Throughout the Trump-Russia investigation, the core question was whether President Trump or his associates colluded with Russia to try to influence the 2016 election. If there were proof of that, the effect on Trump’s presidency would have been devastating, and possibly fatal.
The problem, for people who hoped to see that result, has been that after a lot of investigating, no evidence has emerged.
Last week some of the lawmakers most deeply involved in the investigation conceded there appeared to be nothing there.
The thrust of leaks in recent days has been directed almost exclusively toward building a case of obstruction of justice against the president, charging that he actively tried to derail the investigation into his campaign and his associates. More and more, day after day, Trump’s adversaries believe that, when it comes to bringing down the president, it might not matter if collusion occurred or not. A cover-up would be enough to do the job.
The latest story in the cover-up timeline broke Monday night in The Washington Post. The paper reported that Trump called the Director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to “push back” against the FBI investigation and to “publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.”
Before that came a spate of reports and developments, all arising out of Trump’s May 9 firing of FBI Director James Comey.
First, the White House portrayed the firing as 1) not Trump’s doing, and 2) not related to the Russia investigation.
Then Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had in fact decided to fire Comey because “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”
Then, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel to investigate the Russia affair. Rosenstein specifically gave that prosecutor, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, authority to pursue any “federal crimes arising from the investigation” and specifically referenced 28 CFR 600.4(a), which is the part of the Code of Federal Regulations dealing with special counsels and obstruction.
Then The New York Times reported that Comey wrote contemporaneous memos of his interactions with the president, and that during one of those interactions Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Then the Times reported Trump, in an Oval Office meeting, bragged to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. that firing Comey relieved Trump of “great pressure” in the Russia investigation.
Before Trump fired Comey, a likely conclusion of the Russia affair was coming into view. There would be scalps for Democrats to celebrate, but the most consequential issue — collusion — would end in nothing.
That was before Comey was sacked. Now, the investigation has taken what is for Trump a more ominous turn. Focusing on alleged obstruction, the president’s enemies no longer have to find an underlying crime to attempt to remove him from office.
All the while, some Republicans have found themselves asking over and over: But what about collusion? Remember that? If there’s no crime at the bottom of the Russia affair, then isn’t all of this just much ado about nothing?
The answer is no. Certainly Trump has good arguments to make in his defense, beginning with what legally constitutes obstruction. But after the last two weeks, his supporters can no longer assume that his detractors will have to find an underlying crime to make big trouble for the president.