Analysis: Russia probe threatens Trump, those in his orbit
WASHINGTON (AP) — The more that special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors reveal, the darker grow the legal clouds over President Donald Trump.
Trump’s own Justice Department has now implicated him in a crime, accusing him of directing illegal hush-money payments to women during his 2016 presidential campaign. Mueller keeps finding new instances of Trump associates lying about their contacts with Russia during an election the Kremlin worked to sway in the Republican’s favor.
The president hasn’t been charged with any crimes. He may never be. Whether a president can be prosecuted while in office remains a matter of legal dispute.
But Trump also hasn’t been cleared of wrongdoing. Each new legal filing underscores that the president is a central figure in investigations that already have brought down several people who worked closely with him and remain a threat to others in Trump’s orbit.
Even if the president is never charged with illegal activity, the months of investigations and legal wrangling have cast a pall over his administration and exposed the culture of lying that has surrounded Trump, both in and out of office.
Trump’s moniker in some of the filings: “Individual-1”.
Trump allies argue that if Mueller had information that Trump broke the law, the special counsel would have made his case against him by now. To the president and his supporters, the fact that the special counsel has been working for well over a year without making a direct accusation against Trump means the investigation is simply an effort to damage the president politically.
“AFTER TWO YEARS AND MILLIONS OF PAGES OF DOCUMENTS (and a cost of over $30,000,000), NO COLLUSION!” Trump tweeted early Saturday morning.
Despite Trump’s declarations, Mueller hasn’t ruled out that the prospect of election season coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign, and only recently received written answers from the president about possible Russian interference. Mueller also is still pursuing whether Trump obstructed justice while in office.
Yet the most precarious legal situation for Trump appears to be separate from Mueller’s inquiry: an assertion by federal prosecutors in New York that Trump directed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to make illegal payments during the campaign to silence women alleging extramarital affairs.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who will oversee the House intelligence committee next year, said that a new court filing on Friday “implicates the president very directly” in a crime.
“It puts the issue squarely before the Justice Department whether a sitting president should be indicted or whether the Justice Department has to wait until he’s out of office,” Schiff said in an interview.
Federal law requires that any payments made “for the purposes of influencing” an election must be reported in campaign finance disclosures. The court filing Friday makes clear that the payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal were made to benefit Trump politically.
Trump’s only defense? Cohen, he says, is a liar.
The simultaneous investigations have infuriated Trump. Democrats, and some Republicans, fear Trump may ultimately try to silence Mueller or halt his investigation, though proposed legislation protecting the special counsel has stalled in Congress.
After going publicly silent in the run-up to the midterm elections, Mueller has roared back with a series of legal moves that suggest he is actively pursuing the central question of whether Trump’s campaign illegally coordinated with Russia during the election.
In a filing released on Friday, Mueller revealed that a Russian national claiming close ties to the Kremlin reached out to Cohen to propose government-level “political synergy” during the election. The November 2015 outreach — which Mueller says Cohen did not pursue — appears to be the earliest known effort by Russia to build ties with the Trump campaign.
Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about efforts by Trump’s real estate company to build a project in Moscow as late as the summer of 2016, after Trump became the Republican nominee for president.
Mueller has not alleged that the president knew about these interactions with Russia.
Even so, some Trump supporters now believe the president is unlikely to emerge from the investigations unscathed.
Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and frequent defender of Trump, said Mueller appears poised to issue a report that will be highly critical of the president, though Dershowitz believes it will deal “more with political sin than a federal crime.”
“It will be a very serious accusation of the president, but it will be more political,” Dershowitz said.
Of course, political sin could still put Trump in a dangerous position, particularly now that Democrats are within weeks of taking over the House. The new Democratic majority will have broad subpoena power. Party leaders will be under pressure from some members to pursue impeachment, particularly if Mueller’s report makes direct accusations of the president.
Schiff, who will oversee some of the congressional probes into Trump, said the swirl of investigations “tests the proposition that no one is above the law.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Washington bureau chief Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC