Politics

Calculating or naive? Trump caught in cloud of Russia probe revelations

New revelations add to accumulating pile

(CNN) - President Donald Trump may have nothing to hide when it comes to alleged links between his campaign and Russia -- but he is behaving in a way that makes it look like he does.

The President is now facing questions about two potential incidents of obstruction of justice: applying pressure on and eventually firing FBI Director James Comey, and separately leaning on National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to publicly deny any collusion between his aides and a Russian operation to disrupt the election last year, according to sources cited by The Washington Post and CNN.

Of all the rapid-fire revelations, these could be the most serious. They indicate not just a single decision, but a possible pattern of behavior -- the scope of which appears to be broadening. A key question moving forward will be whether the President or his advisers had intent to influence the investigation into contacts between Russia and his campaign, or whether Trump's actions were solely an attempt to manage a bad public relations cycle.

The eye-opening new chapter in the swirling Russia saga unfolded as Trump was trying to recast the political narrative of a young presidency already facing an existential crisis.

But as he basked in red carpet welcomes -- and some favorable headlines -- in Saudi Arabia and Israel on his first foreign tour, his political and possibly legal plight back home seemed to be inexorably worsening.

Pressure applied

Sources with knowledge of the events confirmed Washington Post reporting Monday that Trump spoke to the two men after then-FBI chief Comey testified in March that the bureau was investigating whether there had been cooperation between the Russian operation and members of Trump's campaign team.

For Democrats, the new revelations added to the rapidly accumulating pile of evidence that Trump conspired to obstruct justice. They also highlight Trump's decision to fire Comey, and subsequent comments in an NBC interview that he did it out of frustration with the Russia probe.

The disclosures over the past few days also include sensational reports last week that Trump told a high-level Russia delegation in the Oval Office that firing the "nut job" Comey had relieved "great pressure" over the Russia investigation.

Trump's critics are using the latest claims to bolster their contention that the White House is sailing into deeply questionable legal waters. The prospect of impeachment, distant though it may be, was once little more than a liberal pipe dream, but is now at the center of many conversations in Washington.

Most of all, the sheer pace of the revelations, driven by almost daily reports by newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and by CNN, has made it impossible for the White House to frame a workable defense -- even when the President was in the country.

After all, Trump's administration is only four months old. To have this kind of a drumbeat of scandal and revelation this early in a presidency is highly unusual.

"I'm as shocked as anybody else, but it keeps coming," Democratic Sen Joe Manchin told CNN's Erin Burnett on Monday night.

"This is coming at a pretty fast pace right now."

Calculating or naïve?

What nobody, possibly apart from Trump himself can know, is what lies behind his actions.

But there are at least two possible opposing rationales.

The most serious rests on the possibility that Trump does indeed have something to hide -- some past link to Russia or involvement in the hacking scheme either personally or by one of the people in his inner circle.

In logical terms, that would at least explain the decision to sack Comey, his comments to NBC and leaked accounts of his conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.

Such a scenario would also validate Democratic claims that Trump has already abused his powers or obstructed justice, offenses that were at the centerpiece of articles of impeachment against Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.

In its Monday night article that first revealed Trump's conversations with Rogers and Coats, The Washington Post reached for another historical analogy that will also trouble Trump's supporters.

It quoted Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel of the CIA as saying that Trump's move recalled President Richard Nixon's "unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI's investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds." Smith described Trump's actions as "an appalling abuse of power."

Trump's West Wing was unable or unwilling to provide any explanation that diminished the impact of the latest bombshell.

"The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals," said a White House spokesperson who declined to be named. "The President will continue to focus on his agenda that he was elected to pursue by the American people."

But even if Trump is really covering something bad up, his behavior would still add up to an extraordinarily reckless strategy, that no one with any Washington experience would think could ever be remotely successful.

Seeking to involve such experienced intelligence and political operators like Comey, Rogers and Coats for instance would almost certainly expose the President to grave political risk. It's no surprise that Comey penned a memo detailing what he saw as troublesome conversations with Trump.

An alternative explanation for the President's response to the allegations allows for the possibility that there is no collusion with the Russians, or any nefarious behavior by his aides -- at least that he is aware of -- and encounters with the spy bosses instead reflect a catastrophic oblivion to barriers and protocols that exist between presidents and key intelligence operatives.

It's possible that the President's fury is brewed from yet more frustration that he is not getting his due over last year's election victory, and that he feels the permanent Washington establishment, of the media, Washington politicians and the intelligence agencies are victimizing him because he's an outsider.

"I don't think anybody knew what to expect, to be honest with you. But the President isn't a politician and I think you are seeing the good of that and some of the side problems that come with that, too," Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said on CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday.

Trump's fellow Republicans have little choice but to look on at the madcap cycle of revelations and suspicion that is unfolding and adopt the most hopeful interpretation of events.

"It would be troubling for this President or any President to be viewed as interfering or take actions that would be interfering with any investigation and one of the things we would want to understand," said Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart on "New Day."

But Stewart also suggested that Trump's calls with Rogers and Coats could be be more innocent than they appear to many Democrats.

"I think he was asking them to make a public comment on something he believed had come and gone, that is that he wasn't under investigation for collusion. I think he wanted that to be known publicly. I'm not an attorney but it's hard for me to believe it's viewed as illegal and technically obstruction," he said.

Fallout

Whatever the explanation, one that may only become clear to outsiders after special counsel Robert Mueller wraps up his investigation, probably after many months, it's clear that the way Trump is handling the scrutiny is making the situation far worse from a political and possibly even legal point of view.

It's hard to believe that the President or his White House aides could have settled on the course of action Trump has pursued as a rational strategy to get out from under the Russian cloud that is now choking his administration.

When he lands back in Washington early next week he will return to a White House under siege.

He will face the blowback from what is already shaping up as one of the most eagerly awaited congressional appearances in decades, from Comey, sometime after Memorial Day. It remains unclear however how much the former FBI chief will say before he has consulted Mueller about his evidence that is expected to allege Trump asked him to shut down investigations into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The latest revelations about Trump's conversations with Rogers and Coats will fray the already tenuous relationship between the President and key members of his intelligence agencies and their capacity to work with the White House.

Sources told CNN's Jim Scuitto Monday that both men were uncomfortable with the nature of Trump's request and refused to say that there was no collusion between the campaign and the Russians.

"It goes further in my mind as a member of the intelligence committee than just the focus on the Russia investigation," Rubio said. "I think it goes into the very nature of the intelligence community's work and its ability to work with the executive branch and the presidency."

With Trump out of the country, the Russian thriller that is gripping Washington politics spun through a couple of new plot twists on Tuesday.

Former CIA Director John Brennan was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee and was likely to be put on the spot about what the Obama administration knew about Russian election meddling.

And the most intriguing figures of the hour, Coats and Rogers were due to appear before the Senate and House Armed Services committees. Their ostensible topic is budget issues but both men are likely to face a grilling from Democrats over the latest reports about their contacts with Trump.

Yet another aspect of the now sprawling Russia mystery is also likely to challenge the White House -- the increasing legal peril of Flynn.

The former national security adviser is pleading his Fifth Amendment rights rather than comply with a subpoena to turn over documents related to the Senate intelligence's committee's probe into Russian election meddling.

Of course, Flynn is exercising his constitutional rights against self incrimination and his move should not be seen as an admission of guilt.

But his action further stokes speculation and intrigue that is damaging to the White House along with an impression that the Russia matter is now having serious consequences for people close to Trump and reaching into his inner circle. After all, Trump was advised by people including former President Barack Obama and his supporter, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that Flynn was a poor fit for the administration and ignored them.

Subsequent events, including Flynn's telling of untruths to Vice President Mike Pence about the content of his conversations with Kislyak, that led to his resignation, at the very least reflect poorly on the President's judgment in offering him such a senior administration post.

None of this, for now, seems to have changed the reality that the ultimate threat facing Trump -- impeachment, is a political question as much as a legal one.

Despite clear discomfort about two weeks of often barely believable allegations, it's not clear yet that Republican leaders are any closer to cutting their president loose.

But the appointment of Mueller last week means that the Russia story is now a long game, and even incremental damage, week by week to Trump's image and popularity could seriously weaken his political position, potentially increasing his vulnerability at the moment when Mueller finally reaches his conclusions.


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