Resignations, firings, suspicious memos: where will the Trump-Russia saga go next?
According to Reuters, ex-National Security adviser Michael Flynn and other advisers to president Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties during the last seven months of the president race.
Sources have said the two groups exchanged at least 18 calls and emails prior to November and then calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak were “stepped up” after the election, in order to establish a back channel for communication between Trump and the Russian president Putin.
Whilst the sources said nothing illegal took place in these calls, the number of interactions the campaign supposedly had with Russian officials is concerning.
Richard Armitage, a Republican and former deputy secretary of state told Reuters:
“It’s rare to have that many calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power.”
The US justice department said this week that it has appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Timeline for Donald Trump
- May 11, 2017
What is the Russia problem?
There is currently an ongoing FBI investigation into the Trump administration’s alleged links to Russia and the Kremlin, something that has been going on since Trump entered the White House back in January.
This came to a head last week when it was revealed that Trump had fired the FBI director James Comey, just days after he had asked the Justice department to make additional resources, including extra staff, available for the Russia probe.
“It’s pretty unprecedented for a president to dismiss the director of the FBI with very little explanation or time. There was no press release, no announcement, no consultation; Trump didn’t bring him into the White House. It was just a letter while he was out briefing an FBI office in California,” Todd Landman, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham, told Verdict.
Comey isn’t the first person with links to the Russia investigation to lose his job under Trump. Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign earlier this year when details of his calls with Russian intelligence officials prior to gaining office were leaked. As well, the US attorney general for the Southern district of New York, Preet Bharara, was fired by Trump, which is supposed to be linked to his inquiries into potential threats posed by foreign governments.
“With Flynn gone, the prosecutor in New York, Bharara, gone, now Comey’s gone. It’s really significant, you shouldn’t downplay the significance of this.”
Now the question is, what impact will this have on the FBI’s investigations into the alleged Russian allegations.
“It does look like Trump is trying to sideline Comey for the Russian investigation,” said Landman.
“There’s enough of an underlying story here that will keep it going and there are a lot of people involved with collecting information. It’s only a matter of time before we see some of the bigger revelations coming out of that connection.”
President Trump has refuted these claims on multiple occasions, but since he gained office his administration hasn’t been able to shake off its alleged links to Moscow.
The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
How did this all start?
According to a report by The New York Times in February, intercepted phone calls allegedly show that Trump’s election campaign had multiple communications with senior Russian intelligence officials prior to the election.
Verdict Email The issues you care about
Questions have been raised over Trump’s apparent admiration of Russia and its president Vladimir Putin in the past, not least his appeal made to Russia back in July to dig up information on Trump’s US election opponent Hillary Clinton.
It later turned out that Russian cyber attacks targeted Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, something that arguably damaged her election campaign.
David Dunn, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham told Verdict that this type of behaviour is unprecedented but Trump was always an unprecedented choice for president
“It wouldn’t be unusual for potential campaigns to have contact with other governments. It is highly unusual, indeed unprecedented, for them to have contacts with foreign intelligence services – the two are quite distinctive.
“It’s even more unusual for a presidential candidate in the form of Trump to actually call upon a foreign intelligence service to actually find and release classified emails that [implicated] his opponent. And of course, it’s highly unusual and unprecedented for a foreign government to interfere in an election, in the form of hacking the DNC emails and send them to Wikileaks. All these things are a new departure,” said Dunn.
This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
The escalation: Flynn resigns in February
When Flynn left office in February, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the spectrum have pledged to deepen their investigations of Russian involvement in the presidential election.
The Washington Post reported that two top members of the Senate intelligence committee, Republican senator Richard Burr and Democrat senator Mark Warner announced the committee’s probe will include an examination of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.
“This in itself open up questions – the conflict of interest between Trump and his business associations, and other members of the administration who also have conflicts of interests with their business links with foreign powers, such as Russia and its associates,” said Dunn.
“You’re tugging on a bit of string here that could potentially unravel the integrity of the whole administration.”
Trump’s close relationship with Putin opens up concerns for Europe too. If Trump makes a deal with Putin to keep him as an ally in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism, Dunn believes we could see Russia given a sphere of influence in Europe, “whether that’s just in Ukraine, or Crimea, or if that extends elsewhere”.
“There is a fear of a great power deal [between US and Russia] that crops out the interests of Europe and other allies,” he said.
Who else has been involved?
As well as Flynn, the attorney general Jeff Sessions found himself caught up in the accusations.
During Sessions’ January confirmation, he told the Senate he had had no contacts with the Russians during the presidential campaign. However, the US government has confirmed he met Russia’s ambassador twice during the campaign last year.
The Democrats called for his resignation, accusing Sessions of “lying under oath”, however, he seems to have shaken off the accusations since.
Sessions then recused himself from any investigation into the Trump-Russia charges in March.
Earlier on in May, Trump surprised everyone when he decided to fire Comey. The official statement from the White House is that this was as a result of Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton emails, particularly when he re-opened the investigation just weeks before the presidential election voting took place in 2016.
However, in an interview with NBC News, the US president admitted he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire Comey. Trump said:
“And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said: ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”
As well, the president also admitted that he asked Comey on three separate occasions if he was under investigation in the Russia probe, something that according to a former spokesperson for the Department of Justice, Matthew Miller, is “completely inappropriate”, as well as, “It would also be a violation of DoJ rules for James Comey to answer.”
What has happened since?
In March, Comey confirmed the FBI was investigating potential ties between President Trump’s election campaign and Russia – the first time it was officially confirmed by the US intelligence committee that something was going on behind the scenes to determine if the campaign had anything to with Russia’s interference in the election.
A ranking member of the House intelligence committee, Democrat Adam Schiff, told MSNBC that: “There is more than circumstantial evidence now.”
Since then, it has been announced that the agency obtained a warrant last summer to monitor the communications of a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, Carter Page.
Page was named in the unverified dossier about Trump’s ties to Russia as a liaison between the campaign and Russian officials. The FBI is thought to be investigating his trips to Moscow and contact with at least one Russian official last year.
Last week, before Comey was fired, a Senate panel hearing investigating the Russia connection this week confirmed that previous president Barack Obama warned Donald Trump about hiring Michael Flynn as a national security adviser.
This is because Flynn’s contacts with a Russian envoy left him vulnerable to blackmail, according to former Obama officials.
The news came just hours before former attorney general Sally Yates testified before the Senate on Flynn’s Russia ties and her own attempts to warn the Trump administration not to hire him.Yates was attorney general under Obama and was fired by president Trump in January after she criticised his travel ban.
As well, the Senate intelligence committee has issued Flynn with a subpoena, demanding he hand over all documents related to Russia. According to the committee’s Republic chairman, Richard Burr and its top Democrat, Mark Warner, the committee had first requested the documents from Flynn in April, but he declined to cooperate with the request.
The subpoena means Flynn has to cooperate with the committee by law and means that his involvement with the Russia scandal is far from over.
The big question: could links with Russia be enough to impeach the US president?
The term impeachment can be thrown around by Trump’s critics but it’s actually a lot harder than it looks.
The House Committee on the Judiciary will investigate relevant allegations — usually relating to high treason or corruption, and if they determine there are grounds for removing the president, then there is a further process.
The House of Representatives needs to vote whether to impeach the president when it will proceed to the Senate to hold a trial, overseen by the Supreme Court.
Two-thirds of the Senate needs to agree to the charge for impeachment to occur. Then the president is out and the vice-president is in.
“The claims around Russia may not fit into constitutional grounds [around impeachment] but what it could do is raise other questions about breaches of public office in the context of other forms of exploitation or corruption, if it could be proved,” Phil Henry, lecturer in sociology and criminology at the University of Derby, told Verdict.
Though Trump’s actions so far may be unprecedented in terms of what presidents have done before, it isn’t as easy as deciding his actions are right or wrong, and that means he will be gone from power.
No president has been officially impeached before: president Johnson in 1868 and Clinton in 1998 were acquitted at trial by the Senate. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached over the Watergate scandal.
Speaking of Nixon, his social team have had some fun this week.
— RichardNixonLibrary (@NixonLibrary) May 9, 2017
Now, the questions it isn’t just about if Trump gained the presidency through the result of Russian hacking. “The wrongdoing here would be the degree to which he was already attached to a foreign government during the campaign and didn’t disclose those connections when he became president,” said Landman. “And, how much that has compromised the president’s ability to be the president and only the president of the US.”
“The wrongdoing here would be the degree to which he was already attached to a foreign government during the campaign and didn’t disclose those connections when he became president,” said Landman. “And, how much that has compromised the president’s ability to be the president and only the president of the US.”
“What happened with Nixon was he realised the writing was on the wall and the best thing to do was just to resign. That’s a possibility with Trump but he tends not to give up on things and he’s quite a stubborn fighter. [We’re] kind of waiting for the bombshell to drop when someone really close to him spills the beans and then we’ll see.”
Before the events of last week, there has never been such an obvious attempt by the president to attempt to influence the FBI before, that we know of, which maybe why it seems so serious.
“There is some form of interference going on here,” said Landman. “The bi-partisan investigation is a little bit hapless and the FBI has been involved for quite some time looking into [Russia]. Now with Comey gone, it does raise serious questions as to whether all that will continue and how much will be revealed.
“It is pretty unprecedented.”
Now, it turns out that Trump had asked Comey to drop an inquiry into links between his ex-national security adviser and Russia. According to a memo written by the ex-director, Trump said: “I hope you can let this go.”
The White House has denied that this happened but the Republicans are taking note. Michigan congressman, Justin Amash, responded “yes” when asked whether there could be grounds to impeach Trump if the memo asking Comey to drop the Flynn investigation is true.
How has the FBI responded to Comey’s dismissal?
Comey’s temporary replacement, Andrew McCabe appeared at the Senate hearing to dispute White House assertions that the former director has lost the trust of the FBI.
“Director Comey enjoyed broad support in the FBI and still does to this day,” said McCabe. He also said that working with Comey was “the greatest privilege and honour of my professional life.”
McCabe also stressed that Comey’s dismissal would not affect the work of the FBI and that the Russian investigation would be pursued “vigorously and completely”.
“You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing and upholding the constitution,” said McCabe.
The Democrats have raised concerns over the dismissal of Comey and how significant this is. The top Democratic senator on the Intelligence committee, Mark Warner, said:
“It is impossible to ignore that one of the leaders of the intelligence community is not here with us. The president’s firing of FBI director Comey … was a shocking development.
“For many people, including myself, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the president’s decision to remove director Comey was related to this investigation. And that is unacceptable.”
How are the Republicans handling this?
Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, has demanded all correspondence relating to communications between Comey and Trump be presented by 24 May next week.
He said the committee: “is going to get the Comey memo if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready.”
Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan who backed Trump’s new healthcare bill, is supporting Chaffetz’s move. His spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said: “We need to have all the facts and it is appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request this memo.”
As well, senator John McCain who has been quite vocal against Trump since he began his term in the White House, has said the events are reaching “Watergate-size and scale”. CBS News reported that these are some of the strongest comments yet to come from the Republican party.
Is the US public losing faith in Trump?
The US public is calling for an independent investigation into the connections between Russia and the country’s president Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, the majority of Americans, including a growing number of Republicans, are uneasy with the allegations that the Russians modelled in the US election. A total of 59 percent, including 41 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats agreed that Congress should launch an independent investigation.
As well, the poll found that 36 percent of Americans said they had “hardly any confidence at all” in the executive branch of government. This is particularly pressing as according to the Washington Post, the president allegedly revealed highly classified information on the so-called Islamic State (IS) to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. and ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who is a key figure in the Russia controversies.
FiveThirtyEight’s latest polling found that 39.8 percent approve of Trump, compared to 54.2 percent who disapprove.
What has the market reaction been?
US markets are unhappy with the current political drama in Washington after Wall Street suffered its worst day in eight months yesterday.
The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average both suffered their biggest one-day fall since September 2016.
Investors are increasingly concerned over president Trump’s conduct in the White House. The lack of control over the Russian situation means that financial markets don’t think the president will be able to follow through with his promises for tax cuts and deregulation.