- - Thursday, February 16, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Donald Trump’s presidency is in deep trouble. After nearly four weeks in office, he has yet to finish filling his administration’s top posts, and Congress is about to conduct an investigation into his ties to Russia.

His national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has quit over charges that he had secret contacts with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions, before he was installed in office. Then Mr. Flynn lied about it shortly after the Justice Department informed the White House he could be liable to blackmail from the Kremlin.

His nominee to be secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, withdrew from consideration by the Republican-controlled Senate, after it was revealed that he had employed an undocumented housekeeper.

At least a dozen Republican senators were preparing to vote against him.

And now Senate Republicans and Democrats say they want to begin a major investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, and also dig into President Trump’s odd relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A chief suspicion is whether Mr. Trump sought to reduce the punishing economic sanctions on Moscow after Putin’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula, and his invasion into Ukraine.

Mr. Flynn’s embarrassing ouster came after our intelligence agencies caught him speaking to the Russian ambassador on the telephone about U.S. sanctions. What they spoke about specifically is not known at this point, but it is more than likely that a transcript of the recorded conversations will be turned over to the Senate panel looking into the growing scandal.

Initially, Republicans appeared somewhat reluctant to launch into an investigation of their party’s president, but no longer. The chief question among Republican leaders was how the investigation should be conducted, with some key lawmakers suggesting that a select committee be named to launch the inquiry.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has ruled that out, announcing that the Intelligence Committee will lead the investigation without fear or favor.

“I don’t think we need to go through setting up a special committee,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this week.

“But we are going to look at Russian involvement in the U.S. election. It’s a significant issue,” he said.

And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told reporters that the panel will “go wherever the truth leads us.”

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the GOP’s top leadership, said the committee would dig into any and all of Mr. Trump’s connections with Russia “exhaustively.”

A key focus in the investigation will be whether Mr. Trump pursued the issue of U.S. sanctions through Mr. Flynn, along with others on his national security staff — raising the old Watergate-era question of what did he know and when did he know it?

What we do know is that Mr. Trump has long expressed a very high opinion of Mr. Putin, a former KGB operative who, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, has murdered a number of his political opponents and critics, charges that Mr. Trump has rejected out of hand. “He has always denied it,” Mr. Trump told ABC’s “This Week” on Dec. 20, 2015.

“By the way, I really like Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Trump told the Russian magazine Chayka in 2008. “I respect him. He does his job well. Much better than our Bush.”

In 2014, following Mr. Trump’s Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, the billionaire real estate mogul gushed in a tweet that Mr. Putin was a “big hero” in Russia who was destined to “rebuild the Russian empire.”

But last year, when Mr. Putin was doing just that, after he had sent troops into Crimea, which he annexed, then sent Russian forces into eastern Ukraine, Mr. Trump flatly denied in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopolous that any Russian troops were there.

Little wonder that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee said this week that when the Intelligence Committee begins its investigative hearings, “Russia’s the elephant in the room. That’s what we need to be dealing with,” he said.

Meantime, Mr. Trump’s presidency has become embroiled in several other controversies, including a hornet’s nest of court rulings temporarily blocking his ban on immigrants and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. That issue appears headed to the Supreme Court sometime this year.

And a battle is brewing over the Republican tax reform provision that could significantly delay any final enactment of the tax cuts that are at the center of Mr. Trump’s agenda for economic revival and job creation.

It’s called the “border adjustment” tax proposal that would bring in more than $1 trillion in revenue, but a more accurate label would be “the consumer sales tax plan.”

It’s unclear that Trump supports the idea, calling it “too complicated,” but he has proposed a border tax, too, that would also severely hit low-to-middle income consumers.

Where all of this is going, no one can say. But it looks like Mr. Trump’s presidency is in for a long and bumpy ride.

• Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

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