the national interest

Trump’s Russia Scandal Is Becoming a Corruption Scandal

Jared Kushner, Donald Trump, Michael Flynn. Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

It may not have made “sense” for Donald Trump to fire James Comey, let alone for him to proceed to confess — in a public interview with Lester Holt, and then a putatively private meeting with Russian diplomats — that he did so in order to stop the Russia investigation. But the flurry of new reports over the last few days has given the puzzling sequence of events a more coherent shape. Within the warped internal logic of the Trump presidency — where it is taken as a given by essentially everybody around him that the president is impulsive and grotesquely ignorant — his shocking actions and statements have a more understandable basis.

A week ago, it appeared that the probe would center around the activities of a handful of figures who are now marginal within Trumpworld: former campaign manager Paul Manafort, foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and deposed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. That has changed. The Washington Post reported Friday that investigators have identified a current White House official as a person of interest in its financial probe. (The story hinted, and New York Magazine contributor Yashar Ali confirmed, that the person is Jared Kushner.)

Ominously for Trump, the Post reports that the FBI is “determining whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the president.” While Kushner’s public persona differs wildly from that of the president in the functioning of his real-estate work, he is a kind of mini Trump. Inheriting an empire from his father, he has operated in gray areas of the world economy and positioned himself to gain handsomely from Trump’s election. Kushner has met with the head of a Russian bank functionally controlled by Vladimir Putin. He appears to be eager to use his proximity to Trump to make a buck; his family business is exploiting the familial connection to sell visas in China. Trump himself has a long, nontransparent history of business dealings with organs of the Russian state. (Last week, The Wall Street Journal dug up another case.)

All this implies that the probe is scrutinizing the financial aspects of Trump’s business, which is a family operation. While some Trump advisers opposed the firing of Comey, Kushner reportedly advocated for it. That fact may seem strange if one thinks of Kushner as a voice of pragmatism. But it is easier to understand if you think of him as a figure sitting near the heart of a financial scandal, who harbors a strong interest in suppressing the investigation.

Another thing that has changed over the last week is the centrality of Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser. While his tenure was extremely brief, Flynn turns out to have been both far more corrupt and far closer to Trump than previously understood. An early supporter of Trump when the Republican establishment had frozen him out, Flynn publicly endorsed the Russian hacks of Democratic party emails. (“What they have decided to do and what they’ve decided to expose, you know, we’ll have to wait and see what’s about to come out,” he said. “What’s been exposed is the level of corruption. I mean, there’s an enormous level of corruption that’s been exposed in our election system.”)

During his brief tenure, Flynn engaged in breathtaking corruption of his official duties. As national security adviser, Flynn ordered a delay in a key assault on ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. The delay comported with the desires of the Turkish government, which had paid Flynn more than half a million dollars. While largely blotted out by the shock of daily revelations about Trump, in a normal news environment this revelation would have mushroomed into a first-tier scandal of its own. It is hard to think of a historical case in which a major American military action has been influenced so corruptly by a foreign power.

Flynn’s downfall took about 24 hours following revelations of Russian ties.

And while the broad contours of Flynn’s relations with Turkey and, especially, Russia have been known, the depths have not. One report found Russians boasting privately that they believed they could use Flynn to manipulate Trump. Another report, vindicating the first, reveals that Trump continues to profess loyalty to Flynn. The president regrets having fired him and remains angry at the investigation of his reported misdeeds. Yet another scoop recounts that Flynn told friends that Trump had contacted him after his firing and seemed to encourage him not to to flip. “I just got a message from the president to stay strong,” Flynn told friends last month.

What do these new revelations tell us? Flynn’s legal risk, and Trump’s personal investment in him, are both much higher than we understood. And we are seeing that financial corruption is playing a more central role in the scandal.

The official White House line maintains — or has tried to maintain — that the administration welcomes special prosecutor Robert Mueller and sees his work as a chance to dispel the cloud of suspicion needlessly hanging over the presidency. Their actions suggest a very different calculation. From Trump’s campaign to ensure the loyalty of his FBI director, to his subsequent firing of him, to his tweet-rages against the special prosecutor as an unfair witch hunt — all of this indicates high levels of panic in the Oval Office. Trump has almost certainly engaged in obstruction of justice for the simple reason that there is a lot of justice to obstruct.

Trump’s Russia Scandal Is Becoming a Corruption Scandal