WASHINGTON – This week's news that Robert S. Mueller III has begun using a grand jury in federal court in Washington, as part of his investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, further boxes in the president and makes it more politically difficult to justify firing the special counsel.
• If President Trump ever lost the support of Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), he just might be doomed. A former state House speaker, Tillis is a reliable Republican apparatchik whose vote party leadership can count on. So it was a big deal this week when he introduced legislation with a Democratic colleague, Chris Coons of Delaware, to prevent Trump from firing Mueller without cause.
Tillis, known as a savvy political strategist, is clearly thinking ahead to what he realizes will be a very difficult reelection campaign in 2020. "It is critical that special counsels have the independence and resources they need to lead investigations," he said in a news release.
The first-term senator toppled Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in one of the nastiest and most expensive races of the 2014 midterm cycle. Trump carried the Tar Heel State last November by 4 points, and everyone expects it will be one of the key battlegrounds next time.
"Our polls and others have found that Tillis has never been able to strengthen his position after going into office unpopular on the heels of winning a 'lesser of two evils' election where he got by largely based on the political climate," said Raleigh-based Democratic pollster Tom Jensen, who runs Public Policy Polling. "The landscape is likely to be a lot different in 2020 unless things really turn around for the Trump administration, so it's wise for Tillis to take steps that might make him look like 'not just another Republican' to appeal to Democrats and independents. Democrats still have about a 10-point registration advantage in North Carolina. So some reasonable threshold of crossover support is necessary for Tillis to win, and he hasn't done a lot since getting elected that crosses across party lines. This seems like a smart step in that direction for him."
North Carolina's other Republican senator, Richard Burr, has already been leading the intelligence committee's inquest into Russian interference. And many in the state remain proud of the role that the late Sen. Sam Ervin famously played during the Watergate investigation.
• Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R., S.C.) and Cory Booker (D., N.J.) introduced a separate proposal of their own this week to protect Mueller. "The two proposals . . . each seek to check the executive branch's ability to fire a special counsel, by putting the question to a three-judge panel from the federal courts. They differ in when that panel gets to weigh in on the decision," the Post's Karoun Demirjian explains. "Tillis and Coons' proposal would let the firing proceed according to current regulations . . . but the fired special counsel would have the right to contest the administration's decision in court. In that scenario, the judges panel would have two weeks from the day the special counsel's case is filed to complete their review and determine whether the termination was acceptable. . . . Both senators, as well as Graham, said they expect they may merge their efforts after lawmakers return to Washington in September. . . . The lawmakers are not expecting that the president will like or support either proposal . . . But they say they are convinced that there is enough support to pass such a law, even over Trump's objections."
• Just how little do Senate Republicans trust Trump at this point? Before adjourning for summer recess Thursday afternoon, the chamber agreed by unanimous consent to block the president from being able to make any recess appointments while they're out of town.
This was done so that Trump cannot fire Jeff Sessions as attorney general and then appoint someone without Senate confirmation who would be willing to fire Mueller. Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe after not being forthcoming during his confirmation hearing about contacts he had during the campaign with the Russian government. That leaves the decision over whether to fire Mueller to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, who says he would not do it without cause. But if Trump replaced Sessions with a new AG who was not conflicted out, that person could ax Mueller.
To head that off, GOP leaders scheduled nine "pro-forma" sessions over the next month. In other words, the Senate will be gaveled in for roughly a minute or so every three days between now and when lawmakers return after Labor Day. Legally this means that they will not be adjourned, The Hill explains.
Republicans used this same tactic last year to prevent Barack Obama from trying to put Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court with a recess appointment.
• Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), a friend of Sessions, already said last week that he would not make time in the Senate schedule to consider a new attorney general nominee.
• There are other reasons that Sessions also appears safe for now. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called the AG on Saturday to tell him that his job is secure, per the Associated Press. He reassured him that the president does not plan to go through with firing him, even though he just spent the better part of two weeks publicly pressuring him to resign almost every day. If Trump tried to oust Mueller, would Gen. Kelly really put his own integrity on the line and be a party to that? Or would he pack his bags?
• Trump is Trump, though, so you can never say never.
During a rally in West Virginia Thursday night, the defiant president dismissed allegations of collusion between his campaign and Russia as "a total fabrication." "It's just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics," he said. "Trump made no mention of Mueller in his remarks but seemed to reference his and congressional investigations into the matter, saying: 'I just hope the final determination is truly an honest one,'" per the Post's John Wagner. "He said that instead of looking at his campaign, prosecutors should be looking into his Democratic opponent from last year . . . The crowd chanted 'lock her up!' in return."
• Reacting to reports about the grand jury on Fox News Thursday night, meanwhile, Trump personal attorney Jay Sekulow insisted that "the president is not thinking about firing Robert Mueller." "So the speculation that's out there is just incorrect," he told Neil Cavuto.
Every time a Trump lawyer or White House official says something like that publicly, it's harder to justify getting rid of Mueller down the road. A good case would be made that the president changed his mind because of some meaningful development in the investigation. That would look like Trump is trying to interfere with the justice system, which would further inflame public opinion against him. Again, that doesn't mean the president would not take his chances and try such a gambit if he was really desperate. But there's now a batch of clips from Sekulow that would be difficult to explain away.
• The Wall Street Journal's Del Quentin Wilber and Byron Tau scooped that Mueller impaneled the grand jury several weeks ago and described it as "a sign that Mr. Mueller's inquiry is ramping up and that it will likely continue for months": "Before Mr. Mueller was tapped in May to be special counsel, federal prosecutors had been using at least one other grand jury, located in Alexandria, Va., to assist in their criminal investigation of Michael Flynn . . . That probe, which has been taken over by Mr. Mueller's team, focuses on Mr. Flynn's work in the private sector on behalf of foreign interests. 'This is yet a further sign that there is a long-term, large-scale series of prosecutions being contemplated and being pursued by the special counsel,' said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck. 'If there was already a grand jury in Alexandria looking at Flynn, there would be no need to reinvent the wheel for the same guy. This suggests that the investigation is bigger and wider than Flynn, perhaps substantially so.'"
• Reuters added that the grand jury has already agreed to issue subpoenas in connection with the June 2016 meeting that included Trump's son, son-in-law and a Russian lawyer. Karen Freifeld and John Walcott did not specify who specifically got the subpoenas.
• The Post swiftly confirmed the Journal's reporting. Carol D. Leonnig, Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky elaborate: "A White House adviser said the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had not received subpoenas, nor had the White House. Members of the president's legal team met with Mueller three weeks ago to express their desire to work with his investigators. Ty Cobb, whom Trump appointed as White House special counsel, said of the grand jury: 'This is news to me, but it's welcome news to the extent it suggests that it may accelerate the resolution of Mr. Mueller's work. The White House has every interest in bringing this to a prompt and fair conclusion. As we've said in the past, we're committed to cooperating fully with Mr. Mueller.'
"In federal cases, a grand jury is not necessarily an indication that an indictment is imminent or even likely. Instead, it is a powerful investigative tool that prosecutors use to compel witnesses to testify or force people or companies to turn over documents."
Leonnig, Horwitz, and Zapotosky outline four reasons Mueller might have chosen to use a grand jury in the District, instead of sticking with the one in Alexandria, Va.:
- "The special counsel's office is located in Southwest D.C. – much closer to the federal courthouse in the city …
- "Mueller also had previously worked in the U.S. attorney's office in D.C., giving him some familiarity with the courthouse and the judges . . .
- "Many of the potential crimes Mueller's team is investigating would have occurred in the District, such as allegations that Trump aides or advisers made false statements in disclosure records or lied to federal agents. The Post has previously reported that Mueller is investigating whether the president tried to obstruct justice leading up to his firing of (James) Comey. . . .
- "Others said the choice could reflect Mueller's reputation for planning ahead and gaming out a possible trial. He could have better chances convicting aides to Trump in a city in which 90 percent of voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016."
• Federal investigators "have seized on Trump and his associates' financial ties to Russia as one of the most fertile avenues for moving their probe forward," CNN's Evan Perez, Pamela Brown and Shimon Prokupecz also reported Thursday: "Sources described an investigation that has widened to focus on possible financial crimes, some unconnected to the 2016 elections, alongside the ongoing scrutiny of possible illegal coordination with Russian spy agencies. . . . Even investigative leads that have nothing to do with Russia but involve Trump associates are being referred to the special counsel . . . The web of financial ties could offer a more concrete path toward potential prosecution than the broader and murkier questions of collusion in the 2016 campaign, these sources said. . . . [The] FBI is reviewing financial records related to the Trump Organization, as well as Trump, his family members, including Donald Trump Jr., and campaign associates. They've combed through the list of shell companies and buyers of Trump-branded real estate properties and scrutinized the roster of tenants at Trump Tower reaching back more than a half-dozen years. They've looked at the backgrounds of Russian business associates connected to Trump surrounding the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. CNN could not determine whether the review has included his tax returns."
• Meanwhile, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe told several top officials at the bureau to consider themselves "possible witnesses" in any investigation into whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice. Vox's Murray Waas reports: "McCabe has told colleagues that he too is a potential witness in the probe of whether Trump broke the law by trying to thwart the FBI's Russia investigation . . . Two senior federal law enforcement officials have told me that the new revelations illustrate why they believe the potential case against Trump is stronger than outsiders have thought. 'What you are going to have is the potential for a powerful obstruction case,' a senior law enforcement official said. 'You are going to have the [former] FBI director testify, and then the acting director, the chief of staff to the FBI director, the FBI's general counsel, and then others, one right after another. This has never been the word of Trump against what [Comey] has had to say. This is more like the Federal Bureau of Investigation versus Donald Trump.'"
• "Flynn filed an amended federal financial disclosure report late Thursday providing new details about his contracts with the Trump presidential transition, a company connected to an Iranian American businessman, and the parent company of a data science firm that worked for the Trump campaign," the Post's Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold report. In a letter accompanying the revised disclosure, Flynn says his initial disclosure reports were filed under "rushed circumstances," and were not afforded customary consultation and review by White House counsel and the Office of Government Ethics, since he was no longer a White House employee at the time.
• "In a previous disclosure . . . Flynn reported receiving nearly $68,000 in fees and expenses from Russia-related entities in 2015. In addition to the Russia-related income, Thursday's filing showed that Flynn received at least $5,000 as a consultant to a project to build nuclear power plants in the Middle East."
• "The updated disclosure also confirms that Flynn had agreed to work with the SCL Group, at the time the British parent company of Cambridge Analytica, a data science company [was] hired by [Trump's] campaign. One of Cambridge's main financiers is [Robert Mercer]."
• "The largest source of income disclosed is $140,000 for Flynn's work as an adviser and consultant to Minneapolis-based NJK Holding Corp. That firm is led by Nasser Kazeminy, an Iranian-born businessman now living in the United States." (For context, Flynn received about $28,000 from the Trump presidential transition.) "NJK funds a technology firm called GreenZone Systems to which Flynn serves as vice chairman," Tom and Matea report. "GreenZone is led by Bijan Kian, Flynn's business partner in Flynn Intel, a company now under scrutiny for its role in lobbying work for a Dutch-based business linked to the government of Turkey."
Marc Kasowitz, the New York lawyer whose role has been downsized but continues to represent Trump in the Russia investigations, has also been retained by Sberbank – a Russian state bank being sued in federal district court in Manhattan.The New York Times's Andrew E. Kramer reports: "The bank is being sued by a Russian businessman, Sergey P. Poymanov, who has sparred with it for years in Russian courts. … The potential for Russia's meddling elsewhere – in American courts – has raised concerns among Mr. Poymanov's lawyers, who are not convinced that Mr. Kasowitz's ties to Mr. Trump played no role in Sberbank's choosing him."
From the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee:
The former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who got fired after being told by Trump that he'd be kept on, said impaneling a grand jury is to be expected:
From the chief ethics lawyer in George W. Bush's White House from 2005 to 2007:
From a former spokesman in Obama's Justice Department:
Many rank-and-file House Democrats had a field day. From a Texas congressman who has been calling for Trump's impeachment:
From a California Democrat: