Opinion

Special Counsel Mueller is now following the money. Trump should be terrified.

The president is in real trouble now

After former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, President Trump and his allies strained hard to claim victory. As they saw it, Comey's testimony that Trump himself wasn't a focus of the Russia probe was a "total and complete vindication" of the president. "Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the president privately," the president's attorney said in a statement. "The president was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference."

As far as vindications go, this one was pretty weak. Comey, after all, could only testify that Trump wasn't a target of the probe as of early May, when he was fired. And, sure enough, a week after Trump and his legal team spiked footballs and celebrated that Trump wasn't a target of the Russia probe, The Washington Post reported that Trump is indeed being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice.

It suffices to say that this is a big deal, and the revelation that a sitting president is being scrutinized by the Justice Department for potential criminal acts is rightly dominating the political news. But as bad as that news is for Trump, the obstruction inquiry still isn't the biggest threat posed to him by the Russia investigation. Trump's bigger worry is the fact that, in the Post's words, "investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates."

Proving obstruction against Trump will be difficult, even with Trump's nationally televised statement that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired Comey. Investigators would have to demonstrate corrupt intent on the part of the president, which is a high bar to clear. And even if they did build a convincing case, responsibility for holding Trump accountable would fall to the Republican-controlled Congress, which won't move against the president so long as he can sign tax cuts for rich people into law.

Trump's associates, on the other hand, are easier game for the Justice Department. They don't enjoy the same immunities that Trump does, and whatever financial crimes they may have committed will be documented with hard evidence. And it's no secret that Trump has surrounded himself with people who make their money in ways that, at first glance, look pretty damn suspicious.

The Trump associate who probably stands to lose the most from intense Justice Department scrutiny is former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. He was forced to resign from the campaign amid reports of undisclosed lobbying work he did on behalf of corrupt pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, and an existing criminal probe into his foreign business dealings was taken over by the Justice Department's Russia investigation earlier this month. Various news reports suggest that Manafort may have laundered money through Cypriot banks and the New York real estate market.

Everything about Manafort screams "shady operator," and his closeness to the president is of obvious concern to the White House, which has gone to hilarious lengths to distance itself from him. In March, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried arguing that Manafort, who led the Trump election effort for several months, "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time" in the campaign.

Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is also a target of the Russia probe for his December meeting with the head of a Russian bank who has close ties to Vladimir Putin's government. The explanations for why Kushner had that meeting — which Kushner failed to disclose — are unclear and conflicting, but if any potential business transactions were discussed, Kushner may have violated U.S. sanctions law. Meanwhile, the Kushner family business — which Jared is only partially divested from — is using his ties to the president as a selling point for foreign investors.

These investigations of the business dealings of Trump's closest associates are dangerous for the president on several levels. From a political standpoint, it's never a good thing when officials at the very top of your campaign and administration are hit with corruption charges, but it's especially bad when one of your more memorable campaign slogans was "drain the swamp."

The bigger threat, however, is that digging into the shady dealings of Kushner, Manafort, and crew will ultimately lead investigators to Trump himself. What little we know for certain about Trump's financial dealings is that he operates with little regard for the law and doesn't much care how he makes money. He reportedly has a host of legally fraught international business holdings, including "a hotel in Azerbaijan that appears to be a corrupt operation linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard."

The president has gone to great lengths to avoid public scrutiny of his businesses, so I can't imagine that Justice Department scrutiny would be especially welcome.

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