ECLECTIC RANT: Russiagate in a nutshell

Ralph E. Stone
Friday August 11, 2017 - 11:27:00 AM

Now it seems clear that Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system in the summer and fall before the 2016 presidential election was widespread and included attacks into voter databases and software systems in at least thirty-nine states. 

For example, in Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber hackers tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. 

In October 2016, the White House contacted the Kremlin on the back channel to offer detailed documents of what it said was Russia's role in election meddling and to warn that the attacks risked setting off a broader conflict. 

Russian officials have publicly denied any role in cyberattacks connected to the US elections, including any "spear phishing" effort that compromised Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee, among other groups. (Spear-phishing messages appear to come from a trusted source seeking unauthorized access to sensitive information.) 

It is unclear why the cyber hackers did not try to disrupt the vote. It may be that Obama’s warning was effective or the cyber hackers were unable to access and master America’s different voting systems spread across more than 7,000 local jurisdictions. The Russian cyber hack, however, should be a warning to election officials across the country that future cyberattacks may be able to actually disrupt the vote. 

At this point, it has not been established whether the cyberattack actually influenced the presidential election results. 

It is also unclear whether Donald Trump and/or his cohorts and/or his family members colluded with the Russians in these cyberattacks or attempted to interfere in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s investigation of any potential links to and coordination between two entities -- the Trump campaign and the Russian government. However, it has been revealed that some of Trump's campaign members, business partners and administration nominees have various types of links to Russian officials, business people, banks, and Russian intelligence agencies. Meeting with Russian officials may be suspicious, but probably not illegal. What was discussed at these meetings is, of course, one focus of Mueller’s investigation. 

And as the New Republic reports, Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. 

Former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he was certain his firing was due to the president’s concerns about the Russia probe. Trump had wanted Comey to disclose publicly that he was not personally under investigation, but the FBI director refused to do so. Was Trump trying to block the inquiry? 

After the firing of Comey, Robert Mueller was appointed Special Counsel. The appointment authorized Mueller to investigate "any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Trump," along with "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation," plus "any other matters within the scope" of the law. That statement also gave Mueller the job of looking into efforts by Trump or others to impede or block the inquiry. 

Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington, D.C., which will focus on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and on allegations of obstruction of justice. The grand jury can order testimony, issue indictments, and if appropriate, forward evidence against Trump to the U.S. House of Representatives for possible impeachment. It is conventional wisdom that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a criminal offense. 

A grand jury has already been impaneled in Virginia to investigate Michael Flynn and his work in the private sector on behalf of foreign interests. 

The Republican-controlled Senate and House Intelligence Committees are also conducting investigations into Russian interference in the November presidential election, including any ties to Trump. I suspect these investigations have taken a backseat to Mueller’s probe. 

Can Trump fire Mueller? In his order making the appointment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cited federal regulations issued by the attorney general in 1999. According to those regulations, a special counsel “may be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the Attorney General” (or in this case, the acting attorney general). In a Senate Hearing on June 13, Rosenstein said he alone exercises firing authority, and that he had not seen any evidence of good cause for firing Mueller. 

If the grand jury does issue indictments, Trump, pursuant to Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution, could pardon those indicted. However, under the president’s pardon authority, Trump cannot stop or undo congressional impeachment. 

The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach an official, and it makes the Senate the sole court for impeachment trials. It takes only a majority vote in the House to impeach. It takes a 2/3 vote in the Senate to convict. Would a Republican-controlled House vote out articles of impeachment against Trump? If it did, it would be extremely unlikely that 2/3 of the Republican-controlled Senate would vote to convict. 

Russiagate is ongoing in secret and will likely continue for months. When Mueller’s investigation concludes, there will finally be an end in sight to the question of who did what in 2016.