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Monday, January 20, 2020

Explained: The Times’ investigation into Donald Trump’s war on inquiries around him

Here are some takeaways from The Times report about pressure inside the Trump administration to protect the president from those inquiries.

By: New York Times | Washington | Updated: February 20, 2019 10:57:00 pm
President Donald Trump speaks during a signing ceremony at the White House in Washington. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Written by Eileen Sullivan

President Donald Trump has called the Russia investigation a hoax, a witch hunt and fake news. But since he has been in office, Trump has tried to end the inquiry into his campaign’s possible coordination with Russia during the 2016 presidential election, opening himself up to questions about whether these efforts constitute attempts to obstruct justice.

A review by The New York Times found a continuous, behind-the-scenes effort by Trump to undermine multiple investigations that have touched his presidency. That includes seeking to derail federal law enforcement through targeted political appointments and a public campaign to discredit the Russia investigation, led by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Here are some takeaways from The Times report about pressure inside the Trump administration to protect the president from those inquiries.

— Trump wanted to put a perceived loyalist in charge of a federal inquiry in New York related to hush money payments made by his former personal lawyer.

After subjecting his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to protracted humiliation over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and then firing him, Trump asked his newly installed acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, if one of the president’s perceived allies could take control of the federal investigation in New York involving him.

Whitaker, a loyalist who had told people that his job was to protect the president, said no. The person Trump wanted, Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, had already recused himself over another routine conflict of interest.

Whitaker has told associates that part of his job was to “jump on a grenade” for the president, a comment not previously reported. But there is no evidence that Whitaker took further steps to wrest the sprawling inquiry from career Justice Department prosecutors. Whitaker did tell some associates that the New York prosecutors needed “adult supervision.”

— Trump’s public attacks on the Russia investigation have evolved from a public relations strategy to a legal strategy.

The president’s assault on investigators on Twitter and in public interviews moved beyond his typical criticism of individuals into a mosaic of efforts to undermine every facet of the investigation. That includes attacking the investigators, raising questions about the legitimacy of law enforcement investigative tools and discrediting witnesses — most of whom were close allies he once praised.

The president cheered efforts by Republican loyalists in Congress who began investigations into cases and pressed for details about confidential Justice Department investigative procedures. One loyalist, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a second-term Republican from Florida, spearheaded this campaign in July 2017 while he killed time at an airport in between flights.

Trump’s lawyers liked the lawmakers’ campaign to erode Americans’ confidence in the FBI, the federal government’s premier law enforcement agency. And they especially liked that Trump has been a persistent and public participant in it, because, the lawyers say, it is implausible that Trump could be part of a secret conspiracy.

Trump’s public war on the investigations encircling him has gone on long enough that it is no longer shocking. Now, an examination by The New York Times reveals the extent of an even more sustained, more secretive assault on the machinery of federal law enforcement. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

— White House lawyers wrote a confidential memo about misleading public statements after the firing of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

White House lawyers were concerned about the varying public accounts of the reasons behind Flynn’s abrupt departure. Flynn resigned Feb. 13, 2017, after it was reported that he was in touch with Russia’s ambassador to the United States at the end of 2016 and discussed recent Obama administration sanctions. Flynn said he resigned because he “inadvertently” misled Vice President Mike Pence and other senior White House officials about his discussions with the Russian ambassador.

The next day, the president and his advisers met in the Oval Office to discuss how to explain Flynn’s departure. One of the advisers mentioned in passing that the House speaker at the time, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters that the president had asked Flynn to resign. Trump liked that version better than the explanation Flynn gave in his resignation letter and instructed his press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, to “say that” when he briefed the news media.

— Trump believed he put an end to the Russia investigation when he fired Flynn.

During a lunch with one of his longtime allies, Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, Trump said firing Flynn would end the Russia inquiry.

“This Russia thing is all over now because I fired Flynn,” Trump said, according to a new book by Christie.

Christie disagreed with that assessment. “This Russia thing is far from over,” Christie wrote that he told Trump, who responded: “What do you mean? Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It’s over.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was also at the lunch with Christie and viewed the firing the way his father-in-law did. “That’s right, firing Flynn ends the whole Russia thing,” Kushner said, according to Christie’s book.

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