Russia investigation goes into high gear
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein this week rejected accusations that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had become a “fishing expedition,” after it was reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into President Trump’s financial history and has impaneled a grand jury. With the grand jury, Mueller’s team of 16 prosecutors can subpoena witnesses to provide documents and other evidence, and to testify under oath; if there is sufficient evidence of a crime, the prosecutors can then seek an indictment. Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe in March, said the former FBI director was authorized to look into any matter relating to whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. He said Mueller would need his permission to look at anything outside the “appropriate scope of the investigation.”
Mueller’s team is now reportedly reviewing financial records concerning the president, his business, his family members, and his campaign associates, with a focus on transactions involving Russians. Sources told CNN that investigators are hoping to find evidence of financial crimes, which could be used as leverage to encourage subjects of the investigation to cooperate. In a sign of the growing intensity of the probe, it was revealed this week that FBI agents raided the house of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort last month, reportedly to search for tax documents and foreign banking records.
Trump, who has suggested he would consider dismissing Mueller if he looked into his finances, told supporters at a rally in Huntington, W.Va., that the accusations of Russian collusion were a “fake story” designed to “cheat you out of the leadership that you want.” In the Senate, two Democrats and two Republicans jointly proposed bills that would prevent the president from unilaterally firing Mueller and require him to get approval from a three-judge panel.
What the editorials said
“Don’t read too much into the revelation that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury,” said the Miami Herald. It doesn’t necessarily mean “there’ll be criminal indictments, much less impeachment.” But it does show that “Mueller is serious about his task”—and that he thinks there may be grounds for indictments. Trump can protest until he’s hoarse, but “the more he mouths off, the more it looks like he’s got something to hide.”
What do Trump’s real estate deals have to do with Russian collusion? asked the New York Post. Alas, this is the problem with all special counsels: The probe inevitably becomes a quest to bring criminal charges against someone, anyone, regardless of their relevance to the original investigation. Trump would do well to keep quiet, given this is “something he can’t change without inviting worse trouble.” But you can understand why he’s “so maddened by the whole thing.”
What the columnists said
Mueller’s mandate is actually pretty broad, said Cristian Farias in NYMag.com. He was tasked with investigating possible Russian collusion, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” With the grand jury, prosecutors can now explore “several theories of criminality.” Did Trump or his associates, including Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, engage in illegal or unreported financial transactions with Russians? Did Trump’s eldest son and his son-in-law continue secret conversations with Russians, after meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton? And did Trump’s repeated attempts to squelch the investigation, and his firing of FBI Director James Comey, constitute an obstruction of justice? The impaneling of the grand jury is “an important milestone,” said Ryan Lizza in NewYorker.com. It confirms that the special counsel has evidence that crimes were committed, and it will make it even more “politically explosive” for the president to try to dismiss Mueller.
The grand jury news confirms that what began as a counterintelligence probe is now a criminal investigation, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. In light of this, Mueller has a duty to inform the public whether Trump himself is under investigation. The ability of the commander in chief to “carry out his awesome responsibilities is critical to our governance and security”—and he shouldn’t be “under a cloud unless there is a good reason for it.”
Trump’s reaction to all this had an “ominous edge,” said Greg Sargent in WashingtonPost.com. By insisting Mueller’s investigation was designed “to cheat you out of the leadership you want,” the president seemed to be “preparing his base for the worst.” If this investigation does find any evidence of collusion, obstruction, or any other wrongdoing, he may well tell his supporters it’s “an effort to steal the election from him—and from them.”
That complaint will ring hollow if Mueller finds proof Trump colluded with the Russians, said Matt Lewis in TheDailyBeast.com. But the broadening of the investigation sure looks like “mission creep,” and if this turns into a prosecution of the president for, say, tax evasion or some other unrelated financial crime, at least a third of Americans will see this as “an attempt to nullify the election results.” And they’ll be largely justified.