Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News
Steve Bannon’s eyes lit up. Several months before he left his job as a senior White House adviser last August, Bannon was talking to President Trump about the brewing political storm over the Justice Department investigation into his campaign’s alleged ties to the Kremlin. Suddenly, Trump had an inspiration. He looked straight at Bannon, jabbed at him with his finger and uttered the phrase that would become the slogan of the White House pushback against the Russia probe: “Witch hunt!”
Brilliant, thought Bannon, as he later related the exchange to colleagues.
Ever since, it is a phrase Trump has returned to time and again — and repackaged with typical Trumpian hyperbole. “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” Trump tweeted last May after ex-FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed as Justice Department special counsel to oversee the probe.
But now, as Trump prepares to end his first year in office, the witch hunt narrative may have outlived its usefulness. Mueller’s investigation has expanded and gained serious traction: The president’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s chief deputy, Rick Gates, have been indicted. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty and is now a cooperating witness. So too is a former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, who has admitted lying to the FBI about repeated contacts with alleged Russian cutouts who had offered the Trump campaign “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”
As described by sources familiar with various aspects of the investigation, the Mueller probe is fast approaching a critical crossroads. The president’s lawyers, Ty Cobb and John Dowd, are pressing Mueller to wind down the investigation and exonerate their client, which they have assured the president will happen by early next year.
But the sources familiar with the probe say that such a rapid conclusion is — as one put it — “fanciful.” Mueller and his team, they say, are pursuing new leads, interrogating new witnesses and collecting a mountain of new evidence, including subpoenaed bank records and thousands of emails from the campaign and the Trump transition.
In just the last few weeks, his prosecutors have begun questioning Republican National Committee staffers about the party digital operation that worked with the Trump campaign to target voters in key swing states. They are seeking to determine if the joint effort was related to the activities of Russian trolls and bots aimed at influencing the American electorate, according to two of the sources.
In what is potentially another ominous sign for the White House, the lawyer for Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law and senior adviser who was in charge of the campaign’s digital operation, recently began searching for a crisis public relations firm to handle press inquiries — a step frequently taken by people who believe they may be facing criminal charges. (Kushner has denied all wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, has said he is cooperating with the Mueller investigation.)
Even if the new lines of inquiry don’t result in additional indictments — something unknowable at this point — the new material all but guarantees the Mueller investigation will stretch on for months, if not years, likely provoking Trump to revisit his decision not to fire the special counsel.
And if the president does take that step, many lawmakers and legal veterans say, it will cause a political explosion unlike any the capital has seen in decades. “It will be cataclysmic,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor who lived through the so-called Saturday night massacre when President Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox. “It will create a constitutional crisis.”
In the meantime, the president’s allies are mounting a ferocious attack on Mueller’s team — pointing to tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats by the special counsel’s prosecutors, and to text messages disparaging Trump by FBI agent Peter Strzok, whom Mueller has since moved off the investigation. They are also gunning for top FBI officials, especially deputy director Andrew McCabe, who they believe began a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign’s links to the Russians last year based in part on the controversial dossier prepared by a former British spy and funded as “opposition research” by the Clinton campaign.
“Everything points to the fact that there was an orchestrated plan to try to prevent Donald Trump from being the next president of the United States,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, in a recent television interview in which he vowed to subpoena senior FBI agents about the origins of the probe.
But for Democrats, the attacks on Mueller and the FBI are a distraction tactic meant to obscure how much has already been uncovered about the Trump team’s contacts with the Russians. Back in January, when the issue first starting getting political traction, the president and his top aides denied that he and his campaign had any connections to Moscow. “I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump tweeted at the time.
Since then,’s team and congressional investigators have detailed numerous contacts, meetings and email exchanges between Trump’s campaign and Russian-connected operatives and officials that were unknown to the public when voters went to the polls in November 2016. Jeff Sessions, the Trump campaign’s chief national security adviser, met with the Russian ambassador at a hotel reception and later in his Senate office. Papadopoulos met with a Russia-connected professor and a woman introduced as “Putin’s niece” in an effort to set up a summit between Trump and the Russian president. And most famously, Donald Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort all met in Trump Tower with a delegation of Russians who they believed had derogatory information on Hillary Clinton — including “official documents” — that came straight from the highest levels of the Kremlin.
“Just from what’s been made public, it’s pretty clear the Trump campaign and family were willing and eager to work with the Russians,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “They showed almost no restraint in engaging with the Russians to see what they had to offer on their opponent. It was a ‘whatever it takes’ mentality.”
Whether all this adds up to “collusion” — the sensational charge of active collaboration between the Trump campaign and Moscow that was first laid out in the controversial dossier commissioned by the Clinton campaign — is far from clear. But for Swalwell and quite a few others, it is already clear that the Russian probe has been far more than a witch hunt.
More MICHAEL ISIKOFF Russia reporting:
Russian Doping Whistleblower Says He Fears For His Life
Heard on All Things Considered
NPR’s Robert Siegel speaks with Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News about Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistleblower in the Russian doping scandal. Rodchenkov fled to the U.S. and says he now fears for his life.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Two years ago, Grigory Rodchenkov fled Russia for the United States. He didn’t come empty-handed. Rodchenkov gave details of a massive state-run doping campaign that helped Russian athletes win big in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. His cooperation was instrumental in the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Well now, Rodchenkov fears Russia wants him dead, as reported by our guest Michael Isikoff, who is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. Welcome to the program once again.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be here.
SIEGEL: And first, where is Grigory Rodchenkov, and what have you learned about him?
ISIKOFF: Well, we know that Grigory Rodchenkov somewhere in the United States, but he’s under the Federal Witness Protection Program. And in fact, because there are genuine concerns about threats to his life, his own lawyer has not even been able to communicate with him over the past week or so. That lawyer, Jim Walden, told me that he was recently informed by a U.S. government official that he should assume that there are Russian agents in the United States looking for Mr. Rodchenkov and that significant enhancements needed to be made in his security protections.
SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that Rodchenkov knew a lot about the Russian doping program because he in fact was doing it?
ISIKOFF: Well, he was the mastermind of the Russian doping program. He supervised it, but he did so under the direction of the Russian Olympic Committee and with the assistance of the FSB, the Russian secret police.
SIEGEL: The idea that there might be Russian agents looking for the now underground Grigory Rodchenkov, it raises the question of he’s not challenging Vladimir Putin as president of Russia, he didn’t send us nuclear secrets or tell us where Russian submarines are – how big a deal is disclosing the Russian athletic doping program?
ISIKOFF: This is a huge deal for Russia and for Vladimir Putin personally. The Sochi Olympics were a showcase for him. He took great pride in the fact that Russian athletes dominated those Olympics, winning more than 30 medals. And to have that prestige robbed from Russia, it was a huge embarrassment for Putin.
SIEGEL: When you’ve asked the Russian government about this, about the notion that Rodchenkov might be targeted by agents in the U.S., what are they saying?
ISIKOFF: Well, they have not responded to the specific information that Jim Walden, Rodchenkov’s lawyer, provided to me, but they have made clear that they view Rodchenkov as a criminal. They’ve filed criminal charges against him. They have demanded he be returned to Russia by the United States. And the former head of the Russian Olympic Committee has said that Rodchenkov should be executed the way Stalin would have done.
SIEGEL: So the Russians say they want to prosecute Rodchenkov, but if Rodchenkov enjoys witness protection here in the U.S., the implication is he is of some use to American prosecutors.
ISIKOFF: Exactly. One of the interesting things his lawyer, Mr. Walden, told me is that federal prosecutors are conducting investigations that could lead to criminal charges against Russian Olympic officials. These could be racketeering charges. And the idea would be that Americans who participated in the Olympics, the American Olympic Committee, American companies such as NBC, which broadcast the Olympics, would have been defrauded by this doping scheme.
SIEGEL: Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, thanks.
ISIKOFF: Thank you.