Donald Trump’s recent pardons of several key aides have ignited a crucial debate: Should President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Justice investigate his predecessor’s apparent obstruction of a potentially damning inquiry into his entanglement with Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
Opponents muster numerous arguments. A probe would sharpen our bitter divide. It would smack of reprisal. It would spotlight Trump’s grievances. It would be too complex and time-consuming. It would undermine Biden’s effort to advance a positive agenda that speaks to the future.
Restoring our comity, they conclude, precludes launching the unprecedented prosecution of an ex-president. Isn’t Trump’s defeat punishment enough?
However serious these objections, none deals with a graver issue raised by these highly aromatic pardons: whether they completed Trump’s concealment of his servitude to a foreign adversary.
Trump’s Craven Subservience to Putin
On its face, the public record of Trump’s behaviors raises an unanswered question central to our national security: Why was America’s president so inexplicably deferential to a hostile foreign power?
First, consider Trump’s unprecedented efforts to conceal the substance of his meetings with Putin from senior American officials. Observed the Washington Post halfway through his term:
As a result . . . there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years [Jan. 2017-Jan. 2018]. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.
Concluding one such meeting, in Helsinki, Trump took the interpreter’s notes. The Atlantic later characterized what followed: “Trump kowtowed to the Russian leader, openly took Putin’s side over U.S. intelligence on the interference issue, suggested allowing Russia to take part in the inquiry [looking into 2016 election interference], and entertained allowing the Russians to question a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.”
Second, Trump consistently served Russia’s interests at the expense of America and its allies. He repeatedly attacked the intelligence agencies investigating Russia’s intervention in our presidential election. He undermined Putin’s bane—the NATO alliance—and refused to condemn his subversion of European elections. He acquiesced in Russia’s 2014 incursions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and held military aid to Ukraine hostage for his own personal political gain (for which he was impeached).
Over the objections of our allies, Trump advocated Russia’s readmission into the G-7. He ignored the overwhelming evidence that Putin ordered the poisoning of Russian pro-democracy leader Alexei Navalny. He dismissed intelligence reports that Russia was placing bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan. These presidential decisions, and many others, advanced Putin’s goal of undermining Western alliances and democracies.
By mid-2020 Trump’s inexplicable deference to Putin impelled the Washington Post to observe: “To all appearances, [Putin] has the president of the United States in his pocket.” Indeed, reported Bob Woodward, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats “could see no other explanation” for Trump’s conduct.
All these damning derelictions occurred before American intelligence agencies discovered “a grave risk” to national security: Russia’s massive hack of key government departments, including State, Treasury, and Energy. William Barr and Mike Pompeo acknowledged the brazen attack. But, remarkably, Trump dismissed its importance and suggested that China, not Russia, was responsible. This diversionary behavior moved a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council to underscore the obvious: that Trump “behaves so much like a paid Russian agent.”
Certainly, Trump’s servitude is too cumulative and consistent to be reflexively ascribed to random acts of ignorance or incompetence. An alternative explanation is that, over time, Russia developed serious leverage over Trump—stemming from adverse personal information, financial dependence, and/or political indebtedness for Russia’s help in making him president—the context for his pardons of Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Michael Flynn.
Trump’s Entanglement with Russia from 1986 to 2015
Here, one must start with the thirty-year involvement with Russia which preceded Trump’s candidacy.
Throughout the 1980s, Putin’s employer, the KGB, routinely approached Western businessmen who might prove useful. In 1986, the Soviet ambassador to the United States met with Trump, praised his business acumen, and invited him to discuss a project in Moscow.
In 1987, Trump took the first of many trips to Russia’s capital. Upon returning, he placed a full-page ad in three major national newspapers—“An open letter from Donald J. Trump on why America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves”—attacking Japan and others for relying on the United States for their defense. The primary threat to these countries was Russia.
Perhaps Trump suddenly discovered these sentiments on his own. But given his prior disinterest in geopolitics, one seeks explanations for what became decades of alignment with Russia.
One common theory is sexual blackmail. It seems likely that the KGB gathered compromising material from Trump’s visits—including potential liaisons of the sort described in the final volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I interviewed General Oleg Kalugin, the former head of counterintelligence for the KGB,” said Craig Unger, the author of House of Trump, House of Putin:
[Kalugin] was saying typically that’s how it starts, with an innocent conversation. Then they flew Trump over to Moscow. Kalugin said that he believed that Trump had fun with lots of girls during that trip and he was almost certain that the KGB had kompromat [compromising material] on that.
This is far from unbelievable: Trump’s susceptibility to sexual leverage is shown by payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal for silence about extramarital encounters.
But Trump’s pressure points are also financial. By the early 1990s, his businesses had incurred enormous losses and crushing debt. After several bankruptcies, American lenders refused him further financing. Thereafter, as Trump’s sons have acknowledged, his businesses depended on Russian lenders.
Among the favors apparently bestowed on Trump was the salvation of his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City by Russian mobsters, as documented by journalists Seth Hettena in his book Trump/Russia and Catherine Belton in Putin’s People. Writes Hettena, “In July of 1991, only 15 months after the Trump Taj Mahal opened, Trump filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.” A deal with bondholders bailed him out, and dirty Russian money put him in the black:
An investigative unit of the Treasury Department reported that the Trump Taj Mahal casino broke anti-money laundering rules 106 times in its first year and a half of operation. . . . Kenneth McCallion, a former prosecutor who worked out of the Brooklyn office of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force, found Russian criminals were doing exactly that [money laundering] at the Taj Mahal. “Since we were in New York, we weren’t the lead of any casino investigations, but we were able to provide information about Russian organized criminals traveling back and forth with bags of money, cashing them into chips, and so forth.”
The Trump casino “stubbornly refused to clean up its operations,” even after repeated Treasury Department investigations found “significant violations,” Hettena reports. The casino “not only failed to restrain criminal activity, it almost seemed to cater to it”—and it went out of its way to attract a Russian clientele.
Belton recounts how Trump’s Russian connections growing out of the Taj Mahal “would form the roots of a network of Russian intelligence operatives, tycoons and organized-crime associates that has orbited Trump almost ever since.” Those connections, and his business dealings in Russia—including many years of preliminary work for the unbuilt Trump Tower Moscow—would inevitably have brought him to the attention of Vladimir Putin. In post-Communist Russia, lending is controlled by oligarchs beholden to Putin’s corrupt autocracy, which uses financing to launder money and obtain geopolitical leverage. By the early 2010s, Putin had become involved in Russian economic life—banking, business, and black money—to an astonishing degree. “Almost any deal above a certain level . . . required Putin’s approval to go ahead,” writes Belton, describing how the Russian president would sometimes even intervene in deals around $20 million. “Under such a system, it is not difficult to imagine Russian businessmen volunteering to cultivate foreign politicians on the Kremlin’s behalf, in return for Putin’s nod for a piece of land or a development license, or merely to stay out of jail.”
A dependence on Russia could help explain Trump’s obsession with concealing his tax returns, lending sources, and corporate and personal finances. No doubt some of his resistance can be ascribed to garden-variety fraud and tax evasion and desperation to preserve his public image. But exploring his financial relationship to Russia is essential to understanding Trump’s conduct in office—including whether he knowingly compromised America’s interests.
The Trump Campaign’s Entwinement with Russia
This deep involvement with Russia prefigured Trump’s political indebtedness to Putin for helping him win the presidency.
There is not room here to offer a comprehensive account of Russia’s extraordinary efforts on Trump’s behalf. Even the investigations by U.S. intelligence agencies, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller leave important aspects of the story un- and underexamined. (“We could have done more,” writes a top Mueller investigator in a new book.) To simplify the story, my account focuses on three of the convicted felons to whom Trump issued pardons, and whether he acted to conceal his contemporaneous awareness of Russia’s help—knowledge which, in itself, would have given Putin leverage over Trump.
One potential linchpin of Russia’s involvement in Trump’s campaign was Paul Manafort—a corrupt GOP operative whose enthrallment by Russia resembled Trump’s. In 2005, Manafort became an agent of Kremlin influence, collecting $10 million annually from a key Putin ally—the oligarch Oleg Deripaska—to promote Russian surrogates in Ukraine. But misbegotten business deals left Manafort deeply indebted to Putin’s friend.
In 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported, U.S. intelligence agencies captured Russian officials discussing “associates of Mr. Trump, including Mr. Manafort.” In spring 2016 Manafort volunteered to serve as Trump’s campaign manager—for free—whereupon he promised Deripaska confidential briefings on the campaign. Manafort was now situated to seek financial rescue from Putin’s sources in exchange for insinuating Russia into Trump’s candidacy.
With Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., Manafort took the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Kremlin-connected Russians offering information harmful to Hillary Clinton as part of their “government’s support for Mr. Trump.” By confirming the campaign’s willingness to collaborate in secret with America’s adversary, Manafort and company gave Russia leverage over Trump’s prospective presidency.
It beggars belief that Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager concealed from him Russia’s offer of help—so swift in coming. On June 15, Russian hackers posted documents stolen from the DNC. On July 18, the campaign inexplicably amended the Republican platform to remove support for arming Ukraine against Russian aggression. And on July 22, WikiLeaks published almost 20,000 more emails hacked from the DNC.
In 2020 the final volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed—as paraphrased by NBC News—that a key Manafort associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, “is a Russian intelligence officer who may have helped coordinate the Russian hacking and leaking of Democratic emails, and that Manafort himself may have had knowledge of the effort before the emails were leaked.” But by August 2016, public revelation of Manafort’s connection to pro-Russian forces in Ukraine compelled his resignation.
Enter Roger Stone. A longtime Trump adviser with an unsavory reputation, Stone bragged about his contacts with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and with “Guccifer 2.0,” an online persona used as a front for Russian intelligence. Within an hour after the salacious Access Hollywood tape surfaced on October 7, 2016—dealing Trump’s candidacy a potential lethal blow—WikiLeaks began releasing emails hacked from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
While Assange denies that Russia was the source, U.S. intelligence confirms that Russia stole Podesta’s emails. At Stone’s subsequent trial, Steve Bannon testified that Stone had alerted the Trump campaign to pending releases of emails, and that campaign officials saw Stone as the “access point” to WikiLeaks.
Moreover, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that, although Trump claimed in written answers to Mueller that he could not recall discussing WikiLeaks with Stone, “Trump did, in fact, speak with Stone about WikiLeaks and with members of his Campaign about Stone’s access to WikiLeaks on multiple occasions.”
A third beneficiary of pardons, Michael Flynn, had direct ties to Putin. Throughout the campaign, Flynn—an adviser to Trump on foreign policy and national security matters—maintained contact with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. In secret conversations after Trump’s election, Flynn and Kislyak discussed lifting sanctions that the United States had imposed on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and interference in our election.
Unbeknownst to Flynn, FBI agents investigating Russia’s contacts with the campaign monitored their phone calls. Learning of this, the Washington Post asked Flynn whether his conversations with Kislyak involved sanctions relief. He denied it—lying to the press as he had already lied to Mike Pence and, critically, to the FBI.
In this instance, we know more about what Trump knew. Shortly after his inauguration, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was lying and, therefore, subject to blackmail by the Russians. Immediately, McGahn told Trump.
Trump, Flynn, Manafort, and Stone Obstruct the Mueller Investigation
In response, Trump began concealing Flynn’s mendacity from the public, the media, and close advisors. On February 8, when Flynn publically denied discussing sanctions with Kislyak, Trump remained silent. On February 10, after the Post suggested that Flynn was lying, Trump denied knowing anything about the newspaper’s original story—omitting that he already knew of Flynn’s lies through Sally Yates.
The logical explanation is that Trump had authorized Flynn’s surreptitious discussions with Kislyak, and that Flynn was covering for him. Only after the Post revealed the DOJ’s warning to Trump—given 18 days prior—did Trump seek Flynn’s resignation.
Meanwhile, the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had also maintained contacts with Kislyak led him to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, leaving it to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Stripped of the ability to act through Sessions, Trump intervened to protect Flynn—and, apparently, himself.
First, Trump solicited FBI director James Comey to sideline the investigation of Flynn. Upon failing, Trump importuned DNI Coats to intercede with Comey. When Comey persisted, Trump fired him in the apparent belief that he could bury the matter.
Instead, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russia’s activities. This precipitated a chain of events in which Trump, his personal lawyer John Dowd, Manafort, Stone, and Flynn acted to conceal key facts and frustrate Mueller’s investigation.
In July 2017, the New York Times reported the June 2016 meeting between the Russians, Manafort, Kushner, and Trump Jr. Responding, the younger Trump claimed falsely that the meeting concerned Russian adoption policy—a prevarication in which Trump claimed to have played no role. But as the truth emerged, the president was forced to admit through his lawyers that he had dictated his son’s false statement on Air Force One.
Why? Quite likely Trump was protecting himself: He knew very well what the meeting concerned because he had always known about the meeting. This accounts, perhaps, for the criminal referral from the Senate Intelligence Committee to the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C. casting doubt on the veracity of Kushner’s and Trump Jr.’s testimony in its inquiry.
But Manafort, Stone, and Flynn were under particular pressure to cooperate with Mueller. All were indicted: Manafort for a plethora of false statements, money laundering, and financial chicanery; Stone for witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation of the campaigns collusion with Russia; and Flynn for lying to the FBI.
Their peril precipitated discussion of presidential pardons. As documented by Mueller, Trump’s lawyer John Dowd told attorneys for Manafort and Flynn that Trump might pardon them—conversations which could only have happened at Trump’s direction.
Further, Dowd was recorded admonishing Flynn’s lawyer that “if . . . there’s information that . . . implicates the president . . . we need some kind of heads-up,” and reiterating the president’s “feelings toward Flynn.” In public, Trump reinforced the prospect of pardons, stating his deep sympathy for Manafort, Stone, and Flynn, and emphasizing his respect for their refusal to cooperate with prosecutors.
After Dowd’s dangling of pardons became public in 2018, Vox asked several experts in criminal law to evaluate its legality. As one pointed out, “offering a criminal suspect or defendant a pardon in exchange for his silence is not the same thing as simply pardoning someone.” Said another: “Attempting to use the pardon power in this manner could constitute obstruction of justice, witness tampering, or even bribery, and would be an abuse of power, plain and simple.”
Apparently, it worked. Manafort violated his cooperation agreement with the special prosecutor; assured a codefendant that “we’ll be taken care of”; and was accused by Mueller of contacting witnesses by phone to solicit false testimony. Stone lobbied for clemency, stressing his loyalty to Trump. After originally pleading guilty, Flynn accused the prosecutors of misconduct and tried to withdraw his plea.
The DOJ Must Investigate Trump’s Conduct
For several compelling reasons of law and public policy, the Biden Justice Department must investigate Trump’s pardons—and, beyond that, his relationship to Russia.
First, the pardons. As Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe points out, they “belong to a distinct and far more dangerous category” than mere political favoritism. Tribe elaborates:
If Mr. Trump has used his pardon power to commit crimes, he must be prosecuted; failing to do so would set a perilous precedent for future administrations. In future investigations of presidential misconduct, essential witnesses might routinely protect the boss in hopes of (or in exchange for) immunity. Worse yet, future presidents could treat their terms in office as four-year licenses to commit heinous crimes with impunity.
Indeed, as former White House counsel Robert Bauer notes, failing to investigate Trump would confer a bizarre double immunity for presidential misconduct in office—and, in Trump’s case, while campaigning for office. Insulated from prosecution as president under Department of Justice guidelines, a former president would then be relieved from legal accountability in the name of “national healing.”
Under this reasoning, Trump would profit from the corrosive bitterness he promoted as president for fear that prosecuting him might revive it. Legally and morally, this would be a misbegotten result. The president would effectively be “immune coming and going,” Bauer says, “and I think that would be very difficult to square with the idea that he or she is not above the law.”
Further, essential considerations of national security mandate a thorough examination of Trump’s conduct. The essence of Mueller’s inquiry was whether a presidential campaign conspired with a hostile foreign power. The trope that Mueller found insufficient evidence misses the point—ample evidence suggests that Trump and his associates worked hard to bury the facts, and that Trump abused the pardon power to ensure that three of them did so.
This leaves too many critical questions unanswered. When Trump launched his candidacy, and thereafter, did Russia have him in a financial hammerlock? What did Trump know about contacts between Russia and members of his campaign—including Manafort, Kushner, Trump Jr., and Flynn? More broadly, did Trump know that Russia was offering to help elect him?
Further, was Trump aware that Russia had Clinton’s emails before WikiLeaks released them? Was Manafort an intermediary between Trump and highly placed Russians? What did Trump Jr. and Kushner know? Why did Trump not fire Flynn after learning he had lied to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak? Why did he craft Don Jr.’s false cover story about the Trump Tower meeting with Russia?
Then there are the questions arising from the pardons themselves—not all of which are subject to legitimate assertions of the attorney-client privilege or other claims of confidentiality. Among them: With whom did Dowd discuss pardons? Contrary to reason, did he act on his own? What expectations did Manafort and Stone have prior to their convictions?
What led Flynn to withdraw his guilty plea? With whom, other than their lawyers, did the three men discuss pardons? With whom, for that matter, did Trump discuss pardons?
But the ultimate question is this: During his presidency was Trump effectively functioning as a Russian asset?
The national security implications of that are of unprecedented gravity. What might the Russians have learned from a supine president? And what might Trump tell them as an ex-president desperate to finance his tottering business? Anyone inclined to dismiss these questions as overwrought has not used the last five years of Trump’s public behaviors to take the measure of the man.
To be sure, Biden’s Justice Department must proceed with impeccable probity and independence. But it cannot in good conscience let this go.
No doubt investigators will face considerable difficulties. But they also have fresh advantages. As a former president, Trump can no longer protect key witnesses. And nothing—including a pardon—immunizes anyone from testifying truthfully before a grand jury.
More likely than not, Trump will attempt to pardon himself before leaving office—and, perhaps, other members of his family. But this non-immunity from testifying also applies to all of them. If anything, a self-pardon would underscore the need for an intensive examination of Trump’s motives—and, therefore, his underlying conduct.
To shrink from investigating Trump would leave us defenseless against future rogue presidents—and immunize a president who has indubitably flouted the rule of law, and may well have conspired with a foreign adversary to undermine our democracy and national security. Of all the ways that Trump has degraded his office and damaged his country, that would enshrine the worst.