By Francis Wilkinson
July 25, 2017
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, hardly a left-wing Donald Trump critic, called on the president to adopt a new strategy on the Russia probe: “radical transparency.”
Specifically, Trump, family members, campaign operatives and business associates should release anything pertinent to the investigation, any meeting with Russians or Americans with Russia ties and “every Trump business relationship with Russians going back years.” This information includes his tax returns.
It’s sound advice. There’s no way Trump will take it. He has stuff he wants to hide. More likely, he’ll try to fire the special counsel investigating him and pardon his family and himself.
The Washington scandal cliches — it’s always better to get everything out or the cover-up is always worse than the crime — are inoperative if you’re covering up bad deeds.
There is probable cause to believe the Trump team colluded with Russian interference in the American election; whether that can be traced to Trump is supposed to be up to special counsel Robert Mueller. There is little doubt that the president had much deeper financial ties to Russians than he acknowledges. Determining whether that is illicit is also part of Mueller’s charge.
Continuously, Trump’s desperation raises more questions about his culpability. The latest evidence is in the New York Times interview where he lashed out at his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation due to a conflict of interest, and at Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. He also took further shots at James Comey, the former FBI director. The president tried to intimidate Mueller, warning him to stay away from looking into his or his family’s business interests.
Trump is obsessed with Sessions and Rosenstein, not because of any policy or practices but because of the Russia probe. The president fired Comey not based on his stewardship of the FBI, but because he was digging too deep into the Russian connections; and he’s obsessed with obstructing any serious Mueller investigation.
This is why it’s not crazy conjecture that a president who doesn’t think the rules and laws apply to him would try to replace the attorney general with somebody not recused from the Russia probe. The chatter is that Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Trump champion, may be that somebody, with the calculation being that the Senate usually confirms one of its own. The ultimate goal would be to rein in Mueller. Or Trump himself might try to fire the special counsel.
This would produce a firestorm the likes of which Washington hasn’t seen in decades. But Trump might well rationalize that such a risk isn’t nearly as troubling as what a thorough investigation might uncover.
People in contact with the White House said one Mueller move that spooked them was hiring Andrew Weissmann, a tough financial-fraud expert who has prosecuted the mob and Enron. He and another expert on money laundering are looking into the Trump financial links with Russians and whether that gives Moscow any leverage over the president.
The breadth of Mueller’s mandate is set by the president’s Justice Department. So it’s fraudulent to claim that the special counsel would be crossing a red line by investigating the family’s business practices.
Clear thinking from leading voices in business, economics, politics, foreign affairs, culture, and more.
If a special prosecutor runs across a crime, he has a duty to act. During Watergate, President Richard Nixon unsuccessfully sought to limit the scope of the investigation. The initial inquiry was into a burglary at the office of the Democratic National Committee. From that, separate illegal acts were uncovered, such as a break-in of the office of a psychiatrist of Nixon adversary Daniel Ellsberg, and the abuse of power by government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service.
Of course, the special counsel will delve deeply into any financial links to Russia — he has access to all Trump’s tax returns and bank records — as well as into the possibility of collusion during the campaign. It was only several weeks ago, remember, that some Washington insiders dismissed the notion of any such coordination with the Russians.
This changed when it was revealed that the president’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager secretly met with Russians who were promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Intelligence experts say the emails that came out about the meeting strongly suggest that it wasn’t an initial contact, and that the Russian pattern would be to follow up.
Trump critics are already preparing for any radical moves by the president, drawing up legal, political and national protest plans. Pressure would be intense on Congress to counter any move by Trump.
How would Republicans react? Would there be Cabinet or White House resignations? Would the new FBI director, who has endorsed Mueller’s investigation, stay?
Important congressional Republicans, including House conservatives such as Trey Gowdy and Speaker Paul Ryan and senators such as Charles Grassley, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio, have all expressed support for Mueller.
It’s one of the many reasons to cheer for the return of John McCain, stricken with brain cancer. The fearless Arizona Republican is outraged at the Russians’ actions and determined to get to the bottom of it all. His toughness might strengthen the resolve of other Republicans in what may be a looming crisis.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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