If Donald Trump and his associates did nothing wrong, why did Michael Flynn lie about his actions to the FBI, thus committing a felony and ruining his life and career? The only reason that I can think of to lie to the FBI is to cover up something bigger.
So what’s that “something bigger?” I have my suspicions, but I do not know. So let’s take a breath and focus on the things that we do know, the things that are already on the public record not as allegations or speculation, but as facts. They are extensive, and they are compelling:
1.) We know that Russia attempted to intervene in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, most effectively by hacking and then strategically leaking emails from the Democratic National Committee and from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Should it become necessary, establishing the fact of Russian interference in a court of law would not be difficult. You merely bring in the head of the CIA, the head of the FBI and the director of national intelligence to testify about their agencies’ joint conclusion.
2.) We know that somehow, by design or accident, the Trump presidential campaign ended up as the most pro-Russian political operation since the heyday of the American Communist Party. In addition to Flynn, there’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump acolytes Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, and aides Sam Clovis and Carter Page, all of whom had contacts, business histories, affiliations with or even affection for Russia. At the middle of that circle stands Trump himself, with a long history of reliance on Russian investors in his real-estate projects and a fanboy’s adoration of Vladimir Putin.
3.) We know that the Trump campaign was very much aware that Russia was interfering on its behalf, and welcomed it. Among other proof, we have an email sent to Donald Trump Jr. explicitly offering dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian sources “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” You can’t get more explicit than that.
4.) We know that Trump Jr. reacted to that email not with surprise or even caution, but with open encouragement to the Russians. “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. wrote in response.
5.) We know that as a result of that email chain, Trump Jr. set up a secret, undisclosed meeting in July 2016 among himself, Manafort, Jared Kushner and a group of Russians offering help. Initially, Trump Jr. had denied ever setting up such meetings, “certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.” After that lie was exposed, the Trump campaign admitted that the meeting had occurred, but claimed that it concerned Russian policy on the adoption of children and had nothing at all to do with the campaign.
6.) We know that second explanation was also a massive lie. We also know that particular lie was drafted and released at the personal insistance of President Trump.
8.) We know that Wikileaks and Julian Assange were serving as a willing conduit and co-conspirator for Russia’s attempts to undermine Clinton and elevate Trump. “The guy is a sycophant for Russia,” as Paul Ryan described Assange. “He leaks, he steals data, and compromises national security.”
9.) We know that Trump Jr. was in personal contact with Wikileaks.
10.) We know that the Trump campaign not only communicated with but responded to Wikileaks. We know that because 15 minutes after Wikileaks sent a message to Trump Jr. in October of 2016, urging the campaign to publicize its hacked material about Clinton, this message went out from the candidate himself:
11.) We know that the Trump campaign and transition team understood that such Russia contacts were wrong and needed to be hidden. We know that because over and over again, they issued blanket denials that any such contacts had taken place, and all of those denials have of course been proved false. As CNN tallies it, “Trump’s aides and associates had at least 19 face-to-face meetings with Russians or people affiliated with the Russian government during the presidential campaign and transition,” plus another 32 documented contacts via other means. For those keeping score at home, that’s zero claimed meetings or contacts, compared to 51 documented meetings or contacts. I suspect, but do not know, that the number of 51 will continue to grow.
12.) We know that Donald Trump personally intervened in the Oval Office with FBI Director James Comey, pressuring him not to prosecute Flynn. While Trump denies that charge, Comey cites extensive notes taken directly after that intervention, and also told others about the event immediately after it occurred. Such evidence from an FBI official would be given great credence in court.
13.) We know that after Comey brushed aside that request to go easy on Flynn, Trump fired him.
14.) We know that Trump has said point-blank, in public, that he fired Comey in hopes it would end the Russia investigation. We know that he even celebrated with Russian officials in the Oval Office the morning after the Comey firing, telling them that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
15.) We know that Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, is now arguing that as president, Trump cannot legally be charged with obstructing justice for actions such as firing Comey. Basically, Dowd seems to be abandoning the claim of Trump’s innocence and retreating to a claim of executive immunity. Given the evidence above, that’s not a stupid strategy.
16.) We know that on Dec. 29, 2016, after the U.S. intelligence community made public its conclusions about Russian meddling in our election, President Obama issued a new set of punitive sanctions against Russia, including the ouster of 35 Russian diplomats and the closure of a 45-acre Russian compound in Maryland used as a vacation site by the Russian embassy. Obama got strong bipartisan support for those measures.
17.) We know that on that same day, Dec. 29, Flynn had a flurry of five undisclosed conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
18.) We know that after the disclosure of those calls, Flynn, Vice President Pence and other Trump officials denied vehemently that the issue of anti-Russian sanctions had come up, even though they had just been toughened hours earlier. According to the White House, Flynn and Kislyak had merely exchanged Christmas greetings and made arrangements for a later telephone conversation between Putin and Trump.
19.) We know those assurances to have been false, that in fact Flynn had urged Kislyak not to react to the sanctions by the Obama administration because they would be reversed once Trump took power. In effect, Flynn had undercut U.S. policy by taking all the sting out of the punishments that had been imposed by Obama, again with strong bipartisan support.
20.) We know that the next day, Putin took the secret advice from Flynn and announced that Russia would not retaliate. Trump immediately and publicly lauded Putin for doing so:
21.) We know that once the nature of Flynn’s discussions became public, the Trump administration tried to dismiss his actions as the work of a rogue employee who was operating without approval or knowledge from Trump or his top staff.
22.) After Friday’s court filings, we know that Flynn had not gone rogue, that the Trump transition team had been fully aware of and even directed Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak. Flynn’s firing was not a punishment for lying — if they started doing that at the Trump White House, the place would be empty by nightfall. Instead, Flynn got pushed overboard to save more senior officials.
23.) We know that after taking office, the Trump administration did indeed begin to try to reverse the sanctions imposed by Obama against Russia, just as Flynn had suggested to Kislyak. For example, Trump almost immediately moved to return that Maryland vacation retreat to Russian control, but was scared off by strong bipartisan backlash.
24.) We know that the Republican Congress so distrusts Trump on that count that in August it passed legislation barring the president from giving back that vacation retreat unless he first gets permission from Congress. That provision was included in a larger sanctions bill that also tightened punishment of Russia as well as Iran.
25.) We know that President Trump wanted to veto that sanctions bill because he deemed it too harsh on Russia. He did not do so because the bill had passed with just two “no” votes in the Senate — Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders — and just three in the House. So rather than have his veto overridden, Trump signed it into law and since then has refused to implement it.
So, based on the facts as laid out above, where do we now stand?
I think we have a strong, even ironclad case for what you might call “soft collusion.” The evidence is overwhelming that Trump repeatedly signaled to Russia, both privately and publicly, that he wanted Russian election help and that if elected president, he would pursue a much more pro-Putin, pro-Russia policy. For their part, Russian officials clearly understood that by helping Trump and undermining Clinton, they would advance their own national goals at the expense of the United States.
Both sides got their way.
Based on their extensive, incredible record of lying and deception, I think it’s also safe to conclude that Trump and his top aides knew full well that what they were doing was scandalous on a historic scale. They just didn’t account for the biggest flaw in their plan, which is they might actually win, and that winning in turn would put their actions under a very harsh microscope.
“Hard collusion” — defined as not just a shared understanding but an actual agreement, with explicit coordination and cooperation between the two sides– will be more difficult to prove and I think is probably unlikely, if for no other reason than it was so unnecessary. The biggest factor arguing in favor of hard collusion and the evidence to prove it would be the comic incompetence of the Trump camp, which is not to be underestimated.
We also have no real feel for how deeply the Mueller team is probing the financial structure of the Trump empire and that of Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon and others, including potential financial dependence on Russia. That continues to be a true dark hole in this investigation, but I have to imagine that FBI accountants are prowling around in that dark hole with high-powered flashlights, and who knows what they’ve found so far.
Finally, as I wrote back in May, the evidence of obstruction of justice in an effort to hide this “soft collusion” is already more than sufficient to support impeachment. What we continue to lack is the political will necessary to drive that process, but as Trump’s poll numbers decline, as concerns grow about his basic stability and as Republicans begin to come to grips with the damage that he’s doing to them, that will slowly change.