For all the high-profile sackings, resignations and falling-outs that have characterised the Trump circus, could it be that the president’s longest-serving aide turns out to be the one to bring him down?
Amid all the dramatic comings and goings since Donald Trump took office, Hope Hicks has remained relatively under the radar, even since her promotion to the role of director of communications last August.
But all that has changed with the prospect that she could unwittingly emerge as Robert Mueller’s secret weapon, as the special counsel continues his investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia to influence the US election.
That possibility comes with the news that Mark Corallo, a former legal spokesman for the Trump administration who resigned in July, is poised to testify that Hicks was party to an obstruction of justice effort, together with her boss, the president.
According to Corallo – who apparently shared his concerns with three colleagues contemporaneously – he was consulted when Trump and Hicks colluded aboard Air Force One over producing the notorious false statement about the Trump Tower meeting with Russian offering ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, arranged by Donald Trump Jnr and also attended by son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Corallo is willing to tell the special counsel he warned the president and Hicks that the statement they were drafting would backfire because documents would eventually surface exposing the truth – that the meeting had been set up expressly to obtain damaging ‘political dirt’ on Clinton courtesy of Russia. But, alleges Corallo, Hicks told him – in Trump’s presence – that the emails setting up the meeting “will never get out” because only a few people had access to them. Corallo – who was previously also a senior Justice Department spokesman in the Bush Administration – immediately alerted colleagues that Hicks “was either being naïve or suggesting that the emails could be withheld from investigators”.
He also flagged up that by saying it in front of Trump without a lawyer on the phone, the conversation couldn’t be protected by attorney-client privilege, and thus opened the door to potential obstruction of justice charges against both the president and Hicks.
As it turned out, of course, the existence and contents of the emails was later leaked to the New York Times, forcing Donald Trump Jnr to release them himself – effectively discrediting the phoney ‘cover story’ statement cooked up mid-air by the president and his communications director.
It has now emerged that Corallo took detailed notes about the conversation, advised Trump not to continue without lawyers present and told the then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and two others what had taken place. He is now in the process of doing exactly the same for Mueller and his team.
Significantly, according to Michael Wolff’s recent best-seller, Fire and Fury, Bannon told him how he had lost his temper with Hicks later, telling her to get herself a lawyer and saying: “You don’t know how much trouble you are in… you are as dumb as a stone!”
The timing of Corallo’s testimony to Mueller’s team is significant because it ties in with Bannon’s own date with the special prosecutor. Bannon and his lawyers have held preliminary talks with investigators, with a full interview set for next week. Sources say he will readily confirm Corallo’s account. It should be remembered that Bannon’s collaboration with the Wolff book included telling the author that the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians was “treasonous and unpatriotic”.
Bannon also told Wolff: “The chance that Don junior did not walk those jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.” No one can work out what the word ‘jumo’ means, but it certainly wasn’t coined by Bannon as a compliment.
As for that other target of a Bannon insult, “dumb as a stone” Hicks, she has already been interviewed once by members of the special counsel’s team, as part of their general questioning of White House staffers past and present and members of the Trump campaign team. But, according to sources, Mueller plans to quiz her personally again under oath after the testimony of Corallo and Bannon has been completed.
A lawyer representing her has called Corallo’s account “inaccurate” and denied that she “ever said emails or other documents would be concealed or destroyed”.
But several legal experts and Trump-sceptic GOP figures believe Mueller may well plan to ‘flip’ Hicks – a 29-year-old political neophyte whose promotion last August astonished many – in a plea-bargain deal similar to the one he has struck with the president’s former national security adviser, General Mike Flynn.
All this is playing out against the backdrop of the escalating fallout from Trump’s decision last week to ignore the pleas of the Justice Department, the FBI and every other US intelligence agency and release a memo compiled largely by his close ally, Congressman Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
The memo alleges bias against Trump within the FBI and the Justice Department, but has been branded “inaccurate” and “irresponsible” by critics, who argue it could compromise US national security and play into President Putin’s hands. Intriguingly, it has now emerged that a #ReleaseTheMemo Twitter campaign in support of Trump’s action was pushed by large numbers of Russia-linked bots.
But, for the under-pressure POTUS himself, the Nunes Memo has been seized on greedily like manna from political heaven. He has been frantically declaring it “total vindication” of his persistent claims the Russia Connection investigation is a “witch hunt” and “fake news” and portraying himself as the victim of a “Deep State” conspiracy.
In truth, it’s no such thing, much as Trump and Nunes would like it to be. Significantly, several senior Republican party leadership figures took to the airwaves to downplay the impact of the memo and reject the argument it discredited or undermined Mueller’s investigation. They have also privately signalled to the White House that presidential hints about firing the special counsel and the man overseeing his investigation, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein would not win their support. It would reek, they warn, of the infamous ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ of 1973 when Richard Nixon sacked the special prosecutor investigating Watergate – the fatal act that ultimately led to Republicans backing his impeachment.
Meanwhile, Trump’s small army of somewhat divided private lawyers appears to be moving against the idea of the president voluntarily facing Mueller in a face-to-face under-oath interrogation – despite Trump’s public boasts he was looking forward to doing so.
Two factors are said to be influencing the legal team in this. Firstly, a growing realisation Mueller probably has enough evidence to justify obstruction of justice. And, secondly, that the special counsel’s tight security around what evidence has been uncovered around the more serious area of collusion with Russia leaves them in the dark over what the president could have sprung on him about members of his family, close associates… and even himself.
Such a move by the Trump team would leave Mueller with the ultimate choice of attempting to subpoena the president – perhaps in a move to force his appearance before a Grand Jury.
Ironically, the pressure building on Trump comes just as his dire personal poll ratings have received a boost off the back of his tax bill, and his relatively measured Davos and State of the Union speeches.
One poll even puts his approval rating at 48%, up from 38% in December. But, more worryingly for the president and his strategists, polls also show strong public support for Mueller’s investigation continuing through to its conclusion and against any attempt to derail it.
Only among a minority of hardcore Trump supporters does the president’s “Deep State” attacks on the integrity of the FBI and the Department of Justice seem to be resonating strongly.
That may well explain Monday’s bizarre, rambling Ohio speech in which he attacked Democrats as “un-American” and “treasonous” for not applauding his State of the Union speech; ignoring that opposition parties traditionally don’t do so, with Republicans having done the same to Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses. The Ohio speech had been planned to ‘bigly up’ Trump’s tax bill ‘success’ but went wildly off-script.
If it was an indication that Trump is feeling the heat over Mueller’s rapidly-expanding investigation, then his ally Nunes is too. To his chagrin, the House Intelligence Committee he chairs has now voted in favour of releasing a 10-page counter-memo compiled by Democrats which, it is claimed, forensically discredits the one he compiled.
The ball is now in back in Trump’s court on whether the rival memo should be released, but Democrat leaders are convinced that if Trump refuses to do so, or wants it heavily redacted, it would boomerang badly in the court of public opinion. That alone may explain why – so far at least – the Democrat version hasn’t leaked in full to the New York Times, the Washington Post or CNN.
While on the subject of newspapers, the biggest one in Nunes’s own California district hasn’t made happy reading for him this week. In a scathing editorial leader, the Fresno Bee branded their congressman a “Trump Stooge” who was betraying voters by “doing the dirty work for House Republican leaders trying to protect President Donald Trump in the Russia Investigation”.