The Russian-roulette Presidency
Unless US President Donald Trump decides that he has had enough, and returns to his gilded Manhattan tower, his presidency’s metastasizing crisis will continue to haunt him. Investigations in the United States Senate and House of Representatives are underway, and the most serious inquiry is being conducted by a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is hiring a fearsome team of specialists in criminal law.
Investigators are looking into what Russia did to try to tip the 2016 US presidential election in Trump’s favor, and whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials in that effort. The congressional inquiries are also supposed to recommend ways to prevent foreign powers from interfering in future elections, especially after recent reports suggesting that Russia’s meddling was even more ambitious than was previously known.
In a sign of where the special counsel’s investigation may be headed, Mueller, a former FBI director known for his thoroughness, recently hired a specialist in financial misconduct. US banks will not lend to Trump, owing to his private company’s long history of not repaying debts, including those from an ill-fated plunge into Atlantic City casinos in the 1990s. So he’s had to find other sources of financing. His most recent lender, Deutsche Bank, was charged earlier this year for laundering money on behalf of Russian entities.
Trump’s jumpiness whenever the Russia question comes up has only added to suspicions that he may have something to hide. It has also led him to make a series of mistakes. For example, in what was apparently a rare instance of truth telling, Trump revealed to NBC News’ Lester Holt that he had fired FBI Director James Comey because of “this Russia thing.” With that single statement, he gave the lie to the official story recited by Vice President Mike Pence and various White House aides: that Comey had been fired for mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
This is far from the only time Trump has undermined his own people. He is accustomed to running his own business, and is oblivious to the rules of Washington. He often gets himself in trouble through ill-advised tweets, but so far no one has been able to persuade him to tone down his use of social media.
By firing Comey, Trump landed himself in even more serious trouble. The dismissal not only led to the hiring of a special counsel with the power to investigate crimes related to the 2016 election, but also could contribute to a charge of obstruction of justice against Trump.
An obstruction charge could be reinforced by Comey’s allegations that Trump had said privately that he “hoped” the FBI would stop investigating Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When Comey balked, Trump reportedly asked the heads of two other intelligence agencies to announce publicly that there had been no collusion between his campaign and Russia, a move that could provide further legal grounds to charge Trump with engaging in a pattern of obstruction.
More recently, a Trump confidante told an interviewer that Trump was considering firing Mueller as well. Technically, that decision must come from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has said that he sees no cause for firing Mueller. If Trump were to force the issue, perhaps firing both Rosenstein and Mueller, the ensuing political eruption would make the outcry at Comey’s firing seem like a small squeak by comparison.
Rosenstein has jurisdiction over Mueller’s investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first Republican senator to endorse Trump in the 2016 campaign, has recused himself from matters related to the campaign and Russia. Sessions is one of several Trump advisers who forgot that they met with Russian officials during the presidential campaign or post-election transition.
Another forgetful adviser is Trump’s son-inlaw, Jared Kushner, who failed to disclose meetings with key Russians on his security-clearance form. Kushner has a preposterous portfolio of assignments, and is clearly in over his head. Having been named a “person of interest” in the FBI’S Russia investigation, Kushner’s growing problems could eventually spill over to affect his father-in-law.
While running his own father’s real-estate business, Kushner overpaid for a prime property in New York City (666 Fifth Avenue), and has been trying to raise cash to pay off the existing debt on it. Investigators are now attempting to determine whether this was why he met in December (during the transition) with Sergey Gorkov – the head of Russia’s Vnesheconombank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A special counsel can investigate only crimes that are on the books. But there are other acts that could amount to impeachable offenses – as described by America’s founders – such as treason, bribery, “and other high crimes and misdemeanors,” with the term “high crimes” having been taken to mean something beyond the items in the criminal code.
In the case of former President Richard Nixon, the most significant article of impeachment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee stipulated that the president could be held accountable for his subordinates’ actions. So, even if Trump’s fingerprints are not found on the matters the special counsel is investigating, he could still be found responsible for a pattern of misdeeds committed by his associates.
It’s widely considered very unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress – or even the Congress following the 2018 midterm elections, in which the Democrats could retake the House – would move to impeach Trump. Despite the sense that Republicans would try to oust him before his four years are up, if they feel that he is causing them too much political trouble, they have shown no such inclination so far.
Trump could also be removed from power by a complicated process, spelled out in the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, in which he’s deemed unfit to serve. But that process has never been used, and it’s not clear how well it would work. Nonetheless, it has come up among elected politicians worried about Trump’s fitness. As for Trump himself, his gilded tower in Manhattan will always be beckoning him.
Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and author.