A former chair of the US National Intelligence Council explains what Mueller could have on Trump—and why it mattersby Gregory F Treverton / December 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
US President Donald Trump. Photo: PA The United States is heading for a constitutional crisis that will be the greatest test of its institutions since the Civil War. The test will be whether the Republicans have the honesty to force President Trump, and also Vice President Pence, to resign under the shadow of impeachment. On current form, it looks like they will fail that test. How did we Americans get to this pass? It came as little surprise that Michael Flynn, the former National Security Adviser, was indicted for lying to the FBI. Indeed, he was fired, ostensibly, for lying to the vice president. So Flynn-as-liar was hardly news. Nor was it news that a gaggle of Trump campaign and transition aides had met with the Russians, then lied about their meetings. If lying about meetings with the Russians were a disqualification from office, the Trump administration would be even more depopulated than it is. Nor was it a surprise that those meetings ranged from sanctions relief for Moscow, to dirt on Hillary Clinton. Almost all of them were technically illegal, a violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in their own foreign policy. Trouble is, the Logan Act has never been successfully applied to anyone. In today’s Kardashian America, it looks almost quaint. Flynn was once a decent intelligence officer, but his behaviour has on occasion lurched towards the Trumpian. In 2010, he wrote a critique of allied intelligence in Afghanistan, which, unusually, he published openly through a Washington foundation. I found it impressive until a colleague pointed out that he had been the allies’ J-2, or head of intelligence, in Afghanistan at the time. So, rather than critiquing after the fact, why didn’t he try to correct when he was in charge? Like Trump, he did everything except take responsibility. In 2012, FLynn was appointed director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. As DIA director, he set in motion a carousel of reorganisation and chaos, unusual even for DIA, which has suffered more than its share of directors who seek to signify their intent in that most Washingtonian of ways—by reorganising. His tenure was such a failure that, in 2014, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and the then-secretary of defense, Robert Gates, had to fire him. The special investigator, Robert Mueller, has played the classic prosecutor’s game: picking off the most vulnerable and strong-arming them into cooperation. Defending himself would have bankrupted Flynn, especially since his erstwhile friend, Trump, had pointedly told his lawyers to make clear that the president wasn’t going to raise a dime for his defense. The crucial question is: who was sanctioning, perhaps encouraging, Flynn to consort with the Russians? The current fall girl, KT McFarland, is surely not the one—she after all was Flynn’s deputy at the time, and could hardly have directed her own boss. So Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, becomes the likely suspect. On current form, and knowing Mueller’s tenacity, I think it will emerge that Trump and Pence knew of, perhaps even encouraged, Flynn’s dalliance with Moscow. But then what? The president would stand accused of something like treason, but not be guilty of any punishable crime. In comparison, Nixon was found to have known of and encouraged a clear criminal act—breaking into Democratic headquarters at Watergate. Even then, though, impeachment was a political act, not a legal one. Its threat, one that induced the president to resign, depended on senior Republicans being prepared to countenance it. This time around, no such gumption is visible. Republicans on Capitol Hill have proven themselves lickspittles to the president. Two of the principals in any resign-or-be-impeached scenario, Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, and Senator John McCain, benefit from a press that glorifies them in the spirit of even-handedness. But Ryan has been more than happy to cosy up to Trump, while McCain, perhaps the most overrated person in Washington, seems determined to fall in with the president, on taxes for instance, even on his death-bed. During the transition, the president stayed loyal to Flynn despite warnings from, first, President Obama and then Sally Yates, the acting attorney general. Trump continues to protest too much about his involvement with Flynn and his own contacts with Russians. He is behaving like a man who is guilty. I have long suspected that the Russians have something on him, as the famous Steele dossier suggests. But even if that proves to be the case, past sexual hijinks, even on film courtesy of the Russian KGB, seem like something Trump could turn into a plus in his reality show presidency. And we know his supporters, including evangelicals who call themselves “Christian,” will forgive him anything. But there is something more there. And I’m betting Mueller will find it. Fasten your seatbelts.