The Russian Connection: A Clearer Picture

The public just got a clearer picture of the case for obstruction of justice by Donald Trump in an attempt to sabotage the investigation into his campaign’s partnership with a foreign adversary, Russia, to influence the 2016 election. In an New York Times article, Michael Schimdt outlines the events that lead up to the firing of then FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s continued attempts to end the investigation by Robert Mueller. According to legal experts that the reporter consulted, there are two issues that Mueller appears to be investigating: whether Trump obstructed justice while in office and whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Public pressure was building for Mr. Sessions, who had been a senior member of the Trump campaign, to step aside. But the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, carried out the president’s orders and lobbied Mr. Sessions to remain in charge of the inquiry, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

Mr. McGahn was unsuccessful, and the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He was referring to his former personal lawyer and fixer, who had been Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s and died in 1986.

The lobbying of Mr. Sessions is one of several previously unreported episodes that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has learned about as he investigates whether Mr. Trump obstructed the F.B.I.’s Russia inquiry. The events occurred during a two-month period — from when Mr. Sessions recused himself in March until the appointment of Mr. Mueller in May — when Mr. Trump believed he was losing control over the investigation

Among the other episodes, Mr. Trump described the Russia investigation as “fabricated and politically motivated” in a letter that he intended to send to the F.B.I. director at the time, James B. Comey, but that White House aides stopped him from sending. Mr. Mueller has also substantiated claims that Mr. Comey made in a series of memos describing troubling interactions with the president before he was fired in May.

The special counsel has received handwritten notes from Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, showing that Mr. Trump talked to Mr. Priebus about how he had called Mr. Comey to urge him to say publicly that he was not under investigation. The president’s determination to fire Mr. Comey even led one White House lawyer to take the extraordinary step of misleading Mr. Trump about whether he had the authority to remove him.

The New York Times has also learned that four days before Mr. Comey was fired, one of Mr. Sessions’s aides asked a congressional staff member whether he had damaging information about Mr. Comey, part of an apparent effort to undermine the F.B.I. director. It was not clear whether Mr. Mueller’s investigators knew about this episode.

Mr. Mueller has also been examining a false statement that the president reportedly dictated on Air Force One in July in response to an article in The Times about a meeting that Trump campaign officials had with Russians in 2016. A new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff, says that the president’s lawyers believed that the statement was “an explicit attempt to throw sand into the investigation’s gears,” and that it led one of Mr. Trump’s spokesmen to quit because he believed it was obstruction of justice. [..]

Regardless of whether Mr. Mueller believes there is enough evidence to make a case against the president, Mr. Trump’s belief that his attorney general should protect him provides an important window into how he governs. Presidents have had close relationships with their attorneys general, but Mr. Trump’s obsession with loyalty is particularly unusual, especially given the Justice Department’s investigation into him and his associates.

The article goes on to describe the actions of a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office to mislead Trump about his authority to fire the FBI director which demonstrates the concerns many within the White House hasve about Trump’s ability to make rational decisions.

At The MaddowBlog, Steve Bennen notes the case for obstruction of justice is coming into focus:

One of the key elements of the Trump-Russia scandal is the question of whether the president is personally liable for potentially obstructing the investigation. And to that end, Donald Trump’s alleged pressure of then-FBI Director James Comey, who’s claimed the president tried to get him to back off of specific lines of inquiry, is critical to understanding whether the president is criminally liable.

It’s therefore necessary for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team to, if possible, substantiate Comey’s claims. [..]

The fact that Priebus took handwritten notes, which are now in the hands of the special counsel’s office, is a striking new detail.

And while that’s an important detail, it’s not the only reason to care about the new front-page Times piece.

The same article reported that Trump instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to “stop the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, from recusing himself in the Justice Department’s investigation” of the Russia scandal. McGahn followed the instructions; Sessions ignored the lobbying; and the president “erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him.”

In the United States, it’s not the attorney general’s job to “protect” the president. [..]

In other words, according to the reporting, the White House lawyer deliberately left the president with the wrong impression in the hopes of preventing Trump from making a costly mistake.

Dhillon, we now know, was right to be concerned – Comey’s firing led to the appointment of a special counsel, whose investigation has put Trump’s presidency in jeopardy – but Trump nevertheless learned the truth about his authority and fired the FBI director anyway.

Michael Schmidt, reporter for The New York Times, talks with Rachel Maddow about his reporting about Donald Trump’s pressure on Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe, and Reince Priebus notes confirming James Comey’s notes about encounters with Trump.

Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney, talks with Rachel Maddow about how former Trump chief-of-staff Reince Priebus’s notes corroborating James Comey’s notes about meetings with Donald Trump might be used in a court case.

Rachel also reports on some of the reportable, find-out-able claims in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, beyond the salacious stories that have left the Trump team sputtering with rage and humiliation.

Trump’s continued claims that the investigation is a “witch hunt,” and there was “no collusion” ring hollow. If Trump has done nothing wrong, why would he need his AG or the White House counsel to protect him? These are all actions of someone who is guilty as charged.