Even Without Collusion, Serious Threats Remain For Trump In The Russian Investigation

440px-Director_Robert_S._Mueller-_III-1donald_trump_president-elect_portrait_croppedBelow 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:

Obstruction

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.

Financial crimes

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.

False statement

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.

Cohen says the money was his own and not the campaign’s, but the public interest group Common Cause sued alleging possible campaign-finance violations.

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.

99 thoughts on “Even Without Collusion, Serious Threats Remain For Trump In The Russian Investigation”

  1. Robert Mueller the Pettyfogger; the government’s “Special Counsel” who employs dubious practices. Wow! Now we know, the rest of the story. We are not a Banana Republic, after all!

  2. “Even Without Collusion, Serious Threats Remain For Trump In The Russian Investigation”
    _______________________________________________________________________

    Yeah, process crimes created out of whole cloth by the “deep state” “swamp” denizen, the corrupt hatchet

    man, Robert Mueller, member in good standing of the secret society, Coups “R” Us.

    What a joke!

    It’s like the JFK assassination unfolding right before our very eyes and the media still blame the patsy,

    Oswald.

    It certainly is a Brave New World controlled with “newspeak”.

  3. So the tribal Trump sycophants who believe any and everything that is said about HRC and Obama, and have bitten and swallowed every BS story that the far-right or the pathological liar himself has said, and does not believe every one of his own intel chiefs have said publicly. That the Russians screwed with us. I waited for the boom to come down on HRC and Obama just to see if they had any merit, and I waited and waited…Nothing. But this time the Trump supporters are running around with their fingers in their ears and yellin, nothing to see here, it just does not make sense or common sense.

    1. FW – the government intel lies all the time – remember the WMDs they were so certain existed? WHERE is the proof? What does not make common sense is that you accept is the shenanigans the FBI and Loretta Lynch pulled with the HRC investigation.

      And btw – y’all keep labeling any of us who want proof as “Trump sycophants” – nope, a LOT of us are Independents. And WE helped ensure that Crooked HRC did not get elected.

    2. I waited for the boom to come down on HRC and Obama just to see if they had any merit, and I waited and waited…Nothing.

      Your comment made a bit nostalgic about my Navy days. My job in the Navy was anti-submarine warfare. Sagire, Classis, Destructum, Latin for Search, Classify, and Destroy. This is not a diesel-boat, run on the surface world (for the most part) anymore. Submarines are quiet and they know how to hide from detection. To find them and eliminate them as a threat requires putting together pieces of information so that our team would reasonably confirm their location, course, speed and possibly depth. Oftentimes the data we have available won’t provide us enough to prosecute the submarine. That doesn’t mean the submarine is not out there. It doesn’t mean the submarine is not a threat. It only means we cannot get a reliable fire control solution to launch a weapon. So we continue to Search, Classify (wait) until we can Destroy. (boom) And if we don’t get a boom; that does not mean the threat does not exist.

      Here’s why this is relevant. The rule of law is the American people’s only true ally. Anything and/or anyone that threatens the rule of law should be considered an enemy. My job as a citizen is to be on the watch lo detect threats. How do we know they are threats? Not by party, not by color, not by gender, not by district or state. Not by wealth. The constitution is our guide. And our rights should be natural detectors.

      So if you are waiting for a boom and nothing happens, the dumbest thing to do is pretend there was no threat and hit the rack.

      1. Sorry if I didn’t use the right words for you, But 8 years of Bill, 8 years of Obama of relentless attacks on them and still nothing. 1 year of Trump and plea deals and indictments, Nixon, St. Ronnie, and Dubya have the most plea deals and indictments and convictions of the past 8 presidents, and when it’s said and done Trump will get his wish on being number 1. The law does work…………..sometimes.

      2. I commend the insightful and illuminating analogy, however, it didn’t go far enough. A transitory ASW patrol doesn’t even nearly equate to the decades of empty-handed investigations which have dogged the Clintons. Sometimes, the absence of evidence does mean evidence of absence.

        this is to olly

        1. Glad you liked it Mark.

          Sometimes, the absence of evidence does mean evidence of absence.

          Sure, and sometimes the submarine is physically sighted. That means Search and Classify are done. That’s exactly what we have with Clinton’s handling of classified information, emails and server. But instead of prosecuting the threat, some entity makes the call that effectively states you didn’t actually see the submarine. There is not threat, stand down. So despite all evidence to the contrary, the ASW team moves on tracking this nothing and documenting more and more evidence of this nothings existence. You’ll never convince the ASW team they didn’t see the threat. You’ll never convince them that all the other evidence they gather is unimportant. After all, it’s coming from the same threat. And you’ll never convince them that every entity involved in aiding in the non-prosecution of this threat and denying the threat existed, isn’t somehow part of a much larger conspiracy.

  4. What concerns me most about the Mueller (and previously, Ken Starr) is the weaponization of federal law enforcement as a tool of political combat. Comey was correct in his July 2016 assessment that the FBI not treat Hillary’s server misconduct as a normal case….because she was a political candidate for high-office. Comey’s decision was to share the essential facts of the case with the public, and let the public decide….trial by ballot.

    Comey’s reasoning is sound. The People should be the ones deciding the candidates and the election. If the FBI/DoJ are used as a weapon to wound or disqualify, then our system will become like Russia, where the leading opposition to Putin (Navalny) was disqualified by the legal system based on a case unrelated to running for office. z

    The way Mueller ends his investigation could have far-reaching impacts, to the extent he “validates” the strategy of CJS weaponization. I’m hoping he’ll do just the opposite, and admit that his investigation was begun based more on paranoia and speculative grievance than evidence of a crime (as required by the 4th Amendment). I hope he’ll close shop with a stern warning to the political activists of the country.

    1. PB -Comey should not have changed the wording and HRC should have been prosecuted – in this case the FBI/DOJ did not do the right thing. Why should a political candidate be treated with special care? Particularly one who had endangered national security with her private server so she could avoid FOIA inquiries? One who as Sec of state had engaged with pay for play?

      Prosecuting HRC would have been healing for the country and restored faith in rule of law.

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