Americas: United States
Special National Security Report: --
-- U.S. President Trump fires FBI Director Comey over Russia investigation
-- Trump reportedly shares highly sensitive foreign intelligence with Russia
-- Memo by former FBI Director Comey says Trump asked him to end Flynn probe
-- Former FBI Director Robert Mueller named as special prosecutor in Russian collusion investigation
-- Senior Trump adviser named as "person of interest" in Russia probe
-- Trump boasted to Russian officials that firing of Comey had relieved him of "great pressure"
-- Trump asked two top intelligence officials to deny Russian collusion
-- Trump hires private attorney with Russian ties for Russia probe
-- Trump son-in-law Kushner wanted secret communications channel with Russia; now under FBI scrutiny
-- Multiple Trump aides asked to provide information related to Russia probe
-- Comey to say in Congressional testimony that Trump tried to pressure him to end Flynn investigation
-- White House does not invoke executive privilege to try to stop Comey from testifying
-- Former FBI director Comey accuses Trump of lying during sworn testimony before Senate intelligence committtee
-- Comey says Trump fired him to try to undermine FBI's investigation into possible Russian collusion
-- Comey says Trump urged him to drop investigation into former National Security Adviser Flynn
-- Special counsel Mueller reported to be investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice
On May 9, 2017, United States President Donald Trump fired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey. Of significance was the fact that Comey was leading the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign team and Russia in regard to the 2016 presidential election.
Once viewed as a nonpartisan player who led the country's national law enforcement bureau, Comey's reputation took something of a hit in October 2016 when he weighed issued a letter to Congress two weeks ahead of the 2016 election, suggesting a re-opening of the investigation into the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee -- Hillary Clinton -- and her handling of classified emails. Some analysts have suggested that the timing of this move deleteriously affected Clinton's prospects, effectively facilitating Trump's victory. It should be noted that the Clinton emails case, in fact, led to no charges of wrongdoing.
Comey re-entered the political spotlight after Trump became president and was drawn into a controversy over whether former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump. Comey, in Congressional testimony, made clear that Trump's accusation of President Obama held no weight, effectively contradicting the president on the record. It should be noted that, to date, there has been no remote evidence bolstering Trump's wiretapping claims of President Obama.
Fast-forward to May 2017 and Comey was fired, with Trump saying that he was acting on recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Those recommendations from Deputy Attorney Rosenstein cited Comey's treatment of Clinton in 2016 to justify Comey's dismissal. However, there was immediate skepticism regarding this rationale, given that Trump's very election campaign often focused on the FBI case regarding Clinton's emails. In fact, Trump was clearly critical of the FBI director's decision not to bring charges against Clinton, and later praised Comey for re-opening the case only two weeks ahead of the presidential election. Thus, it was not viewed as plausible that Trump would suddenly make himself into the champion of Clinton's fair treatment, especially given the political benefit to Trump himself.
In a bizarre suspension of protocol, Comey learned of his own dismissal on television as he traveled to Los Angeles to address FBI employees in that city. He reportedly made a joke about the untimely and unorthodox delivery of this news and then contacted his office to receive confirmation.
Ultimately, Comey's dismissal was formalized in a letter, which was signed by the president, and released by the White House. Trump stated in this missive that Comey was "hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately," because he arrived at the conclusion that Comey was "not able to effectively lead the bureau." Trump added, "It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission."
Trump enjoyed support for his decision with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying, "Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well." As well, Republican Senator Susan Collins said, "Any suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI's investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced. The president did not fire the entire FBI; he fired the director."
It should be noted that there was some discrepancy between the official explanation given for Comey's firing and unofficial explanations. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted that Trump made the decision to dismiss Comey in the second week of May 2017 based on recommendations from the attorney general and the deputy attorney general. But in an interview with journalist, Lester Holt, days later, Trump changed his rationale completely, noting that he intended to fire Comey even before the recommendations from the Attorney General's office. Trump said he had long intended to dismiss the FBI director for "not doing a good job" and called him a "showboat."
Yet another rationale emerged when White House insiders indicated that Trump had been enraged with Comey for some time, largely due to the fact that the FBI director disputed the president's wiretapping accusations involving President Obama. That anger reached new heights when during a dinner attended by the two men, Comey refused to pledge his loyalty to Trump.
Perhaps the most disturbing explanation for Comey's firing involved the intensifying FBI probe into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Comey had started receiving daily briefings instead of weekly updates on the investigation, and had become increasingly "concerned by information showing potential evidence of collusion." The timing of Comey's dismissal by Trump, juxtaposed against the increasing intensity of the investigation into the Trump's campaign and Trump associates' ties to Russia, was being viewed with alarm.
Regardless of the actual rationale -- or timing -- of Comey's dismissal, the Trump White House appeared to be shocked at the negative fallout from the president's decision.
Reports from the White House indicated that because Democrats tended to blame Comey -- at least partially -- for Clinton's election loss, the firing of the FBI director would be met with bipartisan praise. Trump and the administration, though, were surprised to find that the firing of Comey was, instead, being viewed as highly problematic and unethical, given that the FBI director was leading the Trump-Russian probe.
In fact, during a telephone call with the president, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump had made a horrible mistake. Speaking of his impression, Schumer mused about the president's motivations as he asked, "Were these investigations getting too close to home for the President?"
Even on the Republican side of the aisle, the decision to fire Comey was met with skepticism. Republican Senator Richard Burr, who was leading the Senate intelligence committee probe into alleged Russian influence on the election, said, "I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey's termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee."
Republican Senator John McCain acknowledged that despite the nonpartisan nature of the FBI director's position, the president had the right to fire Comey. But he added: "While the President has the legal authority to remove the director of the FBI, I am disappointed in the President's decision to remove James Comey from office." McCain also reiterated his call for an independent investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Accordingly, the move by the president to fire the person investigating him could, therefore, could only be regarded as highly political -- and perhaps self-serving. Indeed, it thus generated comparisons to the "Friday night massacre" during the Watergate era in 1973 when President Richard Nixon fired independent special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, which led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
CNN's senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin condemned Trump's decision to fire Comey, casting it as a "grotesque abuse of power by the President of the United States." Referencing the firing of Archibald Cox during the Watergate scandal of 1973, Toobin added, "This is not something that is within the American political tradition."
It should be noted that the official twitter account of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum weighed into the matter -- presumably due to the fact that Comey's dismissal was being characterized as "Nixonian." The library's twitter account tweeted:
"FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian."
Before the story involving the dismissal of Comey could fully be parsed in the public purview, yet another political development sent tectonic shockwaves through the country. At issue was a Washington Post report that President Donald Trump had "revealed highly classified information" to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a White House meeting.
In that meeting, Trump described certain details about an Islamic State terror threat involving the use of laptop computers on aircraft.
As well, Trump discussed elements of that threat that could only be determined via espionage capabilities of a specific partner country. While Trump did not reveal actual intelligence-gathering methods, he disclosed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the threat was detected.
Of concern was the fact that the intelligence disclosed by the United States president was so highly sensitive and restricted that it had not been shared widely either within the United States government or externally with other close allies. Also of concern was the fact that the disclosure of the material would not just risk the source of intelligence about Islamic State, but also the methods used in intelligence collection.
Yet, as discussed here, the president boasted to the emissaries from an adversarial country about the quality of the intelligence to which he had access as president.
The deleterious effects of that disclosure were manifold. First, the damage had to be contained at the Central Intelligence Agency and at the National Security Agency. Then, as reported by the Washington Post, it may have "jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State." It also likely jeopardized relations with friendly countries because the intelligence was provided by a United States ally via an intelligence-sharing agreement, and that foreign partner did not give permission for it to be shared with Russia. Furthermore, according to a New York Times report, which corroborated the Washington Post story, that ally had already warned that is sensitive intelligence was leaked -- as it was by the president himself -- they would cut off further information of this type.
Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster disputed the Washington Post report, saying, "I was in the room -- it didn't happen. At no time —- at no time —- were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known."
This statement, however, did not foreclose the actual report, and as such, Russia could use its resources to trace the information, thus uncovering both techniques and sources. Moreover, McMaster's own aides prevailed on the Washington Post to refrain from publishing logistic and operational details related to the report for national security reasons. The request itself stood as a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that sensitive intelligence had, indeed, been inappropriately disclosed.
A day later on May 16, 2017, McMaster was still casting information about terror threats to international aviation shared by Trump with Russian diplomats as “wholly appropriate" and disputing news reports about the president's revelation of highly classified information to Russian emissaries. He said, “That conversation was wholly appropriate to the conversation, and I think wholly appropriate with the expectation of our intelligence partners.”
However, a follow-up report by the Washington Post had already contained this push back in response to McMaster's claims:
"In the course of two media appearances, McMaster essentially confirmed that:
-The president discussed highly classified information regarding the laptop threat with the Russian foreign minister.
-The intelligence came from a third country.
-Trump named the city whether the intelligence was gathered.
-Trump did this on the spur of the moment.
-A White House aide informed the CIA and NSA that the intelligence was disclosed."
Meanwhile, it should be noted that the New York Times said the information was provided by "a Middle Eastern ally." The New York Times and NBC News confirmed on May 16, 2017, that Israel was the allied country that provided the foreign intelligence to the United States.
Of significance was the fact that the leaking of sensitive classified information of this type is, on the face of it, categorically illegal. However, the president of the United States has broad authority to declassify information. Presumably, the president can declassify "in the moment" and by-pass professional national security vetting. The appropriateness of this decision could only be described as murky, given the fact that the sensitive information was provided by foreign intelligence, and without permission for disclosures to third party governments.
The political impact of this disclosure of sensitive classified intelligence to an adversary of the United States -- by the president and commander in chief of the United States -- could only be viewed as uncharted territory.
Criticism appeared to be bipartisan. At least one member of Congress, Democratic Representative Al Green of Texas, crossed the proverbial rubicon, saying that it was an impeachable offense.
The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Bob Corker, did not have a positive interpretation of the events for the Trump administration. He said, “Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening. And the shame of it is, there’s a really good national security team in place.” He added, Corker also said, “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called an extensive damage assessment committed by the president. She said, “Congress must be given a full briefing on the extent of the damage President Trump has done."
For his part, President Trump defended his “absolute right” to share information with the two Russian diplomats via his favored social media outlet, Twitter. In a series of early morning tweets a day later on May 16, 2017, Trump said: "As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining.......to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
But this view was not likely to be accepted by many in Congress -- particularly Democrats. Indeed, Senior Democratic Senator Dick Durbin cast Trump's disclosures as "dangerous" and "reckless."
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in an interview with Voice of America, that Trump "has the ability to disclose classified information. That doesn’t make it right. And where it’s sensitive and could put sensitive relationships and sources at risk, it’s just as dangerous whether it’s legal or not."
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer demanded that the White House release a transcript of Trump’s meeting with the Russian officials to congressional intelligence committees.
In the House of Representatives, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Trump's sharing of classified intelligence with Russian diplomats reinforced Democrats' demand for an independent investigation into alleged ties with Russia. In an interview with MSNBC, Cummings said, "I would hope that at some point the Republicans will join with the Democrats and say, 'Look, we've got to address this.' This is indefensible."
The concern also came from Republicans, with Republican Senator John McCain saying that Trump's revelations of sensitive foreign-sourced intelligence to the Russians risked future cooperation of allies in counter-terrorism efforts. He said, "It’s a serious concern and we have to know who it is he [Trump] may have unmasked by giving that information" to Russian diplomats.
Given the rising concern over the matter, the Senate Intelligence Committee called on the White House to provide more information about Trump's disclosure of sensitive classified intelligence to the Russians.
Meanwhile, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said to reporters that the Trump administration "has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order."
That notion of the Trump administration bringing itself under control appeared to be elusive on May 16, 2017, when the New York Times reported that President Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to shut down a federal investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. This revelation returned the aforementioned Comey firing to the fore, while also revisiting the first major scandal of the Trump administration -- Flynn's Russian communications. The report noted that the now-fired top law enforcement officer, Comey, wrote in a memo that Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation.
According to memo, which was written by Comey in the aftermath of a February 2017 meeting with the president, Trump introduced the subject of the investigation into Flynn's Russian ties. According to Comey's account, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, who had since resigned from his national security post due to revelations that he misled White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Note: With regard to Flynn's resignation, there was concern over whether or not Russian sanctions were discussed during a conversation with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016 -- prior to Donald Trump taking office as president in early 2017. Flynn had earlier denied that such issues were discussed but he later acknowledged that the nature of the Kislyak conversation conveyed to the White House was “incomplete.” That scandal ultimately led to Flynn's decision to step down from his national security post. Nevertheless, the FBI probe into his Russian (and Turkish) connections was ongoing, and apparently so was Trump's concern for the man once part of his political inner circle.
Comey's detailed notes, according to the New York Times account, recounted Trump saying, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go." “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
This request, as recorded in the Comey memo, provided clear evidence of (1) the president's attempt to directly influence the Justice Department and, (2) the president's attempt to interfere in the FBI's ongoing probe into links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
CNN's legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, characterized the request by Trump as obstruction of justice. Toobin said, "Telling the FBI director to close down an investigation of your senior campaign adviser for his activities during your campaign for president, if that's true, that is obstruction of justice." Toobin also conjured up the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency as he explained, " 'Close it down' is an instruction to stop investigating President Trump's campaign. Richard Nixon was impeached in 1974 for telling the FBI to stop an investigation of his campaign. That's what Watergate was."
Of significance was the fact that the Watergate references were being repeated. Republicans Senator John McCain warned that Trump's problems were reaching Watergate proportions.
Although it was overshadowed by the news of Trump's interference into the Flynn investigation, the New York Times also reported in the same story that Trump wanted the FBI to focus on leak investigations rather than possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. The self-serving aspect of that angle aside, Trump also suggested that reporters linked with published leaks should be jailed.
It should be noted that the practice of jailing journalists for reporting on stories unfavorable to a head of state or head of government is a practice normally associated with third world countries or autocratic regimes.
For its part, the White House has disputed Comey's account, and a White House statement declared that “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end an investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn... This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."
Attention was quickly turning to a call for an independent commission or special prosecutor into the possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
At first, leading Republicans were reluctant to go down this road, noting that there were already Congressional inquiries into the matter. However, Democratic lawmakers said they were prepared to force a vote in the House of Representatives on forming an independent commission, arguing that Republicans were making it clear that they could not be trusted to investigate President Donald Trump. To that end, a bill first introduced by two Democratic members of Congress -- Representatives Elijah Cummings and Eric Swalwell -- which called for the establishment of a 12-member, bipartisan-appointed, independent commission was gaining new attention. With the Republican leadership of the House refusing the legislation to move forward, Democrats were attempting to use a parliamentary procedure known as a "discharge petition" to force a vote on it.
Meanwhile, progress was being made on another related front when former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named by the Justice Department to be the special prosecutor into an investigation of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.The Justice Department said that Mueller would be charged with investigating "Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, and related matters."
The move appeared to have been initiated by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was directing the investigation due to a recusal from Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his meetings with Russian diplomats. Rosenstein, who did not inform either Sessions or the Trump White House of his appointment of Mueller, was quick to note that he made no assumptions of guilt. He said, “My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination." But he went on to note that a special prosecutor was needed in order for the “American people to have full confidence in the outcome” of the investigation. Rosenstein added, “The public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command."
The appointment of Mueller was not likely to be embraced by the Trump White House, which had insisted via Press Secretary Sean Spicer only days before that there was no need for a special prosecutor.
For his part, President Trump declared his innocence, stating, “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity." He added, “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”
Before the news of Mueller's appointment as a special prosecutor could really percolate through the Washington D.C. political circuit, the Trump White House was hit with further scandal when it was leaked that a senior Trump adviser was a "person of interest" in a probe of possible collusion with Russia.
According to a report by the Washington Post, the senior adviser was not named; however, he/she was described as being "close to Trump" and a person who became part of the White House inner circle only four months prior. It should be noted that law enforcement in the United states has tended to use the "person of interest" parlance when referring to someone who suspected in a criminal investigation who has not yet been either arrested or formally accused of a crime.
This revelation in the third week of May 2017 came around the same time that the New York Time reported that President Trump had boasted to Russian officials during a White House meeting that the firing of former FBI Director Comey had relieved him of "great pressure" related to the Russia probe. The New York Times cited an official summation of the meeting between Trump Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia's ambassador, which recorded Trump as saying: "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job." He also said, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
These latest revelations were being taken up by Democrats, comparing the Trump White House mired by scandal to Watergate -- but with an international twist.
Indeed, Democratic Senator Edward Markey cast the latest news as "seismic revelations," and wondered if the United State was moving down the path towards a constitutional crisis. In an interview with MSNBC, Markey said, "This is an inflection point in the entire Russia collusion investigation. It makes it very clear that what Donald Trump was trying to do was to end the Russian investigation."
Via Twitter, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy declared: "This is what OBSTRUCTION looks like: 'I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off."
Trump's woes were not likely to be easily alleviated. Only days after those revelations surfaced came a new report by the Washington Post that Trump asked two top intelligence officials to publicly deny that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia. The report relied on information provided by White House officials which indicated that
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency (NSA) Director Michael Rogers refused to comply with Trump's requests, deeming them to be inappropriate.
This request by Trump reportedly occurred after FBI Director Comey told the House Intelligence Committee in March 2017 that the FBI was investigating “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
In the Washington Post report, former and current intelligence officials were reported to have viewed Trump's requests as an attempt to “muddy the waters” regarding the investigation. They also viewed those requests as a threat to the independence of the country's intelligence agencies, which should be operate in a non partisan manner, with national interests being of paramount concern. Still other officials cited appeared to be offended by the request by the president that top intelligence officials offer false accounts in public about an ongoing investigation. The report cited one former senior intelligence official saying, “The problem wasn’t so much asking them to issue statements, it was asking them to issue false statements about an ongoing investigation."
Making matters worse were revelations that insiders from the Trump White House were considering pressuring Comey to shut down the aforementioned inquiries into former NSA Flynn's Russian ties.
The ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Democratic Representative Adam B. Schiff observed that this report was “yet another disturbing allegation that the President was interfering in the FBI probe.”
Overall, the collective reporting on the matter suggested that President Trump attempted to influence Comey to do his bidding, and then fired him because those overtures were not yielding the desired results. The general consensus was that either President Trump and his inner circle did not grasp the concept of good governance and independent investigations by the FBI, or, they simply did not believe such parameters applied to them.
Note that in the last week of May 2017, President Trump hired his long-serving legal adviser to serve as his private attorney in relation to the Russia probe. Trump hired Marc Kasowitz, a trial attorney, to represent him in a Justice Department investigation, now headed by Mueller.
Kasowitz represented Trump for more that a decade, even threatening the New York Times on behalf of Trump, if they did not retract a story on accusations by women of Trump touching them inappropriately. The newspaper did not heed that threat. Kasowitz was also part of the defense team regarding fraud claims against Trump University, which was ultimately settled. Most significantly, Kasowitz represents OJSC Sberbank of Russia, the country's largest bank, which a United States federal court has accused of raiding the assets of a granite company.
The search to find the truth on this matter was expected to be the primary driver of Washington DC "Beltway" politics in the weeks and months ahead. Democrats, not surprisingly, were demanding investigations and insisting that the Comey memo be released. But even some Republicans, such as Congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Paul Ryan, were urging the same, while Republican Senator Lindsay Graham was calling for Comey to testify before a congressional committee in public and under oath.
Attention soon returned to the reports that a senior adviser to Trump was a "person of interest" in the probe of possible collusion with Russia. At the time when this news initially, there was speculation that the person at issue was President Donald Trump's son-in-law and trusted aide, Jared Kushner.
In the latter part of May 2017, it was reported by the Washington Post that Kushner may have discussed creating a secret communications channel between the Trump transition team and Russia. According to the newspaper, Ambassador Kisylak relayed to the government in Russia that during a meeting at Trump Tower, which was attended by Michael Flynn, Kushner "suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications."
There were some explanations that the secret communications channel was needed to discuss the Syrian crisis and terrorism. However, the fact of the matter was that secure confidential communications were available to the transition team to use.
Another explanation involved the dropping of economic sanctions. To that end, in March 2017, CNN reported that Kushner had "relationship meetings" with Kislyak and Russian banker Sergey Gorkov to discuss the sanctions issue. But establishing a back channel between Trump and Putin for practical reasons should be distinguished from establishing a secret channel -- with an adversarial country -- that would rely on that country's system to evade the national security apparatus of the United States government.
Significantly, the meeting between Gorkov and Kushner was soon under FBI scrutiny, perhaps partially because of the fact that the bank, Vnesheconombank, was under the control of Moscow and was used as a "front" by Russian intelligence. Indeed, in 2016, a Russian foreign intelligence agent was caught impersonating a Vnesheconombank employee and ultimately pleaded guilty to spying against the United States
At the legal level, Kushner was now dealing with a number of challenges. First, he was the one angle in the FBI's investigation into Russia meddling. While he was not the FBI's main focus, his numerous meetings with Russian diplomats and business people were certainly of interest to the United States' top law enforcement agency. Second, Kushner failed to disclose these meetings with key Russians on his security clearance form. That security clearance is required for persons with access to the country's national security intelligence. As noted by Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu, failing to disclose material information of this sort would constitute a violation of law. As such, there were rising calls for Kushner's security clearance to be revoked.
It should be noted that Kushner's attorneys, Jamie Gorelick, made clear that her client would be cooperating with authorities. She said, “Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings. He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry.”
In the last week of May 2017, the investigation into possible Trump campaign-Russia collusion expanded to include several members of Trump's cadres. Of note was a request by Congress for information and testimony to Trump associate, Boris Epshteyn. Earlier, Congress requested records from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Trump advisor Roger Stone, and former foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
As May 2017 came to a close, attention returned to Trump's firing of Comey. At issue were news reports that the former FBI Director, in congressional testimony, would confirm that the president pressured him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Flynn's ties to Russia. Comey was also set to meet with the special prosecutor, Mueller, following that testimony, which was expected to be held on June 8, 2017.
At the start of June 2017, in the days ahead of the former FBI director's scheduled testimony, the White House said that it would not try to stop Comey from speaking by invoking executive privilege. However, deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asserted that the president was well within his power to do so, as she declared: “The president's power to assert executive privilege is well established." That being said, because Comey was no longer a government employee, the assertion of executive privilege in this case was a matter of debate, and not at all well established legally.
Regardless, Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee would be his first public comments since being fired by President Trump.
On June 8, 2017, former FBI Director Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey wasted no time in his opening remarks before accusing the Trump administration of lying and trying to defame the FBI following his firing a month earlier. Comey challenged the Trump administration's claim that FBI was in disarray and that public servants at the bureau had lost confidence in him. Comey declared, "Those were lies, plain and simple,"
In further shocking blockbuster testimony, Comey accused President Trump of firing him for the expressed purpose of undermining the FBI's Russian collusion investigation.
Indeed, the Trump administration was on the public record offering various reasons for firing Comey. But on May 11, 2017, Trump himself publicly stated in an interview that he fired Comey because of the probe into the possible collusion between his campaign and Russia.
Comey said, “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation." He continued, "I was fired, in some way, to change — or the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
In further testimony, Comey said, "Again, I take the president's words. I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that."
Comey additionally made clear that he believed Trump asked him to drop the FBI investigation into former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. That is to say, Comey was saying that despite Trump's claims to the contrary, the president did, indeed, urge him to stop looking into Flynn as part of the Russia investigation.
Comey noted that Trump did not try to persuade him drop the overall Russia probe -- but specifically, the Flynn portion. But damningly, when asked by Republican Senator Marco Rubio if he interpreted the president's request as an order, Comey succinctly replied: "Yes."
Comey noted that he did not know if that request constituted obstruction of justice, as he said, "I don't think it's for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning."
It should be noted that obstruction of justice would be a criminal offense and subject the president to impeachment. However, it was unlikely that Republicans in control of Congress would actually impeach a Republican president of the United States.
Comey indicated that he believed it was necessary to share his written memos detailing his interactions with President Trump. He said that he hoped that the memo would propel the appointment of a special counsel, which indeed, did occur with the appointment of Robert Mueller to that post of special prosecutor. Comey said that the entry point of his memo into the public purview came via "a professor at Columbia Law School" who was later identified in the media as Daniel Richman.
Comey also made clear that he did not know if there were any tapes of his conversations with Trump although he hoped that was the case. He said, "Lordy, I hope there are tapes."
For his part, Trump appeared undeterred by Comey's testimony and told supporters at a rally that although he was "under siege," he would fight oback. He said, "We're under siege ... but we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever." He added, "We know how to fight and we will never give up."
But on June 14, 2017, the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election took a turn, as the special counsel set it sights on President Trump. At issue, according to a Washington Post report, was the fact that Special Counsel Mueller was not just looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, he was now examining whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice. The probe was also further widened to consider financial crimes of Trump associates.
Of significance was the fact that while former FBI Director Comey offered Trump assurances at the start of 2017 that he was not personally a target of investigation, that fact had since changed. Indeed, the shift appeared to have been sparked right after Comey was fired by the president.
The details of the obstruction of justice investigation of the president remained unknown. However, at the center of the matter were likely claims by Comey that the president pressured him to end the Flynn angle of the Russian investigation, as well as reports that the president asked the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, to publicly state that there was no evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
While it was possible that President Trump could invoke executive privilege to try to prevent Coats and Rogers from talking to Mueller's investigators, it would not hold legal merit. The Supreme Court long since ruled at the time of the Watergate scandal that officials cannot use privilege to withhold evidence in criminal prosecutions.
As discussed above, obstruction of justice is a criminal offense and could subject the president to impeachment. However, such an end was unlikely as Republicans control Congress at this time and were not likely to impeach a president from their own party.
-- June 14, 2017
Written by Denise Youngblood Coleman, Ph.D.
President and Editor in Chief