Election to ob­struc­tion: The probe’s off­shoots

Rus­sia in­quiry en­snares sev­eral in Trump crew

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Gre­gory Korte @ gre­go­ryko­rte

It started with WASH­ING­TON her emails.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s emails were hacked — through both Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee servers and the pri­vate ac­count of her cam­paign chair­man — and re­leased on the web­site Wik­ileaks.

The in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity pointed the fin­ger at Rus­sia, and of­fi­cials later said they be­lieved the op­er­a­tion was part of a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to sway the 2016 pres­i­den­tial election.

There is, as of yet, no di­rect, public ev­i­dence that Pres­i­dent Trump knew any­thing about the hack­ing — though he did say last July that he hoped Rus­sia would be able to find of­fi­cial emails miss­ing from Clin­ton’s home server.

But as tends to hap­pen in Wash­ing­ton ( see Water­gate, 1972- 74, and White­wa­ter, 1993- 98), one con­tro­versy can beget an­other un­til the cen­tral ques­tion be­comes not what the pres­i­dent did but whether he ob­structed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“They made up a phony col­lu­sion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for ob­struc­tion of jus­tice on the phony story,” Trump tweeted Thurs­day.

And so it is five months into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, as the orig­i­nal firestorm over hacked emails has set into mo­tion a se­ries of off­spring con­tro­ver­sies that have con­sumed the pres­i­dency.

Here’s a guide to the Rus­sian hack­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion and its many off­shoots:

“They made up a phony col­lu­sion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for ob­struc­tion of jus­tice on the phony story.”

Pres­i­dent Trump, in a tweet Thurs­day


In Oc­to­ber, as the Clin­ton cam­paign was weath­er­ing near- daily dis­clo­sures of in­ter­nal emails, 17 U. S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies con­cluded the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment was be­hind the hack­ing. At the time, the agen­cies said only that Rus­sia was at­tempt­ing to in­ter­fere in the election. But in Jan­uary, they re­leased an even stronger as­sess­ment: Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin per­son­ally or­dered the hack­ing — to get Trump elected.

Trump, then pres­i­dent- elect, re­sponded by com­plain­ing that the re­port was leaked to NBC News be­fore he had a chance to read it. And he said it showed the election wasn’t tam­pered with be­cause no votes were known to have been changed.

“In­tel­li­gence stated very strongly there was ab­so­lutely no ev­i­dence that hack­ing af­fected the election re­sults. Voting ma­chines not touched!” he tweeted.

The Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence cam­paign also in­cluded “fake news” sto­ries and pro­pa­ganda from Rus­sia- owned me­dia, in­tel­li­gence re­ports said.


In De­cem­ber, in­com­ing Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Michael Flynn talked to Rus­sian Am­bas­sador Sergey Kislyak about re­lax­ing sanc­tions — a call re­ported in the Wash­ing­ton Post two weeks later. White House of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing the vice pres­i­dent — in­sisted that it was a courtesy call and that sanc­tions were not dis­cussed.

When that turned out not to be true, Trump fired Flynn.

That wasn’t the end of Flynn’s le­gal trou­bles. He also failed to dis­close his lob­by­ing for the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment and didn’t get ap­proval to work for a Rus­sian state- owned me­dia out­let.


Dur­ing the tran­si­tion, Trump son- in- law Jared Kushner met with Rus­sian of­fi­cials in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to cre­ate a “back chan­nel” be­tween the White House and the Krem­lin.

That move could have used Rus­sian com­mu­ni­ca­tions meth­ods and ap­peared de­signed to let the se­nior of­fi­cials speak di­rectly to their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts out­side nor­mal diplo­matic and in­tel­li­gence pro­to­cols.

The White House said such com­mu­ni­ca­tions are “an ap­pro­pri­ate part of diplo­macy.” But the com­mu­ni­ca­tions could im­pli­cate fed­eral laws gov­ern­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions with for­eign pow­ers: the Lo­gan Act, a rarely used law for­bid­ding pri­vate cit­i­zens from con­duct­ing for­eign pol­icy; the Es­pi­onage Act, which pro­hibits di­vulging state se­crets; and the For­eign Agent Reg­is­tra­tion Act, which re­quires those act­ing on be­half of a for­eign power to dis­close their contacts with the gov­ern­ment.

Also, us­ing Rus­sian commu- nica­tions equip­ment could have made Kushner or any­one else vul­ner­a­ble to black­mail.

Kushner, who later took on a for­mal role as an ad­viser to Trump, also al­legedly failed to dis­close meet­ings with Russians on se­cu­rity clear­ance forms.


Dur­ing Jeff Ses­sions’ con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing as at­tor­ney gen­eral, Sen. Al Franken asked him about re­ports of com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

Ses­sions said he was un­aware of any such contacts and then vol­un­teered: “I have been called a sur­ro­gate at a time or two in that cam­paign, and I didn’t have — did not have com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the Russians.”

That turned out not to be true. He met with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador at least twice as a U. S. sen­a­tor. But whether Ses­sions com­mit­ted per­jury turns on whether he in­tended to de­ceive the Se­nate panel.

“My an­swer was hon­est and cor­rect as I un­der­stood it at the time,” Ses­sions later said.

He later re­cused him­self from in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the Rus­sian mat­ter.


Trump abruptly fired FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey — the man re­spon­si­ble for the var­i­ous Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions — on May 9. The pur­ported rea­son: a memo from Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein ex­co­ri­at­ing Comey for how he con­ducted an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Clin­ton’s mis­han­dling of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

But Trump later told NBC’s Lester Holt he was think­ing about “the Rus­sian thing” when he made the de­ci­sion. And Comey later tes­ti­fied that Trump had re­peat­edly pressed him to pub­licly deny the pres­i­dent was per­son­ally un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Special coun­sel Robert Mueller is now in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the pres­i­dent ob­structed jus­tice.


The day af­ter fir­ing Comey, the pres­i­dent met in the Oval Of­fice with Ki­sy­lak and Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov. Trump re­port­edly told the two men that Comey was a “nut job” and that his fir­ing re­lieved “great pres­sure” on him.

Sep­a­rately, the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported Trump di­vulged clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to the Rus­sian diplo­mats, giv­ing them de­tails of an in­ter­cepted plot to bomb planes us­ing dis­guised lap­tops. While the pres­i­dent can legally share clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion with any­one, the in­tel­li­gence in ques­tion be­longed to Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.


Af­ter fir­ing Comey, Trump set off weeks of spec­u­la­tion with a sin­gle tweet: “James Comey bet­ter hope that there are no ‘ tapes’ of our con­ver­sa­tions be­fore he starts leak­ing to the press!”

Se­cretly record­ing con­ver­sa­tions in the White House isn’t il­le­gal be­cause the District of Columbia re­quires only one party of the con­ver­sa­tion to con­sent to the record­ing. But those tapes, if they ex­ist, could be ev­i­dence in an ob­struc­tion of jus­tice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and Congress has of­fi­cially re­quested that the White House turn over any tapes.

Comey has said the tapes would back up his tes­ti­mony about the con­ver­sa­tions. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he told the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.


Two weeks ago, the on­line pub­li­ca­tion The In­ter­cept pub­lished a leaked Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency memo doc­u­ment­ing Rus­sian at­tempts to hack election ven­dors and lo­cal election of­fi­cials. The web­site said the memo showed that Rus­sian hack­ing “may have pen­e­trated fur­ther into U. S. voting sys­tems than was pre­vi­ously un­der­stood.”

Hours later, the FBI ar­rested Re­al­ity Leigh Win­ner, an NSA con­trac­tor, and ac­cused her of il­le­gally leak­ing the memo.

Next week, the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee will hold a public hear­ing on Rus­sian cy­ber­at­tacks on U. S. election sys­tems in 2016 and ef­forts to pre­vent it in fu­ture elec­tions.


Af­ter Comey was fired, Rosen­stein ap­pointed former FBI di­rec­tor Mueller as special coun­sel. His man­date: to in­ves­ti­gate “any links and/ or co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and in­di­vid­u­als as­so­ci­ated with the cam­paign of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump” and “any mat­ters that arose or may arise di­rectly from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

But the special coun­sel reg­u­la­tion also al­lows the special coun­sel to “in­ves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute fed­eral crimes com­mit­ted in the course of, and with in­tent to in­ter­fere with, the special coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion such as per­jury, ob­struc­tion of jus­tice, de­struc­tion of ev­i­dence, and in­tim­i­da­tion of wit­nesses.”

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported Wed­nes­day that Mueller would in­ter­view two high- rank­ing in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials with an eye to­ward in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Trump ob­structed jus­tice. Those of­fi­cials: Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Dan Coats and NSA Di­rec­tor Mike Rogers, who have de­clined to an­swer con­gres­sional ques­tions about their con­ver­sa­tions with the pres­i­dent.

Trump ap­peared to con­firm that he was a tar­get of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion in a tweet Fri­day: “I am be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for fir­ing the FBI Di­rec­tor by the man who told me to fire the FBI Di­rec­tor! Witch Hunt,” he wrote.


Pres­i­dent Trump speaks with Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov, left, and am­bas­sador Sergey Kislyak dur­ing a meet­ing at the White House on May 10.


As probes into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence with the 2016 U. S. election heated up, Pres­i­dent Trump fired Michael Flynn, left, then James Comey. Now his son- in- law, Jared Kushner, is un­der fire.



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