Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Robert Mueller is going to be a very busy man


Congratulations, President Trump. It took you all of 118 days in office before your antics forced the appointment of a special counsel into alleged serious misdeeds by yourself and your administration. That's a record that will never be broken, or so we should hope.

And make no mistake, this was entirely Trump's doing. Set aside questions about the underlying facts and allegations, which cut right to the core of our democratic system. The only reason that we now have a special counsel investigating the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russians is because Trump fired FBI Director James Comey eight days ago in a clumsy attempt to make this all go away. He brought this entirely on himself.

It also didn't help that Trump initially tried to blame Comey's firing on deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, falsely claiming that he had acted on Rosenstein's recommendation. You might say that the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel is Rosenstein's way of returning the favor.

So now we'll watch and see. Already, congressional Republicans who had repeatedly and publicly dismissed the need for a special counsel are rushing to applaud the move, eager to get on the right side of history. The official line out of the White House was also supportive, with Trump quoted as saying that “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."

On Twitter, his true feelings came out:

So much whining. So much whining that we're going to get sick of all the whining.

Rosenstein's decision to name a special counsel tells us nothing about ultimate guilt or innocence, but it does tell us that the investigation is nowhere close to concluding and that FBI officials take it very seriously. In fact, it is growing more complex and difficult with every passing news cycle.

Consider the latest on Michael Flynn. According to the New York Times, the Trump transition team knew full well that Flynn was under federal investigation when it appointed him to serve as national security adviser. Flynn had admitted to transition officials that he had secretly served as a high-paid lobbyist for Turkey, and Flynn's lawyers had met with transition team lawyers to discuss the case.

The timing of Flynn's Turkey contract makes it even more extraordinary. From August to November of 2016 -- during the heart of the presidential campaign, while he served as Trump's top foreign-policy aide -- Flynn had accepted $530,000 to lobby for Turkey. Yet somehow, the transition team still considered Flynn trustworthy enough to appoint him to the most sensitive post in our national security apparatus?

But wait, it gets deeper.

Who headed the Trump transition team? Vice President Mike Pence headed the Trump transition team. In March, when knowledge of Flynn's lucrative lobbying contract finally became public, Pence professed shock and dismay at the discovery.

"Hearing that story today is the first I've heard of it," Pence told Fox News on March 18. "The first I heard of it, and it is an affirmation of the president's decision to ask for Gen. Flynn's resignation."

One of two things must be true: Either the head of the Trump transition team was kept in total darkness about an ongoing criminal investigation into one of its top job candidates, or Pence was straight-up lying.

But wait, it gets deeper still.

Ten days before Trump's inauguration, the Obama administration went to Flynn to get his approval for a military operation against ISIS in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. According to the McClatchy News Service, "Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president."

Under the plan, Syrian Kurds would lead the assault on Raqqa, and Turkey strongly opposed giving its Kurdish enemies such a prominent role. So Flynn, the man who had just taken half a million dollars from Turkey, squelched the idea. According to McClatchy, "Trump eventually would approve the Raqqa plan, but not until weeks after Flynn had been fired."

Ah, but wait, it gets deeper.

In his response to the appointment of a special counsel, Trump has reiterated his claim that "there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity." Throughout the campaign, and both before and after the inauguration, his team had used identical language to deny that it had had any secret contacts with Russian officials.

“It never happened," Trump's longtime spokesperson Hope Hicks said pointblank in November. "There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity."

Yet here's what Reuters is reporting this morning:

"Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters.

The previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Six of the previously undisclosed contacts described to Reuters were phone calls between Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, and Trump advisers, including Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, three current and former officials said."

Given that history, we now know why Trump didn't move to fire Flynn for another 18 days after the warning from acting Attorney General Sally Yates. What Yates and her team saw as an alarming illicit outreach by Flynn was in fact the mere continuation of a longstanding arrangement between the Trump team and the Russians.

It's important to note, as does Reuters, that none of those 18 previously undisclosed contacts constitute evidence of actual collusion. I continue to doubt that such evidence will be uncovered, but we'll see. That's why we need a nonpartisan, independent investigation.

However, the main reason that I doubt we'll find such evidence is that actual collusion was completely unnecessary. Both the Trump campaign and the Putin regime understood quite well that they were on parallel tracks toward the same goal, which was Trump's election, and thus no coordination was needed. That interpretation is bolstered by the revelations from Reuters, which reports:

"Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, four current U.S. officials said. "

Putin must have been licking his chops at such a possibility. In Trump, he had an American neophyte with a long history of pro-Russian and pro-Putin statements, a man who had publicly dismissed NATO as obsolete and wanted to lift sanctions against Russia. Trump's top foreign policy adviser was a man who himself had taken $40,000 from Russia. His campaign manager also had strong financial ties to Russia. It didn't take KGB training to know that such a man would be far preferable to Russian interests than Hillary Clinton.

And if Putin could then lure that naive president into separating himself from U.S. national security experts, like a calf cut off from the herd, he would be easy pickings for Russian wolves. As we saw in the recent Oval Office meeting between Trump and top Russian officials, that dream is still very much alive.

Yes, Mr. Mueller is going to be a very busy man.

 


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.