Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Best defence is attack

Revelations from the Russia investigation have rocked Washington and forced Trump and his team to go on the offensive, reports Khaled Dawoud


Best defence is attack
Best defence is attack

The dramatic intensification of the Russia investigation reignited President Donald Trump’s fury at the controversy clouding his presidency, prompting his aides to urgently advise him against lashing out at special counsel Robert Mueller as they work to revive a halting policy agenda.

The indictments on Monday of campaign aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates weren’t a surprise to Trump, according to people who have spoken with the president. Trump has long assumed that members of his presidential campaign would be swept up in Mueller’s probe

The revelation that another campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI was far less expected, the sources said. And the assumption that Papadopoulos is cooperating with the FBI’s Russia probe stirred even more unease among Trump’s allies.

Even as the White House sought to downplay the developments, the charges only served to fuel questions about Trump’s ties to Russia, which he has angrily denied and worked to discredit.

A question Trump asked on Twitter — punctuated by five question marks — offered the clearest window into his mindset: “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus????? ”

The president’s attempt to change the subject was complicated by the highly detailed indictments of his two former aides, which painted Manafort as a well-compensated broker of pro-Russian interests. It was complicated even more by the unveiling of a guilty plea from a third adviser who had repeated contacts with officials close to the Kremlin — the clearest connection so far between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Trump was bolstered by the sense among his team that the charges against Manafort bore only the loosest connection to the presidential campaign. He griped that Manafort’s role on his campaign had taken outsized importance in the media, and insisted his former chairman played only a minor role.

Senior aides, according to a senior White House official, expected Mueller to target top members of Trump’s campaign team like Manafort, but the addition of Papadopoulos surprised the president.

“The president is going, ‘Really, this is the guy?’ ” a senior White House official said in describing Trump’s reaction to Papadopoulos’ guilty plea.

Papadopoulos was arrested in July, pleaded guilty in October and appears to have been cooperating in between.

In the FBI’s guilty plea agreement with Papadopoulos, he confessed he was approached by an unnamed Russian “professor” who had close ties with the Kremlin. “The professor showed interest in defendant Papadopoulos only after learning of his role on the (Trump) campaign; and the professor told defendant Papadopoulos about the Russians possessing ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in late April 2016, more than a month after defendant Papadopoulos joined the campaign.”

As the morning carried on, however, Trump grew increasingly frustrated as he viewed cable news coverage of his onetime campaign chairman arriving at the FBI field office in Downtown Washington, believing his former aides’ roles were being inflated.

The West Wing suddenly was back in full combat mode, with an internal tug-of-war emerging over how aggressively Trump should seek to discredit Mueller and his investigation. Even as White House lawyers urged the president to avoid directly criticising Mueller, other advisers — including his former chief strategist Steve Bannon — suggested he aggressively push back.

“Calling for Mueller’s firing would undercut the White House argument,” one senior administration official told CNN.

For the past several months, Trump has largely followed the advice of avoiding a confrontation with Mueller. But as word of indictments emerged late last week, other members of his team — both West Wing aides and informal advisers — have said that Trump’s kid-gloves approach to Mueller has yielded no results.

Bannon, who was dismissed in August, has told associates that Trump’s legal team is steering the president in the wrong direction, and has suggested a more combative approach to Mueller, according to administration officials.

Many of the president’s allies have privately speculated that Monday’s indictments only made it more likely he would ultimately find some way of hampering the probe, including potentially dismissing Mueller.

Those who support this view also argued that undermining Mueller would avoid the White House more embarrassment since more indictments were expected, going as far as the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, and his son-in-law and close adviser,  Jared Kushner. 

The dramatic scaling up of Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign ties to Russia comes ahead of what the White House hoped would be a policy-centric several weeks, with the opportunity to reset an off-course agenda.

Republicans were scheduled to visit the White House yesterday, Wednesday, after unveiling their tax plan on Capitol Hill. Trump is also expected to introduce Jerome Powell as his Federal Reserve chairman today, Thursday. And on Friday he departs for a 12-day trip to Asia, where North Korea’s nuclear threat will demand full attention.

It won’t be the first time Trump has departed overseas just as a swirl of Russia-related scandal mounts back home. A day before he departed for his first presidential foreign trip in May, the Justice Department appointed Mueller as special counsel, ensuring the story would follow Trump on his stops in the Middle East and Europe.

Trump, meanwhile, has expressed concern the special counsel’s ongoing investigation could hurt his ability to negotiate with foreign leaders as he prepares to head to Asia.

“He worries about his ability to negotiate with various entities and how much he’s hamstrung by this,” the official said, adding the president and the White House believe he will be in a stronger position politically and internationally once the investigation concludes.

Trump revealed few outward worries when he emerged in public late in the day Monday, to greet trick-or-treaters from a spider-webbed White House South Portico. With Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” blaring from the speakers, Trump handed out plastic-wrapped cookies and high-fived costumed kids, including a skeleton in a “Make America Great Again” hat. But when a reporter shouted a question about the day’s indictments, all Trump did was wave.

Meanwhile, Mueller showed he can keep a secret and maximise the impact of what he makes public. In the first major filings of his investigation into alleged Russian efforts to influence the US presidential election, Mueller revealed how broadly he has taken his mandate, the kinds of records he has uncovered, and how he has leveraged at least one insider to cooperate.

There is also an implicit warning to potential additional defendants about trying to hide evidence and a “we’ve got more” suggestion throughout.

Mueller, a former FBI director first appointed by Republican President George W Bush in 2001 and continuing under Democratic president Barack Obama, was named the Russia probe special counsel 17 May.

The indictment of Manafort and Gates shows that Mueller is going back more than a decade to potential wrongdoing unrelated to the election but connected to Russia. The 31-page, 12-count indictment relates to their political consulting on behalf of Russian-backed officials in Ukraine. It asserts conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, and failure to register as an agent of a foreign principal, among other charges. 

The indictment alleges lavish spending from offshore accounts, including pay for mortgages, children’s tuition and home decorating. It also documents some of the evidence retrieved from Manafort’s Virginia home when federal agents made a pre-dawn raid. Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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