[NOTE: My Jan. 25, 2018 interview on “BACKGROUND BRIEFING” with Ian Masters is available here: “Updating the Timeline on the Trump-Russia Story.” My appearance begins at the 35-minute mark]
The big news in the latest Trump-Russia Timeline update occurred more than six months ago. In June 2017, Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn that he wanted the Justice Department to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. McGahn balked; Trump blinked; Mueller remains. Plan A — firing Mueller outright — stayed on the shelf. It’s still there.
But Plan B went forward. Around the same time that Trump talked to McGahn about firing Mueller, Trump reportedly directed aides to devise and implement a strategy to undermine Mueller’s investigation. Plan B is still underway in earnest.
A comprehensive timeline of Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice would begin a week after his inauguration, when he asked then-FBI Director James Comey for loyalty. And it would continue to this day with attempts to intimidate witnesses, attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s integrity, and frontal assaults on the FBI and the Justice Department. The Trump-Russia Timeline of the reasons for Trump to obstruct justice begins in the 1980s.
This installment focuses on one small slice of the scandal: events surrounding Trump’s newly reported attempt in June 2017 to fire Mueller. Keep the facts straight, add context, and the story tells itself.
May 17, 2017: Trump is still furious that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Trump-Russia investigation, thereby putting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge. Eight days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Rosenstein names Robert Mueller as special counsel to supervise the FBI investigation.
May 18: Trump denies news reports that he ever asked Comey to end the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation.
May 19: Reuters reports that White House lawyers are investigating ways to undermine Mueller.
Meanwhile, the media find clues to what Mueller may be unearthing. On May 19, The Washington Post reports that Mueller has identified a current White House official as a “person of interest” in the investigation. Most observers believe it’s Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. On May 26, the Post reveals that during a previously undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Kislyak on Dec. 1, 2016, Jared Kushner had sought a communications “back-channel” with the Kremlin. And then Reuters follows with a May 27 article about previously undisclosed communications between Kushner and Kislyak during the campaign.
June 7: Vox reports that Comey has corroborating witnesses for his reported assertion that, during an Oval Office conversation in February 2017, Trump asked him to back off the Flynn investigation.
June 8: Comey testifies publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He confirms that Trump asked for his loyalty, told him privately in the Oval Office that he hoped Comey would “let Flynn go,” and thereafter sought Comey’s assistance in “lifting the Russia cloud” over his presidency. He also identifies a handful of top FBI officials who can corroborate his testimony.
After Comey’s testifies, Trump’s legal team reportedly is preparing a complaint to be filed with the Justice Department against Comey for “leaking” his memos about their loyalty dinner.
June 9: Trump accuses Comey of lying under oath and tweets:
Sometime during this period, Trump tells aides to devise and carry out a plan to discredit the senior FBI officials whom Comey had named as corroborating witness to their private conversations, according to subsequent reporting by Foreign Policy. Trump and his supporters have to “fight back harder,” Trump reportedly says.
June 11: The New York Times reports that White House aides are asking Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, if they need their own lawyers.
June 12: Trump confidant Chris Ruddy tells PBS NewsHour that Trump is “considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel.”
June 13: Rosenstein testifies that he hasn’t yet seen the “good cause” required to fire Mueller.
June 14: The Washington Post reports that Mueller may be targeting Trump for obstruction of justice.
June 15: Trump tweets:
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence — who had headed Trump’s presidential transition team — hires his own outside lawyer to deal with Trump-Russia matters. The Washington Post reports that Mueller is investigating Jared Kushner’s finances. And The Wall Street Journal says that White House counsel Don McGahn is concerned that investigators could construe private meetings between Trump and Kushner as an effort to coordinate their stories.
June 15: Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein issues a curious statement that cautions against public reliance on “anonymous” officials and “anonymous” allegations.
June 16: Rosenstein reportedly tells colleagues that he might have to recuse himself from supervising Mueller’s investigation.
June 16: A Trump tweet takes aim at Rosenstein:
And all of that preceded this week’s bombshells: Details surrounding the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting among Don Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton; Trump reportedly asking Rosenstein if he was on Trump’s team; and Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) ongoing attacks on the DOJ and the FBI. More about those in next week’s Timeline update.
Crisis Over Or Intensifying?
Some observers are now breathing a sigh of relief. They say that the country survived the June episode and Trump wouldn’t try to fire Mueller again. Why not? Since June, the investigation has moved closer to Trump’s inner circle, and Mueller has secured two indictments, two guilty pleas, and at least two cooperating witnesses (one is Mike Flynn).
For now, Trump and a complicit GOP Congress are following Plan B: Hollow out the investigation by attacking Mueller’s personal integrity, intimidating potential witnesses, and undermining the integrity of FBI and the Justice Department. However, Trump’s ever-present desire to fire Mueller and terminate the investigation remains.
But beware of Plan C. While watching Mueller, keep a close eye on the fate of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supervises him. If Trump fires Rosenstein, Trump’s hand-picked replacement could gut Mueller’s investigation from within.
Will Trump await the next round of indictments before acting on his instinct for self-preservation and — one way or another — terminate Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe? The more important question is whether the Republican Congress will allow him to get away with it if he does.
Here’s a complete list of this week’s new entries:
SUMMER: 2015: Dutch Intelligence Notifies US Intelligence About Russian Hack of DNC
SEPT. 1, 2016 – NOVEMBER 15, 2016: Russians Tweet To Promote Trump
FEB. 29, 2016: Manafort Pitches Himself to Trump (revision of previous entry)
DEC. 26, 2016: Russian Intelligence Officer Found Dead
MAY 9, 2017: Trump Fires Comey; Questions McCabe (revision of previous entry)
SOMETIME IN JUNE 2017: Trump Wants Mueller Fired; McGahn Threatens To Resign
JUNE 8, 2017: Comey Testifies Before Senate Intelligence Committee; Trump Launches Counteroffensive (revision of previous entry)
SOMETIME IN DECEMBER 2017: Sessions Pressures McCabe
DURING THE WEEK OF JAN. 15, 2018: Mueller Interviews Sessions
JAN. 23, 3018: Trump Tweets
JAN. 23, 2018: Democrats Seek Social Media Info About Nunes’ Memo
JAN. 23, 2018: Mueller Seeks To Question Trump
23, 2018: Top House Democrats Blast GOP Attack on Mueller and the FBI
JAN. 23, 2018: Sarah Sanders Says Trump Wants Transparency On Nunes Memo
JAN. 24, 2018: Key Democrats Want to Share Testimony With Mueller
LATE-JANUARY 2018: Nunes Refuses FBI and Senate Intelligence Committee Requests to View Memo
JAN. 24, 2018: Justice Department Cautions Against Release Of Nunes Memo
JAN. 24, 2018: Trump Wants Nunes Memo Released
JAN. 24, 2018: Trump Says He’d “Love” To Testify Under Oath For Mueller; Trump’s Attorneys Backpedal
JAN. 24, 2018: Trump Says He Was Only “Fighting Back”; Hopes Mueller Will Be Fair
JAN. 25, 2018: Nunes Gets Local Heat
JAN. 26, 2018: Trump Calls Reports Of His Order to Fire Mueller “Fake News”