The unfolding story of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign has played out like a daytime soap opera.
It all began with the question of the scope of Russian interference. Then came the revelation that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, while he was working for the campaign of President Donald Trump, spoke to the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Flynn was forced to resign. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who neglected to report at his confirmation hearing that he also spoke to the Russian ambassador, recused himself from the Russia investigation when his blunder came to light.
Sessions’ moving aside shifted attention to former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, whom the Trump administration tried to block from testifying to Congress. When Yates did testify, she told senators that Flynn had opened himself to blackmail by the Russians.
Before we had time to digest Yates’ revelations, Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, who was heading up an investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties with Russia. The first reason given for the firing was Comey’s poor handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation. That explanation morphed into Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo calling for Comey’s dismissal. Finally, the justification became Trump deciding to “just do it” because of “this Russia thing.”
That back and forth came right before Trump shared with Russian officials classified information reportedly provided by Israeli intelligence. Then came revelations that Trump asked Comey to shut down the Russia investigation and that Trump told the Russians that Comey was “a real nut job.” And he supposedly went on to say: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Finally — unless more comes to light between the writing of this piece and its publication — Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Although Rosenstein appears to have made a good move with that appointment, his reputation was damaged by a disclosure that he knew Comey was going to be fired before he wrote the memo calling for his firing.
By law a special counsel is not completely independent and can be fired. So it remains to be seen what Mueller’s work will bring. But Mueller comes to his new role highly respected by both parties and bearing — at the moment — an unsullied reputation. According to news sources, his investigation and the FBI probe will become one and the same, and may even lead to indictments. And some reports say that a grand jury is already looking at the reams of evidence amassed under Comey’s watch.
Quite a saga, with more to come. And we are only four months into the Trump presidency.