Are Congressional Republicans Ready to Dump Trump?
Three prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill broke with the Trump administration over allegations of collusion with Russia, a sign that once-solid congressional support for the new president is fracturing under the weight of new revelations.
The previously stalwart defenders of the president abandoned the White House Wednesday amidst a wave of news stories about:
- The ethically challenged conduct of Trump defender Rep. Devin Nunes
- Reports that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort may have been involved in money laundering via New York real estate deals and offshore banks accounts
- Allegations of criminal wrongdoing against 10 Russian associates of the Trump business empire
The first defector was Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, who said Nunes’ defense of Trump—including the leaking of apparently classified information—had disqualified him from leading the House investigation.
Within 24 hours, Jones was echoed by Pennsylvania Congressman Charlie Dent, who told the Washington Post that the House inquiry had been fatally compromised by Nunes and that the Senate should take the lead in investigating the Trump entourage.
As if on cue, North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, held a press conference with ranking minority member Mark Warner to announce the Senate investigation will call 20 witnesses, including Manafort and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who resigned after dissembling about his pre-inauguration meeting with Russian officials.
One reporter asked if the president was personally involved in colluding with Russia.
“Our challenge is to answer that question for the American people,” said Burr.
That answer is no comfort to Trump, who claims that allegations of collusion between his entourage and the Russians amount to “fake news.”
The Republican defections are bad news for a White House already burdened with historically low approval ratings and the failure of Trump’s plan to replace Obamacare.
Whatever their disagreements with Trump over trade and health care, House Republicans have stuck with the president in the face of burgeoning public opposition and growing vehemence of Democratic Party leaders—until now.
If Trump is seen as a political liability by the likes of Jones, Dent and Burr, his presidency will lose a key source of support. The three defectors are much more representative of the GOP Congress than longtime Trump critics senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain.
“There comes a time in every political scandal when it reaches a turning point,” notes Jeff Schechtman of Radio WhoWhatWhy.
In the Watergate scandal, it was the July 1973 revelation that the Nixon White House had a secret taping system. In the Iran-contra scandal it was the November 1986 revelation that the Reagan White House had sold weapons to Iran.
In March 2017, WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker says disclosures about Team Trump’s dealings with an unseemly cast of Russian mobster and oligarchs may signal the decisive moment when rank-and-file Republicans stopped defending an embattled president and started investigating him.
The revelations about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort were the most specific and damning. Unlike some past reporting on Trump, these stories did not rely on leaks from anonymous sources from intelligence agencies.
In New York, WNYC reported that Manafort bought three properties for cash and then mortgaged them to raise $12 million.
Debra LaPrevotte, a former FBI agent, said the purchases could be entirely legitimate if the money used to acquire the properties was “clean” money. But, she added, “If the source of the money to buy properties was derived from criminal conduct, then you could look at the exact same conduct and say, Oh, this could be a means of laundering ill-gotten gains."
NBC News reported that Manafort’s accounts at a bank in Cyprus were investigated for possible money laundering.
Rather than answer questions about the accounts, Manafort closed them. One of the companies linked to Manafort was involved in a multimillion-dollar deal with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, according to court documents filed in the Cayman Islands.
Steven Hall, a former chief of Russian operations for the CIA, told NBC that:
Dealings with Russian oligarchs concern law enforcement because many of those super-wealthy people are generally suspected of corrupt practices as a result of interconnected relationships among Russia's business elite, government security services and criminal gangs.
The Associated Press reported last week that investigators in Cyprus reportedly turned over information about Manafort’s transactions to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network earlier this year.
Manafort was known to route financial transactions through Cyprus, according to records of international wire transfers and public court documents obtained by the AP.
Cyprus is another point of vulnerability for Trump. After the Cyprus bank used by Manafort was sold in 2012, investment banker Wilbur Ross, now Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, became its vice chairman. Ross oversaw the sale of the bank’s Russian holding to another oligarch close to Putin.
Democrats raised questions about Ross’ tenure at the bank before his confirmation, but Ross said the White House refused to allow him to respond to the queries.
A separate story USA Today called attention to Trump’s Russia connections with a story reporting “the president and his companies have been linked to at least 10 wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations or money laundering.”
New York City real estate broker Dolly Lenz said she sold about 65 condos in Trump World at 845 U.N. Plaza in Manhattan to Russian investors, many of whom sought personal meetings with Trump.
“I had contacts in Moscow looking to invest in the United States,” Lenz said. “They all wanted to meet Donald. They became very friendly.” Many of those meetings happened in Trump's office at Trump Tower or at sales events, Lenz said.
Unlike the allegations that Russia worked to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, the latest round of allegations concern criminal conduct, not partisan politics, and are harder for Republicans to ignore or reject.
As New York Times columnist Charles Blow reported on November 3, the Trump campaign released a television commercial claiming: “Hillary cannot lead a nation while crippled by a criminal investigation.”
Nor can Donald Trump.