At least that we know of.
In one of the many signs that things aren’t going well for President Donald Trump, it’s become genuinely difficult to keep up with all the different government investigations related to his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia and its attempts to sway the 2016 election.
These investigations, however, can be broken down into three categories:
- First, the intertwined Justice Department investigation, now led by a special counsel, into the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and, reportedly, the possible cover-up.
- Second, the investigations led by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which are broadly looking at Russian intervention in the 2016 election.
- Third, the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have been looking into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s conduct specifically — and have recently expanded their inquiry to the circumstances surrounding former FBI Director James Comey’s firing.
These differences matter. They affect both the scope of the investigations and their potential consequences. The Justice Department investigation could lead to criminal charges, for example, while the House and Senate variants could lead to impeachment.
It’s still too early to say whether any of that will happen or how far the investigations will go. But here’s what we know so far about each of them.
The Justice Department investigation
What’s under investigation: Officially, special counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is now leading the inquiry, is investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as crimes that may take place during the course of the investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and witness intimidation.
This is a broad set of criteria — one that could, conceivably, include whether Trump broke the law when he allegedly pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn, a prime subject of the FBI’s investigation at the time, and subsequently fired Comey. Indeed, Matthew Schofield and Lesley Clark reported for McClatchy that members of Congress were told by the deputy attorney general that the investigation now includes the possible cover-up.
It’s worth noting, too, that there are multiple lines of FBI inquiry into Flynn. One of them is part of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia; the FBI has also looked into Flynn’s lobbying on behalf of Turkey and the fact that he lied about the subject of his phone calls with the Russian ambassador. It’s theoretically possible Trump could have been referring to any or all of these inquiries while speaking with Comey.
The potential consequences: Legally, it all depends on the findings. If Mueller finds enough evidence, he could try to indict and convict anyone in the Trump campaign. That may include Trump, although there’s generally a consensus among legal experts that Trump could not be prosecuted until after he’s out of office — with a big caveat that this has never actually been tested in court, so the underlying assumption could be wrong.
“It’d be hard for him to go after Trump directly for all sorts of reasons,” Josh Chafetz, who studies the intersection of law and politics at Cornell Law School, told me. “But he could do an awful lot of damage to Trump without ever filing charges against Trump. Remember: In Watergate, [President Richard] Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator, but none of the special prosecutors actually tried to indict Nixon.”
A big caveat is the special counsel is much weaker than previous special prosecutors have been. A federal law passed in the aftermath of Watergate shielded special prosecutors, who were then appointed and overseen by a special court. But Congress let that law expire after people on both parties concluded that it actually gave special prosecutors too much independence — essentially letting them infinitely expand the scope of an investigation.
The result is the special counsel can now be fired by the attorney general (or, in this case, the deputy attorney general, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself), who, in turn, can be fired by the president. So the president could push the acting attorney general to dismiss the special counsel if he didn’t like where the investigation was going.
This, however, seems very unlikely to happen, because it would make Trump and the Justice Department look really, really bad. After all, things didn’t go well for Nixon when he fired the special prosecutor for Watergate during the Saturday Night Massacre; it’s what caused things to spiral out of control toward his resignation.
That’s why, Chafetz said, “as a practical matter, [the special counsel] has a great deal of independence, or at least a great deal of job security.”
The process: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein just appointed Mueller to head the investigation this week. But the Department of Justice has been conducting its investigation for much longer — which is why the firing of FBI Director Comey inspired such a big backlash about Trump meddling in a federal investigation.
So far, though, we don’t know how far along the investigation is. Some reports suggest that grand jury investigations are underway. And Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky reported for the Washington Post that a current senior White House official is a “significant person of interest” in the investigation — although that doesn’t necessarily mean this person is a suspect or target of the investigation, but could be, instead, just a person giving information to investigators.
But since these types of investigations are conducted largely out of the public spotlight, it’s hard to say when we’ll see any official conclusions, particularly indictments, trials, and verdicts. Generally, these kinds of FBI investigations can take a long time — potentially years. And unlike previous special prosecutors, Mueller’s final report will be delivered to the Justice Department and may never be made public.
The Intelligence Committee investigations
What’s under investigation: Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are broadly investigating Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. The inquiries could end up uncovering crimes, but they could also include issues that aren’t criminal — such as whether better policies or plans could have stopped Russia’s intervention.
The potential consequences: The worst outcome for Trump is impeachment — if the Intelligence Committees decide there’s evidence that Trump was involved in or aware of Russia’s attempts to influence the election.
Chafetz, however, argued that’s unlikely, particularly under a Republican-controlled House and Senate. The more likely outcome, he said, is a continued wave of disclosures that politically damage Trump and perhaps congressional Republicans.
“Other than announcing an indictment or something like that, a special prosecutor is going to do most of his work in private,” Chafetz explained. “But a congressional committee can hold open hearings and frequently [does] hold open hearings. That leads to sound bites that get played in the news … and that really can have the possibility of swaying public opinion.”
There’s also a chance that basically nothing comes out of the investigations, but that lawmakers on both sides simply use them for political grandstanding.
The process: Both the House and Senate committees are subpoenaing documents, scheduling private interviews with witnesses and potential targets of the probes, and preparing for both public and closed-door hearings. We don’t know for sure how long they will go on for or what the outcome will be.
The House investigation temporarily spiraled out of control after a big controversy surrounding the original Republican chair, Devin Nunes, who stepped down after he tried to use classified documents he obtained on White House grounds to scuttle the investigation. But right now things are mostly back in order, with witnesses being interviewed, documents being read, and hearings underway.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has also accelerated its probes, demanding that the FBI turn over all of its Comey memos, including one that alleges Trump pressured him to go easy on Flynn, and issuing a formal subpoena to Flynn (which Flynn may be ignoring).
The Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigations
What’s under investigation: The Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are just starting to look at whether Trump broke the law when he pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn, and then fired Comey. The big question right now is whether Trump committed obstruction of justice.
Previously, the committees were only looking at Flynn’s ties to foreign entities, with the Senate Judiciary Committee holding a hearing about the issue. Since then, their investigations have expanded.
The potential consequences: Just like the House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigations, the worst possible outcome for Trump is impeachment, particularly if either the House or Senate committee in this separate investigation concludes Trump violated the law. (Though it’s worth noting, as my colleague Dylan Matthews argues, the case for obstruction of justice is a lot clearer right now than the case for Trump’s broader ties to Russia.)
Otherwise, the hearings may just be politically damaging to the White House. Or they could lead to a bunch of political grandstanding. We don’t know yet.
The process: The House and Senate committees are at two different stages in their investigations, but they’re both early enough that it’s hard to gauge where they’re going.
On the Senate side, the Judiciary Committee got more involved earlier, holding a hearing with Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general under Trump, and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence. Most recently, the Judiciary Committee also asked for all records of communications between Trump and Comey.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, meanwhile, is just getting underway after Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chair, asked for all documents dealing with communication between Trump and the now-fired FBI director, threatening to get out his “subpoena pen.” This came after the White House reportedly refused to comply with the committee’s request in March to produce documents related to Flynn.
Chaffetz, though, just announced that he’s stepping down from Congress on June 30, meaning the investigation will be led by whoever succeeds him. Since a large number of House Republicans remain loyal to Trump, the future of the investigation is somewhat uncertain.