The players in Trump’s Russia scandal
The shock dismissal of the FBI chief James Comey has triggered days of turmoil in Washington and thrust the spotlight back onto allegations that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with a Russian bid to sway last year’s presidential election.
Here are the key players in the sprawling affair:
– Trump’s White House –
The man at the center of the storm, Trump himself, has never managed to shake off suspicions that his shock election victory rode on the back of a Russian campaign to hurt rival Hillary Clinton.
The president rejects talk of ties between his campaign and Moscow as a “made-up story” — and yet it’s a story that he appears unable to leave alone.
Trump insists he is committed to letting the various inquiries into the matter play out, but also admitted the FBI’s Russia probe was a factor in his decision to fire Comey — undercutting the official line that he sacked him for mishandling the probe into Clinton’s emails last year.
– The Federal Bureau of Investigation –
FBI director James Comey has a reputation as a disciplined, apolitical investigator. But Republicans appreciated the damage he caused to Clinton’s election bid last year, and Trump kept him on in the job. But as Comey turned his focus to investigating allegations of Trump-Russia collusion, the president grew increasingly unhappy.
In announcing his dismissal, the White House declared that FBI staff had lost confidence in him. That was sharply rebutted by the agency’s interim director, Andrew McCabe, who said Comey still “enjoyed broad support within the FBI.”
By firing Comey — after quizzing him to find out if he was personally under investigation — some experts say Trump may have exposed himself to accusations of obstructing a federal probe, the charge that brought down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal four decades ago.
McCabe has assured Congress the FBI probe would not be derailed by Comey’s ouster.
– The Justice Department –
The Justice Department is a weak point in Trump’s support base. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a close ally of the president, was forced to recuse himself from any Russia-linked investigations for failing to disclose he met the Russian envoy to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, last year.
That leaves his deputy Rod Rosenstein, a quiet prosecutor with no record of political controversy, with overall responsibility for the probe by the FBI, which is part of the Justice Department.
Rosenstein was thrust into the spotlight when Trump and Sessions cited a report he wrote as the rationale to fire Comey, and is to appear before the full Senate next week to explain his actions.
– Congress –
Trump’s Republican Party controls Congress, and remains a bulwark against any possible push to force him from office. Initial Russia probes by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives moved slowly because, Democrats allege, their Republican heads stalled anything that threatened the new administration.
But some Republicans like veteran Senator John McCain have sided with Democrats in calling for an independent inquiry in the wake of Comey’s dismissal.
The committee probes have meanwhile picked up pace. On Tuesday Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn was issued a subpoena by the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the panel has invited Comey to appear next week for what could — if he accepts — prove explosive testimony.
– The Trump campaign –
If anyone ends up in court in the Russian scandal, it could be a member of Trump’s campaign team. In focus in the various probes are Flynn, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and one-time foreign affairs advisor Carter Page.
Cloest to Trump, Flynn is being investigated for accepting $33,000 to appear at a gala in Moscow with Putin, in addition to contacts with Russia’s Kislyak which cost him his White House job.
Could they pose a threat to the White House? Flynn has offered to testify in Congress in exchange for immunity, though what he might say is unknown.
– The Intelligence community –
Try as he may, Trump can’t ignore the view of his spy chiefs. Not one of the heads of Washington’s big-initial intelligence agencies, the CIA, FBI, DNI, DIA, and NSA, has any doubt that Moscow, specifically President Vladimir Putin, plotted the disruption of the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
– Russia –
Putin’s man in Washington, Ambassador Kislyak, popped up everywhere on the Republican side during the campaign: attending the party convention, meeting with Sessions, chatting with Flynn. It was his calls with Flynn in December on Russia sanctions — wiretapped by US intelligence — that led the Justice Department to suspect Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
But US intelligence chiefs see Putin himself as the ultimate catalyst of Washington’s chaos, mastermind of an effort to put Trump in the White House — a narrative consistently rejected by the US president.