View From the Left: Better Lawyer Up Team Trump

by Kerry Eleveld –

Donald Trump gave us a glimpse into where the administration’s future is headed Thursday when he drew a clear distinction between himself and his campaign in regard to the FBI investigation into the Russia scandal.

“There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign—but I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero,” he said during a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

On paper that quote looks a little muddy, but to the ear it was clear that he meant he could “only” speak for himself. In other words, I can’t defend what the rest of my campaign did, nor will I.

It’s the third time in two weeks actually that Trump has made overt efforts to separate his actions from that of his campaign. In his letter dismissing FBI director James Comey, Trump famously made sure to reference the “three separate occasions” on which Comey purportedly told Trump that he personally wasn’t under investigation. As expected—given what we have since learned about Comey’s extensive preparation for his encounters with Trump and the copious notes he took following them—Trump’s assertion appears to be wholly fictitious.

But let’s focus on the claim rather than its accuracy for the moment. Trump, however ineptly, wants to make sure he and his staff are treated as separate entities. He hit the same theme two days after firing Comey in his interview with Lester Holt.

I know that I’m not under investigation. Me. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.

So when Trump has repeatedly separated himself out from the rest of his people, who exactly is he throwing under the bus? Well, everyone worth a headline, basically, and every single one of those people is acting like it.

We learned this week that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn are taking center stage in the FBI’s investigation, which is now under the direction of special counsel Robert Mueller.

Manafort, who Sean Spicer once laughably claimed “played a very limited role” in Trump’s campaign, seems to know he’s got a problem and has mostly stopped responding to media inquiries. The last time we heard from Manafort appears to be in February when the New York Times broke one of the first big bombshells that Trump aides, including Manafort, had “repeated contacts” with Russian operatives during the campaign. At the time, Manafort responded:

“This is absurd […] I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers […] It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”

“Knowingly” is the operative word here—spoken exactly like someone who knows he’s got something to hide. Manafort was already under investigation, in part, for his political work on behalf of a Putin-backed former Ukrainian prime minister. Flynn was being investigated too in connection with his secret work as a foreign agent for Turkey along with payments he took from Russia.

While Flynn’s lawyers originally sold his “story” as a sizzler, offering all the juicy details in exchange for immunity, that deal never gelled. This week, Flynn wasn’t feeling very chatty—his lawyers declined to honor a subpoena sent to him by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But it’s not just Trump and Flynn who have a Flynn problem, it’s also Mike Pence. He led the transition team that reportedly knew of Flynn’s FBI probe and green-lighted giving him access to the nation’s most sensitive intelligence anyway. Pence flatly denied that report Thursday, sticking with the story he advanced two months ago.

Pence told Fox News in March that he was hearing about Flynn’s work for Turkey for the first time after news reports. “It’s the first I heard of it, and I think it is an affirmation of the president’s decision to ask General Flynn to resign,” Pence said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was on the Hill creating a bit of his own distance—from Trump’s decision to fire Comey. Rosenstein told both House and Senate lawmakers on two consecutive days that he learned of Trump’s decision to fire Comey on May 8, the day before he authored the memo outlining his concerns about Comey’s leadership of the FBI. In other words, Rosenstein doesn’t want anything to do with being framed as initiating Comey’s firing. Somehow CNN got access to his prepared remarks for briefing the House.

While Rosenstein said he “chose the issues to include in my memorandum” and believed it was time for new leadership at the FBI, he also said his memo was “not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination.”

The one person who was as committed to firing Comey as Trump was appears to have been his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who didn’t take kindly to the news this week that Rosenstein had appointed a special counsel to take over the FBI investigation. While most Trump aides advised him to craft a muted response to Rosenstein’s move, Kushner did not.

Mr. Kushner — who had urged Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Comey — was one of the few dissenting voices, urging the president to counterattack, according to two senior administration officials.

Someone seems a little freaked. In fact, Kushner has indeed turned into a very interesting character, precisely because he’s acting a little out of character. He and Ivanka were supposed to be two of Trump’s more level headed advisers, as I noted last week. Instead he seems to have pushed Trump to make the most tumultuous decision of his young presidency, and Trump doesn’t like it one bit.

His own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, and he has turned against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.

When the Washington Post reported Friday that one White House official had become “a person of interest” in the probe, it named three potential officials with Russian ties, only one of whom actually works in the White House.

Current administration officials who have acknowledged contacts with Russian officials include President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Until now, Kushner had flown under most people’s radar while Flynn hogged the spotlight. But it’s worth revisiting the fact that Flynn wasn’t the only one who met with Russian Ambassador Surgey Kislyak in December, Kushner accompanied him to that meeting, which he conveniently forgot to mention, according to a March 27 NYT article:

The extent of Mr. Kushner’s interactions with Mr. Kislyak caught some senior members of Mr. Trump’s White House team off guard, in part because he did not mention them last month during a debate then consuming the White House: how to handle the disclosures about Mr. Flynn’s interactions with the Russian ambassador.

Apparently Jeff Sessions wasn’t the only one who just happened to overlook his Kislyak contacts amid Flynn’s crisis. Anyway, at Kislyak’s request, Kushner later met with the chief of Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian state-run bank that the U.S. sanctioned after Russia annexed Crimea. VEB was back in the news this week after having caught the attention of U.S. investigators for providing money to Trump’s former partner in a Canadian real estate deal.

The best read piecing together the Kushner-Comey connection is from Marcy Wheeler over at Empty Wheel. But all of this is to say that Kushner appears to very much have some skin in the game here, and he—like others—is acting like it.

Just last week, we were still trying to nail down Trump’s reasoning for firing Comey. On Friday of this week, that was decisively put to rest when a New York Times report emerged that White House officials didn’t even bother to dispute: Trump had fired Comey to relieve the pressure cooker his White House had become under heat of the Russia investigation. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” he bragged to Russian Foreign Minister Surgey Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak.

Since that fateful meeting last week, Trump’s entire administration has turned into an “every man for himself” proposition, with all the key players feverishly working to cover their behinds. Nearly every story we read from here on out about high-level administration officials should be filtered through that lens.

Team Trump is rapidly turning on itself amid an extraordinary flurry of high-stakes leaks from both the intelligence community and the White House itself. Hard to believe that a guy who’s already trying to insulate himself from his own people isn’t inspiring more loyalty. Welcome to day 121 of Trump.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos