Inside the leak-proof snow fort where counsel Robert S. Mueller III commands his Russia scandal gumshoes, the Trump investigation glowed fireball orange this week. The New York Times spotted the light and then reported it in a Page One, above-the-fold story in the Friday edition, stating that Mueller had subpoenaed business documents from the Trump Organization “related to Russia and other topics,” apparently for the first time.
“Investigation Nears President” touted the story’s subhead.
Near, yes, but how near? Maybe not as near as you would like to think. It was easy to read the Times scoop in the context of the interview President Donald Trump gave to the New York Times last summer. Asked if Mueller’s inspection of his finances and his family’s finances “unrelated to Russia” would cross “a red line,” Trump said, “Yeah.” Further questioned, Trump said he would regard such inquiries “a violation” of Mueller’s investigative charter. He then retreated into a series of Russia denials: “I don’t do business with Russia.” As with so many of his disavowals, Trump pairs it with a rowback that empties the original statement of its mass. “I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows?”
Other news outlets didn’t find the subpoena news as incendiary as the Times did. Both Politico and the Associated Press noted that the Trump Organization had previously been cooperating with the investigation’s request for materials, implying that if a red line exists it had been crossed and recrossed long ago. Trump Organization lawyer Alan Futerfas, fluffing up the news like a goose down pillow and took a nap on it, couldn’t even bring himself to call the stories fake news. He called it something worse. “This is old news,” he told the AP. “In addition to the company’s record production, the White House and the Trump campaign combined have provided more than a million pages of documents to Mueller’s investigators,” the AP reported, making the rambunctious president sound like the model of accommodation.
Reading these competing Mueller probe accounts is like suffering heatstroke and frostbite at the same time. The investigation would seem to have “hotted up,” has as our British cousins would put it, because Mueller went precisely where Trump cautioned him not to venture. Remember, Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow, made similar threatening noises last summer, promising to file formal objections with the deputy attorney general if Mueller got too nosy.
But no Trump-on-Mueller war ensued. The day after Trump made what some people read as a threat, Mueller was retrieving Trump business information from the depths. Around the same time, House Democrats were calling for a complete bloodhounding of the Trump money trail. Sekulow’s wave off was similarly ignored in Summer 2017, as the New Yorker noted. Could it be that the Trumpian red line is a fiction and that the president, who enjoys a perverse relationship with the truth, was fibbing when he affirmed its existence? Maybe he should be impeached for temporarily draining all heat from the scandal and turning it red and hard like a cherry Popsicle.
Trump’s reluctance to start screaming about red-line violations can be easily explained. 1) The Mueller charter doesn’t place restrictions on where he can investigate wrong-doing, so it would be a fool’s mission to protest; 2) As President Barack Obama learned from his Syria experience, labeling something a red line forces you to defend when it’s crossed. If you don’t defend a red line declaration after making it, you look weak and indecisive. By ignoring the so-called red line, he avoids a fight he doubts he can win.
The scandal could be found galloping and crawling at the same time on other fronts. The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee issued its initial findings on Russian meddling, stating that no collusion had taken place between Moscow and the Trump campaign. The Russians weren’t “trying to help Trump,” Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, insisted. President Trump fired off an all-caps salute of the report on Twitter.
Blunting both Conaway and Trump’s celebration was Republican stalwart Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, late of Benghazi investigation fame, who repudiated the majority gist. Gowdy, who was the only committee Republican to read the underlying surveillance court documents from which the Republican memo was composed, said the intense Russian opposition to Hillary Clinton during the campaign had to be read as support for Donald Trump. Committee Democrats released their own statement, damning Republicans for stymieing lines of inquiry, and vowed to file a future report on their findings, upholding the longstanding congressional tradition of the two parties reaching opposite conclusions after hearing the same evidence.
Roger Stone took his turn in the old oaken-staved container this week. (Stone, you recall, famously tweeted on Aug. 21, 2016—just before WikiLeaks’ release of John Podesta’s stolen emails—that “Podesta’s time in the barrel” was soon to come.) Stone’s apparent foreknowledge of the Podesta tranche and his shifting account of what he knew about the emails, when he knew it, and the nature of his dealings with WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange, has drawn him into Mueller’s dragnet.
On Aug. 8, 2016, Stone predicted an October surprise for the election, saying, “I actually have communicated with Assange.” The Washington Post reports this week that Stone “later said he had not meant that he had communicated with Assange directly.” This Stone reversal, denying something that he said, was positively Trumpian. So was his explanation that his August 21, 2016, tweet was really a prediction that Podesta’s businesses were to come under investigation.
Today, from the confines of his bespoke barrel, Stone says his comments to Sam Nunberg about visiting Assange in London were a joke and a recent post on his own website about a backchannel to WikiLeaks should be excused as over-dramatization.
Trump and Stone can move the lines—red and otherwise—all they like. But they don’t know where the finish line is. Mueller does.
Just imagine being one of Mueller’s investigators, pawing through Trump Organization documents looking for evidence and knowing all the while that in 1997 Trump told the New Yorker, “It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out.” If you’ve figured it out, send your findings to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts respond passively to all subpoenas. My Twitter feed fights them in court. My RSS feed avoids all service.