WASHINGTON — For years, President Trump has used Twitter as his go-to public relations weapon, mounting a barrage of attacks on celebrities and then political rivals even after advisers warned he could be creating legal problems for himself.
Those concerns now turn out to be well founded. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is scrutinizing tweets and negative statements from the president about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, according to three people briefed on the matter.
.. Several of the remarks came as Mr. Trump was also privately pressuring the men — both key witnesses in the inquiry — about the investigation, and Mr. Mueller is examining whether the actions add up to attempts to obstruct the investigation by both intimidating witnesses and pressuring senior law enforcement officials to tamp down the inquiry.
.. Trump’s lawyers said. They argued that most of the presidential acts under scrutiny, including the firing of Mr. Comey, fall under Mr. Trump’s authority as the head of the executive branch and insisted that he should not even have to answer Mr. Mueller’s questions about obstruction.
But privately, some of the lawyers have expressed concern that Mr. Mueller will stitch together several episodes, encounters and pieces of evidence, like the tweets, to build a case that the president embarked on a broad effort to interfere with the investigation. Prosecutors who lack one slam-dunk piece of evidence in obstruction cases often search for a larger pattern of behavior, legal experts said.
.. the nature of the questions they want to ask the president, and the fact that they are scrutinizing his actions under a section of the United States Code titled “Tampering With a Witness, Victim, or an Informant,” raised concerns for his lawyers about Mr. Trump’s exposure in the investigation.
.. “If you’re going to obstruct justice, you do it quietly and secretly, not in public,” Mr. Giuliani said.
.. federal investigators are seeking to determine whether Mr. Trump was trying to use his power to punish anyone who did not go along with his attempts to curtail the investigation.
.. Investigators want to ask Mr. Trump about the tweets he wrote about Mr. Sessions and Mr. Comey and why he has continued to publicly criticize Mr. Comey and the former deputy F.B.I. director Andrew G. McCabe, another witness against the president.
.. They also want to know about a January episode in the Oval Office in which Mr. Trump asked the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, about reports that Mr. McGahn told investigators about the president’s efforts to fire Mr. Mueller himself last year.
.. Mr. Trump has navigated the investigation with a mix of public and private cajoling of witnesses.
.. Around the time he said publicly last summer that he would have chosen another attorney general had he known Mr. Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Mr. Trump tried behind closed doors to persuade Mr. Sessions to reverse that decision. The special counsel’s investigators have also learned that Mr. Trump wanted Mr. Sessions to resign at varying points in May and July 2017 so he could replace him with a loyalist to oversee the Russia investigation.
.. Mr. Trump issued an indirect threat the next day about Mr. Comey’s job. “It’s not too late” to ask him to step down as F.B.I. director, he said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network. The special counsel wants to ask the president what he meant by that remark.
.. Mr. Sessions, his aide told a Capitol Hill staff member, wanted one negative article a day in the news media about Mr. Comey, a person familiar with the meeting has said.
.. By the fall, Mr. Comey had become a chief witness against the president in the special counsel investigation, and Mr. Trump’s ire toward him was well established. His personal attacks evolved into attacks on Mr. Comey’s work, publicly calling on the Justice Department to examine his handling of the Clinton inquiry — and drawing the special counsel’s interest.
.. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have pushed back against the special counsel about the tweets, saying the president is a politician under 24-hour attack and is within his rights to defend himself using social media or any other means.
.. The president continues to wield his Twitter account to pummel witnesses and the investigation itself, ignoring any legal concerns or accusations of witness intimidation.
The guy they hoped would implicate Hillary Clinton doesn’t appear too reliable.
A former FBI informant who GOP lawmakers have claimed could implicate the Clintons in the so-called Uranium One scandal failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons or anyone else during a February 7 interview with staffers of three congressional committees
.. For months Republicans have said the informant, a former lobbyist named William D. Campbell, had explosive information regarding the sale of Uranium One
.. They claimed that Campbell could shed light on how Russians exerted influence over then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—allegedly steering money to her family foundation—in order to win approval of the sale.
.. During the meeting, Campbell admitted that he lacked knowledge of the interagency review process through which the sale was approved. Campbell said he “looked on Google to see” how the process worked, according to Democrats, who also note that he “identified no evidence that Secretary Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton, or anyone from the Obama Administration took any actions as a result of” Russian influence.
.. Campbell confirmed that account during his February interview, Democrats say. He told Hill staffers he “did not recall telling his FBI handlers about any statements regarding attempts to influence the Clintons.”
He also said that after bouts with cancer and alcohol problems, “I find today there are times when I remember things very clearly and there are times when my memory is hazy.”
.. Campbell’s new claims came after he hired Victoria Toensing, a conservative pundit known for virulently anti-Clinton views, as his attorney.
.. Last year, Campbell began asserting through Toensing that Tenex officials had told him they had leverage over Clinton and claiming they hired a lobbying firm, APCO, which also did work for the Clinton Foundation, to influence her.
But Campbell told Hill staffers last month that he “did not take seriously” those comments at the time. He said he considered them “vodka-arrogant talk.”
A year in, Trump has delivered on many of his specific promises, particularly where judicial appointments are concerned. At the same time, there’s a great deal of angst within religious circles about what his personal moral defects and his administration’s deep unpopularity mean for Christian cultural witness, and (among evangelicals, especially) whether the Trump era is setting up a kind of generational schism that will contribute to institutional Christianity’s crisis going forward.
.. John Zmirak: Thanks, Ross. So far, I must say that I’m genuinely pleased and impressed by Trump’s performance on most of the issues of concern to socially conservative voters and Christians. It contrasts sharply with how mainstream Republican candidates and presidents treated such voters.
.. Think back to 1996, when a handful of evangelical leaders were able to steer their flocks away from Pat Buchanan — who would have been their champion — to Bob Dole, who muttered reluctant compliance with a few of their interests, but clearly didn’t care a fig about abortion or other culture issues.
.. What we saw in 2016 is that a small group of “respectable” ministers or lobbyists no longer has the power to “deliver” Christian voters. And I think that’s a good, healthy thing. It gives us more leverage, as we seem to have with Trump.
Furthermore, and I have this from pastors who met with Trump for many hours: He genuinely listens to them. They’re the kind of people most playboys from Queens never encounter. He connected with some of them personally. He saw their concern for his soul. And he took and takes their concerns seriously.
Trump sees that the church is a big part of what made America great, and he sees that the state persecution that President Obama began hurts the country. I hope that he sees more, sees Christ as his savior. But in his role as Caesar, protecting our rights is quite enough.
.. I know it’s fashionable to scorn “mainstream” or “respectable” politicians or ministers, but these individuals at least had the virtue — as imperfect as they were — of a degree of personal honor and integrity. The church always must be mindful of its witness, and it can’t sacrifice its moral credibility to a culture by declaring, “I did it for the judges.”
I belong to the camp of Christians who are grateful when Trump makes good decisions but also quite mindful that our political witness is inseparable from our Christian witness. Thus, we have no option but to condemn his worst impulses and work to counteract his toxic influence on our larger culture. While policy positions are important (though Trump’s real impact is often vastly overblown), a nation is ultimately shaped far more by its culture than its policies, and we can never forsake the greater power for the lesser win.
Zmirak: I think it trivializes every issue of justice and life that we both care about to call them public policy “wins.” These are the fates and freedoms of millions of people we’re talking about. Unborn children. Nuns who serve the dying poor. Christians endangered by the Islamic State.
Douthat: But John, do you think there’s anything dangerous in the close association between a Christian politics and a president who is so proudly un-Christian in word and often deed?
Zmirak: Trump’s personal behavior in the past is of no real concern to me — nor to most of the Christian voters I’m in touch with. The more we find out about the disgusting actions in office of not just Bill Clinton but also John F. Kennedy … it helps encourage an Augustinian shrug.
French: I find it curious when Christians declare that the personal conduct of a president is of no real concern — especially since that’s the exact opposite message that Christians have been preaching for a generation. During the latter part of the Bill Clinton presidency, the Southern Baptist Convention put out a powerful statement on the importance of virtuous conduct in leaders, regardless of the state of the economy or the quality of the policymaking. Part of the justification for that statement was the biblical truth that God has judged nations in part for their unrighteous rulers. In other words, Christians can’t and shouldn’t laser-focus on policy but always must be mindful of eternity. Do we believe the Bible? Or are we just another interest group that makes cold, purely political calculations?
.. Zmirak: We’re fallen creatures trying to render unto Caesar as well as unto God. The nexus between those two is how we as sovereign citizens direct our government to treat the vulnerable.
We supported Constantine, and Harry Truman, and many other imperfect men who were better than the alternatives.
I don’t even expect saintly behavior of popes, much less of presidents. If the circumstances in which God saw fit to place us make us choose between the “squeaky clean” persecutor of the unborn and the Little Sisters of the Poor, or between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the choice is obvious. If we pick the persecutor because he pleases us more aesthetically, better fits our internal self-image, then we will answer for that on the Day of Judgment.
.. Douthat: So when we see polls showing a wild swing between the 1990s and the present in the share of evangelicals who think character matters in a politician, John, you think evangelicals are actually coming around to a more sensible view than they held in the Clinton era?
Zmirak: Yes. Just as evangelicals are coming around to using Natural Law (philosophical) arguments — rather than biblical proof-texts for their political positions, I think they are moving closer to the skeptical prudence that always marked Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican political thinking. Read what the Family Research Council, or National Organization for Marriage, publish on social issues. They’re not thumping the Bible. They’re citing Cicero and Aristotle.
French: I’m sorry, but the transformation of the evangelical public from the American segment most willing to hold leaders to a high moral standard to the segment now least likely smacks of pure, primitive partisanship, not high theological principle. Evangelicals aren’t coming around to using Natural Law at all. It’s pure instrumentalism. They’ve made an alliance of convenience. They haven’t made some sort of thoughtful intellectual shift.
.. A person can simultaneously say that Trump has accomplished good things while also seeking to hold him to a proper standard of conduct. My great disappointment during this first year of the Trump presidency is not with evangelicals who have rightly lauded, say, the Neil Gorsuch appointment, but rather with Christians who’ve defended, rationalized and excused conduct they’d never, ever condone in a Democrat. There are not two standards of morality depending on judicial appointments or regulatory reform.
.. For groups outside the Republican coalition, especially — like millennials drifting from religion and the churchgoing African-Americans who just turned out in droves to defeat Roy Moore — isn’t there the potential for them to be scandalized by lock step religious conservative support for a presidency that most of America sees as failed from Year 1?
.. Zmirak: I think much of the drift is driven not by politics but by internal scandals, like the sex abuse crisis among Catholics, and financial scandals among evangelicals.
.. But to politics: Were Christians scandalized by the spectacle of George W. Bush leaving Iraqi Christians to face jihadi violence? They should have been. It was far worse than anything Trump has done. I must confess that I am deeply embittered by the callousness that George W. Bush displayed toward the lives and liberties of religious minorities in Iraq — when as U.S. commander in chief, he had essentially absolute power over that occupied country. Of about one million Christians, some 900,000 were ethnically cleansed, most of them while our troops still occupied the country. I can put up with Donald Trump’s old Howard Stern tapes all day long, compared with that.
.. I don’t think the savage hatred of Donald Trump is mostly driven by his genuine excesses. Trump is serving as a catalyst to expose just how unhinged, anti-Christian, anti-Western, and frankly anti-rational the dominant factions on the left have become.
.. to blame the plight of Middle East Christians on Bush is to magnify his influence far too much. They have faced worse in countries America didn’t invade.
.. The Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton was far more important to Trump’s success than anything that George W. Bush did. Don’t forget, older Republicans (which is most Republicans) had been fighting Clinton for the better part of a quarter-century. The rallying cry of the G.O.P. wasn’t to turn the page on the Bush era but rather to defeat Hillary. As of today, Bush has a higher approval rating than Trump.
.. what would have to happen in the next few years to make you think that he’s right, and that the negative consequences of the Trumpist bargain will ultimately eclipse Neil Gorsuch’s influence on the legal and political order?
Zmirak: If Trump follows bad advice, and gets us mired in some foreign intervention where thousands of U.S. troops are bogged down in pursuit of ideological fantasies. Or if he betrays us on the courts. Or if he fails to get control of our borders. In other words, if he welches on any of the fundamental promises he made conservatives to gain our support, then I’ll feel cheated.
.. Douthat: But you really don’t worry at all about the possibility that 60 percent of the country will exit the Trump era convinced that conservative Christianity is just white identity politics?
Zmirak: No, I think that’s something that worries conservatives who mix in elite circles more than anyone else.
.. French: This is just false. I live in rural Tennessee, and the folks who go to my church don’t want conservative Christianity to be seen in this way. There’s nothing elitist about wanting the Christian church to be seen as a force for racial reconciliation. In fact, the most grass-roots churches in the U.S. — our Pentecostal churches — are often the most racially diverse. The white Christians I know are in fact scandalized at the idea that church identity is mixed with ethnic self-advocacy.
.. It seems to me that the example of Western Europe, where secularization is more advanced than here and Islamic radicalism a more systemic social problem, has played an underestimated role in shaping conservative Christian instincts in the Trump era. That the pro-Trump voices, like you, John, see him as a bulwark against the trends that have marginalized traditional Christianity in France or England or Germany, while Trump critics (like myself and perhaps you, David) fear that by leading American Christians into defeat and disrepute, he will hasten us down the road to European secularism. What do you both think of this frame?
.. French: There is no question that conservative Christians are very concerned about America’s secular drift, and they look to Europe’s thoroughly post-Christian culture with a degree of alarm, if not horror. This concern contributed to the “Flight 93 election” mind-set that cast the 2016 contest as the campaign that would decide our national fate. That election was the emergency that justified wholesale Christian shifts in political principle. Where Christians once demanded honesty, they rationalized lies. Where Christians once sought evidence of ideological consistency, they accepted incoherence.
.. Many of us, however, looked at these accommodations and asked a simple question. Where is your faith? Christians were acting as if not just the nation — but the church itself — was in peril based on the outcome of a single election. Yet is God not sovereign over all the nations, including our own? Doesn’t scripture repeatedly condemn the exact kinds of moral compromises that so many Christians made? Don’t we believe those scriptures?
.. There is nothing more dangerous to the church than a lack of faith. I don’t at all mind it when Christians cheer the good things that Donald Trump has done. I join them. I do mind when they rationalize and excuse bad acts out of a completely misguided and faithless sense of cultural and political necessity.
But Trump may not be :
prosecutors do not obtain warrants to toss the homes of people they regard as cooperating witnesses. When they are dealing with cooperators, prosecutors politely request that documents be produced, expecting the witness (and his lawyers) to comply. If some coercion is thought necessary, they will issue a grand-jury subpoena — an enforceable directive to produce documents, but one that still allows the witness to hand over the materials, not have them forcibly seized. The execution of a search warrant, even if it goes smoothly, is a show of force. It is intimidating
.. I also emphasized its timing: predawn. Under federal law, search warrants are supposed to be executed during daytime hours, when agents can be expected to knock on the door, announce their presence and purpose, and be admitted by the occupant of the premises. If investigators want to search a home before 6 a.m., they need permission. To get it, they have to convince the judge that, if the occupant were alerted to the agents’ presence before they entered, it is likely he would destroy evidence or pose a danger.
.. the FBI entered covertly by picking the lock on Manafort’s front door while he was sleeping. Clearly, that is not standard operating procedure — certainly not in a white-collar case.
.. Mueller’s investigators wanted to start grabbing files and copying hard drives before Manafort had a chance to call his lawyers or impede the search in any way. It was their way of saying Manafort could not be trusted. That’s intimidating, too.
.. Being a foreign agent is not a crime, per se; whether the relationship is criminal depends on the nature of the actions the operative takes (including whether he has disclosed his agency, as required by federal law)
.. So in a FISA investigation, it is not necessary to show probable cause that a suspect has committed a crime in order to search his home or tap his phone; all that is needed is probable cause that he is acting as an agent of a foreign power.
.. the FISA surveillance took place in two phases:
- the first, from 2014 until sometime in early 2016;
- the second in late 2016 into early 2017
.. Initially, I suspect Manafort was investigated as an agent of the Kremlin-backed Yanukovich faction in Ukraine
.. subsequently, Manafort was investigated as a suspected agent of Russia in connection with the Putin regime’s meddling in the 2016 election. I am betting the probable-cause evidence was overwhelming in Phase I, and sketchy in Phase II.
.. the federal government is not permitted to use FISA as a ruse to conduct what is actually a criminal investigation
.. the criminal search warrant executed at Manafort’s home on July 26 would give us insight into what suspected crimes Mueller is investigating. There would have to have been a probable-cause showing of specific crimes before a judge authorized the warrant; and the warrant itself had to have described the evidence the agents expected to find.
.. Manafort has a good idea of what Mueller is after, because the agents were required by law to provide Manafort with a copy of the warrant and an inventory of what they seized. These have not been publicly revealed.
.. Not only did Manafort meet with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators the day before the search; he was also scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the very day of the search. Indeed, by pouncing at the precise time Manafort was cooperating with Congress, Mueller’s investigators were able to seize binders of documents that Manafort and his counsel had prepared to assist his Senate testimony.
.. Obviously, though, Manafort would not have the same willingness to testify before Congress if he suddenly had reason to believe he was likely to be indicted (such that any testimony he gave could be used against him in a criminal case). The New York Times reports that Mueller’s prosecutors have told Manafort they intend to indict him. That, too, is intimidating.
.. CNN claims that the first FISA surveillance of Manafort was shut down in 2016, after over a year, due to “lack of evidence.” That is strange. Again, the point of FISA surveillance is not to build a criminal case but to gather intelligence about the foreign power for which the subject is allegedly acting as an agent. To say FISA surveillance was aborted for “lack of evidence” makes it sound like Manafort was not an agent for the Ukrainian faction after all.
.. Was any part of Steele’s claims used by the FBI in applications to the FISA court for surveillance and searches of Manafort or other Trump associates?
.. Was there correlation between (a) the intelligence generated by the FISA surveillance of Manafort and (b) the unmasking of people associated with the Trump campaign?
.. We should stress, of course, that if there was solid evidence of an espionage relationship between Manafort and the Kremlin, there would be nothing necessarily inappropriate in conducting surveillance and unmasking relevant American identities. The question is: Was there solid evidence?