This wasn’t supposed to happen, but everyone knew it was going to happen, and now it has happened, and in fact it already happened:
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began using a grand jury in federal court in Washington several weeks ago as part of his investigation of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.
The development is a sign that investigators continue to aggressively gather evidence in the case, and that Mueller is taking full control of a probe that predated him.
The day finally came, but no one should have been surprised:
In recent weeks and months, Mueller has been expanding the legal team working on the matter, and recently added Greg Andres, a longtime white-collar lawyer specializing in foreign bribery who previously worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division.
Mueller’s investigation now includes a look at whether President Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James B. Comey, as well as deep dives into financial and other dealings of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Trump and Flynn and Manafort seem to have big targets on their backs now, and the White House offered only this:
Ty Cobb, whom Trump appointed as White House special counsel, said of the grand jury: “This is news to me, but it’s welcome news to the extent it suggests that it may accelerate the resolution of Mr. Mueller’s work. The White House has every interest in bringing this to a prompt and fair conclusion. As we’ve said in the past, we’re committed to cooperating fully with Mr. Mueller.”
They may have no other choice now:
Mueller has largely removed the original prosecutors from the case, replacing them with a formidable collection of legal talent and expertise in prosecuting national security, fraud and public corruption cases, arguing matters before the Supreme Court and assessing complicated legal questions.
But there is a caveat:
In federal cases, a grand jury is not necessarily an indication that an indictment is imminent or even likely. Instead, it is a powerful investigative tool that prosecutors use to compel witnesses to testify or force people or companies to turn over documents.
So be it, but compelling witnesses to testify and forcing people or companies to turn over documents is the big deal here. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s only bluster:
President Donald Trump downplayed “the Russia story” Thursday night at a rally in West Virginia, just hours after news broke that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
“The Russia story is total fabrication,” Trump said Thursday night. “It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.”
Trump did not mention the grand jury Thursday at the rally, and instead fell back on old campaign rhetoric about his former rival.
“What the prosecutors should be looking at are Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails,” Trump said, to uproarious applause. “And they should be looking at the paid Russian speeches. And the owned Russian companies. Or look at the uranium that she sold that is now in the hands of very angry Russians.”
The crowd started their chant. “Lock her up!” That went on and on. Trump grinned. No one there was going to suggest that Hillary Clinton was kind of irrelevant now, now that she has returned to the obscurity she so richly deserves – even Democrats are relieved by her new obscurity. What the hell does she have to do with anything now?
That wasn’t the point:
“They can’t beat us at the voting booths, so they’re trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want,” Trump said at the rally. “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our constitution. I just hope the final determination is a truly honest one.”
That was the new message. Robert S. Mueller III is trying to cheat Real Americans – the good people. This is not about Trump. This is an assault on the good people in this country.
But as David Graham notes, this was about Trump:
Separately, CNN reported that Mueller’s probe has now expanded well past the 2016 election. “Sources described an investigation that has widened to focus on possible financial crimes, some unconnected to the 2016 elections, alongside the ongoing scrutiny of possible illegal coordination with Russian spy agencies and alleged attempts by President Donald Trump and others to obstruct the FBI investigation,” the report said, adding that investigators were combing over Trump’s business empire.
The CNN report adds detail to earlier reports from the Times and Bloomberg that the probe had widened to look at potential financial crimes. Mueller is said to be investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the election, business dealings of Trump and his associates, and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey, asking him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, and other moves.
That of course is crossing that “red line” that Trump drew:
Trump has threatened Mueller in an attempt to keep the investigation confined to the election. He suggested in an interview with The New York Times that he might fire Mueller if the probe moved beyond Russian interference. However, Mueller’s commission gives him broad latitude to pursue whatever crimes he comes across. If Trump tried to fire Mueller, it could set up a replay of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which President Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor, though only after his attorney general and his deputy both refused to do so and resigned. The incident is known as the beginning of the end for Nixon. Republican senators have warned Trump against firing Mueller, saying it would produce a political catastrophe.
That “red line” that Trump drew was clear. His business dealings were off limits. His tax returns were off limits. His hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding loans – his debts to foreign banks and foreign persons – were off limits. Look into any of that and Trump would pull a Nixon and fire Mueller.
It’s too late for that:
The news of a grand jury is perhaps less a surprise than the speed with which it was impaneled. It suggests that Mueller’s team has moved past an exploratory phase…
The veteran investigative journalist Murray Waas reported on Thursday at Vox that several top FBI officials were told they might be called to testify about potential obstruction of justice by the president, including Acting Director Andrew McCabe. “Two senior federal law enforcement officials have told me that the new revelations illustrate why they believe the potential case against Trump is stronger than outsiders have thought,” Waas wrote.
And there’s that damned meeting too:
For months, Trump steadfastly insisted that there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia. There were, however, unreported contacts between Russian officials and Sessions, Kushner, and Flynn; inquiries into contacts with Russian intelligence by Trump staffer Carter Page, an investigation Manafort’s finances and possible money-laundering; and several other threads.
In July, however, Donald Trump Jr. admitted to attending the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. Emails showed that Trump Jr. believed that Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom he met, was “Russian government lawyer” bearing damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The emails also stated that the Russian government backed Trump over Clinton. Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.” But he now says it was not what was said, and that he received no information. (Trump Jr. initially offered misleading and incomplete reports about the meeting before Times reporting drove him to release the emails.)
Since then, Trump has adopted a new line of argument, which is that if the meeting constituted collusion, it was not illegal, and that anyone would have done so. So far, this defense has been offered only in the court of public opinion. Mueller’s grand jury may offer Trump or some of his aides and family members the chance to make it in a court of law as well.
They may have to do that, because no one is standing with Trump:
Support is gathering behind a bipartisan push to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from potentially being fired by President Donald Trump.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, and Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, plan to introduce a measure Thursday that would bar the President from directly firing any special counsel – retroactive to Mueller’s appointment in May.
“The President would maintain the power to remove the special counsel, but we would just want to make sure that it had merit and have that back-end judicial process,” Tillis said Thursday morning on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
“And if there is a termination, we just want to make sure, through judicial review, that it was warranted,” he added.
No, it’s more than that:
The measure would also effectively shut down another avenue for firing Mueller – mandating that only an attorney general confirmed by the Senate would have the power to remove the special counsel.
Trump has openly blasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the federal Russia probe, leading to speculation he may try and find a new attorney general who would fire Mueller.
Tillis voiced support for Sessions Thursday, saying the attorney general is “doing a great job.” The Republican lawmaker also warned that if the bipartisan proposal passes through Congress and Trump decides to veto the legislation, “it means that we’d have work to do potentially override a veto.”
Sure, but they could override a veto given this:
The Senate blocked President Trump from being able to make recess appointments on Thursday as lawmakers leave Washington for their summer break.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), doing wrap up for the entire Senate, locked in nine “pro-forma” sessions – brief meetings that normally last roughly a minute.
The move, which requires the agreement of every senator, means the Senate will be in session every three business days throughout the August recess.
Every senator agreed. Trump will not be able to fire Jeff Sessions and make a recess appointment of someone who would fire Mueller immediately – perhaps his daughter Tiffany, who just started at Georgetown Law School, just to rub it in. That’s not going to happen, given the new sheriff in town:
New White House chief of staff John Kelly assured Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a weekend phone call that his job was safe, Trump administration officials said.
The call was first reported by The Associated Press. Kelly took the job Friday.
The officials said Kelly told Sessions to keep up his initiatives at the department and that President Donald Trump’s disappointment wouldn’t lead to his firing, as Trump has occasionally suggested. The call showed that Kelly sees himself as an empowered chief of staff, but Trump could surely change his mind, associates said.
Trump could change his mind. Kelly would resign. Congress would turn on Trump. Trump cannot change his mind. The price would be too high.
As for the new grand jury, that’s simply bad news:
“It is a clear sign that this investigation is escalating, and it likely means we are going to see a parade of White House staffers and other Trump associates coming in and out of the courthouse in downtown Washington,” said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman under President Barack Obama.
“While testimony is secret, you can’t hide who is coming in and out of that courthouse,” Miller said, “and it will put tremendous pressure on White House staffers who will be wondering what their friends and associates testified to behind closed doors.”
Andy Wright, a former associate counsel to President Barack Obama who is now a professor at Savannah Law School, agreed that grand juries “largely operate in secret so we won’t hear much from Mueller’s team.”
“We will, however, likely hear from witnesses brought before the grand jury or parties the grand jury subpoenas from time to time,” Wright said. “While there is no guarantee Mueller will seek indictments, this is a significant moment in the overall Special Counsel’s Russia investigation.”
Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas who specializes in national-security law, told the Wall Street Journal that the grand jury was “a further sign that there is a long-term, large-scale series of prosecutions being contemplated and being pursued by the special counsel.”
That’s actually in progress:
Reuters reported that the jury had already issued subpoenas related to the June 2016 meeting between Trump’s eldest son and a Russian lawyer with connections to the Kremlin. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, also attended the meeting.
“It’s significant that the grand jury has issued subpoenas regarding Trump, Jr.’s meeting with Russians,” said William Yeomans, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General who spent 26 years at the Justice Department. “That suggests Mueller is looking into crimes associated with the allegations of collusion.”
It may also mean that Mueller is looking at the misleading or incomplete statements issued by Trump Jr. about the meeting “as part of an inquiry into obstruction of justice,” Yeomans said. “The investigation into possible criminal conduct has obviously taken a big step forward.”
Donald Trump actually dictated his son’s original misleading or incomplete statement. That’s the bigger problem, and there’s this:
Citing people familiar with the investigation, CNN reported on Thursday that “federal investigators exploring whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian spies have seized on Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russia as one of the most fertile avenues for moving their probe forward.”
The investigators are apparently examining Trump Organization financial records and looking at who purchased Trump-branded real estate in the past six years, according to CNN. They’re also probing the backgrounds of people like the Russian-Azerbaijani oligarch Aras Agalarov, who helped bring Trump’s Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.
So the day finally came, but this obscured the other big news of the day:
The Washington Post has obtained transcripts of two conversations President Trump had with foreign leaders: one with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and another with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The transcripts were prepared by the White House but have not been released. The Post is publishing reproductions rather than original documents in order to protect sources. The reproductions below also include minor spelling and grammatical mistakes that appeared in the documents.
The raw transcripts follow, and to be clear, this was a leak of classified documents. Such things should not be made public. Diplomacy is impossible if either party feels that off-the-cuff statements, that are not yet policy or official positions, will be in the newspapers the next day, or the next month. No one would say anything – but it seems someone in the administration wanted America to know that their president is a dangerous jerk. Sometimes, as with the Pentagon Papers long ago, a felony is also a public service.
That’s why Jonathan Chait writes that Australia’s Prime Minister Slowly Realizes Trump Is a Complete Idiot:
At issue in the conversation is a deal to settle 1,250 refugees who have been detained by Australia in the United States. I did not pay any attention to the details of this agreement before reading the transcript. By the time I was halfway through it my brain could not stop screaming at Trump for his failure to understand what Turnbull was telling him.
Australia has a policy of refusing to accept refugees who arrive by boat. The reason, as Turnbull patiently attempts to explain several times, is that it believes giving refuge to people who arrive by boat would encourage smuggling and create unsafe passage with a high risk of deaths at sea. But it had a large number of refugees who had arrived by sea, living in difficult conditions, whom Australia would not resettle (for fear of encouraging more boat trafficking) but whom it did not want to deport, either. The United States government agreed under President Obama to vet 1,250 of these refugees and accept as many of them as it deemed safe.
In the transcript, Trump is unable to absorb any of these facts. He calls the refugees “prisoners,” and repeatedly brings up the Cuban boatlift (in which Castro dumped criminals onto Florida). He is unable to absorb Turnbull’s explanation that they are economic refugees, not from conflict zones, and that the United States has the ability to turn away any of them it deems dangerous.
Some of that went like this:
Trump: I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.
Turnbull: I would not be so sure about that. They are basically…
Trump: Well, maybe you should let them out of prison.
They aren’t in prison, and this goes on and on, until this:
Trump gives up asking about the policy and just starts venting about the terribleness of deals in general:
“I do not know what he [Obama] got out of it. We never get anything out of it – START Treaty, the Iran deal. I do not know where they find these people to make these stupid deals. I am going to get killed on this thing.”
Shortly afterward, the call ends in brusque fashion, and Turnbull presumably begins drinking heavily.
Paul Waldman covers the other call:
We don’t often get a direct and unfiltered window into what the president (or any politician for that matter) says and thinks behind closed doors, which is why it can be so fascinating when something like the transcripts of President Trump’s conversations with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finds its way into public view. Some are looking at the conversation with Peña Nieto and saying, “Aha, we knew the wall was always a scam!” – which is not an unreasonable reaction. But of course it was always a scam; perhaps more interesting is that Trump would admit it so openly to a foreign leader – and that he himself is in no way deluded about it.
Trump plainly knew that he’d never get Mexico to pay for a wall (if it ever gets built), even as he was telling crowds that they would. And he cared deeply about it, because he understood just how powerful a symbol it had become for his followers – which meant that he wanted to keep the illusion alive for as long as possible — a project he attempted without success to get Peña Nieto to help him with.
This too was awkward:
At multiple points, Peña Nieto says that everyone should just stop talking about the wall, but Trump resists. Trump talks about tariffs he wants to impose on Mexican goods, because “I have been telling this to every group of 50,000 people or 25,000 people – because no one got people in their rallies as big as I did. But I have been saying I wanted to tax people that treated us unfairly at the border, and Mexico is treating us unfairly.”
Then he says this:
“The only thing I will ask you though is on the wall, you and I both have a political problem. My people stand up and say, ‘Mexico will pay for the wall’ and your people probably say something in a similar but slightly different language. But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to.”
Trump then suggests a PR strategy for deflecting questions about the issue:
“They are going to say, ‘who is going to pay for the wall, Mr. President?’ to both of us, and we should both say, ‘we will work it out.’ It will work out in the formula somehow. As opposed to you saying, ‘we will not pay’ and me saying, ‘we will not pay.’ But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important talk about. But in terms of dollars – or pesos – it is the least important thing. I know how to build very inexpensively, so it will be much lower than these numbers I am being presented with, and it will be a better wall and it will look nice. And it will do the job.”
Peña Nieto again insists that Mexico absolutely will not pay for the wall, to which Trump replies, “But you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.” Peña Nieto then says, “And for Mexico, it is also an issue that goes beyond the economic situation because this is an issue related to the dignity of Mexico and goes to the national pride of my country.”
Waldman is appalled:
Trump knows very well that Peña Nieto is right – this is absolutely about dignity. And forcing Mexico to give up its dignity is the whole point and always was.
I’m not saying that Trump doesn’t actually want to cut down on undocumented immigration. He certainly does. But why was it so important that Mexico pay for the wall? Why did Trump do that call-and-response with his rabid crowds about it? “And who’s going to pay for it?” he’d ask. “Mexico!” they’d shout.
The reason is that making Mexico pay for the wall would be an act of domination, humiliating them so we could show that we were in control.
That’s the whole point of all of this:
This idea lies at the very heart of Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters, particularly men. He understood that those people no longer felt in control – their economic opportunities had dwindled, their communities had declined, they felt deeply uncomfortable in a country growing more diverse all the time and a bunch of liberals are telling them to check their privilege. Trump promised them not just that he would turn back the clock and Make America Great Again, but also that he would empower them to strike back at those who had made them feel small.
That’s our guy:
Keep in mind that Trump’s entire worldview is shaped by the idea of domination and submission. Every interaction – between people or countries – is a zero-sum contest in which there’s a winner and a loser. If you aren’t the winner then you’re the loser, the chump, the one everyone’s laughing at. It’s why whenever he talks about trade he seems obsessed with the idea of other countries “laughing at us,” as though China filling up our dollar stores with trinkets causes us endless public humiliation. The idea of Mexico being forced against its will to pay for our wall was a potent symbol of America standing tall again, as Trump knew it would be for many people who felt they were no longer standing tall in their own lives.
That means the wall is not the point:
Mexico is never going to pay for it. But Trump knows he can’t tell his supporters that, because as he told President Peña Nieto, “psychologically, it means something.”
It’s the same with the Russians messing with our last election of course, whether or not the Trump folks helped them with that. Either way, psychologically, that means something too. If they did mess with our election, that makes Donald Trump the chump, the one everyone’s laughing at.
Donald Trump is making sure that day never comes – but that day just came. That wasn’t supposed to happen, but everyone knew it was going to happen, and now it has happened. The day came.