An increasingly defiant president, a no-nonsense prosecutor and an uncertain Congress nervous about what might lie ahead turned the nation’s capital Thursday into a source of political turmoil for months to come.
The appointment 24 hours earlier of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to lead an inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and whether it had colluded with President Donald Trump’s campaign, offered some relief to lawmakers in both parties.
But all sides braced for the political warfare to come – between the White House and Congress, which has several of its own ongoing Russia investigations, and between the president and Mueller. All are certain to divert attention from other major issues facing the country, including health care, a tax overhaul and infrastructure.
Trump signaled he has little patience for the persistent focus on him and his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
“There was no collusion. Even my enemies have said there is no collusion,” the president said during a news conference Thursday afternoon with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who was visiting the White House.
Earlier in the day, Trump told a luncheon with news broadcasters that the investigations “hurt our country.”
But Trump being Trump – constantly nursing a grievance that his election is viewed as tainted – his sense of victim-hood always lurks in his rhetoric. It intrudes when he gives a college commencement speech, as he did at the Coast Guard Academy earlier this week and told graduates that “no politician in history . . . has been treated worse or more unfairly,” and it flavors his early-morning tweets.
“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” the president told his Twitter followers Thursday morning, reacting to Mueller’s appointment.
“An outrageous statement,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois.
On Capitol Hill, a current of tension coursed through its marbled corridors. Few knew where the various investigations would lead and what could result. With a president as unpredictable as Trump, the political terrain is treacherous.
Mueller is viewed as a white hat by both parties and his square-jawed propriety is seen as a welcome balm to the division the Russia investigation has sowed. But his work has raised questions about the direction of Congress’ own inquiries and how it could affect and even restrict them.
The fallout was almost immediate. An attorney for ousted White House National Security adviser Michael Flynn told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday morning that his client would not honor the committee’s subpoena to produce documents related to the Russia investigation.
“We’ll figure out on Gen. Flynn what the next step, if any, is,” said Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who chairs the panel.
“I suspect that he believes he’s a target, and he’s got the right to protect himself and the lawyer has probably advised him not to do it,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Intelligence Committee. “Nobody can force you to do this.”
After emerging from a briefing about the Russia investigation Thursday afternoon, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is leading his own inquiry through the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “It seems to me now to be considered a criminal investigation.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, led the 45-minute briefing for all 100 members of the chamber. Rosenstein endured a wave of criticism for his memo to Trump justifying the firing last week of former FBI Director James Comey.
Comey had been overseeing the investigation into Russia and Trump’s campaign. Trump subsequently said he had planned to fire Comey anyway, seeming to dismiss the Rosenstein memo. But at his news conference Thursday, the president seemed to shift his story again.
“I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein,” he said.
Flynn, who served as a key adviser to Trump during his presidential campaign and transition and ended up in a top White House post, albeit briefly, has become a key figure in the probe into Russia’s role in the presidential election and whether Russia had colluded with Trump’s campaign.
Flynn appeared to be serving two masters, the incoming president and Turkey, for whom he had been a paid lobbyist. Washington was abuzz with speculation Thursday about his role, driven by a McClatchy report that as a Trump adviser Flynn had rejected an Obama administration Syria war plan that was opposed by Turkey, whose interests Flynn later acknowledged he’d been paid to represent.
Flynn’s work on Turkey’s behalf at the same time he was Trump’s principal foreign-policy adviser was not publicly known until March, when he belatedly filed as a foreign agent with the Justice Department nearly a month after he’d left the Trump administration.
But The New York Times reported Wednesday that Flynn had told Trump’s transition team that his Turkish connection was under federal investigation. Yet he still emerged as the newly sworn-in president’s national security adviser.
Trump fired Flynn 24 days later, only after it had become public that federal prosecutors had informed the White House not long after the new president’s inauguration about Flynn’s involvement with Russia and suggested he could subject to blackmail.
The Russia investigation is now assured of remaining a mainstay of Washington political life for some time. With its dramatic twists and turns and evolving cast of characters, it is playing out like so many previous Washington editions of bad behavior – except this one is focused on a character, Trump, whose willingness to undercut his aides’ messages via Twitter and other media is unlike previous presidents.
“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” Trump tweeted Thursday.
Yet, like his claim that former President Barack Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped during the campaign or that Trump had a tape of a dinner conversation he had with Comey, the president offered no proof.
Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday asked the Justice Department and the FBI for documents, also requested by other congressional panels, that involve Trump’s firing of Comey and any related memos. Comey apparently kept memos of his interactions with top officials and he reportedly wrote that during a conversation with Trump in February, the president said of the Flynn investigation, “I hope you can let this go.”
Various lawmakers and legal experts have suggested that the comment could amount to obstruction of justice
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, worked hard at a news conference Thursday to demonstrate that the Russia-gate hubbub was not preventing Congress from pushing forward on other fronts.
“It’s always nice to have less drama,” Ryan said. “But the point I’m trying to make . . . people in the country need to know that we are busy at work trying to solve their problems.”
David Lightman contributed to this story.