Below is my column in USA Today looking at the array of threats still present for the Trump White House even if collusion fades as part of the Russian investigation. There still could be evidence discovered or disclosed on collusion. However, after multiple indictments, pleas, and a year of investigation, we have not yet seen any credible criminal allegations linked to collusion. As many on the blog know, I have long been skeptical about the real likelihood of a criminal case based on collusion or obstruction against President Donald Trump. However, even if collusion does recede as a threat, there remain significant areas of risk for the President.
Here is the column:
The special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals was most notable for what it didn’t include — any allegations of knowing cooperation or collusion with Trump campaign officials. Despite the creative spins of President Trump’s critics, it is clearly a significant admission. After a year of investigation, multiple plea agreements and multiple indictments, there is still no direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian operation.
The Russian investigation will continue, including the investigation of any collusion or conspiracy by Trump officials. Yet, absent new evidence, there is a growing chance that collusion theories will not pan out. For the Trump White House, however, there remain a number of live torpedoes in the water — any one of which could present a serious if not existential threat for this administration.
Robert Mueller has not incorporated the infamous Trump Tower meeting as a form of collusion. The reason could be that it is not. Donald Trump Jr. was allegedly looking for evidence of illegal contributions to the Clinton Foundation. If that is collusion, so would be the information given to former British spy Christopher Steele in creating the dossier secretly funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Likewise, a host of information acquired by campaigns from foreign sources, including non-profit organizations, would be criminal acts.
Mueller has an exceptionally broad mandate and has already shown a willingness to use it to the fullest extent possible. He is allowed to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated” with the Trump campaign as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” This includes the power to investigate “any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a)” — including perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence and intimidation of witnesses.
Three areas could still present problems for the White House, though the threat profile and known evidence differ significantly:
Mueller continues to investigate allegations that Trump sought to obstruct the Russian investigation. This threat remains relatively low based on the available evidence.
Many of us have criticized Trump’s obsession and lack of restraint with this investigation. The irony is that there has always been a paucity of evidence against Trump, but he is entirely responsible for creating this second front in the investigation by first firing FBI Director James Comey and then actively trying to manage the scandal in meetings with top figures and damaging public statements.
I still believe that the case for obstruction is unlikely to result in a criminal charge. However, Mueller continues to look into obstruction, and Trump continues to issue ill-considered tweets about the ongoing investigation.
In Michael Wolff’s best-seller Fire and Fury, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is quoted as saying, “You realize where this is going. … This is all about money laundering.” Indeed, the greatest impact of the appointment of a special counsel could be the expansion of the investigation into financial dealings. The threat of such a charge is obvious for Trump.
The danger of financial criminal charges are twofold. First, as discovered by Paul Manafort in his indictment, these crimes are easy to make and easy to prove. Second, Trump’s extensive holdings and deals maximize the risk of irregularities and violations. Mueller seemed to realize that early. He stacked his team with financial fraud experts, including Andrew Weissmann, chief of the Justice Department’s criminal fraud section.
The Trump family has extensive dealings with Russian figures, including some with dubious records or associations. Eric Trump told a reporter in 2014 that Russians funded the family’s golf courses to the tune of $100 million. Trump Jr. has been quoted as saying that his family has significant investors and backing in Russia.
Mueller has reportedly served subpoenas to Deutsche Bank for records pertaining to Trump associates and deals. Deutsche Bank is notable because it has been found to be a central player in laundering Russian money worldwide. It was also the main credit line for Trump who previously declared bankruptcies on major businesses. Trump reportedly owed the bank $300 million at the time of his taking office. New York Department of Financial Services fined the bank $425 million just after Trump inauguration.
In addition to Russian investors and the use of Deutsche Bank, there have been questions raised about specific real estate sales to Russians. For example, Trump sold his estate in Palm Beach to Russian tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev. Trump bought the 6.3-acre property in Florida for $41 million in 2004, but just four years later sold that property to a company owned by Rybolovlev for $95 million — twice what he paid in 2004.
This danger is evidence in Mueller’s all out assault on former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. Mueller hit Manafort with a series of financial fraud charges unrelated to the campaign and recently told a federal court that Manafort also secured a mortgage by overstating the income from his consulting company by “millions of dollars.” With billions of dollars in prior Trump deals, this could be a target-rich environment for motivated investigators.
Ironically, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner (who reportedly concurred with the disastrous Comey firing) has also been cited as a possible target for financial irregularities, including controversial foreign loans and investments.
As shown by former national security adviser Michael Flynn, any false statement to a federal investigator can be charged as a crime under 18 U.S.C. 1001. This is why Trump’s legal team is reportedly opposing any interview with the special counsel.
In addition to the areas above, there is a legal front opening for Trump that is tied not to his financial but his personal relationships.
The president is facing allegations of prior affairs with former porn star Stormy Danielsand former Playboy bunny Karen McDougal. Critics have pointed to financial arrangements that resulted in their stories being buried for years.
Daniels gave a detailed account in 2011 of an affair to In Touch magazine, but the article was spiked after a threatened lawsuit from Trump’s personal lawyer. That lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged (through a shell company) in 2016 to pay Daniels$130,000 to stay quiet.
McDougal received a $150,000 payment from a Trump friend, the owner of the National Enquirer, David Pecker. Pecker paid for exclusive ownership of her story and then buried it.
Mueller could investigate the payments as possible campaign-finance violations within his mandate. The only question is his intestinal fortitude.
The allegations are very similar to those that led to the criminal indictment of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. Third parties paid Edward’s mistress money to conceal his affair and their child. He was indicted in 2011 on six felony charges (the jury in 2012 acquitted on one and deadlocked on the remaining charges).
Trump has issued denials of any affair with either Daniels or McDougal. He could be asked to repeat those denials to investigators as a foundation for questions on the campaign-finance allegations. If he lies, he will be in the same position as President Clinton, who was impeached for lying about an affair, and those statements could also result in charges as false statements.
On the current evidence, none of these allegations presents a clear-and-present danger to the Trump presidency. However, it would be folly to view collusion as the only threat posed by the special counsel.
Jonathan Turley, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, where he teaches constitutional and tort law. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley.