Kremlin interference in a U.S. presidential election.
A payment to a porn star to cover up an alleged extramarital affair.
Accusations that the President of the United States repeatedly tried to shut down investigations into his associates.
Donald Trump is facing mounting legal threats across a broad front, with probes digging into his political, personal and business lives – threatening to derail his presidency, set up a legal showdown over a possible subpoena and potentially spark impeachment proceedings.
One investigation, by special counsel Robert Mueller, is examining potential collusion between Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 election, as well as looking at accusations that the President abused his power by trying to derail the investigation. A list of questions Mr. Mueller wants to put to Mr. Trump – leaked last week to The New York Times – hints that the special counsel already has evidence the President’s associates solicited Moscow’s help during the campaign, and that Mr. Trump both toyed with firing Mr. Mueller to stop his investigation and considered pardoning Trumpworld figures ensnared by the probe.
A second investigation, by the FBI office in New York, was sparked by a US$130,000 payment Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, made to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels the month before the election in exchange for her silence about an alleged tryst with Mr. Trump. The secret payment could count as a campaign expense, breaking election-financing law.
This probe has also unearthed some unusual transactions on Mr. Cohen’s part: A U.S. company connected to Viktor Vekselberg, an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, dropped $500,000 into the same shell company that Mr. Cohen used to make the payment to Stormy Daniels.
What’s more, two of Mr. Trump’s lawyers have quit in the past month; his new counsel, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, repeatedly contradicted pieces of the President’s defence strategy during a series of wild television appearances. Mr. Mueller has reportedly raised the possibility of subpoenaing Mr. Trump if he refuses to submit to questioning by investigators.
Already a President like no other, Mr. Trump is facing an unprecedented amount of legal pressure from all sides as the clock counts down to a pivotal midterm election in November that could hand control of Congress – and the potential for impeachment proceedings – to the Democrats.
“You’ve never had a presidential campaign and, potentially, administration that was in such a compromised position with regard to a foreign power,” said Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at George Washington University. “Nixon never went as far in obstructing the Justice Department. And you’ve never had a president who has such extensive and potentially shady business dealings.”
The investigations into Mr. Trump’s circle began in the summer of 2016. Russian operatives had stolen embarrassing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and released them via WikiLeaks, and the FBI wanted to know more about contacts between some of Mr. Trump’s associates and Moscow.
In May, 2017, following a political firestorm over the President’s firing of then FBI director James Comey, who had been overseeing the probe, the Justice Department appointed Mr. Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation.
So far, several people in Mr. Trump’s orbit have been found to have had contacts with the Kremlin: Michael Flynn, who had to resign as national security adviser after secretly discussing with Moscow’s ambassador lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia, and then lying about the conversations; Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation after it was revealed he had met with the ambassador during the campaign; campaign adviser Carter Page, who met with Russian intelligence officials; and George Papadopoulos, another adviser, who communicated with purported intermediaries of Mr. Putin, including one man who told him about the hack of DNC e-mails before they were released.
One meeting of particular interest took place June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower: Mr. Trump’s oldest son, Donald Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chair Paul Manafort sat down with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya on the promise that she would give them scandalous information about Hillary Clinton on behalf of the Kremlin. When he was first told that Moscow wanted to help his father win the election, the younger Mr. Trump wrote “I love it” in an e-mail. He has subsequently insisted, however, that nothing of interest happened at the meeting.
Mr. Mueller has criminally charged several people. Mr. Flynn, Mr. Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who worked on propaganda for the pro-Russian ex-president of Ukraine, have all pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Mr. Manafort is accused of working as an unregistered lobbyist for pro-Putin Ukrainian politicians, laundering millions of dollars in payments from them, dodging taxes and ripping off several banks. Rick Gates, Mr. Manafort’s business associate, pleaded guilty to conspiring against the United States and lying to investigators.
Mr. Mueller also laid charges against 13 Russian trolls, led by oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who tried to tip the U.S. election by spreading anti-Clinton advertising and creating fake online personas to organize pro-Trump campaign rallies.
So far, it is unclear whether any of the contacts between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Moscow amounted to collusion. But Mr. Mueller’s proposed questions to Mr. Trump contain lines of inquiry that suggest he has more evidence than has so far surfaced.
“What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?” reads one.
When Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey, he opened up an entirely new line of investigation: Whether he was obstructing justice and abusing presidential power by trying to end the Russia investigation.
Mr. Comey subsequently alleged that, in the weeks leading up to his dismissal, Mr. Trump had asked him to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation, hinted that Mr. Comey’s job was on the line if the FBI director did not pledge personal “loyalty” to the President and asked him to consider “letting Flynn go.”
In an interview with The Globe last month, Mr. Comey said there is “circumstantial evidence of obstruction of justice” in Mr. Trump’s conversations with him. But he said he is not certain whether it reaches the threshold of a crime.
“I can’t see the full scope of the evidence, especially as it reflects on intent,” he said. “The question is: Were they acting with corrupt intent? That requires the investigator to gather evidence of conversations the person might have had before that time and after that time, what exactly were they thinking when they asked that an investigation be dropped.”
Mr. Giuliani, for his part, may have inadvertently made this easier during an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity last week: “He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” he said.
Mr. Trump has also mused openly about ousting Mr. Mueller. “Many people have said ‘You should fire him,’” he told reporters at the White House last month. “We’ll see what happens.”
And the way the White House handled the fallout from the revelation of Donald Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting – the President reportedly personally worked on a statement downplaying its importance – is also under Mr. Mueller’s microscope.
Saikrishna Prakash, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia, said the bar is high for proving motivation in accusations of abuse of power – a particularly important factor for someone as polarizing as Mr. Trump, whose intentions read completely differently to different audiences.
“Trump is the nation’s Rorschach test: If you think he’s corrupt to the core, anything he does evinces that corruption,” Prof. Prakash said. “If you think he’s pure as the driven snow, then you think he does no wrong.”
Stephanie Clifford, better known by her screen name, Stormy Daniels, says that she had sex with the future president at his hotel room during a Lake Tahoe golf tournament in 2006. The President denies cheating on his wife with the porn star.
In October, 2016, shortly before the election, Mr. Trump’s lawyer Mr. Cohen brokered a $130,000 payment to Ms. Clifford in exchange for her signing a non-disclosure agreement over the alleged affair.
The payment may have broken campaign finance law because it was never disclosed as a campaign expense, even though it appears to have been made to stop Ms. Clifford from speaking out ahead of the election. Also, if Mr. Cohen was out of pocket for a time, it may count as a campaign contribution far exceeding the US$2,700 limit for such donations.
At first, Mr. Cohen said he had paid the hush money out of his own funds. Asked if he knew about the payment during a scrum with reporters on Air Force One last month, Mr. Trump said “No.”
Then, Mr. Giuliani acknowledged Mr. Trump had “funnelled” the money to Ms. Clifford through Mr. Cohen. He argued, however, that Mr. Trump did not know what the money was for.
In one appearance on Fox and Friends, Mr. Trump’s favourite morning show, Mr. Giuliani at first said the payment was made for “personal reasons” to save Mr. Trump’s marriage and therefore did not count as a campaign expense. But moments later, Mr. Giuliani seemed to admit the money was indeed handed over for political reasons. “Imagine if that came out on Oct. 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause, a watchdog group that has filed a legal complaint over the payment with elections authorities, argued that Mr. Trump’s attempts at pleading ignorance do not hold water.
“Lawyers have a legal obligation to keep their client informed on any work they are doing for their client, especially if they are entering their client into a legal contract,” he said. The admission that Mr. Trump compensated Mr. Cohen, Mr. Ryan said, “is evidence that Donald Trump knowingly and wilfully did not disclose this to the public.”
Last month, the FBI in New York – acting on information supplied by Mr. Mueller – raided Mr. Cohen’s office, house and hotel room. Mr. Cohen is currently fighting in court to keep them from looking into his dealings with Mr. Trump, claiming solicitor-client privilege.
This week, Ms. Clifford’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, revealed the half-million-dollar payment from Columbus Nova, an investment firm that counts Mr. Vekselberg’s company as its top client, to Essential Consultants, Mr. Cohen’s shell company. The purpose of the money is unclear; Columbus Nova has said it hired Mr. Cohen as a consultant for matters unrelated to Mr. Vekselberg.
What might come next
a) Trump agrees to speak with Mueller
Agreeing to answer Mr. Mueller’s questions would allow Mr. Trump to negotiate the conditions, such as limiting the subjects Mr. Mueller can cover. Mr. Giuliani has hinted the President might go down this road, pointing to former president Bill Clinton, who gave testimony before a grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky case under condition it be subject to a time limit.
The risk is that the notoriously undisciplined Mr. Trump could inadvertently give up something during the questioning. But Prof. Berman contends it is likely the President will still ultimately choose to co-operate to avoid the other possible options.
b) Mueller subpoenas Trump
If Mr. Trump refuses to meet with him, Mr. Mueller could subpoena the President. Mr. Trump would argue that, because of presidential privilege, he does not have to comply, setting up a legal fight that would likely go all the way to the Supreme Court.
In the two most comparable cases – involving a lawsuit against Mr. Clinton by Paula Jones, a woman who accused him of sexual harassment, and Richard Nixon, who tried to avoid handing over tapes of Oval Office conversations during the Watergate scandal – the court ruled against the president.
Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor, said it will be a matter of whether Mr. Mueller wants to go to the trouble of fighting a months-long legal battle, or whether he feels he has enough evidence to finish the investigation without speaking to Mr. Trump.
“If Mueller does decide to subpoena the President, I think he wins that battle,” she said. “The question is whether he wants to take the time. He could say ‘I gave you a chance, you declined, fine, let’s go.’”
If Mr. Mueller does get Mr. Trump on the stand, the President could also invoke his Fifth Amendment right to guard against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions. Such a move, however, could be risky from a public relations standpoint if it makes Mr. Trump appear that he has something to hide.
c) Trump fires Mueller
Mr. Trump has toyed with the idea of canning Mr. Mueller to shut down the investigation. Mr. Mueller’s questions suggest there was serious discussion of this possibility last June, and that White House counsel Don McGahn talked Mr. Trump out of it. The President himself has repeatedly attacked Mr. Mueller publicly, referring to his probe as a “witch hunt.”
Such a move would threaten to unleash a massive political backlash. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warned last summer that “there will be holy hell to pay” if Mr. Trump were to fire Mr. Mueller, and it would signal “the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.”
d) Mueller’s investigation leads to charges against Trump or impeachment proceedings
If Mr. Mueller does find that Mr. Trump broke the law, he will have to decide whether to attempt to lay charges or leave it up to Congress to decide Mr. Trump’s fate.
David Super, a constitutional law expert at Georgetown University, contends it is unlikely Mr. Mueller will indict Mr. Trump because of the politically charged nature of the case. Instead, the special counsel will probably write a report detailing his findings.
“There is no legal principle that says the President can’t be charged criminally,” Prof. Super said. “But it could so easily be seen as a political act rather than a prosecutorial one.”
Congress can remove federal officials, including the president, from office for “high crimes and misdemeanours”; exactly what constitutes such a crime is not spelled out, giving legislators wide latitude to decide.
If Congress goes this route, the House of Representatives judiciary committee would draw up “articles of impeachment” laying out Mr. Trump’s alleged crimes. Then, the full House would vote on the articles. If any of them passed by a simple majority, Mr. Trump would face a trial in the Senate. The Senate must vote two-thirds in favour for a president to be removed from office.
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