As Donald Trump faces an increasingly uncertain future, there's no shortage of scuttlebutt about what it'd be like if Mike Pence were elevated to the presidency. The chatter grew a little louder when Pence launched his own political action committee yesterday -- an apparent first for a sitting vice president.
But before the far-right Hoosier starts measuring any drapes, now seems like a good time to note some of the troubles plaguing Pence in the broader Russia mess.
We talked earlier about a striking New York Timesscoop on Michael Flynn, the former White House National Security Advisor, who's at the center of much of the controversy. And while the article only mentioned Pence in passing, note who it was that Flynn spoke to when he admitted to Team Trump that he was under investigation.
Michael T. Flynn told President Trump's transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the case.
Who led Trump's transition team? That would be none other than Mike Pence.
We're left with an unsettling picture. Flynn told the transition team he's the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, and either that information either reached Pence or it didn't. If Pence was out of the loop, he was dangerously incompetent at his job. If Pence knew, and Flynn became National Security Advisor anyway, that's worse. read more
Leading members of Team Trump, including the president and vice president, insisted for months that there were no pre-election contacts between the Republican campaign and Russian officials. The official line was that Vladimir Putin's government may have taken steps to help put Trump in the White House, but the candidate and his team weren't talking to Russians while they hatched their illegal scheme.
It's been obvious for quite some time that those claims were demonstrably wrong. All kinds of communications between people close to Trump and Russian officials -- during the campaign -- have already been documented.
In February, the New York Timesreported that "phone records and intercepted calls" prove that Trump campaign officials "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials." A CNN report added that "high-level advisers" close to Trump were in "constant communication" with Russian officials during the American election season.
A Reuters report moves the ball forward today with a specific figure that hasn't been published before.
Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump's campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters.
The previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump's campaign and Russia.
A third of the communications, according to the report, were calls between Trump advisers, including Flynn, and Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States. After the election, the contacts "accelerated," with Flynn raising the prospect of "back-channel" discussions between Trump and Putin.
In case this isn't obvious, let's stress how abnormal this is. "It's rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power," Richard Armitage, a Republican and former deputy secretary of state, told Reuters. read more
Last night, after the Justice Department named a special counsel to oversee the investigation into the Russia scandal, the White House issued a rather mild statement on behalf of Donald Trump. Aides were quick to share scuttlebutt that news hadn't affected the president much at all.
"With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel (sic) appointed!" he weighed in Thursday morning on Twitter, his favored form of communication.
"This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" he followed up.
Let's not dwell on some of the obvious problems. There are, for example, no credible allegations of criminal wrongdoing from the Obama administration; there were independent Clinton-era investigations; and it's kind of hilarious that the president keeps misspelling "counsel."
It's also problematic that Trump believes his own justice department is responsible for perpetuating a "witch hunt."
But there's a substantive angle to the president's self-indulgent whining, too. When a White House is under investigation, officials usually have a standard line in response to press questions: "We can't comment because there's an ongoing investigation." It's frustrating and unsatisfying, but the line makes some sense: the White House counsel's office lets officials know the importance of silence, because saying the wrong thing, even inadvertently, may prove to be damaging. The less that's said, the better.
And yet, there's the president, sharing his thoughts on Twitter, urging people to feel sorry for him. read more
Just when it seemed the story surrounding Michael Flynn couldn't possibly get worse for Donald Trump and the White House, the New York Timesreports that Flynn told Trump's transition team "weeks before the inauguration" that he was under federal investigation.
Despite this warning, which came about a month after the Justice Department notified Mr. Flynn of the inquiry, Mr. Trump made Mr. Flynn his national security adviser. The job gave Mr. Flynn access to the president and nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.
Mr. Flynn's disclosure, on Jan. 4, was first made to the transition team's chief lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, who is now the White House counsel. That conversation, and another one two days later between Mr. Flynn's lawyer and transition lawyers, shows that the Trump team knew about the investigation of Mr. Flynn far earlier than has been previously reported.
If there's a credible explanation for the series of events, I honestly can't imagine what it might be.
Flynn was a foreign agent when Trump brought him on as a member of his inner circle. In the weeks and months that followed, Trump did nothing after learning that Flynn was under a federal investigation, and then again did nothing after his own Justice Department said Flynn had been compromised by Russia and was vulnerable to blackmail.
In fact, even after Trump World knew all of this, the president continued to give Flynn access to the nation's most sensitive secrets and classified information -- which almost certainly represents an even more egregious example of the White House mishandling classified intelligence than Trump sharing secrets with Russians during an Oval Office chat requested by Vladimir Putin.
And then, even after Trump was forced to fire Flynn, he reportedly took steps to derail the investigation into his National Security Advisor, privately urging then-FBI Director James Comey to back off because Flynn is such a "good guy." read more
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) isn't known as an accomplished legislator, but once in a while, he makes headlines for accidentally blurting out the truth. In 2015, for example, the GOP leader admitted on national television that his party's committee to investigate Benghazi conspiracy theories was created to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
A year later, as the Washington Postreported yesterday, McCarthy was equally candid about a politically sensitive subject.
A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress -- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy -- made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump," McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy's assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
When the Post reached out to the House Speaker's office, Ryan's spokesperson, Brendan Buck, initially said of the McCarthy story, "That never happened.... The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false."
Told that the newspaper had a recording of McCarthy's comments, Ryan's spokesperson switched gears, saying the House Majority Leader's comment may have happened, but he was kidding.
When it comes to the Justice Department's handling of the investigation into Donald Trump's Russia scandal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already recused himself, leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge. And as recently as Friday, Rosenstein said he saw no need to appoint a special prosecutor.
Bowing to public and Congressional pressure, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Bob Mueller on Wednesday to be a special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, Justice Department officials said.
Mueller will take command of the prosecutors and FBI agents who are working on the far-reaching Russia investigation, which spans multiple FBI field offices on both coasts.
OK, let's dig in.
Is Mueller the right person for the job?
Almost certainly, yes. Finding someone who has bipartisan credibility, prosecutorial expertise, and experience with the FBI is exceedingly difficult, but Mueller fits the bill.
Is his appointment good news or bad news for those who take the scandal seriously?
That's a matter of perspective, of course, but there can be no doubt that the White House and its allies just got a lot more nervous. Donald Trump's Russia scandal was already heating up, but yesterday's announcement raised the temperature by several degrees.
Isn't it a little ironic that Trump's firing of James Comey led to Mueller's appointment? read more
Sari Horwitz, Justice Department reporter for The Washington Post, talks with Rachel Maddow about new questions raised by the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to the Trump-Russia investigation. watch
Dan Rather, host of The Big Interview with Dan Rather on AXS TV, talks with Rachel Maddow about the investigations into Donald Trump and his associates and the breaking news that the Trump team knew that Mike Flynn was being investigated and appointed him anyway. watch
Neal Katyal, former U.S. Acting Solicitor General who helped draft the special counsel regulations, talks with Rachel Maddow about the parameters of Robert Mueller's role as special counsel to the Trump-Russia investigation. watch
Tim Weiner, author of "Enemies, A History of the FBI," talks with Rachel Maddow about Robert Mueller's reputation and legacy as Director of the FBI, and the integrity he brings to the Trump-Russia investigation as special counsel. watch
Congressman Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about how he feels about Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Trump-Russia investigation and what will happen to the Trump investigations in Congress. watch
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