IT’S ONLY WEDNESDAY, but the increasingly sprawling investigations surrounding President Donald Trump this week have already sprawled even further. News came Monday that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York served a wide-ranging subpoena digging into the finances of the Trump inaugural committee. Then, Wednesday morning, the House Intelligence Committee—in its first meeting of the new congress—voted to hand over witness transcripts from its own Russia investigation to special counsel Robert Mueller, a move widely understood to be motivated by the belief of Democratic members that various witnesses, including perhaps Donald Trump Jr., have lied to them.
Meanwhile, Roger Stone—himself indicted, in part, because of his alleged lies to Congress and witness tampering that encouraged his associates “to do a ‘Frank Pentangeli,’” a reference to a Godfather Part II character who lied to Congress—continues his bizarre post-indictment media road show.
A close reading of the Stone indictment shows the odd hole at the center of the Mueller investigation so far. It followed a now familiar pattern: Mueller’s court filing included voluminous detail, including insight into the internal decisionmaking process of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—and yet the indictment stopped short of alleging that Stone was part of a larger conspiracy.
Given how much Trump says, in all settings, all the time, his silences are just as conspicuous as Mueller’s.
All told, according to a recent tally by The New York Times, “more than 100 in-person meetings, phone calls, text messages, emails and private messages on Twitter” took place between Trump associates and Russians during the campaign and transition. But while we’ve seen a lot of channels, we’ve thus far from Mueller’s court filings seen near silence about what was said during those contacts—and why. In court filings that are remarkable for their level of detail and knowledge, Mueller’s conspicuous silence about those conversations stands out.
Of course, one possible explanation is that the content of the conversations was completely innocent—totally normal directions and innocent chitchat about “adoptions,” sanctions, potential business deals, and geopolitical diplomacy. That could explain why Mueller thus far has only charged individuals, including Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Roger Stone, with lying about those contacts, not the underlying behavior.
Yet the evidence against such innocence seems clear too, in the form of consistent lies, omissions, and obfuscations about the numerous meetings, conversations, and contacts with Russians throughout the Trump campaign, transition, and presidency.
To take just two examples: Donald Trump lied extensively, for more than two years, about his dealings with Russia concerning the Trump Tower Moscow project, which suggests that he knew something about it was shady. If he’d really believed the project was on the up-and-up, it’s easy to imagine Trump as a candidate making a public to-do about the deal—arguing that he felt America’s relationship with Russia was off-track, and that as the world’s smartest businessman, he alone could set it right. Trump could have made the case on the campaign trail that he alone could make deals with Putin because he alone was making deals with Putin. Yet he didn’t make that argument, and remained entirely silent about the deal for years, even lying about his interest in Russia. Given how much Trump says, in all settings, all the time, his silences are just as conspicuous as Mueller’s.
And then there’s the continued controversy over Trump’s private conversations with Vladimir Putin at geopolitical gatherings, from Hamburg to Helsinki to Buenos Aires. Under normal circumstances and operations, US leaders meet with Russian leaders to advance geopolitical conversations, and then they “read out” those meetings to staff in order to execute the work and vision hashed out one-on-one. The entire point of those head-of-state conversations is to generate follow-up work for staff later—to come to agreements, to advance national interests, and to find common ground for action on areas of shared concern. And yet in city after city, President Trump has had suspicious conversations with Putin, where he goes out of his way to ensure that no American knows what to follow up on. In Hamburg he confiscated his translators’ notes. In Buenos Aires, he cut out American translators entirely.
If he’s truly advocating for the United States in these meetings, there’s no sign those conversations have translated into any action by White House or administration staff afterwards. Instead, quite the opposite. Trump has emerged from those conversations to spout Kremlin talking points, even, apparently, calling The New York Times from Air Force One on the way back from Hamburg to argue Putin’s point that he didn’t interfere with the 2016 election.