Washington is planning to extend sanctions against Russia, once again. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is getting ready to cope with a special counsel’s investigation which seems to focus as much on Trump as Russia.
Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that Congress should not pass any legislation that would undercut “constructive dialogue” with Russia. Yet, the Senate voted 97-2 to advance a bipartisan agreement to launch new financial penalties on Russia and to let the Congress intervene before President Trump can lift sanctions. Afterwards, Trump tweeted that he is the subject of the “single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history”, and one that he said is being led by “some very bad and conflicted people”.
Trump’s frustration originated from reports that the White House is under scrutiny over whether it obstructed justice, while his aides struggled to deflect questions about the probe and Vice President Pence hired a private lawyer to handle fallout from investigations into Russian election meddling.
What’s going on?
As I argued in spring 2016 (The World Financial Review, April 25, 2016), US election is a global risk and it would continue to be fought long after the Trump election win. In May, these political struggles moved to an entirely new phase. For months, top Republicans held off from backing tougher financial penalties against Russia in a bid to permit the Trump administration to improve the US-Russia relationship, which soured badly under the Obama administration.
But the backlash ensued. First, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dismissed James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), reportedly only days after his request for increased resources to investigate Russia’s alleged interference in the election. A week later, DOJ appointed Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI (2001-13) as special counsel overseeing the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Both fired FBI Director Comey and special Russia-gate prosecutor Mueller have long histories as pliable political operatives, as ex-FBI official Coleen Rowley put it recently. “Mueller was chosen as Special Counsel not because he has integrity but because he will do what the powerful want him to do”, she says. It was Rowley’s 2002 memo to then-FBI Director Mueller that exposed the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures.
Indeed, there is little doubt about the political outcome of the investigation. Mueller is unlikely to treat any Russian initiative – whether planned, unintended, alleged, or misrepresented – with silk gloves.
In practice, Mueller seems more likely to go after Trump himself. Reportedly, he is already investigating Trump’s inner circle for “possible financial crimes” (Washington Post), “money laundering” and “financial payoff” from Russian officials (New York Times). Discrediting the messenger to distract attention from the message is the old practice by the “deep state”, say the critics.