Special counsel Mueller impanels grand jury in Washington DC to investigate Russian collusion

        

    Americas: United States 

    Asia / Europe: Russia

     

    Special National Security Report on Trump Administration's Russian connections:

     

     
    - National Security Adviser Flynn resigns due to misleading VP Pence on Russian meetings
    - Attorney General Sessions under fire due to misleading Congressional testimony on Russian contact
    - Trump accuses Obama of wiretapping him due to Russian connections and allegations of collusion
    - Obama administration spread intelligence across agencies due to anxieties over Trump's ties to Russia
    -- FBI Director Comey confirms FBI inquiry into Trump's Russia connections and rejects the claim that Trump was wiretapped by Obama 
    -- 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
    -- During sworn testimony former FBI director Comey accuses Trump of lying 
    -- 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
    -- Trump Jr. met with Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer promising damaging information on Clinton thus tightening collusion claims 
    -- President Trump personally crafted Trump Jr.’s initial misleading response to reports on the latter’s meeting with Kremlin-linked lawyer
    -- Special counsel Mueller impanels grand jury in Washington D.C. to investigate Russian collusion
     
     
    Background: The Flynn factor and the genesis of the Russia collusion investigation --
     
    On Feb. 13, 2017, Michael Flynn — national security adviser to President Trump — resigned from office. At issue were reports that he misled White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. 
     
    Of concern was the matter of 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 January 2017. Flynn had earlier denied that such issues were discussed, but he now acknowledged that the nature of the Kislyak conversation conveyed to the White House was “incomplete.”
     
    Earlier on the same day of Flynn’s resignation, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said that the national security adviser had the full confidence of the president. Then, only hours later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president was “evaluating the situation.” Later that night, Flynn was reported to be on his way out. Indeed, the resignation occurred so quickly that members of the National Security Council staff apparently heard about Flynn’s exit via the news. The official stance from the White House was that the Flynn situation had become a distraction to the Trump administration.
     
    The scenario was likely more complicated as news reports had emerged covering the fact that the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn was not being completely transparent about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. The Justice Department also warned that Flynn would be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians due to his multiple conversations with Kislyak. A further issue was the fact that such contacts, if conclusively verified, would be in violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in foreign policy. 
     
    It should be noted that Flynn’s contact with Russia was already an issue of concern, particularly since revelations emerged that he had at least five conversations with a Russian envoy. Concerns over that matter had already led to a Senate inquiry. Now, however, Flynn’s failure to be forthright with Vice President Pence regarding those conversations was yielding real consequences.
     
    In his resignation letter, Flynn said he had many calls with foreign officials that contributed to the problematic account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. He said, “Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.” Flynn continued, “I am tendering my resignation, honored to have served our nation and the American people in such a distinguished way.”
     
    It should be noted that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks ago that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail due to his multiple conversations with Kislyak. A further issue was the fact that such contacts, if conclusively verified, would be in violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in foreign policy. 
     
    Of significance — and, indeed concern — was the notion of a representative of Trump's discussing a potential deal to reverse the sanctions put into place by then-serving President Barack Obama. Those sanctions had been implemented in response to United States’ intelligence findings that the Russian government, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, had interfered with the 2016 election in order to advance Donald Trump’s chances against Hillary Clinton.
     
    In addition to the violation of protocol, Flynn’s attempt to cover up the sanctions portion of his conversation with the Russians would present a potential blackmail risk. As noted above, it was that particular angle that spurred the Justice Department to issue its alert. 
     
    A further wrinkle for Flynn was the fact that the Army was looking into whether or not he received payments from the Russian government during a visit to Moscow in 2015. That trip involved Flynn’s attendance at an anniversary dinner for the media outlet, Russia Today, which has been generally understood as a Kremlin propaganda outfit. During that dinner, Flynn was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 
     
    There were suggestions that Flynn was paid to attend this event. Should that prove to be the case, Flynn would be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving compensation from a foreign government without prior consent from Congress. 
     
    The White House released a statement noting that in the interim, Gen. Joseph K. Kellogg Jr. would function as the acting national security adviser. Soon thereafter, Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of United States Central Command, was offered the position on a permanent basis, but ultimately declined to serve. Days later, Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster was named to be the new national security adviser. 
     
    It was to be seen how McMaster would work with Trump on national security given to the former’s hardline view of Russia as a security threat to the United States. To date, Trump has telegraphed that he does not view Russia in this same light, and instead as a potential global security partner. 
     
    The White House was very likely hoping that the resignation of Flynn would bring an end to that particular scandal. However, such a tidy conclusion was unlikely given the eagerness of Democrats to go after the Trump administration. 
     
    To this end, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam B. Schiff, said that although Flynn’s resignation was inevitable, it was not the end of the road. He declared, “General Flynn’s decision to step down as national security adviser was all but ordained the day he misled the country about his secret talks with the Russian ambassador” and then warned that further inquiry would be in the offing. Meanwhile, Representative John Conyers Jr. and Representative Elijah E. Cummings — both Democrats — demanded a briefing by the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over what they characterized as the “alarming new disclosures” of Flynn being a blackmail risk. “ Conyers and Cummings further alluded to other questionable Russian connections emanating from within the White House as they added, “We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security.” 
     
    That reference to other inhabitants of the White House being national security risks by Conyers and Cummings may have been an intimation of United States intelligence findings that Russia also possessed blackmail-quality information regarding President Trump. 
     
    A month earlier in January 2017, CNN reported that classified documents presented to both then-President Barack Obama and Donald Trump included allegations that Russian operatives had compromising personal and financial information about the president-elect. The report also included an explosive suggestion of an exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.
     
    These allegations outlined in the intelligence report given to Obama and Trump were derived partially — but not completely — from memos of a former credible British intelligence operative. However, there were indications that there were other sources of the “kompromat” leak.
     
    It was unknown if the salacious details of the “kompromat” leak constituted the reference point for then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who dispatched a letter to Director James Comes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in October 2016 that read as follows: "It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government -- a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States." Reid urged Comey to release this information, which the FBI director clearly opted not to do. 
     
    For his part, Trump dismissed the claims that Russia had compromising information about him. Via the social media outlet Twitter, he declared, "FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT."
     
    But Trump would have a difficult time maintaining the claim that the allegations outlined by CNN were fake once the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, acknowledged it on the record on Jan. 11, 2017. The outgoing DNI head released a statement that read: "This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss recent media reports about our briefing last Friday. I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security." In so doing, Clapper was essentially confirming that the “kompromat” information did exist and had circulated through the government, the intelligence agencies, and the media.
     
    Meanwhile, Trump was embroiled in a public fight with the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Director John Brennan. The conflict was sparked when Trump accused Brennan of leaking the “kompromat” information, detailing tawdry sexual activities in Moscow, to the public. For his part, Brennan dismissed those charges. The reality of the situation was that the Flynn situation was now sparking new questions about the “kompromat” information and the potential blackmail risk posed by the president himself.
     
    Then, at the start of 2017, a declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that Russia undertook an effort to help elect Donald Trump by undermining the credibility of Hillary Clinton. 
     
    Key points of that report were as follows:
     
     "Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow's longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations."
     
    "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
     
    "We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
     
    "We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
     
    The full report can be read here: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf
     
    For his part, Trump has dismissed such suggestions, at one point suggesting a technologically savvy teenager may have been responsible for cybersecurity violations, or even China, which was blamed for previous hacking operations. But throughout, Trump has been reluctant to place the blame on Russia, and instead referred to the entire line of inquiry as “a political witch hunt.”
     
    Following a briefing from United States intelligence, Trump continued to downplay the role of Russian actors in his election, declaring instead: "There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
     
    But with questions continuing to arise regarding the Trump circle’s connections to Russia, it was unlikely that questions over Russian interference into United States affairs would dissipate anytime soon. Indeed, the unfolding drama regarding Flynn’s Russian ties in the earlier part of February 2017 suggested that the issue of United States interests and the country’s relationship with Russia would be at the forefront of the political landscape. 
     
    In a bombshell development during the third week of February 2017, it was reported by the media that Trump knew for weeks that Flynn was being misleading over his Russian contacts, but Trump still refused to cut him loose. In fact, it was only when Flynn’s irregular communications with Russia over sanctions was leaked to the press that the president was moved to act. As noted by Congressman Schiff in an interview with MSNBC News, “The reason they lost faith or trust in General Flynn only last night when they knew for weeks that he had been lying was that it became public.” 
     
    Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer demanded an investigation into potential criminal violations associated with the resignation of Flynn. However, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, has shown little eagerness to inquire into the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s Russian communications. The lack of bipartisan concurrence on the issue of investigations opened the door for accusations of a partisan cover-up benefiting the Trump administration in its very early days. 
     
    Such sentiment was not likely to be helped by the news that intercepted calls and telephone records indicated that members of the Trump presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. The timing of these contacts was alarming as they occurred just as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies were finding evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election. This discovery triggered an investigation into whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia in a well-known hacking operation of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). While there was no immediate evidence to that end, the frequency of the contact was notable.
     
    Note that these intercepted communications are to be distinguished from wiretapped conversations Flynn had with Kislyak, as discussed above. They involved several other of Trump’s associates including Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman for several months in 2016 who also worked as a consultant to the former pro-Russian leader of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, and another policy consultant to Trump with Russian ties, Carter Page. 
     
    By the start of March 2017, questions about the Trump regime's ties to Russia were sparked again - this time surrounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions. At issue were reports that Sessions met with aforementioned Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, twice over the course of the previous year. The contact contradicted Congressional testimony provided by Sessions during his confirmation hearing at the start of 2017. 
     
    At that time, Sessions said he “did not have communications with the Russians" in response to a question posed by Minnesota Senator Al Franken. Less than two months later in early March 2017, a Justice Department official confirmed that Sessions had two conversations with Kislyak when he was still a senator. These occurred at the Republican National Convention and during an office visit respectively. These meetings would present a clear contradiction of Sessions' testimony during his confirmation hearing that there had been no contact with the Russians. Indeed, Sessions at the time declared, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have -- did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it."
     
    In response, Democrats in both houses of Congress issued scathing condemnations of Sessions -- the person responsible for overseeing justice in the United States -- being caught in an apparent violation of the code of justice via perjury. Some Democrats initially called for Sessions to recuse himself from all decisions pertaining to prevailing Russian investigations, but those calls quickly escalated to demands that the attorney general resign. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said: “It is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians.” Schiff added, “This is not even a close call; it is a must.” Meanwhile, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, demanded that Sessions resign, as she asserted via the social media outlet Twitter: “He is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.”
     
    For his part, Sessions on March 2, 2017, announced that he would recuse himself from any investigations into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. 
     
    By March 4, 2017, attention switched to President Donald Trump himself as he took to his favorite mode of communication -- Twitter -- to accuse former President Barack Obama of ordering a wiretap of his phone prior to his election as president. One such tweet read as follows: “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”
     
    The accusations by Trump were made without providing credible evidence -- a point emphasized by reporters, journalists, and legal experts of record. In fact, it appeared that Trump was relying on questionable information sources, such as Breitbart New, to make his accusation.
     
    James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under President Obama, issued a categorical denial that such a FISA warrant ever existed. As well, Kevin Lewis, a spokesperson for President Obama, characterized the accusation by President Trump as completely false, emphasizing that the former president never ordered the wiretapping of a United States citizen. Lewis also said, “A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice." But Ben Rhodes -- President Obama's foreign policy adviser -- delivered a far more scathing and personal rebuke of President Trump as he declared via Twitter: "No president can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you."
     
    It should be noted that by March 6, 2017, James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had entered the fray. Comey made clear that Trump's claim was spurious and urged the Justice Department to publicly reject the president's allegation. Comey noted that a statement was necessary since wiretapping of that type ordered by Obama would be illegal. In this way, Comey's stance could only be interpreted as an unprecedented and remarkable rebuke of Trump, essentially questioning his truthfulness. 
     
    To be clear, all such wiretapping requires a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, independent of the White House. Indeed, the only way a president of the United States could order such surveillance without going through the FISA route would be if there was no American citizens involved. 
     
    Undeterred, the Trump administration has maintained its shocking accusation of President Obama, even demanding that Congress investigate whether the Obama administration abused its powers. Indeed, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on March 5, 2017: “President Donald Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.”
     
    Of significance was the fact that the FBI and Congress were already investigating contacts between Trump’s election campaign and Russian officials, as well as collusion between the Trump administration and the Russians over the 2016 election. As such, the consensus from many was that Trump was attempting to deflect attention away from himself and redirect inquiries to Obama instead. 
     
    But the accusation against President Obama was noteworthy for several particularly alarming reasons. First, it was in keeping with other spurious claims made by Trump, such as the suggestion that millions of voters had cast ballots illegally. To date, no such evidence has ever materialized to support such a view; however, it appears to have been expressed for the purpose of explaining why Trump lost the popular vote. As well, the accusation that a sitting president would illegally wiretap a United States citizen and presidential candidate could serve to instill mistrust in United States institutions, feed conspiracy theories about "deep state" tactics and ultimately help to destabilize the country.
     
    By mid-March 2017, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that he would "flex Congressional muscle" in order to compel the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to say whether former President Obama wiretapped Trump. To this end, Graham said that he was prepared to issue a subpoena to force Comey to reveal wiretapping details, should such details actually exist.
     
    Meanwhile, it was reported that during the waning days of the outgoing Obama administration, White House officials worked to disperse information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election across departments of the government. Of particular concern to the Obama officials was information pertaining to possible contacts between associates of President-elect Trump and Russians. These officials were aiming to ensure that there was a discernible trail of intelligence for investigators to pursue.
     
    Also of note was the intelligence provided by British and the Dutch allies covering meetings between Trump and Putin associates that took place in various European cities. Another consideration was intercepted communications by United States intelligence of Russian officials discussing contacts with Trump associates. Overall, there was a grave suspicion that the Trump campaign may have colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. 
     
    Because Trump had repeatedly dismissed suggestions of Russian interference into United States affairs, there was a sense of mistrust from the outgoing Obama White House. To that end, some Obama administration officials feared that these key findings might either be concealed or utterly destroyed. Another possibility was the exposure of key sources and assets. 
     
    As such, an unusual effort of preserving evidence and intelligence was undertaken -- albeit without the explicit direction of President Barack Obama. This effort included not only dispersing the information across agencies, but also lowering the security clearance levels, and asking key questions during briefings that would be archived and reconsidered during Congressional investigations. Indeed, a cache of sensitive materials was passed onto members on Congress, such as Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. That particular information detailed Russian efforts to intervene in elections across the globe.
     
    Also of note was President Obama's intelligence review -- discussed above -- which sought to detail and record the extent of Russian hacking and interference into the United States election. 
     
    In mid-March 2017, pressure was intensifying on Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey to either confirm or deny the existence of an inquiry into Trump's Russia connections, particularly with regard to interference into the 2016 election. 
     
    On March 15, 2017, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a Democrat, said that Comey failed to meet the agreed upon deadline to confirm the existence of an FBI inquiry. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, disclosed the same failure to meet the March 15, 2017 deadline, saying, "He needs to answer the letter and give the nation some information about what's going on here."
     
    Of significance was the rare bipartisan concurrence by Whitehouse and Graham -- both members of the Judiciary Committee -- on the matter. 
     
    However, later in March 2017, it was reported that Comey was sighted headed into a Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCIF) with Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. Other Senators were reported to have also entered the SCIF. Typically, SCIFs are used for Senate intelligence briefings. 
     
    On March 21, 2017, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election. 
     
    In that committee hearing, Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with a covert Russian operation to interfere with the United States presidential election, which would ultimately see Trump benefit as the winner. It was the first public confirmation of the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians in an effort to influence the election.
     
    Comey issued a clear confirmation that the inquiry existed and that the Trump campaign was being targeted, as he stated: "I've been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of its counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election." He continued, "That includes investigating the nature of any links of people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts." 
     
    It should be noted that Comey declined to disclose details about the probe. That being said, his acknowledgment that it existed could vitiate Trump's claims that "the Russian story" was a fiction fabricated by Democrats and bereft of serious consideration.
     
    During his testimony, FBI Director Comey also dispelled the notion advanced by President Trump that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, wiretapped his communications. To this end, Comey noted he "has no information that supports" Trump's allegation that President Obama ordered surveillance of his communications during the 2016 election campaign.
     
    Comey did not merely assert that he had no information or evidence to sustain Trump's wiretapping accusations of Obama. He also went the extra mile to assert: “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”
     
    In this way, Comey was making clear that Trump's accusation -- delivered via the social media outlet Twitter -- was entirely baseless. And as such, Comey delivered a stinging blow to the sitting president's credibility. 
     
    Comey underlined his stance as he noted that only courts (as discussed above) grant permission for such surveillance. To this end, Comey said, "No individual in the United States can direct electronic surveillance of anyone." That being said, Comey would not comment on actual FISA court orders, which would allow the FBI to conduct surveillance of individuals suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power. News media outlets, though, have reported that the FBI did, in fact, intercept some Trump campaign aides' communications with the Russians during the campaign.
     
    Of significance was the fact that Republicans on the intelligence committee had little to say about the Trump-Russia angle. Instead, they directed their attention to the leaking of sensitive classified materials by certain individuals with that type of access. A measurable amount of time during this hearing was spent making the case for journalists who publish classified information to be prosecuted. This positioning by the Republicans appeared to run in tandem with the White House's claim that entrenched government players and institutions -- so-called "deep state" -- were operating against the president's interests.
     
    In truth, however, leaking of classified information was not an unprecedented event in political life. Possible collusion with a foreign antagonistic power to influence an election, however, was a different matter entirely. And as such, during his testimony before the intelligence committee, Comey managed to inflict serious political damage to Trump. 
     
    In an interview with the Washington Post, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said: “To be as low as he is in the polls, in the 30s, while the FBI director is on television saying they launched an investigation into your ties with Russia, I don’t know how it can get much worse." Brinkley -- the author of several biographies of Presidents Gerald Ford, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt -- exclaimed, “This is the most failed first 100 days of any president.” 
     
    Perhaps more damning was the following suggestion posed by Brinkley: “There’s a smell of treason in the air. Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mind-boggling event.”
     
    Of course, despite this political turbulence, Trump remained popular with his base. Most of his conservative supporters have looked at his measures to squash Obamacare, to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants from Latin America out and to implement a Muslim ban as Trump keeping his promises. It was to be seen if sustaining the support of that base would be enough to fortify Trump's presidency, which was faltering after only 100 days in office. 
     
     
    Recent Developments; Comey, Russian connections, collusion, chaos --
     
    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 issued a public 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 evidence bolstering Trump's wiretapping claims of President Obama. 
     
    Fast-forward to May 2017, 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, 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 if 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 where 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 bypass 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 for 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 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 constituting "seismic revelations," and wondered if the United States 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 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, 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. 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 attorney, 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 cadre. 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. 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 back. 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 its 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 were in control of Congress at this time and were not likely to impeach a president from their own party. 
     
     
    Latest Development: Collusion circle tightens --
     
    In July 2017, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany, United States President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both the Trump administration and Russia appeared geared towards moving on -- and past -- hacking/interference claims that Russia has never admitted to committing and for which Trump has also expressed skepticism, despite findings from his own intelligence agencies. As noted by Tillerson, “There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two. There was not a lot of relitigating things from the past.” Trump himself appeared to back Putin while disputing conclusions of the United states intelligence community, as he said, “nobody really knows; nobody really knows for sure” who was behind the campaign to influence the 2016 election result.
     
    The bilateral meeting, which lasted more than two hours, resulted in Trump calling for "impenetrable" cyber security cooperation between his country and Putin's. The irony of that suggestion was not lost on aghast observers noting that there were prevailing reports from United States intelligence agencies that Russia hacked into the electoral system of the United States to influence the 2016 presidential contest. Perhaps due to such criticism, Trump appeared to back down somewhat from this suggestion, and redirected attention to the multilateral Syria ceasefire agreement instead. Via his favorite social media outlet, twitter, Trump tweeted: "The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't-but a ceasefire can,& did!" 
     
    The meeting between the two men was described widely as a "warm" encounter. Trump himself described the encounter more fulsomely as “a tremendous meeting.”
     
    Also in July 2017, the claims that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to hurt Hillary Clinton's candidacy for the presidency and win the 2016 election gained significance with reporting from the New York Times. At issue was the revelation from three White House advisers that Donald Trump Jr. - the son of the president - met with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information about Clinton. 
     
    The meeting on June 9, 2016, would constitute the first report of actual contact between the president's inner circle and a Russian national. It should be noted that the meeting with Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was attended not only by Trump Jr., but also by two Trump campaign associates -- Trump campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
     
    In his initial reaction to the New York Times report, Trump Jr. did not dispute the meeting; instead, he suggested that the meeting actually produced no meaningful opposition research. His statement read as follows: "Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information."
     
    But Trump Jr.'s emails suggested that he was fully aware that the Kremlin-linked lawyer's intent was to provide assistance to the Trump campaign and hurt Clinton. Indeed, one email by Trump Jr. on June 3, 2016, read as follows: "If it's what you say I love it." 
     
    Further correspondence indicated that the president's son was aware that the offer was coming from the Russian government in Moscow -- not just a Russian source or national. To this end, an email from Rob Goldstone, a publicist who brokered the meeting, to Trump Jr. specifically read as follows: "The Crown prosecutor of Russia ... offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."
     
    This excerpt of the email chain shows that Trump Jr. was made aware that the Russian government was seeking to assist his father and that Trump Jr. accepted this offer.
     
    The disclosures of this meeting came amidst the ongoing investigation (discussed in this report) being carried out by a federal special prosecutor and congressional committees into Russian interference into the 2016 election in the United States, and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to achieve this goal. 
     
    By mid-July 2017, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee was making it clear that it wanted to hear from Trump Jr. regarding the meeting he held with the Russian lawyer. Trump Jr. telegraphed his willingness to do so, saying via Twitter that he would be "Happy to work with the committee to pass on what I know." 
     
    For his part, President Donald Trump distanced himself from his own son, saying that he was "not aware of and did not attend" the meeting in a statement issued via his legal spokesperson, Mark Corallo. However, he also praised his son's transparency in releasing the emails and described Trump Jr. as a "high quality person." Left unstated was the fact that the New York Times was going to publish the email exchange with or without cooperation from the Trumps.
     
    Further complicating the administration’s response on reports of Trump Jr.’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya were subsequent reports published on July 31, 2017 that President Trump had personally dictated Trump Jr.’s statement regarding Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer in June, 2016. This statement originally claimed the meeting “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” However, multiple accounts of the meeting that followed the initial New York Times scoop published on July 8, 2017 demonstrated that this initial claim was deemed misleading, which forced Donald Trump Jr. to admit he accepted the meeting following an email promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton. President Trump’s personal involvement in crafting his son’s statement on the reported meeting marked an extent of involvement that advisers feared could put him and other members of his circle in legally perilous waters.  
     
    Throughout, President Trump has denied that any collusion with Russia took place. Likewise, Moscow has also denied any interference into the United States 2016 election. 
     
    On July 24, 2017, Kushner released a public statement about the Russia scandal, which could well be regarded as a precursor of what would be said during closed-door congressional testimony to follow. In that statement, Kushner declared: “I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government. I had no improper contacts. I have not relied on Russian funds to finance my business activities in the private sector." Kushner added, "I have tried to be fully transparent. Hopefully, this puts these matters to rest.” But in fact, given that Kushner self-disclosed meetings with Russian nationals several times during the campaign, it was unlikely that "the matters" would be easily put to rest. 
     
    Of significance was the aforementioned case of Kushner's meeting with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his request for a secret back channel of communication. The request, detailed in a Washington Post report, was intended to ensure an opaque venue of communication that would be protected from monitoring -- even by United States intelligence. But in his statement, Kushner did not corroborate this version of events; instead, he simply confirmed that a meeting took place for the purpose of organizing secure communications on the Syrian conflict. The distance between the report by the Washington Post and that of Kushner himself was jarring, and itself a matter deserving further inquiry. 
     
    Further meetings between Kushner and Sergei Gorkov, the head of the state-linked Russian bank Vnesheconombank, were also controversial. Gorkov's closeness to the Russian government as a stalwart of Putin was notable. Also notable were suggestions that there could have been business discussions between Gorkov and Kushner -- a move that could potentially open the door to legal inquiries. Kushner's attendance at a meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. to provide damaging information on Hillary Clinton was also a matter likely to produce greater scrutiny. 
     
    With so many issues still unresolved about Kushner's conversations and meetings with Russian nationals during the time of the 2016 campaign, it was unlikely that one public statement would "put to rest" the prevailing question of collusion at stake.
     
     
    Special Counsel Robert Mueller impanels grand jury for investigation of Russian interference in 2016 election --
     
    In early August, 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had impaneled a grand jury in Washington D.C. for his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. At the time the story broke, it was learned that Mueller sought permission from Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to impanel a grand jury for his use with that request being granted according to people familiar with his investigation. Special counsel to President Trump, Ty Cobb, issued a statement on the report indicating the administration was previously unaware that a grand jury had been impaneled, but stated “the White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of [Mueller’s] work fairly.”
     
    Legal experts cautioned that this does not necessarily indicate that charges would follow, but this was an indicator that Mueller’s investigation was far from winding down; the trajectory appeared to be quite the opposite. Experts familiar with the legal proceedings of such investigations indicated an impaneled grand jury was a reliable indicator that Mueller’s team would seek testimonies from witnesses and subpoenas for records.
     
    By this point, Mueller had to put together a team of a few dozen prosecutors and investigators that were tasked with looking at the many facets surrounding this investigation: the prospect of Russian collusion, the prospect of obstruction of justice, and investigations into individuals such as Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Many investigators were summoned from field offices across the country whereas others left lucrative jobs in the private sector to join Mueller’s probe, but the prevailing theme seemed to be a specialization in cases dealing with financial crimes.
     
    Despite signs that Mueller’s investigation was clearly ramping up, President Trump had maintained there was no collusion with Russia—even having gone so far as to call the line of inquiry into whether there was collusion a “witch hunt”—and has attempted to undermine the probe by alluding to the fact that several members of Mueller’s team have given donations to Democratic candidates, including the presidential campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. 
     
    In contrast to how their relationship has played out in public, President Trump sent private messages of “appreciation and greetings” via his legal team to Special Counsel Mueller according to his chief counsel John Dowd, which was perceived as an attempt to by the administration to signal cooperation with the investigation.
     

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