President Donald Trump says it’s time to end the Russia investigation. “It’s been a long time” and “many millions of dollars have been spent,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday. On Thursday, Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, said Americans were sick of the investigation. After “millions of dollars and a year and a half,” she argued, it’s time for special counsel Robert Mueller to wrap things up.
Trump has been beating this drum for more than a year. “We have to get it over with,” he declared two months ago. “It’s time to end this Witch Hunt.” But one reason the investigation keeps going is that Trump keeps committing new crimes. In part, Mueller is investigating Trump’s attempts to obstruct the inquiry itself. And Trump keeps adding to that record. His latest effort to stymie the special counsel is the appointment of an acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, who has openly advocated a crackdown on Mueller.
Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017, a day after the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies were investigating connections between Russian officials and Trump’s associates. At that point, the federal probe was just about collusion. But then, Trump began to obstruct the inquiry. A week after he was sworn in, Trump summoned FBI Director James Comey to a one-on-one dinner and pressed him for personal loyalty. Three weeks later, after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned for concealing his contacts with Russia, Trump cornered Comey again and asked him to “let this go.”
Soon, Trump enlisted other subordinates to squelch or contain the investigation. He directed his White House Counsel Don McGahn to stop then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions from relinquishing control of the inquiry. When Sessions recused himself anyway, Trump excoriated Sessions for failing to protect him. The president asked then–CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, to get Comey to back off. In phone calls, Trump urged Comey to “lift the cloud” of the investigation. And he advised Flynn to seek legal immunity from the “witch hunt.”
None of this stopped the investigation. So Trump fired Comey. The president orchestrated a fake rationale for the firing, leaving an inadvertent paper trail and a slew of witnesses—McGahn, Sessions, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—who had seen his deception. The next day, in a backstage meeting at the White House, Trump told Russia’s foreign minister that by firing Comey, he had relieved “pressure” on the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Comey’s ouster added a new chapter to Trump’s obstruction campaign and, with it, a new stage of the investigation. A week after the firing, Rosenstein appointed Mueller to take over the Russia probe. Mueller’s purview explicitly included any “matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a)”—i.e., “crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses.”
Trump responded by committing more such crimes. In front of McGahn, Vice President Mike Pence, and other officials, Trump accused Sessions of “disloyalty” for recusing himself. The president blamed Mueller’s appointment on Sessions and said the attorney general should resign. Weeks later, Trump ordered McGahn to tell Rosenstein to fire Mueller. McGahn refused.
Meanwhile, Trump scrambled to cover up contacts between his campaign and Russia. In July 2017, when the Times discovered that Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign aides had secretly met with Russian emissaries in Trump Tower, the president dictated, on his son’s behalf, a false account of the meeting. Trump’s lawyers compounded the deception by denying he had played any role in the statement—in effect, covering up the cover-up.
In the year and a half since Mueller’s appointment, Trump has continued to generate evidence of obstruction. He berated Sessions for failing to control the investigation. He tried to pressure Comey’s successor at the FBI, Andrew McCabe. He tried again to fire Mueller. He discussed pardoning himself and other targets of the investigation, and he issued pardons that signaled his willingness to protect friends who withheld evidence.
Four months ago, Mueller obtained an indictment that documented the role of Russian intelligence officers in hacking the 2016 election. Trump responded by blaming “the Rigged Witch Hunt” for hurting “our relationship with Russia.” Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but Trump insisted Flynn was innocent. Paul Manafort tampered with witnesses, but Trump said Manafort was being persecuted. Three months ago, Trump began to revoke the security clearances of former U.S. intelligence officials, complaining that they had “led” the “rigged witch hunt.” On Twitter, the president declared that Sessions should “stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.”
Sessions failed to comply. So on Wednesday, after the midterms, Trump fired him. Again, Trump tried to disguise his own role, making the termination look like a resignation. In Sessions’ place, Trump appointed Whitaker, who is connected to targets of the investigation and once fronted for a company that was shut down for fraud.
Whitaker’s assignment with respect to the Russia investigation could scarcely be more obvious. He has dismissed the idea of collusion with Russia, endorsed the Trump Tower meeting, defended Trump’s attempts to pressure Comey, protested the FBI raid on Manafort, urged Rosenstein to restrain Mueller, and declared that Trump has absolute authority to shut down the investigation. Last year, after Trump fired Comey, Whitaker said there was “no case for obstruction of justice.” Whitaker suggested that Trump could use a “recess appointment” to replace Sessions with an attorney general who would cut Mueller’s budget to the point where “his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
This is why, a year and a half later, Mueller is still investigating Trump’s crimes. It’s because Trump is still committing them. On Friday, a reporter asked Trump: “Do you expect Matt Whitaker to be involved in the Russia probe? Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?” Trump stared back in disgust. “What a stupid question that is,” said the president.