Russia's influence on the election is currently the subject of four separate congressional probes
The White House has consistently argued there is no connection with Moscow
The 100-day mark is traditionally a time for presidents to examine their accomplishments (or lack thereof), but nothing has placed a cloud over President Donald Trump’s early presidency quite like the issue of Russian meddling into the election last year and the White House’s relationship to Moscow.
Russia’s influence is currently the subject of four separate congressional probes, and has led to the resignation of the national security adviser and the recusal of the attorney general for the Justice Department investigation into the matter.
The steady drip of leaks coming from intelligence sources familiar with the federal investigation has turned into a consistent stream of embarrassing news for the new administration.
As the Trump White House heads into the 100th day, House and Senate investigators are on a slow, methodical track, pulling together the many threads of Russia’s ties to a core group of Trump’s top advisers, all of which promises to extend the steady stream of news related Russia much farther into the President’s term.
The White House has consistently argued there is no connection between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. In an amusing exchange during his daily briefing last month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer made the point that overzealous reporters are seeking something that doesn’t exist.
“If the President puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russia connection,” Spicer said.
The Russia investigations stand at a juncture now – with questions of whether they will turn out more like Watergate, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon (a president Trump is often compared to stylistically) or closer to Whitewater – a fiasco which harangued President Bill Clinton through his first term in office, but ended with no criminal charges against the president.
The one thing that is certain is this cloud of Russia questions is not moving from over the administration any time soon.
The very run-up to Trump’s 100-Day mark was dominated by news first that former national security adviser Michael Flynn may have broken the law by not disclosing payments from RT-TV on his security clearance application – a revelation not from the House intelligence committee, but instead the House oversight committee.
“On the one hand I want to make sure people are held accountable, I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, but you know you still want them to conduct business in the best interest of the country. And I hope they do that,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “But for our purposes, we just don’t want them obstructing. That’s all we ask. We’ve already seen this coverup behavior for the last few months: the number of people who met with Russians who didn’t disclose it, the information that we’ve asked for – whether it’s Flynn, or Sessions, or Kushner – that they won’t turn over is concerning.”
The White House has distanced itself from the four major targets of both the FBI probe and Congressional investigators – Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and former Trump aide Roger Stone.
Spicer has said Manafort played a “very limited role” in Trump’s campaign – despite Manafort’s essential role in helping the campaign win the Republican nomination.
On the 60th day of Donald Trump’s presidency, FBI Director James Comey stunned the nation with the announcement he had been investigating ties between the President’s campaign and Russian operatives since July 2016.
The announcement from Trump’s own FBI director, and approved the Justice Department, led the President to begin sub-tweeting his own administration in real time, as the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing continued.
By the 61st Day of Trump’s presidency, Trump’s closest ally on the House Russia investigation – the very leader of that probe, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes – took a secret trip to the White House to review documents provided by the White House that allegedly supported Trump’s own counter-attack to the Russia questions, false accusations that he was the victim of surveillance by former President Barack Obama.
From Days 62-76 of the presidency, one of the very probes that could derail Trump’s administration, was instead knocked off course by the fog of chaos that engulfed much of Trump’s own campaign and administration but was foreign to the staid, closed-off world of intelligence investigations.
But on the 77th Day of his presidency, Trump’s biggest supporter on House Russia probe, Nunes, was pushed to the sidelines, the subject of a newly launched House probe himself into whether he broke the law by releasing classified intelligence.
In three weeks the Trump gambit built on allegations that he was wiretapped, had been sidelined, along with his biggest supporter – and the House Russia investigation was chugging along.
But whether there is any proverbial fire creating the massive smoke cloud that is the Russia investigations is almost irrelevant at this point. Undisclosed meetings with Russian ambassador the US Sergey Kislyak have led Flynn to be fired and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation.
Veteran congressional investigators say the best answer is to simply not fight the inquiries, by either withholding documents or distracting.
“The way this normally works is for the investigators to request and then perhaps subpoena documents, for the White House to resist providing documents – either in whole or in part – then there’s a public discussion and eventually, over the objections of the White House the documents are substantially produced,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former lead prosecutor on the Senate Watergate investigation and a veteran Democratic investigator on numerous Congressional investigations after that.
The White House does not appear to heeding at least some of that advice, telling the House oversight committee earlier this week that for several reasons it would not be handing over documents they requested related to Flynn.
The peril for the Trump administration is that it now faces not just an active FBI investigation, but two major, functioning Congressional probes and additional inquiries – all churning slowly in quiet, digging deeper into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian operatives.
The House investigation is beginning to resemble the Senate Russia investigation more – methodical, planned and focused – after a reset under the new leadership of Rep. Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican brought in to replace Nunes.
The Senate investigation, meanwhile, is nearing interviews of the Trump aides at the center of the Russia allegations, after spending months on a detailed review of the intelligence report detailing Russian meddling in the US election.
Both committees have secured access to top-level intelligence – a sensitive process of intense negotiations with the intelligence agencies (and one that, for at least three weeks, was stalled by Nunes’ close ties to the White House).
Senate investigators have spoken with more than 30 witnesses. The leaders of the House investigation – Conaway and top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff – have agreed on a schedule of interviewing witnesses.
Meanwhile, outside the Capitol, “Tax Returns!” has become a chant in rowdy town hall meetings where Democratic and Republican lawmakers are bombarded with questions about Trump’s financial holdings that, progressive activists say, could easily show Trump’s own ties to Russia.
So far, Republicans in the House and Senate have resisted calls to subpoena Trump’s tax returns. But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has noted that, if Democrats win back the House in 2018, they could easily seek his tax returns.
The 100-Day benchmark is typically a victory lap for a new administration – but the parade of Russia stories from this fledgling White House and the outstanding questions – almost guarantees the story far away from its ending.