A few short but very long days in the life of the Trump presidency: On Wednesday night, Rudy Giuliani, a newly minted member of the president’s legal team, acknowledged on national television that Mr. Trump had been aware of his personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to an adult film actress on Mr. Trump’s behalf — contradicting the president’s previous claims. Mr. Trump promptly attempted damage control by tweet to ward off speculation that the payment to Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, might have constituted a violation of campaign finance law.
Mr. Giuliani’s comments came only a few hours after news broke out that another of Mr. Trump’s attorneys would retire from the legal team handling the Russia investigation — the second to depart in six weeks. The previous day, the president’s personal doctor accused Mr. Trump’s former bodyguard and others of “raiding” his office and removing Mr. Trump’s medical records, while Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, deflected questions about a New York Times story listing in detail a range of subjects about which Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is seeking to interview the president. Through it all, Mr. Trump fumed on Twitter over the “Russian witch hunt.”
So goes a normal week in 2018. The push alerts ping. The tweets stack up. Arguments over constitutional law and attorney-client privilege fill the airwaves. The noise roars so loudly and from so many different sources that however much we strain to listen, it’s next to impossible to make sense out of it.
Or to put it another way: Does any of this matter?
Probably. But the unsatisfying answer is that we don’t know — and we really don’t know which parts will end up mattering in the long run. As the litigations and investigations move forward, though, it’s worth taking a step back and considering the various legal fronts on which the president is fighting simultaneously — filtering out as much noise from the signal as we can so the stakes are clear. Think of what follows as a cheat sheet to the legal circus surrounding the White House.
The Mueller investigation
The special counsel’s investigation into Russian election interference is made up of several different threads — and each, as far as we know, could pose a degree of danger to the president. Mr. Trump can probably rest easy that he won’t be indicted — not necessarily because of a clean legal bill of health, but because internal Justice Department opinions bar the indictment of a sitting president, and the famously by-the-book Mr. Mueller is unlikely to pursue charges. So any untimely end to his presidency would probably come through impeachment.
Though impeachment has a legal flavor, in practice it’s a matter of politics. Congress would need to mutiny, and while Mr. Trump’s approval ratings are bad, they are not bad at all among Republicans, which makes impeachment unlikely for now, given Republican control of both the House and the Senate.
This is at the center of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, but it remains distant from the president himself. The Russian effort involved two prongs: first, the use of social media to spread disinformation and discord; and second, the hacking and leaking of emails belonging to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The special counsel laid out a comprehensive case on the former in the indictment of Russians affiliated with “information warfare against the United States.” The indictment does describe how Russians posing as Americans reached out to Trump campaign officials, but Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took pains to emphasize that “there is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge” of Russian activities.Continue reading the main story
There’s also the hacking, on which Mr. Mueller has so far been silent. But the main legal theory on which he indicted the Russians — the conspiracy to defraud the United States — could theoretically expand to net both Russians and Americans involved in the hack-and-leak operation.
Campaign and administration contacts with Russians
People close to the president had an unusual habit of meeting with Russian officials or individuals linked to the Russian government. The foreign policy adviser Carter Page — who, we now know, was later monitored by the F.B.I. as a possible Russian agent — might have been nothing more than a hanger-on, but there’s also Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, all of whom became entangled with Moscow-linked contacts. Mr. Papadopoulos is cooperating with the Mueller team and has acknowledged learning of Russia’s possession of “thousands of emails” about Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, there’s the notorious Trump Tower meeting in which Mr. Trump Jr. apparently expected to receive incriminating information on Mrs. Clinton.
That’s a lot of smoke, and we know the special counsel is looking into it: According to The Times, the subjects about which Mr. Mueller wants to interview the president include many questions about collusion. What we don’t know is whether Mr. Mueller has found any fire or whether any smoke reaches the Oval Office.
Obstruction of justice
This is the thread of the Mueller investigation that, so far, most directly implicates the president. Mr. Trump has reportedly tried to undermine the Russia investigation from the very beginning by trying to push James Comey, the F.B.I. director, to drop the bureau’s probe into Mr. Flynn (which Trump denies) before firing Mr. Comey. He then apparently considered (two times that we know of) firing the special counsel as well — and that’s only the start of it. Mr. Mueller is reportedly preparing a write-up on Mr. Trump’s possible attempts at obstruction and considers the president to be a “subject” rather than a “target” (the latter is a person the F.B.I. is planning to indict) but that doesn’t mean Mr. Trump should rest easy.
Obstruction requires the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted intentionally to impede a proceeding. That’s why it’s notable that so many of Mr. Mueller’s potential questions for Mr. Trump seem to aim at determining the president’s state of mind in dismissing Mr. Comey and pressuring Mr. Sessions not to recuse himself from the investigation. Keep in mind that Congress listed obstruction of justice among the articles of impeachment for both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
The Cohen investigation
We know that Mr. Mueller is investigating various threads of possible financial wrongdoing by those around the president. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates have been indicted on charges including money laundering, tax evasion and bank fraud, and reports indicate that the special counsel may also be looking into Mr. Kushner’s business dealings during the presidential transition not only with Russians but also with Qatar, Turkey, China and the United Arab Emirates.
White-collar crime also appears to be central to the investigation into Mr. Cohen, whose office and residences were raided by law enforcement in April. The probe is apparently important enough to the president that Mr. Trump sent his own lawyer to argue alongside Mr. Cohen’s in a preliminary court battle.
Theoretically, Mr. Cohen’s involvement with the Trump family’s work in real estate means that prosecutors digging into his finances might unearth information on the president’s businesses as well. There’s also the matter of Mr. Cohen’s payments to Ms. Clifford in exchange for her silence on an alleged affair with Mr. Trump, and his reported involvement in trying to quash other negative stories, possibly including the “Access Hollywood” tape.
But the real danger of the Cohen investigation, so far as the president is concerned, may simply be that the investigations into Mr. Trump’s inner circle have grown beyond the scope of Mr. Mueller’s probe alone. The special counsel reportedly referred the Cohen case to federal prosecutors in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. And that means that even if Mr. Trump fires the special counsel, his legal problems will not go away.
The government investigations and prosecutions aren’t the only action. The president is personally being sued by Ms. Clifford — she is suing Mr. Trump for defamation and seeking release from her nondisclosure agreement on her alleged relationship with him — and by Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” contestant who argues that Mr. Trump defamed her when he called her story of being sexually harassed by him a lie. (The other legal proceedings described here are federal, but Ms. Zervos’s case is before the New York Supreme Court.) Then there are two lawsuits over the hacking and leaking of Democratic National Committee emails: One was brought by the committee itself and the other by donors and a former staffer who claim that their privacy was invaded.
Mr. Trump isn’t a defendant in the latter two cases — but they still implicate his business ties and his conduct on the campaign trail. The real risk to the president will most likely come if these lawsuits can make it to the phase in which the plaintiffs can start requesting information and testimony from Mr. Trump and those around him. Remember that the “discovery phase” in the Paula Jones case was ultimately what set in motion President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings.
The jokes of 2018 are all about nihilism: “Nothing matters!” we cheerfully, or not so cheerfully, declare. This is at its truest and most despairing when it comes to the legal chaos around the president. Perhaps none of this means anything, as Mr. Trump and many of his supporters believe. Or perhaps all of it will one day turn out to have meant everything — to the president, to the presidency, to the country.
Meanwhile, the president rages. And Mr. Mueller is nearing the one-year mark of his appointment as special counsel.Continue reading the main story