Investigations look at Trump’s life from all angles

Calvin Woodward And Julie Pace Associated Press
Monday, December 17, 2018

WASHINGTON — Investigations now entangle Donald Trump’s White House, campaign, transition, inauguration, charity and business. For Trump, the political, the personal and the deeply personal are all under examination.

Less than two years into Trump’s presidency, his business associates, political advisers and family members are being probed, along with the practices of his late father. On Saturday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke became the fourth Cabinet member to leave under an ethical cloud, having sparked 17 investigations into his actions on the job, by one watchdog’s count.

All of this with the first special counsel investigation against a president in 20 years hanging over Trump’s head, spinning out charges and strongarming guilty pleas from underlings while keeping in suspense whether the president — “Individual 1” in prosecutor Robert Mueller’s coded legalese — will end up accused of criminal behavior himself.

The scope of the scrutiny has shaped Trump’s presidency, proving a steady distraction from his governing agenda. So far, much of it has been launched by federal prosecutors and government watchdogs that eschew partisanship. The intensity is certain to increase next year when Democrats assume control of the House and the subpoena power that comes with it.

Although Trump dismisses the investigations as politically motivated “witch hunts,” his high-octane Twitter account frequently betrays just how consumed he is by the scrutiny. He’s also said to watch hours of television coverage on milestone days in the investigations.

“It saps your energy, diverts your attention and you simply can’t lead because your opponents are up in arms against you,” Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist and historian, said of the scrutiny. “It weakens your friends and emboldens your enemies.”

Almost midway through his term, Trump is struggling to deliver on his central campaign promises.

He’s previewed few legislative priorities for 2019. Even if he had, it’s unlikely the new Democratic House majority would have much incentive to help a president weakened by investigations rack up wins as the 2020 election campaign approaches.

Perhaps not since Bill Clinton felt hounded by a “vast right wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton put it, has a president been under such duress from investigation.

The Justice Department is driving at least three separate criminal investigations. They are the Mueller probe looking into possible collusion, obstruction of justice or other wrongdoing between the Trump campaign and Russia; the New York campaign-finance case involving hush money paid to Trump’s alleged lovers; and now a case from New York, first reported by The Wall Street Journal this past week, examining the finances and operations of Trump’s inaugural committee and whether foreign interests made illegal payments to it.

Behind those matters is a battery of lawsuits or inquiries from state attorneys general and other parties tied mainly to Trump businesses.

The deep diving will only grow in the new year when Democrats take over the House. They are expected to launch their own investigations and could pursue impeachment, though party leaders caution they could face a political backlash by taking that step.

Even if Trump avoids impeachment, the Democratic investigations will create headaches. Administration officials will be called to testify before Congress and lawmakers will seek a trove of documents, probably including Trump’s tax returns, which he has refused to make public.

A bare-bones White House staff may struggle to keep up. A tally by the Brookings Institution finds more than 60 percent of Trump’s top aides have left in the first two years, a turnover rate exceeding the previous five presidents. In addition, 10 Cabinet secretaries have departed.

The federal campaign finance probe has put GOP lawmakers in a particularly awkward position. Prosecutors — as well as Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen and a tabloid company that has long been an ally — assert that Trump directed hush payments to keep women quiet about alleged affairs in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign. Such a payment would violate campaign finance laws. Cohen was sentenced this past week to three years in prison.

Five people in Trump’s orbit have pleaded guilty to charges in the continuing Mueller probe. Among them, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, for a time in Trump’s presidential campaign. George Papadopoulos, a lower-level campaign adviser, was sentenced to 14 days in prison and is out. The others are Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s first national security adviser in office and is to be sentenced Tuesday, and Cohen, who is expected to begin his sentence in March.

Trump is also exposed to legal peril beyond that from federal prosecutors. Among the lawsuits or investigations:

—Democratic attorneys general in Maryland and the District of Columbia and congressional Democrats are challenging the Trump Organization’s business transactions with foreign and state government interests, such as those at his Washington hotel, citing the constitutional ban on presidents taking payments from such sources without congressional consent.

—New York tax officials are looking into whether Trump or his charitable foundation misrepresented tax liability. In addition, the New York tax department said it is “vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation” after a New York Times report found Trump and his family, going back to transactions by his father, Fred Trump, cheated on taxes for decades.

—New York authorities allege in a lawsuit that Trump illegally tapped his charitable Trump Foundation to settle legal disputes, help his campaign for president and cover personal and business expenses, including the purchase of a lifesize portrait of himself for $10,000.

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