How firing James Comey could still be Donald Trump's undoing

Robert Mueller is attempting to find out if Trump tried to thwart the federal investigation into Russian meddling.

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“It is almost always the cover up rather than the event that causes trouble,” once remarked the late US senator Howard Baker. Having served as a member of the US Senate's special committee investigating the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in 1972, he knew what he was talking about.

Baker had seen closely how Richard Nixon’s obstruction of the Watergate investigation had effectively ended his presidency. His words may have some resonance today, as investigators try to determine whether Donald Trump tried to hinder the federal probe into reported Russian interference during the 2016 US presidential election.

Different congressional committees are conducting their own probes, but all eyes are on the federal investigation led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the US Justice Department. Besides seeking to determine the scope of the suspected Russian interference, Mueller is trying to ascertain if individuals associated with the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government, as well as whether there are any compromising Trump business activities linked to Russia.

Mueller is also attempting to find out if Trump tried to thwart the federal investigation conducted by James Comey, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the early months of Trump's presidency. Trump fired Comey in May 2017, citing the FBI chief's decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails days before the 2016 election. Since Trump had repeatedly capitalised on Clinton's email irregularities, this explanation rang hollow. 

If Trump did try to obstruct the investigation, it should be relatively easy to prove. By contrast, pursuing the other lines of inquiry – Russian meddling, conspiracy and dubious business deals – are unlikely to be worth the effort. Mueller will not have access to some of the relevant Russian information sources and his findings will be of modest significance. 

Although any Russian involvement is particularly galling for many Americans possessing a residual Cold War mindset, it should not be surprising. Historically, a wide range of countries, from Nazi Germany to China have tried to influence US elections. Even Britain tried to nudge America into the Second World War. Although it is illegal for foreign nationals to contribute money to American political campaigns, the landmark 2010 US Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the door to foreign-controlled corporations donating to the fundraising committees known as "super-pacs". American policymakers are also not immune to the influence of foreign-funded lobbyists, advocacy groups and think tanks in Washington. Thus, Russian efforts are not exceptional.

In this permeable political environment, proving a conspiracy will be hard. Even if Mueller succeeds in uncovering a plot, it is unlikely to implicate Trump directly. Unlike his family members and campaign staff, Trump apparently did not attend any private meetings with Russian officials during the election campaign. It will be tough to prove what he knew about those meetings. 

Revelations of questionable business deals are also unlikely to affect Trump. Most people are already aware that business leaders like him seek profits amorally. And it would be surprising for the US government not to have already known about any such activities, given his pre-presidency celebrity.

However, if Mueller determines that Trump intentionally tried to obstruct the federal investigation, Trump could face impeachment, as did President Bill Clinton for lying to investigators about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Some argue that Trump’s subsequent firing of Comey even constitutes rule-breaking.

In a recent interview, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said that firing Comey was the biggest mistake in “modern political history”. Small wonder that in the last few weeks the White House has been smearing Comey publicly to undermine his credibility. A show-down may be looming. Mueller has requested White House documents relating to Comey’s firing and Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, who had Russian contacts.. His team has also started interviewing White House staff.

For now, the White House seems to have adopted as its strategy long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone’s motto: “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.” Stone was once a member of Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President, a group whose members were involved in the Watergate break-in. If Trump did not bend or break the rules, this strategy is unwarranted. If he did, it will be futile, just as it was for Nixon.

Arslan Malik teaches at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, outside Washington, D.C. Until earlier this year, he worked at the US Department of State