Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Donald Trump showed his hand when, during an interview with the New York Times back in 2017, he said that Robert Mueller would cross a red line if he investigated the president’s finances. He added that, “I don’t do business with Russia.” When Rep. Adam Schiff—the new chair of the House Intelligence Committee—said he was going to go there with his investigation, Trump reacted immediately.

According to Jeffrey Toobin, Schiff doesn’t just plan to cross that red line, he intends to “obliterate it.”

Trump’s claim that he doesn’t do business with Russia was initially undermined by previous statements from his sons. In 2008, Don Jr. told people at a New York real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” Then in 2014, Eric Trump told James Dodson that, “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” But revelations from Michael Cohen that the president was working on building Trump Tower Moscow throughout the campaign blew the lid off that lie.

During a recent interview with David Ignatius, Schiff said that his committee’s work on investigating these issues has already begun via an inquiry sent to Deutsche Bank.

The president’s relationship with Deutsche Bank intrigues investigators for several reasons. Trump turned to the big German bank two decades ago, when U.S. banks wouldn’t extend him more large loans. The Post estimated in 2016 that Deutsche Bank had $360 million in outstanding loans to Trump’s companies. Deutsche Bank also lent $285 million to Jared Kushner’s family real estate company in October 2016.

Investigators have noted other points of interest: Deutsche Bank, unusually, managed its lending to Trump through its private-banking division rather than normal commercial lending. Finally, the bank has been implicated in Russian money laundering, paying $630 million in fines in 2017 to settle U.S. and British charges that it had improperly transferred $10 billion from Russia.

All of this has Trump’s media enablers pretty worried. One tactic they will use to discredit this kind of probe was articulated by Wall Street Journal editorial writer Kimberly Strassel. She attempts to sever this investigation from the one Robert Mueller is conducting about ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The collusionists need a “new phase” as signs grow that the special counsel won’t help realize their reveries of a Donald Trump takedown…

Mr. Schiff has now dictated to Mr. Ignatius a whole new collusion theory. Forget Carter Page, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos—whoever. The real Trump-Russia canoodling rests in “Trump’s finances.” The future president was “doing business with Russia” and “seeking Kremlin help.”

It’s hard to tell whether Strassel is just desperately trying to spin all of this in the only way she can, or if she is too ignorant to understand that Trump’s financial ties to Russia are important as the groundwork for the conspiracy Mueller has been investigating.

A more heady, but no less ridiculous argument against these investigations was made by conservative legal scholars David Rivkin and Elizabeth Price Foley at the Wall Street Journal. They suggest that Congress shouldn’t investigate a president for what he did prior to taking office.

As William Barr begins his term as attorney general, House Democrats are aiming a “subpoena cannon” at President Trump, hoping to disable his presidency with investigations and possibly gather evidence to impeach him. Mr. Trump fired back in his State of the Union address: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” To protect the presidency and separation of powers, Mr. Barr should be prepared to seek a stay of all congressional investigations of Mr. Trump’s prepresidential conduct.

Of course, these authors have to twist themselves into knots to explain how this investigation is different from the one Republicans undertook into Bill Clinton’s pre-presidential conduct with Paula Jones. But much like Strassel’s argument, they are attempting to sever the connection between Trump’s previous business dealings and his presidency. The obvious tie is related to two questions:

  1. Are Trump’s finances related to a conspiracy with the Russians to influence the election?
  2. Is the president being influenced by a foreign power because of his previous business dealings and/or his financial interests in a foreign country?

The attempts by Trump’s enablers to either stop this line of inquiry or discredit those who are pursuing it indicate that they are as worried as the president about what Rep. Schiff and his committee might find. So I suspect that these arguments will migrate from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to other right-wing news outlets as the pressure mounts. But I doubt that any of that will deter the chair of the House Intelligence Committee from obliterating Trump’s red line.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.