Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Donald Trump and Russia
How likely would impeachment proceedings be if the Russia investigation uncovers obstruction of justice? Could the inquiry unveil President Trump’s tax returns? Why are anonymous sources necessary to our investigative work?
Mark Mazzetti, The Times’s Washington investigations editor, will be discussing the Russia inquiry in New York on Tuesday evening with fellow Times reporters Michael Schmidt and Scott Shane, and Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School. To join the conversation, tune in to the live stream below at 7 p.m.
Last month, in preparation of the event, we asked readers to send us their questions for Mark about the Russia investigation. More than 300 readers wrote in. Here are Mark’s responses to a selection of the questions, which were lightly edited for clarity.
If President Trump is interviewed, does that signal that the investigation is nearing its end, or could it still be years before we know what will happen?— Daniel Kritz in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Exactly where Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the investigation, is in his inquiry is speculation, largely because he and his team have been very effective in keeping a lid on the details. During these types of investigations, an interview with someone at the top is usually a signal that the inquiry is beginning to wrap up. By this logic, Mr. Mueller would want to have as much evidence as possible before speaking to the president, because the expectation is that he and his team would have only one shot at an interview.
However, I said “usually,” and almost everything about this episode is unusual. It would be foolish to try to make predictions with any certainty. The expectation is that Mr. Mueller will deliver his findings to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who will then decide how to proceed from there.
Will Mr. Mueller be able to access Mr. Trump’s taxes, and will he be able to bring charges should there prove to be any impropriety in them?— Michael in New York City
Yes, I would assume that Mr. Mueller has access to any financial documents he wants, including the president’s tax returns. As for “bringing charges,” it is generally assumed that the special counsel won’t bring criminal charges against the president if he finds anything criminal, whether it’s financial crimes or something else. The current Justice Department guidance is that a sitting president cannot be indicted, and most legal experts believe that Mr. Mueller will follow that guidance.
Instead, it’s generally assumed that Mr. Mueller would make recommendations to Mr. Rosenstein, who would then pass them along to Congress.
As I read The Times’s coverage of the Russia investigation, I sometimes wonder if the paper has lost its way. I’ve subscribed to it for decades, and I haven’t had this issue so much in the past. I am a Democrat and voted twice for President Obama, but I just can’t understand why you put so much emphasis on Russia, helping to stir up even more of this unhealthy Cold War rhetoric. I am currently abroad, and I feel a growing frustration with the U.S., and it’s not just Mr. Trump. Will we soon have some facts that justify such a big investigation, or will this be going until doomsday?— Uschi Schueller in Zurich
I think your frustration is natural, especially because The Times and other news outlets have been covering an investigation that doesn’t have a clear end. And I agree with you that there is a real danger of creating an anti-Russia hysteria that would be dangerous not only in this country but also overseas.
At the same time, I’ll defend the amount of attention that The Times has paid to the Russia story and to Mr. Mueller’s investigation. It is an extraordinary moment: Intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia took active steps to disrupt an American presidential election, and the Justice Department is investigating whether President Trump or his advisers helped assist that campaign. The investigation has already brought the indictment of the former Trump campaign chairman — albeit on charges unrelated to Russian collusion — and Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser has pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. during the course of the investigation. These are very significant developments, and reason to keep digging on the story.
If the president is found guilty of obstruction, do you believe the Republican House will initiate impeachment proceedings?— Diogenes in Florida
It’s still difficult to imagine the circumstances under which the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would move to impeach the president. If Mr. Mueller’s report to Mr. Rosenstein contains evidence of obstruction of justice — or lays out an argument for why President Trump has broken the law in another way — then that would certainly increase the pressure on Congress to act in some fashion. If such a report goes to Congress, in theory the House Judiciary Committee could begin impeachment proceedings. Again, that’s very difficult to imagine in the current Congress.
If the Democrats retake the House in the November election, then obviously the odds of impeachment proceedings would go up significantly.
Who’s paying the lawyer fees for Mr. Trump’s defense in the Russia investigation?— Joe Henson in Dallas
The president’s personal lawyers said in November that Mr. Trump had begun to cover his own legal costs. Before then, the Republican National Committee had spent several hundred thousand dollars footing the legal bills.
Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign has used some of its cash to cover the legal fees for Mr. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. According to campaign finance filings, the campaign paid nearly $238,000 in July and August to the office of Alan S. Futerfas, the lawyer for Donald Trump Jr.
When using an anonymous source in reporting on the Russia investigation, “U.S. official” or something similar, what methods does The Times employ to ensure its reporting is not advancing a potential hidden agenda of the source? What investigations are undertaken to evaluate the source’s possible motivations? And shouldn’t this back story also be included to allow readers to evaluate the trustworthiness of the information?— Kathryn Locatell in Placerville, Calif.
Many readers raise concerns about the use of anonymous sources, and not just on stories about the Russia investigation. Anonymous sources are not ideal, and we should always try to make available as much information as possible about any motivations or rationale the sources have for remaining anonymous.
That said, stories about the Russia investigation — or any sensitive national security issue — would not be possible without the use of anonymous sources. During an ongoing federal investigation, much of it involving classified information, sources often will only speak to reporters if they are assured that their names won’t be used. We believe it’s important to get the information they have in order to write stories that get to the facts underlying all the facets of this investigation: from Russia’s attempts to disrupt the 2016 election, to the contacts between President Trump’s advisers and Russians, to Mr. Trump’s efforts to undermine Mr. Mueller’s inquiry.
But this doesn’t mean we accept any information, grant anonymity and publish it. We always have to assess the motivations and potential biases of sources, and judge the information they provide against information we get from other sources. Readers need to trust that we don’t publish stories that blindly advance the agenda of anonymous people, and it’s up to us to earn that trust.
If it is proved that Trump campaign officials received information from Russians and used it in the campaign, is that a crime?— Ed Surette in Wakefield, Mass.
Not necessarily. Most legal experts say that colluding — or working together — with a foreign power during an election is not illegal in and of itself. Where campaign officials could get into trouble is if they were coordinating with Russia to do something that violates American law. If, for example, campaign officials told Russians to break into the Democratic National Committee’s servers, then the officials could be in legal jeopardy.
I’m concerned that the National Rifle Association may have been a weak spot for the United States since it’s so conservative (and pro-Trump). Did Russia perhaps find a way to donate to Mr. Trump via the N.R.A.?— Pete Lindner in New York City
It’s an interesting question that has been explored a bit, although there’s certainly more work to do. McClatchy had a good story on this question, and reported that money to the N.R.A. is one of the issues that Mr. Mueller is examining. In November, The Times reported about a strange overture during the campaign by Alexander Torshin, a top Russian official and longtime N.R.A. member, who was trying to broker a meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Trump campaign received the overture before the N.R.A.’s annual convention in 2016 in Louisville, Ky.
A friend of mine says, “Well, the C.I.A. has participated in interfering with elections, destabilizing governments and installing puppet regimes, so what’s the big deal if Russia does it?” (He cites Central and South American countries.)— Michael Waterhouse in Sydney, Australia
Your friend is right. The C.I.A. has a long history of so-called influence operations to help favored candidates in foreign elections with money or propaganda, and on a few occasions even helping overthrow elected leaders seen as hostile to the United States. Such operations were more common during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was often assisting a leftist candidate, and frequently involved open assistance as well as espionage. Election meddling by Americans appears to have become rarer in recent decades, though such covert operations sometimes don’t come to light for years.
But that does not mean the Russian meddling in 2016, which used hacking and social media fraud, was not a big deal. Americans understandably do not want the Kremlin to have a covert role in determining who becomes the American president.
Why is there so little reporting or investigation relative to attempts by Russians to “hack” into actual voting systems in multiple states?— Jerry Wortzman in Natick, Mass.
One reason is in your word “attempts.” According to government agencies, there is no evidence that Russian hackers have managed to change vote totals or otherwise undermine the integrity of the actual vote. And there has been a good bit of reporting on the attempted hacking. But you’re right that so much media attention has been focused on what Russia successfully did in 2016 — stealing and leaking emails and hijacking Facebook and Twitter — that the danger posed by future attacks on voting software has received too little attention.
Does the administration have a plan to prevent outside interference in our elections, whether it’s from Russia or China or another country? So far, I have read many news reports about the investigation, but very little about preventing a recurrence.— Dorothy Signal in Foster City, Calif.
You’re right, there has been vastly more attention paid to what happened in 2016 than what could happen in future elections. That’s true of the media, Congress and most of the rest of the government. Occasionally, members of Congress will speak out about how there needs to be a coordinated focus to prevent the same thing from happening in the November elections and, of course, the next presidential election in 2020, but there doesn’t seem to be any comprehensive plan to deal with the problem yet. American law enforcement and intelligence officials have already warned that Russian operations are underway to try to disrupt the 2018 campaign, though it’s unclear exactly what they are seeing at this point.
View the live stream of our sold-out panel “Russia and the 2016 Election: What Lines Were Crossed?” here on Tuesday at 7 p.m.