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The Russia Investigations: How Solid Is Trump's Support From The Hill's GOP Leaders?

An important new question in Washington, D.C., is about the strength of the foundation under the support the president has enjoyed from the United States Capitol.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
An important new question in Washington, D.C., is about the strength of the foundation under the support the president has enjoyed from the United States Capitol.

This week in the Russia investigations: How different is the congressional situation now, really? How much might Moscow have depended on straw donors in the United States?

Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral looks lovely in the picture postcards, but the ancient church is sinking.

After another head-spinning week in Donald Trump's Washington, an important new question is about the strength of the foundation under the support the president has enjoyed from another iconic edifice: The United States Capitol.

In the pictures, it looks strong. Trump hosted top Republicans from the House and Senate this week and posted a photo in which everyone gave a big grin and a can-do thumbs-up.

That visit followed the announcement by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that he would not run for re-election again in this midterm year, marking his impending departure not only from Hill leadership but also from Congress itself. Did that change Ryan's tune about supporting legislation to protect Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller from possibly being fired by the president?

No, not a bit — Ryan told reporters that he trusts the assurances he has gotten from the White House that Mueller will be allowed to do his work unmolested.

Same story in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., answers every question about a protect-Mueller bill with a very similar answer: Because the special counsel won't be dismissed, there is no need for legislation to safeguard him; next question.

Here's the thing, though: Behind the answers in the press conferences and the smiles in the photos, this foundation may be sinking.

Ryan is a short-timer. He is giving up everything he has and so he has nothing to lose. He is "free" now, as Third Way national security boss Mieke Eoyang suggested this week. So although his position hasn't changed, the Ryan who might evaluate how to respond to a crisis involving the leadership of the Justice Department would be a different man.

With his own future now set, Ryan would no longer need to respond to an extreme situation by thinking how to preserve his relationship with Trump or help his members defend themselves.

McConnell is still in that situation; he has a much more favorable map in 2018 than the GOP has in the House and is believed to have a much stronger chance of keeping or increasing his majority in the "world's greatest deliberative body." He too has kept his public position the same on Mueller, but in his case, too, things are changing behind the scenes.

Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up legislation that would protect Mueller. McConnell probably won't permit it to come to a vote in the full chamber. But if it were to pass the Judiciary Committee, that would leave it one step away from the floor, creating a weapon that, in the future, McConnell could pick up and fire quickly — quick in Senate terms — if he wanted.

Trump and the White House can see all this the same as anyone else. And the administration also must play this game on two levels: For political reasons, Trump always must hold open the possibility of firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or even FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Republicans have been scourging them for months. Among Trump supporters, including several members of Congress, they are the top of the Public Enemies list. For Trump or the White House to publicly rule out firing them would be political malpractice, whatever the administration or its allies may privately believe.

But Ryan and McConnell say they have assurances from the highest level. And because they say that is so, they've never explained what they would do if Trump did fire Rosenstein in order to constrain Mueller or seek to fire Mueller directly. With each new headline or report out of the White House, however, that question for Ryan and McConnell takes on new urgency.

Fakery and "infiltration"

Even after more than a year of the Russia investigations by Congress and the Justice Department, many basic factual questions remain unanswered. Partisan craziness and official secrecy mean Americans still don't know so many things.

How many tentacles were part of the "active measures" attack that began with the initial reconnaissance by Russian operatives in the United States in 2014? Everyone knows about cyberattacks, information warfare and the theft and release of confidential materials.

But what about the secret phony documents and "infiltration" of political organizations?

Item: Former FBI Director James Comey confirms in his inescapable new book that some kind of secret foreign intelligence was making its way around inside national security circles during the 2016 campaign.

He doesn't detail it, but as The Washington Post has reported in the past, it appeared to be some kind of fraudulent account involving winks and nods between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

If this was an old-school active measures fake document, how many others have there been? How long have the Russians been seeding them into U.S. intelligence? How many foreign policy or other decisions have American leaders taken based on this kind of fakery?

Item:The National Rifle Association acknowledged this week that it has fewer than two dozen Russian-linked members and has raised about $2,500 from them since 2015, as NPR's Tim Mak reported. That is more foreign support than it has acknowledged in the past, but it does not add up to a world-changing stream of support directed at the U.S. election system.

This is important because of the earlier suggestions that the NRA might have been one of the political organizations targeted for "infiltration" as part of Russia's attack on the 2016 election. And although the NRA has acknowledged its ties to a Russian political figure who was placed under sanction, the group has roundly disclaimed any suggestion it might have been the arm of any foreign influence operation. According to the funding numbers it provided, the Russians who support the NRA are mostly paying for normal memberships and magazine subscriptions.

That could mean the NRA is in the clear. Or if "infiltration" was or remains a real phenomenon, it might have worked in ways we can't yet understand.

With all the discussion recently about Russians flying around bags of cash, one way Moscow might have sought influence with political organizations is through "straw donors:" Oligarch A flies his private jet into the United States carrying paper money to avoid creating electronic records of a money transfer. A then deposits the cash into the bank account of Trusted Agent B.

If B is a legitimate political action committee or an American intermediary, B can begin making donations to political organizations or candidates. B is a "straw donor," and such contributions are against the law. Foreign contributions are illegal too.

Will the feds ever make this case against anyone in the Russia matter? And what would have been the objectives of Russian influencemongers in buying their way into the American political system like this?

Or will "infiltration" turn out to be a dead end?

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.
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