Trump and Russia
September 9, 2020

President Trump "never thought he was going to win" the 2016 election, Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney and fixer, said on Tuesday, and he only entered the presidential race because he saw it as "a branding opportunity in order to expand worldwide."

Cohen revealed this during an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow about his new book, Disloyal: A Memoir, which details his time working for Trump. In Disloyal, Cohen writes that Trump spent much of his 2016 campaign "sucking up to the Russians," because he wanted to be able to borrow money from people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Because Trump expected to lose the election, Cohen claimed, he wanted to keep all options open for the Trump Organization, including building Trump Tower Moscow.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump falsely denied having any links to Russia. Trump had been "looking to do a project in Russia for many, many years, even prior to my joining the Trump Organization in 2007," Cohen told Maddow. "He's fixated on the wealth of Vladimir Putin and all of the opportunities that come with it."

Trump not only "never thought he was going to win" in 2016, he "actually didn't want to win," Cohen said. "This was supposed to be, and it's how he started it, the greatest political infomercial in the history of politics. If you take that line and you add to it the Trump Tower Moscow project you'll understand that this was a branding deal, that's all that the presidential campaign started out as, this was a branding opportunity in order to expand worldwide. There's only one problem: He won." Catherine Garcia

August 31, 2020

The FBI was sufficiently worried about President Trump's decades-long personal and financial ties to Russia that, in the days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the bureau reportedly launched a counterintelligence investigation of the president. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein quickly "curtailed the investigation without telling the bureau, all but ensuring it would go nowhere," The New York Times reports, citing former Justice Department and FBI officials.

The acting FBI director at the time, Andrew McCabe, had approved the counterintelligence investigation, reportedly believing Trump would quickly fire him too. And when Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel, "it was the most enormous exhale of my life," McCabe told New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt. Rosenstein left "the FBI with the impression that the special counsel would take on the investigation into the president as part of his broader duties," the Times reports. But privately, Rosenstein instructed Mueller "to conduct only a criminal investigation into whether anyone broke the law in connection with Russia's 2016 election interference," and then "shut it down," the Times continued.

"We opened this case in May 2017 because we had information that indicated a national security threat might exist, specifically a counterintelligence threat involving the president and Russia," McCabe told the Times. "I expected that issue and issues related to it would be fully examined by the special counsel team. If a decision was made not to investigate those issues, I am surprised and disappointed. I was not aware of that." Rosenstein, now retired, declined to comment.

While Mueller never looked into Trump's personal ties to Russia, the Senate Intelligence Committee did to a limited extent. It detailed the extensive links between Trump's campaign and Moscow, including Russian intelligence, and numerous unsubstantiated reports of "Trump's potentially compromising encounters with women in Moscow in 1996 and 2013" in a recent bipartisan report, the Times notes. "But the senators acknowledged they lacked access to the full picture, particularly any insight into Mr. Trump's finances." Read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber

June 28, 2019

Before departing for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, reporters asked President Trump what he would discuss with Russian Preisdent Vlaidimir Putin in their one-on-one meeting, specifically if he would tell him not to interfere in the upcoming U.S. election, as he did to help Trump in 2016, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. "What I say to him is none of your business," Trump said.

Trump was a little more forthcoming when he sat next to Putin in Osaka on Friday. He said he and Putin have a "very, very good relationship," and "many positive things are going to come out of the relationship." The two leaders "have many things to discuss, including trade and some disarmament, some little protectionism, in a very positive way," he added. And when a reporter asked, again, if Trump would warn Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election, Trump laughed. "Yes, of course I will," he said, turning to Putin with a smile. "Don't meddle in the election, president. Don't meddle in the election."

Chris Cuomo taken aback by Trump appearing to share a joke with Putin about Russian election interference. "Look, fact is stranger than fiction these days," he said on CNN. Election security is "clearly not a subject that the president of the United States takes seriously," added CNN's Jim Sciutto. "So here he sits next to the Russian president and makes a joke about Russian interference in the election. I think it's a remarkable moment." You can watch a more in-depth discussion of that moment below. Peter Weber

January 14, 2019

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation in early 2017 into whether President Trump was acting as a Russian asset, and The Washington Post reported that Trump went to extraordinary lengths to keep his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin secret, even from his own advisers. On Monday, CNN said transcripts from closed-door House interviews with FBI lawyers shed more light on what top FBI officials were thinking before they launched their extraordinary counterintelligence investigation of the president.

James Baker, who was then FBI general counsel, told House investigators that after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, remaining top FBI officials were trying to figure out whether Trump's odd Kremlin-friendly behavior meant he was "acting at the behest of and somehow following directions, somehow executing their will. ... That was one extreme. The other extreme is that the president is completely innocent, and we discussed that too." The FBI needed to investigate because it didn't know whether "the worst-case scenario is possibly true or the president is totally innocent and we need to get this thing over with — and so he can move forward with his agenda."

Another former FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, told House investigators that "this case had been a topic of discussion for some time," and there was "an indecision and a cautiousness on the part of the bureau with respect to what to do and whether there was sufficient predication to open." Theoretically, Baker said, "if the President of the United States fired Jim Comey at the behest of the Russian government, that would be unlawful and unconstitutional." "Is that what happened here?" asked Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas). "I don't know," Baker said, then a FBI lawyer cut him off. Peter Weber

August 4, 2017

On Thursday afternoon, as President Trump was heading to a rally in West Virginia, The Wall Street Journal reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington, D.C., to investigate possible criminal charges against Trump's campaign, business, or administration associates, perhaps even Trump himself, in Mueller's expanding Russia investigation. The grand jury, in place for a few weeks, has already issued subpoenas in connection with Donald Trump Jr.'s June 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-backed lawyer, Reuters reports, and CNN says Mueller's investigation has veered into any financial ties Trump, his family, and his associates have to Russia.

The reports set off alarm bells in the White House, because of the increasing legal jeopardy but also out of concern that Trump could make things worse, The Daily Beast reports. In an interview with The New York Times last month, Trump agreed with the idea that Mueller digging into his family's finances would cross a "red line" and be a "violation." If the new reports are accurate, Mueller is well on the other side of that line. "The worry is what the president does now," one senior Trump official told The Daily Beast. "Just keep him off the Twitter and on the teleprompter."

Trump offered a relatively subdued denial at the West Virginia rally, calling the "Russia story" a "total fabrication." But the big concern is that he would order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller — a decision that would set off what one White House adviser called an "apocalyptic sh--storm." Two different bipartisan pairs of senators introduced legislation Thursday to shield Mueller from firing, and two White House officials told The Daily Beast that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would strenuously oppose such a move.

But "people react really stupidly to these proceedings all the time," and "Trump and his team seem incapable, as a matter of character, to react ... in a prudent way or follow good advice or do the things you have to do to survive it," former federal prosecutor Ken White tells The Daily Beast. "They convince other people to lie for them, they destroy documents, they come up with lies they're going to tell themselves, they do all sorts of idiotic things — not realizing part of a fed prosecutor's point is often to drive them to do that." You can read more at The Daily Beast. Peter Weber

July 25, 2017

Early Monday morning, White House senior adviser and President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, released an 11-page statement on his at least four known meetings with Russian officials last year, including a meeting he and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort were invited to by Donald Trump Jr. with a Kremlin-linked lawyer offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton. In Kushner's letter and a subsequent statement he read outside the White House after testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, he denied any collusion with Russia and said he did not know of any collusion in the Trump campaign.

Specifically, Kushner said he had not known the reason for the meeting with the Russian lawyer, because he had been too busy with the campaign to read Don Jr.'s entire email — what NBC News' Kasie Hunt called "the chaos and sloppiness defense." On Fox News Monday afternoon, anchor Shep Smith did not seem convinced by that version of events.

"Okay, hang on," Smith told Associated Press White House reporter Jonathan Lemire. "There's an email, and at the top of that email, there's a subject line. ... Here it is, this is an email from Donald Trump Jr., sent on Wednesday, June 8, at noon or so. The subject line: 'Russia - Clinton - private and confidential.'" Kushner claims he did not read deep into the email, Smith said, "and we're to believe he didn't read the subject line." "That is the version he is saying," Lemire said. "Frankly, Paul Manafort has made a similar case."

"Everybody's sort of pointing at Don Jr., it seems like, all of a sudden," Smith noted. Lemire said that's "hitting on something very interesting," the idea that "there may be a moment, and it may be sooner than later, where the legal fortunes of Don. Jr. and Jared Kushner may be in conflict. It will be very interesting to see how they reconcile that." Kushner's statements concluded with the hope that he can now put this matter behind him, at least after he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. "I think that is unlikely, to say the least," Lemire said. "Yeah, that's not happening," Smith said, then moved on to the iffy future for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Watch. Peter Weber

July 21, 2017

President Trump and some of his lawyers are actively looking at ways to undermine, discredit, or fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading a broad investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, including compiling a list of potential conflicts of interest that might be used to force out Mueller or some of his investigators, The New York Times and The Washington Post report, both citing people familiar with the effort. That effort has apparently ramped up as Mueller begins digging into Trump's financial history.

"Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face," The Washington Post reports. "He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns."

A conflict of interest is one potential reason an attorney general can use to remove a special counsel, and the Trump team is casting its net wide, including whether Mueller is close to fired FBI Director James Comey, an alleged dispute over membership fees between Mueller and Trump National Golf Course when Mueller resigned in 2011, and political contributions to Democrats by some of his team's prosecutors. "Prosecutors may not participate in investigations if they have 'a personal or political relationship' with the subject of the case," The New York Times explains. "Making campaign donations is not included on the list of things that would create a 'political relationship.'"

In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday with The New York Times, Trump also suggested that Mueller has a conflict of interest because he interviewed for the FBI director job before he was appointed special counsel, though he did not explain how that is a conflict of interest. Trump and his lawyers are also making the argument that Mueller could be sacked for exceeding what Trump sees as the scope of the Russia investigation. When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would have to fire Mueller, appointed him, he gave Mueller broad authority to investigate any links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government plus "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and any crime committed in response to the investigation. Peter Weber

July 21, 2017

As President Trump becomes increasingly concerned and angry about the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which has reportedly expanded into Trump's financial transactions, he has been talking with aides and his legal team about the president's power to pardon aides, family members, and even himself, people familiar with the effort tell The Washington Post. One of those people described the discussion as being mostly among Trump's lawyers, and two people familiar with the conversations said the discussions are purely theoretical at this point, largely to satisfy Trump's curiosity. "This is not in the context of, 'I can't wait to pardon myself,'" a close adviser told the Post.

Presidents have broad powers to pardon people for federal offenses, as laid out in the Constitution, but no president has tried to pardon himself — though Richard Nixon explored the question, CBS's John Dickerson points out — and it is unclear if that would be legally permissible. "This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question," Michigan State University constitutional law expert Brian C. Kalt tells the Post. "There is no predicting what would happen."

It would certainly spark a political firestorm, as would any pardon related to the Russia investigation. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Trump in a statement Thursday night that "pardoning any individuals who may have been involved would be crossing a fundamental line." He called the possibility that Trump is "considering pardons at this early stage in these ongoing investigations ... extremely disturbing." You can read more about Trump's pardon deliberations at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

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