Trump’s Botched Putin Summit May Help Protect the Russia Probe
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Even for a Friday the 13th, it was a strange event. Just three days before President Trump was scheduled to have his first one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the top U.S. Department of Justice official in charge of the Russia investigation laid out the most detailed accusations yet of how Russia worked to elect Trump in 2016. After giving less than two hours’ public notice, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took the podium on the seventh floor of Justice Department headquarters and, in his low-key, straightforward manner, announced that 12 more Russians had been indicted for allegedly interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
The 29-page indictment, delivered by special counsel Robert Mueller, accused a handful of senior Russian intelligence officers of orchestrating a hacking scheme that penetrated Democratic campaign groups and led to the theft of thousands of emails and other information. In his prepared remarks, Rosenstein said he’d briefed Trump on the details earlier that week. Asked if Trump indicated his support for the findings, Rosenstein said he’d let the president speak for himself.
Three days later, he did. Standing next to Putin, Trump called the Russia investigation “a disaster for our country” and sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on the question of Russia’s efforts to tilt the election. Trump refused to denounce Putin for the attack and said he didn’t see any reason why Russia would interfere in the U.S. election—a sentiment he’s since tried to walk back, saying he misspoke.
The Putin summit was always going to be strange. But coming as it did on the heels of the bombshell indictments, the discussions backed Trump into a corner. His apparent willingness to please a Russian leader in such a public setting will reverberate for months, with effects almost too large to measure. All the more baffling is that this is apparently the way Trump wanted it to happen. According to accounts from people familiar with the decision, Rosenstein offered Trump the choice of having the indictments come out before or after the Putin summit. Trump chose before, in the hope that it would strengthen his hand.
The most immediate effect is that it takes the air out of Republican efforts to quash the Russia probe. Trump’s performance in Helsinki, coupled with the details of the indictment, makes it almost impossible to cast the investigation as a waste of time. After the summit, senior GOP leaders came out strongly in favor of allowing Mueller to finish the job, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who told reporters that “Russia is trying to undermine democracy itself” and said the probe should continue. Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, the Senate’s No. 3 Republican, said Trump’s performance “makes it even more important” for the Russia probe to continue.
It also lowers the heat on Rosenstein. In the past few months, Trump supporters in Congress have attacked Rosenstein for withholding information they say shows anti-Trump bias in the FBI. Some have pushed for ways to force Rosenstein to end the probe or get rid of him outright. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from the Russia investigation, Rosenstein, the No. 2 Justice Department official, oversees Mueller’s work, including approving his budget and charging decisions. That’s made him a regular target of Trump’s ire and means any attempt to shut down or rein in the Mueller probe has to go through him. While the special counsel has quietly gone about his work, Rosenstein, as the public face of the investigation, takes the heat.
“Rod is in an impossible, zero-sum position,” says Matthew Axelrod, a partner at Linklaters who previously worked as a top official to former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. “Typically, when a deputy attorney general highlights or defends the work of DOJ, it’s what the White House expects. But when Rod highlights or defends the work of DOJ, you have to assume it drives this White House nuts.”
The 53-year-old career federal prosecutor came to public attention in May 2017, as the guy who wrote the memo Trump used as justification for firing then-FBI Director James Comey. In the past month, Rosenstein has appeared bolder in defending both the probe and his own role running the day-to-day operations of the department. That culminated in a June 28 face-off with Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan during a House Judiciary Committee hearing into Justice Department oversight of the Russia probe. Jordan accused Rosenstein of lying and hiding information. In a combative exchange, Rosenstein challenged Jordan to put those making allegations against him under oath. Jordan is among a handful of House GOP hard-liners threatening to impeach Rosenstein. There’s been no follow-through on that, though lawmakers still demand an internal investigation into Rosenstein’s conduct.
Rosenstein and Mueller may also benefit from the delicate confirmation process Trump faces for his new Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. GOP lawmakers are pushing to confirm Kavanaugh before the court’s next term begins in October. Any effort to undermine the Russia probe before then might complicate matters, given that such a move could result in charges of obstruction of justice that may wind up in front of the Supreme Court; that could also help Democrats drum up opposition to Kavanaugh among moderate senators.
So far the Russia mess has mainly been Trump’s problem, but it threatens to become a liability for the entire GOP heading into the midterm elections, especially in light of the details of another Russia-related investigation. Just hours after the Putin summit, U.S. authorities publicly accused Maria Butina, a Russian national, of serving as a Russian agent to try to infiltrate Republican circles through such groups as the National Rifle Association. Prosecutors said she traded sex with a U.S. citizen as part of an effort to establish communications between U.S. and Russian officials during the last election cycle. Butina was indicted on July 17. She denies the allegations.
“This will be one of those moments the long lens of history remembers,” says former GOP Congressman David Jolly, who represented a Florida district from 2014 to 2017. “We’ve never had reason to question a president’s patriotism. We question their competence, their judgment, their self-interest, their partisan motivations. Even with Richard Nixon, we never had questions of patriotism like we are seeing today.” For the first time, Jolly says, he believes the impeachment of Trump—or removal under the 25th Amendment by declaring him unfit—should be on the table. But, he cautions, “the fates of Republicans on the Hill are too tied to the president. I’m not optimistic that they will be independent.”
The Russia probe hasn’t been among the top issues discussed in the most closely watched House races, and Trump’s approval ratings remain strong among his base. Still, Democrats may find it useful to deploy against Republicans in more closely divided areas. “The challenge comes in states and districts where the Republican candidate needs all of the Trump voters, plus a significant proportion of the people who do not approve of the president’s job performance,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist. “That becomes very tricky.”
The day after the summit, Trump returned to Washington, fuming over the coverage of it yet remaining dug in. After hearing from advisers including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to a person familiar with the deliberations, Trump sought to do some damage control. He told reporters he misspoke and said he accepts the findings that Russia interfered in the election, although he looked up from a prepared statement to add it “could be other people.” Meanwhile, Rosenstein was seen walking through the White House parking lot after a regularly scheduled meeting. At the end of a crazy few days, he was still on the job. —With Sahil Kapur, Billy House, and Jennifer Jacobs
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