A little more than a week ago, I said on CNN and wrote on Facebook that — based on reporting I’d just completed in Washington DC — it was clear that the controversy surrounding Russian contacts with advisers to President Donald J. Trump and his campaign team was about to become much more serious and much more directly focused on the president himself, and would have deeply troubling consequences for our democracy.
The revelations since then have confirmed all of that, and will be remembered as the point when an extraordinary but perhaps still manageable political embarrassment for the Trump administration mushroomed into the most serious controversy to engulf a presidency since Watergate.
Based on what we know already, and new revelations that will soon illuminate more key events in this sequence, our country faces a dramatic constitutional exigency. This crisis now is directly about the president himself, and one for which — with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey — he now bears complete responsibility. Bluntly stated, it has become a catastrophic failure of conduct and leadership — and a debacle from which the Trump presidency will not recover.
What I couldn’t say last week was that, earlier on that day, I spent more than four hours conducting Sally Yates’ first media interview since being fired by President Trump as acting US attorney general. With me in the interview was The New Yorker magazine’s Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, whose profile of Yates appeared on Monday, May 22. (I have known Yates for more than 25 years, and in February wrote a profile of her for Slate.)
During our interview, and in subsequent conversations in the following days, Yates never disclosed any classified details of the ongoing investigation or specific new bombshells. But by the end of that long series of questions, answers and clarifications, important contours of the scandal — the boundaries of what is known or not known and the enormous scale of the stakes involved — became much more clear. Combined with that and other reporting, it became apparent that the Trump-Russia scandal was far more serious than understood when the first revelations of the investigation occurred, and since then have only grown more ominous. These observations are my own, based on my interviews with Yates, national security experts and other people close to these events, as well as close reading of congressional testimony, publicly available documents and disclosures by trusted fellow journalists.
To understand why this is so serious, it’s important first to realize what is truly important to the inquiry — and to escape some of the distractions of the past six months. Why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in November, or exactly how Russian interests attempted to disrupt and influence our electoral process, is important, but ultimately not what matters most. Whether former Trump campaign officials and advisers failed to disclose past business dealings with interests in Ukraine, Russia and Turkey is a question that will be answered, but not a defining one. That President Trump and his family have had past business dealings or allegedly engaged in personal hijinks in Russia is hardly important at all.
No, this is an investigation about one thing: the now-undeniable fact that a Russian espionage conspiracy accomplished an objective that has never previously occurred in American history — compromising the highest levels of US government, penetrating the White House, establishing influence and leverage over the president’s national security adviser and planting false information with the vice president of the United States — who then, wittingly or unwittingly, repeated those fictions to the American people.
In our current toxic political atmosphere, filled with charges and countercharges, and ruthless accusations against and among media, it is sometimes easy to lose perspective and fail to see what is significant or insignificant. So let me be clear: What Russia accomplished in this operation represents a breathtaking danger to all Americans and an immeasurable humiliation to our global prestige. Russian spy agencies successfully reached inside the walls of the White House, the confines of the National Security Council and the thinking of, at least, the second-highest ranking elected official of our country. If the most powerful figures in our government can be duped into self-destruction as easily as this, none of our secrets are safe, the words of our leaders are unreliable and the most basic sense of judgment by our president is in doubt.
The penetration of the White House by Russian spy agencies was already known and incontrovertible at the time Sally Yates testified on May 8. Still unknown, though, are the answers to three crucial questions which will ultimately decide the fate of the current presidency:
- Question 1: What did President Donald Trump know, and when did he know it? Most importantly, when did he know that his selection for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had illegally communicated on Dec. 29, 2016 with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and lied about it to other officials in the Trump White House?
- Question 2: Did the Russian spy conspiracy directly reach and compromise President Trump himself? Most importantly, did he encourage Flynn to communicate illegally with Russians, or know about it after the fact and do nothing?
- Question 3: Did President Trump take actions to thwart the FBI investigation into the Russian conspiracy — in an effort to conceal that one or more members of his White House staff were compromised, or to hide his own illegal conduct? If so, do his actions rise to the level of obstruction of justice?
Over the past two weeks, we’ve learned a lot related to Question #3, and the possibility that President Trump committed obstruction — a serious federal offense. Indeed, it was one of the primary indictments leading to the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon, and alone is likely enough to mortally wound this presidency.
The escalating revelations of recent days have included that President Trump allegedly sought an oath of loyalty from FBI Director Comey soon after the inauguration, then later asked him to shut down the investigation into possible ties between the administration and Russian espionage officials, then on May 9 fired the FBI director and publicly admitted he did so to stop the investigation. Shortly thereafter, President Trump clumsily shared highly classified information with top Russian officials visiting him in the Oval Office, and bragged to those Russians that his firing of Comey was done to shut down the investigation. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” Trump told the Russians, according to a leaked White House memo documenting the conversations.
Under the modern American system of government, a unique separation has been established between the White House and the Department of Justice — even though the attorney general who runs that department is an appointee of the president. It is required by law and tradition that the attorney general reach legal opinions independently of the president or other White House advisers, for instance. To insure that prosecution is never used to advance political interests or settle electoral scores, it is absolutely forbidden for the White House to have any influence over criminal investigations. That proscription is most critical regarding investigations of alleged misconduct by elected officials — and the greatest imaginable violation of that duty of separation would be for a president to directly interfere in a criminal inquiry examining the White House, or himself.
Given all that, the only possibly innocent explanation of the actions of the president to shut down the FBI investigation would be some form of incompetence — that he simply didn’t know such behavior was prohibited and likely illegal. That is a difficult defense for a president of the United States to maintain.
On questions #1 and #2, there is still much to be learned before the answers are clear. With the announcement on May 17 that the Department of Justice had appointed an independent special counsel to oversee the ongoing federal investigation, the odds have greatly increased that those answers will be forthcoming, and they are almost certain to damage President Trump.
Most important is what Flynn, the former national security adviser who lied about his discussions with the Russian ambassador, told FBI agents when he was interviewed on Jan. 24. Two days later, Sally Yates urgently informed the president’s lawyer, White House Counsel Donald McGahn, that based on at least one recorded conversation between Flynn and the ambassador, it was clear that the national security adviser had lied to the vice president and others in the White House. McGahn asked for another meeting with Yates the next day to go over the evidence again. Astonishingly, despite Flynn’s apparently improper behavior and deceptions to the president’s team, no action was taken for more than two weeks to remove Flynn from his position or restrict his access to the highest level of confidential national security information.
“We were concerned about the conduct, about what the Russians would know,” Yates told me in our interview. “What really aggravated that was that Flynn was lying to the vice president and others about it and sending them out to deceive the American people.”
Yates wouldn’t say what Flynn told the Russian ambassador or whether Flynn was truthful in his interview with FBI agents, saying that information remains classified. However, intelligence reports have since surfaced that the content of the Flynn conversation was a request that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin not retaliate for sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Barack Obama was still president at the time of the conversation, and Flynn was still a civilian. Meddling by a citizen in a dispute between the US and a foreign government is illegal under a federal law enacted in 1799 called the Logan Act.
According to recent reporting, Flynn also assured the Russian ambassador that the Trump administration would “revisit” those sanctions once in office — a strong suggestion that it would likely reverse them. On the day after that phone conversation, Putin announced that Russia would not retaliate, just as Flynn had asked. Based on other reporting and suggestions in recent congressional testimony, it’s safe to believe that description of Flynn’s conversation.
Yates wouldn’t comment on this, but clearly she would have shared all of that with the White House counsel when she warned him that Flynn had been compromised by Russian agents.
“There was never any doubt among the national security experts, that this… was a situation that the Russians could utilize,” Yates told me. “That’s what they do. They’ve got a word for it . . . ‘Kompromat.’”
Indeed, Yates says McGahn, the White House lawyer, asked her whether Flynn was likely to be indicted. Yates says she declined to answer that question — that the White House had all the information it needed to see that Flynn had been implicated.
Obviously, if Flynn had been fully truthful with the FBI, and his actions were not suspect, there would have been no need for Yates to issue her urgent warning to the White House. That strongly suggests Flynn was not honest in his FBI interview — potentially another serious criminal offense.
Despite Yates’ warnings to the White House in January, President Trump took no action on Flynn for 18 days.
Instead, four days later, Trump fired Sally Yates, after she concluded that the president’s executive order banning immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries was illegal. Only after Flynn’s deceptions to Vice President Mike Pence were revealed in The Washington Post, more than a week later, was he removed from his job.
All that takes us back to Questions #1 and #2: What did the president know, and when did he know it? Did he know about Flynn’s improper communications? Did he try to hide them from the investigation? Why did he take no action when warned that Flynn had been compromised by Russia?
It is difficult, verging on impossible, to imagine that Michael Flynn did not proudly tell President-elect Trump of his success in persuading Putin not to impose retaliatory sanctions on the US. In fact, when Putin made that announcement on Dec. 30, a day after Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador, Trump celebrated Putin’s gesture publicly on Twitter that day: “Great move,” the president tweeted. “I always knew he was very smart.”
If President-elect Trump in fact was aware of Flynn’s improper communications — or even approved of them — then the Russian espionage conspiracy successfully reached the highest official in the United States.
At that point, the president himself would have become vulnerable to Russian blackmail — a stunning and unprecedented compromise of national security and democracy itself.
If President Trump took action to conceal from the FBI investigation either Flynn’s conversation or a connection of his own to those calls, then there is a yet more serious possibility of obstruction of justice.
Flynn is the most apparent person able to answer those questions. Based on everything disclosed thus far, it is difficult to imagine that he is not in criminal jeopardy from the new special counsel’s investigation. Indeed, this week, on May 22, Flynn’s attorney announced that Flynn would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and would not provide documents requested by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is hard to imagine, however, that an American general faced with potential imprisonment for such actions would not at some stage, under some circumstances, testify honestly as to the conduct of President Trump.
Before Yates’ congressional testimony on May 8 and the president’s abrupt firing of FBI Director Comey on the following day, “Russia-gate,” as it’s being called by some, was a slowly accreting body of injury to the president’s political viability. It was very serious, no doubt. It undermined confidence in his leadership among Republican House members as they eye falling approval ratings before the 2018 midterm elections, and reflected the president’s staggeringly poor judgment in the selection of top aides, his astonishingly bad political instincts other than in the rawest theater of the campaign trail, and his establishment of a White House staff that can only be described as fully dysfunctional.
However, it remained a political blunder — a terrible one, but one that a series of wiser decisions by President Trump could conceivably have overcome: a new chief of staff, mass firings at the White House, a new willingness to listen to the judgments of others and to cut loose bad choices from his team.
Just as important — Democrats and committed Trump haters won’t like to read this — as recently as two weeks ago, there was no serious basis in publicly available information to believe that the Trump-Russia scandal extended beyond a series of ugly but limited contacts between parties friendly to, or under the control of, the Kremlin.
The conclusion by all major US counter-intelligence agencies that Russian espionage operators, under the specific direction of top Kremlin leadership, actively meddled in the 2016 election in an attempt to help Trump was aggravating to the president, but little pointed to his having any direct involvement. Trump’s public invitation during the campaign for the Russians to do more hacking to locate material damaging to his Democratic opponent could be written off as unwitting bluster.
The past coziness between Russian interests and former campaign manager Paul Manafort was ugly, but was likely legal and had no direct connection to Trump. The future president’s seizure upon an inconsequential Moscow dilettante named Carter Page as a “foreign policy adviser” was a sophomoric aggrandizement to make himself appear to have substantive advice on Russia, but it carried no suggestion of criminality. The false statements of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing that he had had no contact with Russian Ambassador Kislyak was a bumbling omission. But it came from an Alabama senator already assumed to be bumbling by everyone in Washington — except President Trump. In any case, it wasn’t illegal, and touched the president in no direct fashion.
No more. This scandal has metastasized more quickly and destructively than I could possibly have forecast.
I say that with no joy. In the months since Donald Trump was elected last November, I repeatedly cautioned on television and in print against a rush to judge Trump prematurely, or to exaggerate the danger of his bluster, or to see certain disaster in his general lack of knowledge or preparation. I said no one can become president without some strain of genius — no matter what else about him or her one may despise. And no genuine patriot can hope merely out of political disagreements for any presidency to end in disaster. My public promise was to give Donald Trump as much benefit of the doubt as possible. Internally I hoped his disdain for both parties and “dealmaking” instincts might actually lead to compromises around key issues. I wasn’t confident that would come to pass, but I felt obligated to hope for it.
There is no longer a rational basis to imagine any such scenario.
There also is no certainty yet that President Trump will be either impeached or choose to resign. But those possibilities, which 14 days ago were almost unimaginable to any informed and fair-minded observer, are now very real. Even if President Trump is able to remain in office through the end of next year, he will have been long abandoned by most serious conservatives in Congress, as the jeopardy of continued association with him becomes clear. Within a few months — and possibly in just weeks — most GOP elected officials will have acknowledged, at least privately, that Donald Trump has become the Republican Party’s greatest liability. No presidency can overcome that.
The collapse of this administration may or may not be swift.
But it is inevitable.
A version of this post first appeared on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Douglas A. Blackmon’s Facebook page.