Trump Drew A Red Line For Mueller; Mueller Just Crossed It

440px-Director_Robert_S._Mueller-_IIIdonald_trump_president-elect_portrait_croppedBelow is my column in The Hill newspaper on the issuance of a subpoena to the Trump organization for records pertinent to Trump business dealings in Russia.  President Trump previously responded to a question of whether such inquiries into his business dealings would be a “red line” by saying that it would.  Whether it is a red line or a “Rubicon,” Mueller seems to have crossed it.  Of course, the Trump Organization has been asked for information previously and it is cooperating. However, this is a direct demand for business records.  In the best case scenario, this could be a clean up subpoena to guarantee that all available documents have been reviewed.  Then again it might be a new front in the investigation.  Notably, this weekend, President Trump and his counsel ramped up their criticism of the investigation — criticism that I continue to view as unwise and inappropriate.

Here is the column:

Politicians seem to be drawn to red lines the way tornados are drawn to mobile homes, and the results are just about the same.

Red lines are the favorite way for politicians to distinguish between their usual hyperbolic language and a final ultimatum. It is the way for politicians to say, “I really mean it,” and can often prove embarrassing when they don’t.

That was the problem when President Barack Obama drew his “red line” in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, and Obama did effectively nothing.

Donald Trump legitimately criticized Obama for that blunder, but now Trump has his own red line problem.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has issued a subpoena to the Trump Organization to turn over documents related to Trump’s business interests in Russia. In July, Trump was asked if investigating his finances would be a “red line,” and he responded that it would be. Now that Mueller has sent a subpoena flying over that red line, the stakes could not be higher for Trump.

The investigation is obviously not wrapping up, as suggested by the White House, and it is moving into an area rife with risk for the president. The greatest risk, however, is not Mueller’s but Trump’s possible actions.

There is no question that Mueller is now fishing in waters far afield from the original allegations of collusion on Russia, but this subpoena is well within his mandate. Mueller 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.” Trump’s former associates effectively made the nexus needed by Mueller to pursue this information.

The subpoena reportedly includes business dealings in Russia and related topics. One obvious focus of the investigators is likely to be the 2015 venture to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Ultimately, nothing came from the effort, but Trump was personally consulted on the venture and the company issued an initial non-binding “letter of intent.”

At the heart of the venture was a fairly shady character named Felix Sater, who wrote to Trump’s equally controversial lawyer, Michael Cohen, to push a deal in Moscow. Of particular note is the timing of this email during the presidential campaign; in one of Sater’s emails to Cohen, Sater assured that “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

A Russian immigrant, Sater often bragged of his contacts in Russia and Putin’s inner circle. He was particularly proud of arranging a 2006 trip by Ivanka Trump to Russia and “arrang[ing] for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin.”

Sater had worked with Trump on other projects. He is often described by critics as someone with an uncontrollable temper and insatiable greed; he once reportedly stabbed a man in the face with a martini glass stem. Sater assured the Trump team that “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.” Sater laid out how Putin could help Trump by using the deal to portray Trump as a business genius: “If he says it we own this election. Americas most difficult adversary agreeing that Donald is a good guy to negotiate.”

Sater was writing during the campaign about a Russian deal but selling the deal as a way for Putin to help Trump. He even laid out his own cut in an email in saying that he wanted the ambassadorship to the Bahamas: “That my friend is the home run I want out of this.”

Sater could be the “home run” for Trump critics, however. The financing laid out by Sater would have come from Vneshtorgbank, or VTB, a Russian bank already under sanctions by the United States for funding an effort to undermine Ukraine’s political system.

Mueller may also pursue other financial leads, particularly in light of his prior subpoenas to Deutsche Bank for records pertaining to Trump associates and deals. VTB has been linked to Deutsche Bank in shady deals out of Moscow; Deutsche Bank was a central player in laundering Russian money worldwide. 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.

As usual, there has been a degree of hyperventilation over this new subpoena, and it is important to keep the inquiry in perspective. The Moscow deal ultimately fell through, and even some of the cited evidence cuts both ways for Trump. For example, Cohen’s involvement is hardly notable given his reckless and self-defeating moves in the Stormy Daniels controversy; Cohen is cited as trying to reach out to Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, to ask Putin to help on the Trump Tower deal.

It certainly sounds like vintage Michael Cohen, who professionally shows all of the control of a falling locomotive. However, Cohen notably did not even have Peskov’s direct email, and sent this highly controversial email to a general inbox for press inquiries. That was like using Facebook to arrange collusion meetings and asking a possible co-conspirator to “friend” you with a call-me emoji.

With the likes of Sater and Cohen working together, the results are likely to be more comical than conspiratorial. Nevertheless, there are risks (as I have previously raised) in Mueller combing through Trump financial deals.

But the biggest risk could be self-inflicted: One month before stating this red line, Trump reportedly ordered White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II to fire Mueller. McGahn refused, and ultimately threatened to resign.

If Trump were to fire Mueller at this point, it could deliver not just a “home run” but the game to critics. Trump blundered by firing Comey and triggering the special counsel appointment. The firing of Mueller would be a hundred times worse for the White House and present a true existential threat to this administration. Congress would likely move to reinstate the Independent Counsel Act or otherwise protect Mueller.

That is Congress’s red line, and no one has to state it.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

68 thoughts on “Trump Drew A Red Line For Mueller; Mueller Just Crossed It

    • Autumn- between a rock and a hard place? You want to cheer Putin’s once former supporter- Tillerson but, not criticize Putin’s current stooge who is bringing us closer to war?

  1. Some misconception in the belief that crossing the red line was referring to an investigation into Trump’s finances. Michael Schmidt’s exact wording in the interview was “Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, UNRELATED TO RUSSIA— is that a red line?” (emphasis mine) Of course, Trump will view it anyway he prefers.

  2. “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.”

    —Theodore Roosevelt

    • I believe this. And this invisible government has always been full of the wealthiest people on earth. At the moment, this includes members of Trump’s cabinet, perhaps Trump himself, and Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs. And the last two have Mr. T by the cojones. That’s your American deep state.

      • When an investigation doesn’t include interviews with 4 of those indicted by Mueller and when the details of Mercer/Bannon’s Cambridge Analytica, conveniently, hits the news after the GOP closed its House investigation, nobody believes the line about no collusion. Even a good ole’ boy Republican legislator was reduced to invoking God to shift attention away from the parsing between no collusion and no evidence of collusion resulting from an inadequate investigation (Sunday morning interviews on the news).

  3. This was always likely coming.
    And always likely the actual target of appointing a special counsel to ‘investigate’ the question of collusion of Trump’s campaign and Russia.
    Collusion was never a well defined basis for the special counsel from the inception, it is not even an articulable crime, which is supposed to be prerequisite to appointing a special counsel.
    Nope, those in the know, knew there was no collusion, but rather they knew that Trump’s business dealings independent of the campaign and election were ripe fodder for likely investigation and prosecution.

    I am sure there was no collusion or conspiracy or whatever in regard to the election; I am not so sure that Trump in his thousands of business dealings didn’t break SOME obscure financial law at some time, and that is the vein Trump’s enemies expect to mine in manufacturing a criminal charge against him.
    The whole collusion thing was just and excuse to get a foot in the front door.
    That is what Trump’s enemies are hoping for. Collusion was just window dressing excuse for a fishingi/hunting expedition.

    Just as Bill Clinton’s original special counsel Whitewater investment investigation had nothing to do with blue dress ejaculations, it still led to his impeachment.

    • Spot on Gary.

      There is no question that Mueller is now fishing in waters far afield from the original allegations of collusion on Russia, but this subpoena is well within his mandate. Mueller 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.”

      Mueller was given an unlimited credit card and he’s going to spend it wherever he wants. I believe he’s always wanted to get Trump Enterprise, long before Trump’s run at the Presidency. I have no doubt that he would discover business practices that either skirted the law or outright broke the law. This would explain why the Russian collusion investigation has never amounted to much. Mueller has effectively taken his credit card, walked in the front door of Walmart and out the back to shop where he really wanted to, on Rodeo Drive.

      More popcorn please.

      • Olly said, “I have no doubt that he would discover business practices that either skirted the law or outright broke the law.”

        Astounding assertion, Chief. I’m not so sure as you are about that. Financial crimes can be difficult to prove. The documents themselves often amount to circumstantial evidence. The prosecution then needs witnesses who participated in the financial crimes to explain the significance of the business transactions at issue. The credibility of those witnesses can be impeached in the usual way–trying to save their own skin through plea-bargaining for sentence reductions. If any of those witnesses would be Russians with shady backgrounds, then the credibility problem gets a lot worse. Why should a bunch of shady Russian characters be given plea-deals to testify against The POTUS? Besides, there could be big donnybrook over the discovery and use of classified information as exculpatory evidence for the defense. And all while seeking reelection to a second term of office???

        Did you say something about popcorn? Let me scroll up a bit to check. Yeah. There it is. Plain as day.

    • The SC was appointed after Trump fired Comey and Rosenstein knew he had no choice. If Trump had simply shut up, did some work for a change, and left Comey in place, NONE of this would be happening. But he fired Comey and then confessed to why he did it on TV and to the Russians in the OO. It’s no more complicated than that.

  4. This was always likely coming.
    And always likely the actual target of appointing a special counsel to ‘investigate’ the question of collusion of Trump’s campaign and Russia.
    Collusion was always not a well defined basis for the special counsel, it is not even an articulable crime, which is supposed to be prerequisite to appointing a special counsel.
    Nope, those in the know, knew there was no collusion, but rather the knew that Trump’s business dealings independent of the campaign and election were tasty fodder for likely investigation and prosecution.
    I am sure there was no collusion or conspiracy or whatever in regard to the election; I am not so sure that Trump in his thousands of business dealings didn’t break SOME obscure financial law at some time, and that is vein Trump’s enemies expect to mine in manufacturing a criminal charge against Trump.
    The whole collusion thing was just to get a foot in the front door.
    That is what Trump’s enemies are hoping for. Collusion was just window dressing excuse for a fishingi/hunting expedition.

    Just as Bill Clinton’s original special counsel Whitewater investment investigation had nothing to do with blue dress ejaculations, it still led to his impeachment.

  5. We thought President Clinton had a rough go as President. Then we watched the press eviscerate Mr Bush. Then we watched the right wing demonize President Obama. Let’s face it. Serving as President is volunteering to be beaten up by the media, the courts, and the public as they expose not only your closet, but everything you or your contacts have ever written, said, or e-mailed . Yet curiously people still want to be President.

  6. Turley wrote, “Nevertheless, there are risks (as I have previously raised) in Mueller combing through Trump financial deals.”

    That’s probably true. Trump’s habit of publicly proclaiming his innocence doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect on Mueller. Most likely because Trump’s ongoing propaganda and disinformation campaign against the FBI, the DOJ and the OSC effectively undermines the veritable Tweetwall from atop the ramparts of which Trump publicly proclaims his innocence. There’s no way to hide behind a Tweetwall in the first place, anyhow.

    P. S. Trump’s business dealings with Russia and Russians could be a cover story that brings Trump and his associates into face-to-face contact with Russians where they could discuss all manner and type of “dealings” other than “business.” The email exchanges between Sater and Cohen have a definite subtext of joint “campaigning” between Trump and Putin. That the deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow never materialized in no way refutes the possibility that those business discussions may have provided cover for a purpose other than building a Trump Tower in Moscow.

  7. Putin owns oligarchs, those oligarchs invested in Trump’s ventures, Trump downplays all Russian threats in order to keep Putin happy.

    • Dave137 re: ” Trump downplays all Russian threats” WtF?!

      WHAT Russian threats? We need to get our bases off his border and stop interfering in Syria. Stop demonizing Russia. Focus on real threats like the domestic Deep State.

  8. Since when can the subject of an investigation end that investigation simply by publicly declaring his innocence on charges for which that subject has not been indicted?

    Since when can the subject of an investigation decide what areas of inquiry shall be off-limits to the investigators simply by publically declaring those areas of inquiry to be off limits to investigators?

    Since when can the subject of an investigation negotiate with investigators over what questions those investigators will or will not be allowed to pose to the subject of that investigation?

    Since when can the subject of an investigation assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before that subject has even been placed in any immediate legal jeopardy?

    Since when has it been necessary to prove a subject’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to investigate the suspicious behavior of that subject before he has even been charged with any crime?

    Since when has it been necessary for investigators to prove their own innocence to the satisfaction of the subject of their investigation before those investigators can proceed with their investigation of that subject?

    Since when did it become necessary for investigators to investigate any other suspicious behaviors by any other subjects before those investigators can investigate the suspicious behavior of The POTUS, Trump?

    Since when did the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, get to wage a propaganda and disinformation war against the FBI, the DOJ and the OSC through the person of Donald John Trump, President of the United States?

  9. I can read the printed words of Mueller’s mandate, but in reality, are there any limits on Mueller’s authority to investigate anything he wishes to investigate? I think not. It will be interesting to see Putin’s response when Mueller subpoenas Kremlin records. Of course, I suppose if they stonewall Mueller could then just move on to subpoena God’s records.

      • That is intriguing, Linda. CA and its British parent company did work for Lukoil (a big Russian oil company) that included focus groups of Americans to find out how they felt about Putin and Russia amongst other issues of interest and concern–none of which had anything to do with marketing Lukoil’s product anywhere in the world. Why would Lukoil be interested in the psychology of American voters? You know, they say that Russian oligarchs curry favor with Putin by undertaking special projects they know will please The Boss. Like hiring Trump, Kushner and Bannon’s data analysis firm to study how to influence American voters and their attitudes about Putin and Russia, for instance. Intriguing.

    • Dr. Benson, Trump is Tweetwalling Mueller. It’s innovative in that it is admissible as evidence in legal proceedings against the Tweetwaller, who, therefore, unlike his predecessors who built stonewalls, cannot hide behind the Tweetwall. But then Tweetwalling is not really about hiding anything from the law. Tweetwalling is all about discrediting the law with propaganda and disinformation just like Putin would have The Tweetwaller, Trump, do. Remember Bill Murray in the movie “Stripes.” Tweetwalling is formally analogous to Razzle Dazzle. With the notable exception that Mueller will not be amused.

  10. “There was collusion in the election of 2016. It involved Russians, a British ex-spy, law firms, FBI agents, DOJ attorneys, an FBI director that prejudged evidence, an Attorney General that had an unethical meeting with the spouse of a target, FISA warrants obtained on faulty information that stemmed from political sources, a Deputy Director whose wife received monetary support in an election, an FBI director who lied to Congress, an FBI Deputy Director who lied to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, loads of classified materials that were mishandled and criminally passed to those without clearances, and partisan hacks spearheading inquiries aiming for political outcomes. The scope of this collusion is overwhelming, the attempts are a damning indictment of political operatives that have lost all integrity, and sadly an administration, a major political party, and agents of a deep state that attempted in a wide sweeping number of ways to undo an election that they lost.

    Former high-ranking FBI officials all believe that the Inspector General’s coming report will be explosive.”

    townhall.com/columnists/kevinmccullough/2018/03/18/the-coming-collusion-bloodbath-n2462040

  11. There is always going to e some Russian going about bragging that he controls or has access to some important American. Big deal. But no steal.
    Turleyblog dog: name one topic which the Russians sent over that then turned the election from Hillary to Trump. Maybe the Russians told Hillary not to go to Michigan and campaign.

      • Hillary’s incompetence does not preclude Trump’s prospective stupidity anymore than it nullifies Putin’s preference for Trump.

          • David Brock’s PAC’s, Media Matters and Correct the Record, have some specialized knowledge about hired bots and trolls.
            It was widely reported that Correct the Record had its own army of pro-Hillary trolls in 2016.

            • When Russian recruits knock on the doors of the American electorate, asking them to vote for Trump, while lying about their nationality, it should provoke action by the GOP. The fact that the donor class remains silent about the situation and that the politicians they own, run interference in the investigations, is an alarm that U.S. citizens should heed. It suggests an American oligarchy aligned with Putin.

              The grave threat to the Republic is embodied in a statement of equivalency between a Democrat’s campaign and a campaign originating from a foreign country, a statement made by the same segment who are advocating for exploitation by the richest 0.1%.

              • When Vlad and Ivan knocked on our door in early November 2016, we mistook them for Jevovah Witnesses, so we didn’t even answer the door.

  12. I predict a second special counsel to investigate Hillary. Another two years of investigating. Some tangential charges bandied about and then a standoff between the special counsel as each investigates the other’s stuff with all the value and effectiveness of a circular firing squad. Eventually everybody is supine and the country rent asunder in the name of the pursuit of that fool’s errand known as political justice. Parsons consulted, pardons granted, impeachment charges filed and then defeated all the while we watch and wonder if they’ll ever get around to looking out for us. As General Lee said about the southern legislators of his time who fiddled while the confederacy burned, “I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving.” Not much changes. Ain’t democracy grand?

    • Mespo,

      So families like my wife’s & mine take Guns &” Cannons”, you know just Bare Short Sleeve Shirt type Arms, 🙂 under Patrick Henry, & basically tell the Crown dictator gives us Liberty or Death.

      Blah, blah, & we end up with a Republic form of a democratic govt.

      People like traitor former AG Holder goes public this weekend & threatens Trump/American with his bring on a Knife Fight.

      Sounds like a fool to me announcing he’s planning to attack Trumps/Americans with a knife.

      it’s late, Gnite, the next few months we may start becoming even more bored with DC’s bread & Circus.

      Is it time for Trump to properly fire some so these called leaders in DC , NYC & strap them to the front of a loaded Cannon & light it up? LOL, we’ll see.

  13. Oh JT, always tangled up in the weeds ……. maybe step back, take your time, have a nice long look at the forest – maybe even spot a stealth ninja in there. You might be surprised by what you find ……

  14. There are a lot of words to describe the scenario: BS, horse itShay, apCray, Hillary itShay, Demo Demons, and apCray on the ouyeah.
    Some friggin Russian did not help Trump get elected. Trump got elected because Hillary would not go to Michigan.
    Turley: tell the people on the Hill to buzz off.

    • Because it is a witch hunt, and Hillary isn’t the witch they are after. Even though to any reasonable person, it is obvious that she colluded with the Russians more than anyone else. Crap, she gave them 20% of our uranium, millions of dollars were transferred by the Russians to her Charity Slush Fund. and the Steele Memo came from the Russians.

      Squeeky Fromm
      Girl Reporter

        • It is not necessary to prove Clinton guilty of any crimes in order to investigate Trump. Your argument is a straw man of the red herring variety. And you know it. And you don’t care. It’s so unfair. She started it. Waaaaa!

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