Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Here's what we learned (and still don't know) about the Russia investigation

Six-plus hours of public testimony (and much more behind closed doors). Five witnesses. Dozens of questions. Eighteen Trump tweets.

This was a massive week for:

1) The investigation into Russia interference in the U.S. election.

2) The investigation into whether Trump's campaign helped that interference.

3) The growing investigation into whether Donald Trump tried to interfere in any of the other investigations.

This week likely marks a turning point for all those investigations. Before this week, the focus was on whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia during the election. Revelations this week could force the FBI, the special counsel and Congress to focus their investigative (and, in the case of the special counsel, prosecutorial) powers on the president himself.

Let's review what we learned — and what we still don't know.

What we learned this week

1) The FBI director ousted by Trump seems pretty darn sure the president tried to obstruct justice.

In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, James Comey did everything but directly accuse the president of this: "My impression was, something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken," Comey said.

"I was honestly concerned that he might lie about what happened, and I needed to document it," he said at another point.

However, when asked directly whether he thought Trump was trying to obstruct justice, he said special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would have to make that determination.

Why this is new: Until this point, we had never heard from Comey directly about his conversations with the president.

2) The president is going to deny two key Comey accusations. Immediately after Comey's testimony, Trump's personal lawyer for all things Russia, Marc Kasowitz, denied two key accusations:

• That Trump suggested in any way that Comey stop investigating Flynn, or anyone else

• That Trump asked Comey for loyalty

3) But Trump won't deny everything.

Trump's lawyer didn't address Comey's accusations that:

Trump lied about why he fired him. ("The president is not a liar," deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday.)

Trump asked Comey repeatedly to "lift the cloud" of the Russian investigation as it relates to whether Trump was under investigation.

Trump asked top officials to leave him and Comey alone in the Oval Office, something even a GOP senator said was inappropriate.

Whether Trump did anything inappropriate or illegal.

If Trump asked top intelligence officials to push back or intervene on the FBI's probe.

Speaking of . . .

Alex Brandon | Associated Press

FBI acting director Andrew McCabe, left, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, are seated as National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, speaks, with National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 7, in Washington.

4) Trump may have asked other intelligence chiefs to interfere, too.

In testimony Wednesday, both Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, left open the possibility that Trump asked them to push back or intervene in the FBI investigation — although they did say they didn't feel pressured to do anything about it.

Why this is new: The Washington Post had reported that Coats, Rogers and CIA Director Mike Pompeo told associates that Trump asked them to weigh in on the FBI Russia probe or to get the FBI to back off it entirely.

Given multiple opportunities to deny those reports, neither Coats nor Rogers did. (Pompeo wasn't testifying.)

They weren't forthcoming, either. The fact they wouldn't answer senators' questions about their conversations with Trump is a growing controversy in Congress.

5) The intelligence community is as certain as it can be that Russia tried to interfere in the presidential election.

I'll let Comey, who led the investigation into this, take it from here:

"The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle," he testified Thursday. "They did with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that."

Why this is new: Well, it's not. The U.S. intelligence agencies signed onto a report before Trump's inauguration saying as much. But some — including, at times, Trump — have questioned whether this happened. Comey did underscore that there is no evidence that any votes cast were altered by Russian hackers after the fact, though it's very possible that people changed the way they were going to vote thanks to Russia's fake news and hacking of Democratic emails.

What we still don't know

1) Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. The FBI, working with a special counsel, and at least two committees in Congress are still looking into this.

2) Whether Trump obstructed justice. Again, too soon to say. I'll add that special counsel Mueller has wide latitude to investigate whatever he wants. And the power to prosecute for crimes, if necessary.

3) Whether investigations will shift from collusion to obstruction. It's possible, given Comey's remarkably candid and lucid testimony, that investigators in Congress and the FBI will think this is the more pressing matter. But the work of those investigations is being done behind closed doors, so we don't know for sure. Don't expect anything for months, at a minimum.

4) Why Trump fired Comey: Trump told NBC's Lester Holt in May that he fired Comey because of "this Russia thing." But it wasn't quite the smoking gun Democrats had hoped to prove obstruction of justice; Trump appeared to be saying that he thought Comey was investigating a fake connection between Trump and Russia.

As usual with Trump, there's some plausible deniability there: Did Trump fire Comey because he thought he was doing a bad job as FBI director (which is the president's prerogative)? Or did Trump fire Comey because Comey was investigating something he didn't like?

The answer to that could determine whether Trump did, indeed, obstruct justice — and where all these investigations go after this remarkable week.

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