A week of media “scoops” about Donald Trump and Russia ends with two — one from the Washington Post, the other from the New York Times. The Post’s story is dubious. The Times’s story is troubling. Let’s deal with them in order.
First, here’s the Post:
The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.
The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official.
I was going to write a lengthy “lawsplainer” outlining the problems with this story, but my friend (and podcast guest) Ken White beat me to it. Ken’s a criminal defense lawyer, former federal prosecutor, and legal blogger without peer. Here’s are the key tweets in his Twitter thread:
So today’s WaPo story about a “person of interest” in the White House is a little odd. /1— PopehatWitchHunt (@Popehat) May 19, 2017
“Person of interest” is a deliberately ambiguous term, evasive. WaPo reporters are smart and know that. Yet they don’t comment on it. /2— PopehatWitchHunt (@Popehat) May 19, 2017
“Subject” or “target” would be far more precise terms, suggesting that the source has more knowledge and credibility. /3— PopehatWitchHunt (@Popehat) May 19, 2017
But it’s odd and a bit disappointing that WaPo writers don’t highlight that their source is using notoriously wobbly language with them. /5— PopehatWitchHunt (@Popehat) May 19, 2017
Of course investigators are going to interview White House staff as part of their probe. It would be shocking if they didn’t. The Post story is written using carefully chosen language — language that looks far more ominous to those who aren’t familiar with legalese. The bottom line? We don’t know have any idea whether this story matters.
Next, on to the troubling scoop — here’s the Times:
President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”
The White House’s response is interesting, mainly because it doesn’t dispute the substance of the report. Spicer instead redirected the topic to leaks:
By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Mr. Spicer said. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.
It’s hard to think of statements better calculated to build the case that Trump fired Comey to disrupt the FBI investigation into his administration’s ties with Russia. As I’ve said before, no single piece of evidence has thus far been conclusive (and each piece is vulnerable to its own rebuttals), but the evidence taken together is starting to build a case that looks an awful lot like this: First, Trump — frustrated at the FBI’s investigation — strongly hinted to James Comey that he should clear Michael Flynn. Second, Trump got angry when Comey not only ignored his suggestion but instead publicly confirmed the investigation’s existence. Third, Trump terminated Comey in the hope that it would ease the pressure on his administration.
Moreover, there’s evidence that he knew his actions were suspect. He allegedly asked the vice president and attorney general to leave the room before talking to Comey about ending the Flynn investigation, and when he fired Comey, he justified it with a blatantly pretextual and false cover story.
This is a damaging portrait. If Hillary Clinton was faced with the same facts and allegations, Republican talk of impeachment would be thick in the air. As it is, impeachment talk from either side of the aisle is premature and overblown, at least so far. When witnesses actually get under oath — and the public sees actual documents — a very different picture may emerge. For now, however, there’s more than enough smoke to not only justify further investigation but to reinforce the wisdom of selecting a special counsel to conduct a competent, thorough, and reasonably independent inquiry. The Times story does not help Trump.