How to make sense of the Russia probe? Focus on two key dates

How to make sense of the Russia probe? Focus on two key dates
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In the swirl of names, dates, indictments, speculation, denials and pontification about special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThis week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Top Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction MORE’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, it’s easy to get lost. To become numb to it all. And to wonder what really matters at this point.

On a mega-level, what matters is that the structure of American democracy is gasping for air. The legislative branch has largely abdicated its oversight prerogative — at least prior to the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives — and the White House is free falling amid scandal, incompetence, cruelty and possible corruption. Without accountability for those in power, the Constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

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This large-scale refrain is hard to grasp without some understanding of the underlying facts, however, which are nothing short of overwhelming — to the scant extent the public even knows the facts.

Fear not.

One way to get a quick handle on the Russia narrative is via two pivotal dates: June 9, 2016 and Oct. 7, 2016.

1. June 9, 2016 is the date of the infamous Trump Tower meeting in New York City. In attendance were:

So far, we know the meeting went down like this: Trump Jr. received an email from a British music publicist stating that a Russian pop star had asked him to arrange a meeting to “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father”— aka Donald J. Trump himself.

According to the email, the hot documents sprung from a meeting between the “Crown prosecutor of Russia” and a Russian oligarch regarding “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Trump Jr.’s response? “[I]f it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Additional email exchanges with the British liaison and phone calls with the Russian pop star followed (which Trump Jr. could not recall, according to his congressional testimony).

Trump Jr.’s phone records also show calls to a “blocked” number both during and after his phone contact with the Russian pop star. (According to a congressional committee report, the phone line for President Trump’s primary private residence is blocked.) Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and now-convicted felon, reportedly stated that Trump gave his son a thumbs-up to take the meeting (which both Trumps deny).

A couple things of note here. First, what actually occurred at the meeting is not the end-all-to-be-all when it comes to the Trump family’s legal vulnerability. A criminal conspiracy requires (a) an agreement between two or more people to violate a law and (b) a step in that direction.

So, for example, if Trump Jr. — and possibly others — agreed to get opposition research on Clinton from a foreign national in possible violation of the federal campaign finance and election laws, and took a step towards that goal, a criminal conspiracy is on the table. 

The second thing of note is that, despite a months-long flurry of court activity, the Mueller probe has been conspicuously silent regarding the Trump Tower meeting. Nobody has been charged with wrongdoing. This is despite the fact that all three legs of the “collusion” stool were clear as day on June 9, 2016: Russians were involved, Trumps were involved and the 2016 presidential election was involved.

It’s pointless to speculate why no criminal charges have come out of the Trump Tower meeting to date. But its stunning significance sheds serious doubt on reports that the investigation will wrap up soon — as Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker quipped this week — or whether a very big shoe remains poised to drop.

2. Oct. 7, 2016 is another core “collusion” date. At 3:30 p.m. Eastern that day, President Obama’s administration publicly announced that Russia “directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.”

At 4:03 p.m., the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape came out, in which Trump was caught on film in 2005 bragging about sexually assaulting women.

At 4:32 p.m., WikiLeaks began tweeting emails hacked from the email account of Clinton’s campaign Chairman John Podesta. The 20,000 pages of email dumps went on for days, hitting Clinton with all kinds of embarrassing information in the final weeks of the election.

Three days later, Trump gloated, “I love WikiLeaks,” at a rally in Pennsylvania.

We now know that indicted Trump confidante Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneKey numbers to know for Mueller's testimony Judge finds Stone violated gag order, blocks him from using social media Counterprotesters outnumber far-right extremists at DC rally MORE allegedly “spoke to senior Trump Campaign officials about Organization 1 [WikiLeaks] and information it might have had that would be damaging to the Clinton campaign” prior to Oct. 7 — back in the summer of 2016 — and that “STONE was contacted by senior Trump Campaign officials to inquire about future releases by [WikiLeaks],” the indictment states.

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Read that again: Senior officials in the Trump campaign allegedly contacted Stone about future drops by WikiLeaks of illegally stolen emails that would damage Clinton’s legitimate chances of winning the presidency. Again, there we have it. All three legs of the collusion stool: Russians, Team Trump and the 2016 presidential election. Yet, no conspiracy charge appears in the Stone indictment. 

The foregoing “Tale of Two Dates” prompts the zillion-dollar question: What happens in our constitutional democracy if facts show that a sitting president had conspired with a hostile foreign government to corrupt the U.S. electoral process and defraud the American public to his own political advantage (and that of Russian president Vladimir Putin)?

Legally, there is no clear answer to that question. But it’s the one that everyone — regardless of political party and ideology — should be asking right now.

Kim Wehle is a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. Wehle is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Her forthcoming book, “How to Read the Constitution and Why,” will be published in June, 2019. Follow her on Twitter @kim_wehle.