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The Russia Investigations: Knife Fights Over Feds, Trump Jr., Manafort And More

A handful of demonstrators held signs outside the federal courthouse where Michael Flynn's plea hearing was held last week.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
A handful of demonstrators held signs outside the federal courthouse where Michael Flynn's plea hearing was held last week.

This week In the Russia investigations: Downshift from strategic war to knife fight, top G-Men on his back foot as lawmakers engage in oversight, Trump Jr. clammed up in Congress.

Now, a knife fight

Not long ago, this saga was about Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's surveying the battlefield like a general and with one swift coup — getting Michael Flynn to turn state's evidence — changing the whole strategic picture.

Then came a strange chain of events resulting in a key concession by the White House — that President Trump knew in real time that Flynn had likely lied to the FBI — that further altered the battle space in a fundamental way.

This week, however, the imbroglio was more like a knife fight inside a telephone booth.

House Republicans slashed Mueller after revelations that he reassigned a top FBI investigator who sent anti-Trump text messages to a colleague. Mueller's office slashed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — revealing his collaboration with someone it said has ties to Russian intelligence.

Trump helped the metaphor when he complained about the abilities of the FBI and said its reputation was in " Tatters — worst in History!" The bureau's new director, Christopher Wray, tried to defend himself and his agents in Congress. Meanwhile, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. irked House Intelligence Committee members by appearing once more — but not talking.

Above all, it became clear how swiftly the never-ending Russia imbroglio can shift from a big, sweeping phase into intense tactical skirmishing.

Trump Jr. gives Hill the Heisman

The president's eldest son declined to tell House Intelligence Committee members about a discussion he had with his father about the much-discussed meeting in Trump Tower last year with a Russian delegation.

Because lawyers were in the mix — present for the discussion or otherwise involved, according to subsequent accounts — Trump Jr. said his conversation with the president was protected by attorney-client privilege, as Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report for CNN.

That is not how that works, complained the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Adam. Schiff of California. "I don't believe you can shield communications between individuals merely by having an attorney present," Schiff said, according to Politico.

But that is the response Trump Jr. gave and the House Intelligence Committee did not try to compel him to say more — plus the Republican leader of the panel's Russia investigation, Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, didn't object to Trump Jr.'s answer or lack thereof.

It isn't clear whether Trump Jr. has given the same response to Mueller's team or would attempt it if he were asked.

Tough day for Wray

The nation's top G-Man has not been a 10th as visible as James Comey was. He is stuck in the unenviable place of serving as the hand-picked choice of a president whose camp is being investigated by the bureau's special agents. And he seems to generally have much less of a taste for the limelight than did the 6-foot-8-inch Comey, who is also now a regular Twitter and Instagram commentator.

So when Trump slammed the FBI, Wray at first said nothing. Then he circulated an internal message with an attaboy for the bureau that its public affairs staff would not give reporters — except for the obligatory copy leaked to The New York Times. When Wray walked into the House Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing on Thursday, he was on his back foot.

"Reports on the bias of some of the career agents and lawyers on current special counsel Mueller's team are also deeply troubling to a system of blind and equal justice," said committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. "Said investigations must not be tainted by individuals imposing their own personal political opinions."

Wray defended the FBI and the special counsel's office. He referred several times to the ongoing probe by the Justice Department's inspector general into how the FBI conducted its investigation of the Clinton private email server. And he gave no ground to demands by Republicans for at least one more special counsel to look into everything that has taken place over the past nearly two years, as NPR's Miles Parks reports.

The matter is not settled, however, and as Devlin Barrett and Sean Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post, Trump's allies are expected to keep up "a multi-front attack" on Mueller and the FBI.

Mueller's jujitsu

Manafort had a plan to try to burnish his image in the public square, but Mueller's office flipped that on its back. Prosecutors used a court filing for U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson to not only withdraw their support for a bail agreement they had negotiated with Manafort's lawyer, but also to complain that Manafort planned to violate Berman Jackson's gag order with an op-ed column on his own behalf.

And, oh, by the way, Manafort's putative co-author on the column is a Russian with ties to the Kremlin's intelligence services, Mueller's office said.

A person close to Manafort, who asked not to be identified, told NPR's Ryan Lucas thatManafort didn't lose his First Amendment rights just because he had been indicted. Attorneys in the case were, however, instructed not to talk about it publicly, the government complained.

Mueller's team might have more in store for Manafort and his former business partner, Rick Gates. An attorney for Gates said this week that he couldn't be sure more charges are not coming; the two men are due back in federal court in D.C. on Monday.


Flynn told contact Russia sanctions would be "ripped up," per House Dem

Then-national security adviser Flynn texted a onetime business partner gleefully on Inauguration Day and said sanctions against Russia would be "ripped up" early in the new Trump administration. That is according to Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, who cited the account of an anonymous whistleblower.

Meaning what?Flynn and the Trump camp may have already decided by the time Trump took his oath of office not only that they would reset with Russia — which had just attacked the 2016 presidential election — but also to eliminate the whole sanctions regime then in force. There appear to have been many reasons; one, according to Cummings, was Flynn's business relationship with people who needed those sanctions to go away in order to move ahead with a big potential nuclear power deal in the Middle East. Mueller's team may uncover others.

Reports: Mueller subpoenaed Trump bank records. White House: No he didn't

Mueller's office has issued a subpoena for Trump records to German finance giant Deutsche Bank, according to several press reports that quoted bank officials and U.S. officials. No it hasn't, Trump attorneys and the White House said. Deutsche Bank has made no comment beyond telling a German newspaper that it cooperates with all official inquiries.

Meaning what?If Mueller has subpoenaed the bank — or asked it for information under some other guise about the Trump family — that could suggest a major new direction in his inquiry. Trump owes Deutsche Bank at least $130 million, according to recent financial disclosures, and possibly a great deal more. U.S. officials told Reuters that they want to know whether Deutsche Bank has sold any of the debt instruments it owns of Trump's to Russia's state-controlled VEB or other Russian banks. Trump and his aides have said they think the president's business dealings should be off limits for the Mueller squad.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.