have money in foreign bank accounts check a box on their tax returns disclosing that. And there’s speculation that Manafort may have neglected to check that box, which would be a felony. This is exactly the kind of allegation the IRS would look into.
These investigations, which are often extremely complex, can take a lot of time.
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As special counsel, Mueller is subject to the same rules as U.S. Attorneys. That means that if he wants to bring charges against Trump associates related to violations of tax law, he will need approval from the Justice Department’s elite Tax Division. Trump hasn’t yet named his pick to run the division, which is a post that requires Senate confirmation. At the moment, career officials are helming the division.
Next, the New York Times reported Mueller Has Early Draft of Trump Letter Giving Reasons for Firing Comey:
The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has obtained a letter drafted by President Trump and a top political aide that offered an unvarnished view of Mr. Trump’s thinking in the days before the president fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey.
The circumstances and reasons for the firing are believed to be a significant element of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which includes whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by firing Mr. Comey.
The letter, drafted in May, was met with opposition from Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, who believed that its angry, meandering tone was problematic, according to interviews with a dozen administration officials and others briefed on the matter. Among Mr. McGahn’s concerns were references to private conversations the president had with Mr. Comey, including times when the F.B.I. director told Mr. Trump he was not under investigation in the F.B.I.’s continuing Russia inquiry.
Mr. McGahn successfully blocked the president from sending the letter — which Mr. Trump had composed with Stephen Miller, one of the president’s top political advisers — to Mr. Comey. But a copy was given to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, who then drafted his own letter. Mr. Rosenstein’s letter was ultimately used as the Trump administration’s public rationale for Mr. Comey’s firing, which was that Mr. Comey had mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
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Mr. McGahn’s concerns about Mr. Trump’s letter show how much he realized that the president’s rationale for firing Mr. Comey might not hold up to scrutiny, and how he and other administration officials sought to build a more defensible public case for his ouster.
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The New York Times has not seen a copy of Mr. Trump’s letter — which was drafted at the urging of Mr. Trump during a pivotal weekend in May at the president’s private golf club in Bedminster, N. J. — and it is unclear how much of the letter’s rationale focuses on the Russia investigation. The Justice Department turned over a copy of the letter to Mr. Mueller in recent weeks.
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Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Miller to draft a letter, and dictated his unfettered thoughts. Several people who saw Mr. Miller’s multi-page draft described it as a “screed.”
Mr. Trump was back in Washington on Monday, May 8, when copies of the letter were handed out in the Oval Office to senior officials, including Mr. McGahn and Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Trump announced that he had decided to fire Mr. Comey, and read aloud from Mr. Miller’s memo.
Some present at the meeting, including Mr. McGahn, were alarmed that the president had decided to fire the F.B.I. director after consulting only Ms. Trump, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Miller. Mr. McGahn began an effort to stop the letter or at least pare it back.
Later that day, Mr. McGahn gave Mr. Miller a marked-up copy of the letter, highlighting several sections that he believed needed to be removed.
Mr. McGahn met again that same day with Mr. Trump and told him that if he fired Mr. Comey, the Russia investigation would not go away. Mr. Trump told him, according to senior administration officials, that he understood that firing the F.B.I. director might extend the Russia investigation, but that he wanted to do it anyway.
Mr. McGahn arranged for the president to meet in the Oval Office that day with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Mr. Rosenstein, who he knew had been pursuing separate efforts to fire Mr. Comey.
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During the May 8 Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Rosenstein was given a copy of the original letter and agreed to write a separate memo for Mr. Trump about why Mr. Comey should be fired.
Mr. Rosenstein’s memo arrived at the White House the next day. The lengthy diatribe Mr. Miller had written had been replaced by a simpler rationale — that Mr. Comey should be dismissed because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation. Unlike Mr. Trump’s letter, it made no mention of the times Mr. Comey had told the president he was not under investigation.
Mr. Rosenstein’s memo became the foundation for the terse termination letter that Mr. Trump had an aide attempt to deliver late on the afternoon of May 9 to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington. The White House made one significant revision, adding a point that was personally important to Mr. Trump: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” the letter said.
Rosentstein’s letter has been demonstrated to be mere pretext for a decision that Trump had already made, as he volunteered to Lester Holt of NBC News in an iterview days later. This first draft of a “screed” against FBI Director James Comey is further confirmation of that pretext, and the letter may contain the true motivations for firing Comey — possibly illegal or incriminating motivations that White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II tried to head off.
This first draft of a “screed” against FBI Director James Comey also pulls political advisor Stephen Miller, deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein, and more importantly Vice President Pence, into a conspiracy to obstruct justice. They are all now fact witnesses whom Special Counsel Robert Mueller can call before his grand jury to testify under oath.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post explains Vice President Pence and others need to answer some questions:
The earlier draft reportedly confirms that Trump had decided to fire Comey before a memo on the firing was drafted by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. (The Rosenstein memo looks more and more like a false account of the president’s reason for firing Comey.) If Trump was firing Comey to stop or waylay the Russia investigation, then we may be looking at an obstruction-of-justice claim. (Recall that directly asking Comey to stop the Michael Flynn investigation is also a potential act of obstruction. If the cover letter was another instance of potential obstruction, we’re possibly looking at an ongoing conspiracy.)
What’s even more interesting than the content of the letters is the cast of characters involved: “At the Oval Office meeting on Monday, May 8, Trump described his draft termination letter to top aides who wandered in and out of the room, including then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House Counsel Donald McGahn and senior adviser Hope Hicks. Pence arrived late, after the meeting had begun. They were also joined by Miller and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both of whom had been with Trump over the weekend in Bedminster. Kushner supported the president’s decision.” Consider that list of participants now a list of possible grand jury witnesses and potential subjects, if there were a conspiracy to obstruct justice (e.g., intimidate Comey, fire the FBI director when he refused to do Trump’s bidding, put out a fake reason). The crowd of people — and the presence of nonlawyers — involved in the scene described in the latest report would mean any attorney-client privileged would be waived. (Having talked freely about his rationale for firing Comey, the president likely waived any executive privilege as well.)
Attention will soon focus on the vice president. What did he hear? Did he know the proffered reason for the termination was phony, and if so, did he knowingly mislead Congress and the American people when he advanced the cover story? The vice president has only one job aside from presiding over the Senate, namely to take over if the president is impeached, forced to resign or incapacitated. But what if Pence knowingly participated in a conspiracy? Pence’s own veracity is now at stake, his fate tied closer than ever to Trump’s. (If both the president and the vice president were removed, the presidency would go to the speaker of the House at the time, which by January 2019 could be current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (!) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) For now each of these people must lawyer up.
The president, as we and others have remarked, has the uncanny ability to pull otherwise decent, law-abiding people into his narcissistic schemes, making them enablers and deceivers for his benefit. Covering for Trump, they may engage in small and large lies, bend and break legal norms, and sully their own reputations. Sitting in the White House scheming to throw the FBI off the trail was what led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. We are a long way from that. As we are see more and more of the complete picture, we will learn if the latest reports of the drafting group are accurate, and if so, how much additional trouble the president and his administration are in. At the very least, Trump almost certainly has turned his closest advisers and his vice president into grand jury witnesses.
And this does not even include the multiple congressional probes that are ramping up now that Congress is back from its August recess. Russia probes kick into high gear:
In the coming weeks, both intelligence committees are expected to conduct closed-door interviews with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign, and potential witnesses could include Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr.
The two panels are also looking at possibly holding public hearings this fall.
In addition, Trump Jr. is set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own parallel investigation into President Donald Trump and his associates’ alleged ties to Moscow.
Things are about to get real.