Evidence Mounts that White House Anticipates Damaging Results from Russia Investigation

As the Russia investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and Congress plow ahead, are there telltale signs that the White House is worried about the eventual findings? According to an assortment of news reports, several signs suggest that President Donald Trump’s inner circle is increasingly concerned about where the Russia investigations could lead. The signs include the preparation of contingency plans, like the resignation of Jared Kushner in anticipation of revelations of the June 9, 2016 meeting with Russians and the need for support from Republican senators if the investigation goes south for Trump. Earlier signs included Trump’s desire to fire Mueller and his contemplating sweeping pardons, including for himself.

Here are more recent data points to consider.

1. Trump and Kushner rejected White House Counsel’s advice on protocols to avoid coordinating stories on Russia investigation; White House Counsel contemplated resigning 

White House Counsel Don McGahn had to be talked out of resigning by other White House officials, the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas, Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus reported on Friday. White House officials were concerned that McGahn would resign because the President Trump and Jared Kushner would not follow protocols, as he had advised, to avoid meetings that “could be construed by investigators as an effort to coordinate their stories, three people familiar [with] the matter said.”

It would likely take a significant infraction for the administration’s senior lawyer to veer toward resignation. It is also revealing that Trump and Kushner would defy the White House Counsel’s advice to take steps to ensure against coordination or even the appearance of coordination of their stories involving the Russia investigation. On the one hand, perhaps the two thought they had nothing to hide. On the other hand, if they had nothing to hide then why risk legal exposure for potentially coordinating stories and why risk the relationship with McGahn?

Note that the WSJ report does not end with Trump and Kushner complying. It ends with McGahn being satisfied that another legal team was brought into the White House to handle the affairs related to the Russia investigation.

2. Trump legal team prepared for Kushner resignation in light of June 9 Russia meeting

When the Trump inner circle anticipated that the news media would report the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians , here’s what they did: Members of the legal team prepared “a statement that would explain a potential Kushner resignation,” the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas, Rebecca Ballhaus, Erica Orden and Anton Troianovski reported.

Once again, Kushner could have resigned due to the distraction created even if the surrounding allegations did not have underlying merit. And the prepared statement reportedly toed that line in terms of the stated public rationale for his departure. But it would be unlikely for Kushner to step down without there being underlying merit to the concerns raised about his actions. What’s more, the lawyers’ anticipated the need for his resignation even before the news broke, which is even more suggestive of misconduct.

3. Bannon thought/said there was enough evidence on Kushner to sink the president’s son-in-law

Stephen Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist and chairman of his presidential campaign, apparently thought there was enough damning evidence on Kushner to bring him down. Buzzfeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo reported, shortly before Bannon’s departure from the White House, that “the former Breitbart mogul, a source close to the administration said, told people behind Kushner’s back that ‘hopefully Jared will go down in things pertaining to Russia,’ or real estate holdings that were increasingly under a legal microscope.”

There are other possible, though less likely, explanations. Bannon may have been telling a fib to outsiders to undermine Kushner. Also, the cloud over Kushner could be a sufficient distraction for the White House that he would eventually need to step aside, even if there were no underlying merit to the more serious allegations against him.

4. Kushner may have advised Trump to appease Republican Senators in case the Russia investigation goes south

Kushner reportedly advised his father-in-law to back Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary, HuffPost’s Vicky Ward reported. One of the reasons may have been shore up support from the Republican leaders in the Senate. “He’s going to need them if things go south in the Russia investigation,” a Bannon ally told Ward.

It is questionable whether “allies of Bannon” can be trusted sources in this regard due to the dispute between Bannon and Kushner. That said, this particular statement hurts Trump as much if not more than it hurts Kushner by suggesting the prospect that the Russia investigation will produce damaging conclusions. It is curious that Trump supported Strange in the primaries when Roy Moore was the more natural fit and headed for a highly probable victory.

5. Roger Stone predicted (or: threatened) that congressional members should fear for their lives if they vote for impeachment

In late August, in answer to a TMZ reporter’s questions, Roger Stone said that members of Congress would endanger their lives if they voted to impeach Trump. Stone said on camera:

“Try to impeach him, just try it. You will have a spasm of violence in this country, and insurrection, like you’ve never seen. … This is not 1974. The people will not stand for impeachment. A politician who votes for it would be endangering their own life. There will be violence on both sides. I’ll make this clear: I am not advocating violence, but I am predicting it.”

If those remarks were meant as an implicit threat, presumably Stone would say them only if he worried there was a real likelihood that congressional members may eventually vote to impeach the president.

Finally, in light of the above data points, it is worth remembering that Kushner and Stone reportedly each advised Trump to fire James Comey as FBI director in charge of the Russia investigation. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016) Follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.