Newsletter: The Trump lies that keep us focused on Russia

Michael Flynn, Lori Andrade
Former national security advisor Michael Flynn arrives at federal court in Washington on Tuesday.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Most of the news recently regarding President Trump’s legal woes generally steers clear of the election meddling that sparked the investigation in the first place. Sure, there was former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s revelation that the Trump Organization was proceeding well into the 2016 campaign with negotiations to build a Moscow skyscraper (a blatant betrayal of the public’s trust in its own right), but what seems to present the most clear legal threat to the president now is federal prosecutors’ belief that he ordered Cohen to violate campaign finance laws.

This gets at what the president’s fiercest critics have long believed: that Trump doesn’t need a Russian collusion scandal to render him hopelessly unqualified for the job he holds. His temperament, his reflexive dishonesty, his general indecency and his disdain for any restraint on his authority would all be evident without the Russia investigation dogging the White House.

And yet, there’s still something there worth investigating vigorously. How do we know this? Seth Hettena, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about Trumpworld and Russia, says it’s about the lies:

It’s hard to see all these Russia lies as coincidences, given the extraordinary help Russia provided to elect Trump — the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the WikiLeaks email dumps, the divisive social media messaging that, according to reports released by the Senate on Monday, reached millions of unsuspecting Americans.

[Former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s] case may suggest what Russia got, or hoped to get, in return.

Easing the pressure of U.S. sanctions was a key priority for the Kremlin, and Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador left the impression that the incoming administration would be willing to do just that after the inauguration. Indeed, the Trump administration continues to soften the United States’ approach to Russia, as it did Wednesday when the Treasury Department announced plans to lift sanctions imposed on companies owned by Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Putin who also happens to be one of Manafort’s former business partners.

The agents interviewing Flynn in his White House office pulled on a thread that may lead to extraordinary and perhaps criminal political offenses: an American presidential campaign and a hostile foreign power doing favors for each other. Flynn may have lied, almost reflexively, to keep the plot from unraveling.

One way or another, it will be the Trump administration’s lies about Russia that lead us to the truth.

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About that Mueller investigation, from Day One it appeared to be proceeding on borrowed time. Now, writes Michael McGough, two new developments suggest the probe led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may finally be on deathwatch: the acting attorney general’s refusal to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller, and his designated permanent successor’s harsh criticism of the investigation in a previously unreleased memo to the president. L.A. Times

Trump had a terrible week on immigration, although the outcome was entirely predictable. The administration’s policy of processing asylum seekers only at official ports of entry was obviously illegal, so the president got sued, lost the case, and this week he was shot down by the Supreme Court without comment. “At some point Republicans are going to have to take a stand against the president’s unhealthy fixation on illegal immigration,” writes Scott Martelle. L.A. Times

Trump made the right call on Syria. Criticize the president for impulsiveness all you want, writes Defense Priorities fellow Akhilesh Pillalamarri, but pulling U.S. forces out of Syria is something Trump’s voters — and most Americans, in fact — have wanted for some time. “The skies won’t fall, and we won’t be fighting ISIS in Kansas if we leave Syria,” he writes. L.A. Times

Just when Obamacare was hitting peak popularity, Republicans might have found a way to kill it after all: by getting a federal judge in Texas known for his quirky, polemic rulings to declare the entire law unconstitutional, says the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board. But wait, says former Republican Congressman Tom Campbell: Parts of the law might be popular, but that does not make it constitutional. As for our readers, most who wrote letters tended to favor the Affordable Care Act.

L.A.’s public school students really don’t need a teachers strike. The two sides in the dispute — the Los Angeles Unified School District, and United Teachers Los Angeles — are still far enough apart in contract talks to make a strike that would begin Jan. 10 all but certain. Still, a fact-finder’s report on the contract talks provided a way forward for both sides to come together and avoid a strike. L.A. Times