On Thursday afternoon, as President Trump was heading to a rally in West Virginia, The Wall Street Journal reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington, D.C., to investigate possible criminal charges against Trump's campaign, business, or administration associates, perhaps even Trump himself, in Mueller's expanding Russia investigation. The grand jury, in place for a few weeks, has already issued subpoenas in connection with Donald Trump Jr.'s June 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-backed lawyer, Reuters reports, and CNN says Mueller's investigation has veered into any financial ties Trump, his family, and his associates have to Russia.
The reports set off alarm bells in the White House, because of the increasing legal jeopardy but also out of concern that Trump could make things worse, The Daily Beast reports. In an interview with The New York Times last month, Trump agreed with the idea that Mueller digging into his family's finances would cross a "red line" and be a "violation." If the new reports are accurate, Mueller is well on the other side of that line. "The worry is what the president does now," one senior Trump official told The Daily Beast. "Just keep him off the Twitter and on the teleprompter."
Trump offered a relatively subdued denial at the West Virginia rally, calling the "Russia story" a "total fabrication." But the big concern is that he would order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller — a decision that would set off what one White House adviser called an "apocalyptic sh--storm." Two different bipartisan pairs of senators introduced legislation Thursday to shield Mueller from firing, and two White House officials told The Daily Beast that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would strenuously oppose such a move.
But "people react really stupidly to these proceedings all the time," and "Trump and his team seem incapable, as a matter of character, to react ... in a prudent way or follow good advice or do the things you have to do to survive it," former federal prosecutor Ken White tells The Daily Beast. "They convince other people to lie for them, they destroy documents, they come up with lies they're going to tell themselves, they do all sorts of idiotic things — not realizing part of a fed prosecutor's point is often to drive them to do that." You can read more at The Daily Beast. Peter Weber
Early Monday morning, White House senior adviser and President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, released an 11-page statement on his at least four known meetings with Russian officials last year, including a meeting he and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort were invited to by Donald Trump Jr. with a Kremlin-linked lawyer offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton. In Kushner's letter and a subsequent statement he read outside the White House after testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, he denied any collusion with Russia and said he did not know of any collusion in the Trump campaign.
Specifically, Kushner said he had not known the reason for the meeting with the Russian lawyer, because he had been too busy with the campaign to read Don Jr.'s entire email — what NBC News' Kasie Hunt called "the chaos and sloppiness defense." On Fox News Monday afternoon, anchor Shep Smith did not seem convinced by that version of events.
"Okay, hang on," Smith told Associated Press White House reporter Jonathan Lemire. "There's an email, and at the top of that email, there's a subject line. ... Here it is, this is an email from Donald Trump Jr., sent on Wednesday, June 8, at noon or so. The subject line: 'Russia - Clinton - private and confidential.'" Kushner claims he did not read deep into the email, Smith said, "and we're to believe he didn't read the subject line." "That is the version he is saying," Lemire said. "Frankly, Paul Manafort has made a similar case."
"Everybody's sort of pointing at Don Jr., it seems like, all of a sudden," Smith noted. Lemire said that's "hitting on something very interesting," the idea that "there may be a moment, and it may be sooner than later, where the legal fortunes of Don. Jr. and Jared Kushner may be in conflict. It will be very interesting to see how they reconcile that." Kushner's statements concluded with the hope that he can now put this matter behind him, at least after he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. "I think that is unlikely, to say the least," Lemire said. "Yeah, that's not happening," Smith said, then moved on to the iffy future for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Watch. Peter Weber
President Trump and some of his lawyers are actively looking at ways to undermine, discredit, or fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading a broad investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, including compiling a list of potential conflicts of interest that might be used to force out Mueller or some of his investigators, The New York Times and The Washington Post report, both citing people familiar with the effort. That effort has apparently ramped up as Mueller begins digging into Trump's financial history.
"Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face," The Washington Post reports. "He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns."
A conflict of interest is one potential reason an attorney general can use to remove a special counsel, and the Trump team is casting its net wide, including whether Mueller is close to fired FBI Director James Comey, an alleged dispute over membership fees between Mueller and Trump National Golf Course when Mueller resigned in 2011, and political contributions to Democrats by some of his team's prosecutors. "Prosecutors may not participate in investigations if they have 'a personal or political relationship' with the subject of the case," The New York Times explains. "Making campaign donations is not included on the list of things that would create a 'political relationship.'"
In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday with The New York Times, Trump also suggested that Mueller has a conflict of interest because he interviewed for the FBI director job before he was appointed special counsel, though he did not explain how that is a conflict of interest. Trump and his lawyers are also making the argument that Mueller could be sacked for exceeding what Trump sees as the scope of the Russia investigation. When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would have to fire Mueller, appointed him, he gave Mueller broad authority to investigate any links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government plus "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and any crime committed in response to the investigation. Peter Weber
As President Trump becomes increasingly concerned and angry about the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which has reportedly expanded into Trump's financial transactions, he has been talking with aides and his legal team about the president's power to pardon aides, family members, and even himself, people familiar with the effort tell The Washington Post. One of those people described the discussion as being mostly among Trump's lawyers, and two people familiar with the conversations said the discussions are purely theoretical at this point, largely to satisfy Trump's curiosity. "This is not in the context of, 'I can't wait to pardon myself,'" a close adviser told the Post.
Presidents have broad powers to pardon people for federal offenses, as laid out in the Constitution, but no president has tried to pardon himself — though Richard Nixon explored the question, CBS's John Dickerson points out — and it is unclear if that would be legally permissible. "This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question," Michigan State University constitutional law expert Brian C. Kalt tells the Post. "There is no predicting what would happen."
It would certainly spark a political firestorm, as would any pardon related to the Russia investigation. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Trump in a statement Thursday night that "pardoning any individuals who may have been involved would be crossing a fundamental line." He called the possibility that Trump is "considering pardons at this early stage in these ongoing investigations ... extremely disturbing." You can read more about Trump's pardon deliberations at The Washington Post. Peter Weber
Trump's enthusiasm for Russia and Putin is dividing his White House, frustrating friends and foes alike
President Trump is eager to hold a formal bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit in Germany next month, to the dismay of top advisers at the State Department and National Security Council, The Associated Press reports. And Trump's refusal to acknowledge that Russia interfered in the 2016 election is causing consternation in Congress, among government officials, and even some Trump supporters, Maggie Haberman says at The New York Times. All 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concur that Russia hacked and released Democratic emails to help Trump win, and there is a growing body of reporting on the other ways Russia tried to interfere in the election.
Trump and some of his advisers want a full meeting with Putin, with all the diplomatic trappings and photos, while many other advisers would prefer a more informal chat between the two leaders, given the ongoing investigation into possible Trump team collusion with Russia and other sensitive global issues. Part of the issue is that Trump prefers strategic ambiguity, and wants to makes deals. "He doesn't want to be set by this narrative that the Russians hacked the election when he has to negotiate with Russia, who, by the way, sits on China's border," Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, tells The New York Times. "If Putin adamantly denies that he did it, it's frankly not an issue to the president."
His refusal to publicly make it an issue, or deal with the vulnerabilities in the U.S. electoral system the Russian hacking exposed, isn't quite so easy to explain, Haberman reports, "but aides and friends say the matter hits him where he is most vulnerable. Mr. Trump, who often conflates himself with the institutions he serves, sees questions about Russia as an effort by Democrats and stragglers from the 'Never Trump' movement to delegitimize his election victory." You can read more about Trump, Russia, and Trump's flummoxed advisers at AP and The New York Times. Peter Weber
White House insists Russian state photographers didn't bug the Oval Office during Putin-arranged meeting
If the scene seemed awkward for President Trump — hosting the Russian foreign minister for an Oval Office meeting that only Russian media was allowed to attend, just hours after he fired an FBI director in the midst of ramping up a federal investigation into the Trump campaign's potential election-meddling collusion with Russia — don't worry, it gets worse. First, the White House was reportedly shocked to see photos like this — Trump laughing with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — released publicly:
No U.S. reporters or photographers were allowed at the meeting — which Trump had agreed to at the personal insistence of Russian Vladimir Putin, Politico says — and a senior Trump administration official "said the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer," The Washington Post reports. "Russian officials had described the individual as Lavrov's official photographer without disclosing that he also worked for Tass," the Russian state-owned news agency. "We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency," the official told the Post. Russia seemed pretty eager for people to see the photos.
Former U.S. intelligence officials were also alarmed that the White House allowed Russian state photographers into the Oval Office, given the Russians' skill at installing listening devices and other surveillance equipment. The senior White House official downplayed those concerns, telling The Washington Post that the Russians "had to go through the same screening as a member of the U.S. press going through the main gate to the [White House] briefing room." That did not, in fact, allay concerns, with one former intelligence official noting that standard screening for White House visitors might not catch sophisticated eavesdropping devices.
The meeting itself, and especially "the images of Trump putting his arm genially on Lavrov's back — and a later White House official readout of the meeting that said Trump 'emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia,'" were already a win for Lavrov and Putin, says Politico's Susan Glasser. "Lavrov was right where he has always wanted to be Wednesday: mocking the United States while being welcomed in the Oval Office by the president himself." Peter Weber
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are testifying Monday in front of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Russian election-meddling, and a main topic of discussion is expected to be ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Before President Trump fired Yates for declining to defend his first, since-withdrawn executive order limiting travel to the U.S. from several majority-Muslim nations, she had reportedly warned Trump's White House counsel about Flynn's preinaugural discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, saying his mischaracterization of those conversations left him potentially compromised. Two weeks after firing Yates, Trump fired Flynn for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Kislyak.
Just about everyone in the Trump White House is ready to give Flynn the heave-ho, especially after new revelations that even Trump transition officials were concerned about Flynn and Russia, says Jonathan Swan at Axios. "Sources from all factions of the White House seem unified in their distrust of the president's former national security adviser — and their willingness to throw him under the bus. I haven't seen such broad contempt for a member of Trumpworld since the reign of Corey Lewandowski." But there's one notable exception: President Trump, Swan reports. "The president wants any of his staff who've been feeding negative lines about Flynn to the media to stop immediately."
Trump reportedly argues that Flynn is being smeared by Democrats spreading "fake news" about Russian election interference, that Flynn did nothing wrong, and that when he apparently broke Pentagon rules by going to Moscow for a paid speech for Kremlin news outlet RT, he still had security clearance from the Obama administration. Other Trump insiders characterize Flynn as a poor manager who tried to sell Trump on his own agenda rather than presenting him with all relevant information. Either way, the return of focus to the Russian election-meddling is unwelcome news for a White House that would rather still be talking about health-care legislation. Peter Weber
Russia begins Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's Moscow visit with a warning not to bomb Syria again
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday morning, amid growing U.S.-Russia tensions over Syria. The meeting started off with a warning from Lavrov, who said Russia has "seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria," and considers it "of utmost importance" the U.S. refrain from "similar actions in the future." Tillerson acknowledged the "sharp differences" between Russia and the U.S., adding "We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open."
At a G7 summit in Italy on Tuesday, Tillerson had issued Russia an ultimatum, saying it must side with the U.S. and other Western nations or with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah; Russia President Vladimir Putin responded by inviting the foreign ministers of Syria and Iran to Moscow on Friday. "Our policy is consistent and it's formulated exclusively on the basis of international law," Lavrov told Tillerson on Wednesday, "and not under the impact of current opportunistic motives or false choice: 'You are with us or against us.'"
Russia has not said whether Tillerson will meet with Putin during his two-day visit. Putin once personally awarded Tillerson an "Order of Friendship" medal, but on Wednesday he said Russia's already poor working relationship with the U.S. has "most likely has degraded" since President Trump took office in January. Trump, in a Fox Business Network interview to air Wednesday morning, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "an animal" and warned Putin he's "backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think that's very bad for Russia, I think that's very bad for mankind, it's very bad for this world." Peter Weber