This weekend, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sought to tamp down reports that special counsel Robert Mueller had impaneled a grand jury in the Russia probe, and that the investigation has widened to "focus on possible financial crimes, some unconnected to the 2016 elections…”
Rosenstein assured Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that this isn’t a "fishing expedition,” but he did concede that if Mueller finds "something outside that scope” he would need "to come to the acting attorney general, at this time me, for permission to expand his investigation.”
In other words, Rosenstein could green light an investigation into a possible crime that had nothing to do with Russia. Trump himself has said that any look at his finances not directly tied to Russia and the election would constitute the crossing of a "red line.”
This is a major development, but it is potentially even more explosive when you consider two related subplots that also developed this week.
First, the leaked conversations between President Trump and other world leaders. The transcripts clearly demonstrated a cynical president who was more concerned with appearances than with substance. For example, it became clear that Trump’s campaign mantra about making Mexico "pay for the wall” was always just a political ploy.
The second story was Donald Trump’s speech in Huntington, West Virginia, where he said that Democrats "can’t beat us at the voting booths so they are trying to cheat you out of the… future that you want. They're trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”
The combination of these three stories has me concerned about an entirely plausible scenario that could further divide our nation.
Attorney Harvey Silvergate argues that every professional in America inadvertently commits three felonies a day. I’m assuming that this number is much higher for a casino magnate who operates in, say, Atlantic City. My point here is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump never colluded with Russians, yet may have taken some liberties that a grand jury with unlimited time and resources—not to mention subpoena power!—might discover.
Think of it. A special prosecutors’ raison d’etre is to find something. That’s how an Arkansas land deal leads to a blue dress—which, in turn, led Kenneth Starr to perjury. There are reportedly 16 highly skilled lawyers working with Mueller on this probe. If he does find something that has to do solely with finances, how do you tell them him look the other way simply because it now looks like mission creep?
Allowing the political ramifications to guide such decisions is also fraught with danger. Former FBI director James Comey seems to have made this mistake. It has been suggested that he worried about how it would look if it was revealed after Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election that she had been under investigation. Indeed, this would have fueled conspiracy theories on the Right about a cover-up.
One could always argue that investigating a White House is inherently divisive and difficult. Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon partly to help heal these wounds. But, in some ways—starting with the internet and alternative media outlets to give us alternative "facts”—America feels even more fragile today.
Certainly, it would be hard to equate the Democratic base, circa 1998, to today’s Trump base. The latter already feels put-upon and left behind by cosmopolitan (to borrow a word from Trump aide Stephen Miller) elites.
What is more, Donald Trump really does have some legitimate gripes about leaks coming from what his supporters see as a "deep state.” Doesn’t a president have the right to expect a private conversation with the leader of another nation will be kept private? And doesn’t the leaking of this information lend credence to concerns about an "inside job” to take him down?
Further complicating matters is the fact that Donald Trump has also been laying the groundwork to establish this as a predicate. Just as he issued a preemptive strike before both the Republican primary and the general election by warning it would prove the game was "rigged” if he didn’t win it, so he has poisoned the water of this investigation.
Granted, if Mueller has the goods, that should be enough. But if this looks like some sort of Al Capone thing where they can’t bust him for anything but tax evasion, a lot of Americans—maybe a third of us—would feel like this was an attempt to nullify the 2016 election results. And they might have a pretty good point.