This week’s Russia investigation news began with Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifying in an open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Following Sessions’ testimony were the explosive reports about President Trump’s consideration of dismissing special counsel Robert Mueller, and reports of the subjects of Mueller’s DoJ probe, which culminated in the surprising assertion that the president himself is now potentially under investigation for obstruction of justice.
Obstruction of Justice
Before giving a rundown of the week’s updates on the separate Russia investigations, I’d like to first talk briefly about obstruction of justice: the specific allegations surrounding the president, the criteria for the crime, the potential consequences, and what entities are investigating it. The official criteria for obstruction of justice is attempting to intentionally “influence, obstruct, or impede” an official federal investigative or judiciary process. In the case of President Trump, the question of obstruction of justice centers on James Comey. If Trump actually did fire Comey because of the way he was leading the FBI’s Russia probe and/or his refusal to give his “loyalty,” this could be interpreted as an attempt to directly change the course of the investigation, and would probably constitute obstruction. However, Comey’s public testimony last week was only one piece of the puzzle, and although he revealed that the president acted inappropriately and undermined the independence of the FBI at the least, the case for obstruction of justice is much more ambiguous. Although this week there have been many reports of Trump now being under investigation, it is probably best to approach these cautiously as well. The White House has insisted that there is no obstruction investigation, and the president’s bewildering tweets may or may not confirm the existence of one. Unsurprisingly, there has been no comment from special counsel Mueller or the DoJ about the developments in their investigation, but it is likely that they are looking into the president’s actions in some capacity after Comey’s testimony. If obstruction of justice is proved, the special counsel can indict–this has never been done–or bring a case to Congress for impeachment. For now, it is probably best to treat unsubstantiated news about an investigation into Trump with skepticism; we may not hear more about it unless the issue is again raised by Congress, as Mueller’s team is unlikely to provide any information.
DoJ and Special Counsel
Aside from the potential investigation of obstruction of justice, the DoJ has had a busy week rife with public and media attention. I cannot stress enough that although the special counsel’s investigation is probably the most important Russia investigation in terms of its scope and mandate, nonpartisan approach, and potential outcome, it is also by nature and necessity very classified, and unlikely to publicize any findings or updates. Following the breaking news about obstruction of justice last week, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein cautioned Americans to be skeptical about media reports that only cite anonymous sources or officials, as the DoJ will not comment on ongoing investigations. Rumors are easily spread, and news from unchecked sources could have a profound and dangerous impact on public opinion and on the proceedings of all the investigations.
That said, what has been reported about the DoJ investigation during the past week is worthwhile to keep tabs on, especially given the president’s ongoing involvement and outspokenness. After the Washington Post reported that President Trump was under investigation by Mueller for obstruction of justice, Rosenstein released his cautionary statement about the investigation, then Trump seemingly confirmed the news via a tweet aimed at Rosenstein. Mueller, not Rosenstein, would be investigating the president, but Trump’s reaction is perhaps more illustrative of his growing conflict with the Justice Department as a whole. Trump was reportedly angered by Sessions’ original recusal from the FBI investigation, and his firing of Comey has only propelled the DoJ’s investigation forward since. As people speculated and argued about the president being under investigation, news emerged that Trump was considering firing special counsel Mueller, but has been dissuaded by advisers. Practically, Trump could request Mueller’s dismissal but the acting deputy AG, Rosenstein, would make the final decision, although it is worth noting that Rosenstein himself could be fired as well.
A final update on the DoJ investigation this week: another Post report claims that President Trump’s son-in-law/adviser Jared Kushner is also under investigation for his business and financial connections to Russia. The source this report cites is “U.S. officials familiar with the matter.” Kushner is also at least peripherally implicated in the scope of the other congressional Russia investigations.
Senate Intelligence Committee
The Senate Intelligence Committee began the week with a hearing for AG Jeff Sessions. Sessions began his testimony by denying any meetings or contact with Russian officials about the election, during or after the presidential campaign, and denying any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He claimed that the only reason he initially recused himself from any matters surrounding the Russia investigation was a DoJ regulation asserting that political campaign advisers should not take part in investigations involving those campaigns. When pressed about specific contact with Russian officials, Sessions repeatedly told the committee that he did not recall any. Questioned about his communications with Trump, especially regarding the DoJ and FBI, he refused to give any details, citing DoJ policy not to disclose executive communication, as well as the president’s right to potentially invoke executive privilege at some point in the future. Sessions did address parts of Comey’s testimony the previous week, telling the committee that Comey had not told him anything specific about Trump’s requests that he stop investigating Flynn, but that when Comey expressed concern and discomfort about conversations with the president Sessions had told him to carefully follow DoJ communication policies. Comey testified that Sessions had not responded to his concerns at all. Sessions also briefly discussed Comey’s firing and the memo he wrote about it–which was made public–while deputy AG Rosenstein refused to do so during his hearing the same day with the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sessions told the committee that he has not been briefed on or discussed anything regarding the Russia investigation since his recusal, and much of his testimony reflected his belief that he has been falsely accused of wrongdoing and publicly smeared; the committee’s questions fell along predictable partisan lines, with Republican senators seeming to reinforce that sentiment while Democrats pressed him on the details of his past communications. Despite congressional politics, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s tenacious succession of hearings and interviews related to their Russia investigation thus far have surpassed the other congressional investigations, and have certainly brought more clarity–as well as more questions–into the public sphere. Given the speed of their investigation, it is also worth noting that Chairman Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner also met with Mueller last Wednesday, about protocols, conflicts, and jurisdiction regarding their respective Russia investigations.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has been at odds with the Senate Intelligence Committee about the latter’s exclusive hearings with top intelligence and DoJ officials, has also made moves in its Russia investigation this week. The Judiciary Committee asserts that it should be the primary congressional body in charge of DoJ and FBI-related investigations. Chairman Chuck Grassley has indicated that the committee is pushing Comey–for both testimony and records–and also preparing for future subpoenas as they ramp up their investigation. Grassley seems to be expanding the scope of his committee’s investigation, which may include investigating obstruction of justice regarding Comey’s firing. However, Republicans on the committee also seem to be trying to shift focus to Hillary Clinton’s email investigation following revelations from Comey’s testimony.
House Intelligence Committee
The House Intelligence Committee had a rather quiet week compared to its Senate counterparts, but is reportedly planning more interviews as part of its Russia investigation. Notably, the committee will hold a hearing next Wednesday for the former Secretary of Homeland Security under Obama, Jeh Johnson. Johnson is expected to testify about Russian hacking during the 2016 election. He also had a closed interview last week with the Senate Intelligence Committee. Like the Senate committee, House Intelligence Committee leaders are expected to meet with Mueller soon to discuss investigative scope and protocol.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) took over as Chairman following Jason Chaffetz’s departure from Congress. It is not yet clear how the committee’s investigation of Michael Flynn, as well as its budding probe into the Comey firing, will proceed
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.