Speak­ing his mind

Don­ald Trump can’t stop talk­ing about the Rus­sia probe, even if it means putting him­self at greater risk, writes Abby Phillip

Weekend Herald - - NEWS -

Don­ald Trump’s com­ments in re­cent days un­der­score the US Pres­i­dent’s seem­ingly un­stop­pable drive to com­bat an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has dogged him since his first day in of­fice — even if it pro­longs the con­tro­versy and po­ten­tially puts him at greater le­gal risk.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s si­lence lasted just over 12 hours. Then, he let it all out. The ap­point­ment of a spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and Rus­sia was the “sin­gle great­est witch hunt in Amer­i­can his­tory”, he tweeted.

Hours later, dur­ing a news con­fer­ence with Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel Santos, Trump re­vis­ited the topic.

“I think it’s to­tally ridicu­lous. Ev­ery­body thinks so,” Trump said when asked about the ap­point­ment. “Ev­ery­body, even my en­e­mies, have said there is no col­lu­sion.”

The com­ments un­der­score Trump’s seem­ingly un­stop­pable drive to com­bat an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that has dogged him since his first day in of­fice — even if it pro­longs the con­tro­versy and po­ten­tially puts him at greater le­gal risk.

Trump has treated the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion as a pub­lic re­la­tions bat­tle pit­ting him against his many en­e­mies. But he has been slow to ac­cli­mate to new per­ils — par­tic­u­larly the le­gal ones — that seem to be mount­ing.

At nearly every op­por­tu­nity, in interviews, tweets and pub­lic state­ments, Trump has in­sisted that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated farce.

“James Clap­per and oth­ers stated that there is no ev­i­dence Potus col­luded with Rus­sia. This story is FAKE NEWS and ev­ery­one knows it!” he tweeted in March.

In an in­ter­view in April with the Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner, he de­clared: “The Rus­sia is a faux story. It’s made up.”

Mean­while, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion has con­tin­ued and is now crim­i­nal in na­ture, ac­cord­ing to se­na­tors who were briefed by Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein yes­ter­day.

Trump has never been one to shy away from pre­judg­ing the out­come of in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, he and aides en­cour­aged his crowds in chants of “Lock her up”, de­mand­ing the con­vic­tion and jail­ing of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into her use of a pri­vate email server while she was Sec­re­tary of State.

Trump has been dis­mis­sive of the se­ri­ous­ness of ac­cu­sa­tions he has made against oth­ers, in­clud­ing when he al­leged with­out ev­i­dence that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had wire­tapped the phones in Trump Tower, an act that would have been il­le­gal.

But per­haps the great­est source of risk for Trump is in the al­le­ga­tion that in Fe­bru­ary he asked then- FBI di­rec­tor James Comey to drop the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn. Ac­cord­ing to Comey’s as­so­ci­ates, Comey doc­u­mented the com­ments in a memo writ­ten di­rectly af­ter he left the Oval Of­fice meet­ing with Trump in Fe­bru­ary.

And he pre­pared for meet­ings with Trump metic­u­lously, con­cerned that the busi­ness­man Pres­i­dent who has no pre­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence in Wash­ing­ton or with the law would push against le­gal and eth­i­cal lim­its.

Asked whether he had had such a con­ver­sa­tion with Comey, Trump de­nied it flatly: “No. No, next ques­tion,” he told re­porters dur­ing the East Room news con­fer­ence yes­ter­day.

A se­nior White House of­fi­cial said the Pres­i­dent has been pre­sented with op­tions for re­tain­ing out­side coun­sel in the case.

“The whole Comey sit­u­a­tion, that’s a dif­fer­ent ball­game,” said Alan Baron, who has served as spe­cial coun­sel to the House in impeachment pro­ceed­ings against four fed­eral judges. “It could well be treated as crim­i­nal in­ter­fer­ence into an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.”

Trump’s propen­sity to dis­cuss the case and Comey’s fir­ing have only in­tro­duced more com­pli­ca­tions.

In an in­ter­view days af­ter fir­ing Comey, Trump said that he was think­ing of the Rus­sia probe as he de­cided to do it.

In all, Baron said, while Trump main­tains his First Amend­ment rights to free speech, most at­tor­neys would strongly ad­vise their clients against speak­ing about an on­go­ing case in­volv­ing the clients or their as­so­ci­ates.

“He would be a dif­fi­cult client to serve,” Baron said. “If I’m rep­re­sent­ing some­body, you don’t say any­thing to any­body with­out talk­ing to me first. That’s my first rule.

“If you can’t con­trol your­self, just tell me where to send the flow­ers,” he added.

Many in the steady stream of head­lines about the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion have been gen­er­ated by Trump him­self, mak­ing it more chal­leng­ing for his Ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­fo­cus on pol­icy is­sues.

Af­ter fir­ing Comey as FBI di­rec­tor, Trump sug­gested on Twit­ter that there might be “tapes” of his con­ver­sa­tions in the White House that he would use to val­i­date his ac­count of his deal­ings with Comey.

The White House will not say whether Trump recorded con­ver­sa­tions in the Oval Of­fice. But the com­ments touched off im­me­di­ate com­par­isons to Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon — ex­cept that rather than keep­ing the pos­si­ble ex­is­tence of tapes a se­cret, Trump might have spo­ken pub­licly about them and opened him­self up to fu­ture le­gal chal­lenges.

“Nixon was much more cir­cum­spect than Don­ald Trump and, frankly, much more aware of what his own le­gal ex­po­sure was,” said Ken Hughes, a scholar at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia’s Miller Cen­tre. “I was stunned when Pres­i­dent Trump sug­gested that he might have tapes of his meet­ings with di­rec­tor Comey, be­cause those would be­come the sub­ject of sub­poe­nas. They would be seen as ev­i­dence.”

Hughes, whose ar­eas of ex­per­tise in­clude se­cret US pres­i­den­tial record­ings, added: “Nixon never pub­licly threat­ened peo­ple with his tapes, be­cause he knew it would back­fire on him.”

Pub­licly, ac­cord­ing to Hughes, Nixon pledged co- oper­a­tion with in­ves­ti­ga­tors even while he re­sisted hand­ing over the tapes and pri­vately fumed about ef­forts to sab­o­tage his Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Trump has aired such grievances pub­licly nearly weekly, ar­gu­ing that he is be­ing treated un­fairly by the news media and by his Demo­cratic op­po­nents.

Mean­while, White House aides hope the Pres­i­dent’s up­com­ing for­eign trip will help them shift the agenda back to firmer ground. But with nearly 30 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers, Trump has re­sisted giv­ing up his abil­ity to bat­tle the news media and in­ves­ti­ga­tors through a tool that he be­lieves al­lows him to cut through the fil­ter of the main­stream media.

“Don­ald Trump should start every morn­ing with a tweet about what he is do­ing that day to help work­ing- class Amer­i­cans,” said Repub­li­can strate­gist Alex Co­nant. “In­stead, his morn­ing tweets make it clear how much the Rus­sia story is dis­tract­ing him and his White House.”

Nixon was much more cir­cum­spect than Don­ald Trump and, frankly, much more aware of what his own le­gal ex­po­sure was. Ken Hughes

Pic­ture / AP

Even dur­ing a news con­fer­ence with Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel Santos yes­ter­day Don­ald Trump was talk­ing about the Rus­sia probe.

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