State officials, University professors share their take on the U.S. — Russia case

Then Republican nominee Donald Trump appears in Grand Rapids, Michigan on the eve of Election Day in 2016.

Then Republican nominee Donald Trump appears in Grand Rapids, Michigan on the eve of Election Day in 2016. Buy this photo
Emma Richter/Daily

 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 10:16pm

The Michigan Daily administered a survey to 1,000 randomly selected respondents at the University of Michigan campus. There were 135 respondents. 

The following article includes data collected in this survey, particularly with to student reactions to the Trump presidency and alleged connections to the Russian government. 

“You need to think about it from the standpoint of Republicans in Congress right now, this is a president whose supporters still really admire him,” Charles Shipan, University of Michigan Professor of Social Science, said. “If they take on the president of their own party, they, at this point, need to worry about what they’ll impede for their political careers.”

On July 7, President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss U.S. elections and Syria — a relationship met with criticism for those who worry about the foreign government influencing United States policies. 

This week, his son has tweeted out proof of meeting with Russia in order to find incriminating evidence on former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. 

In the Michigan Daily survey, approximately 79.21 percent of students responded that they disapprove of Trump’s actions thus far by selecting either a 1 (being not at all) or 2 on a scale of 1 to 5 when asked whether they approve of Trump’s performance as president; uncertain was an option. Additionally, approximately 48.51 percent indicated they believe impeachment of Trump would be appropriate on the same scale. 

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According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating from January 20 to July 11 is 40 percent.

The U.S. - Russia controversy 

In June 2016, a hacker — later reported to be associated with the state of Russia — leaked the Democratic National Committee’s research file on Trump. Since July 2016, the FBI has been investigating ties between Russia and the Trump campaign; Congress has also been investigating the situation. Allegedly, the state of Russia interfered in the 2016 election in order to benefit Trump; whether Trump himself was involved in this disturbance is unknown.

However, even prior to the election and the inauguration, Trump and his campaign were subjected to scrutiny due to the alleged ties. 

According to the Washington Post, Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under former President Barack Obama, served as Trump’s National Security Advisor for merely 24 days, before he was forced to resign under contentious circumstances. In December 2015, Flynn joined a panel discussion on Russia Today — a Russian news channel — and reportedly increased communications with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. He is also known to support the Turkish government and Turkish business interests, which are tied to Russia. 

The FBI began investigating Flynn in April 2016. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, formerly an Alabama senator, is also known to have been in contact with Kislyak on multiple occasions, though he denies any conspiracy.

In July 2016, private Democratic National Committee emails were exposed by Wikileaks. In October, the directors of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security warned the country of potential Russian interference in the election, saying Russia was involved in the release of the emails. 

After the election, in December, Flynn and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, met with Kislyak to establish communications between the Trump administration and Russia, reportedly to discuss issues related to Syria. The FBI believed the meeting included talk of easing sanction against Russia in exchange for financial assistance. Meanwhile, at the same time, the Obama administration increased sanctions against Russia in response to the supposed election interference. 

U.S. intelligence agencies released a report to explain why they believe Russia was involved in the hacking effort. FBI Director James Comey assured Trump that he was not personally under investigation. In fact, on different occasions in February, March and April, Comey assured Trump he was not personally being investigated.

After the inauguration, the FBI interviewed Flynn about his December meeting with Kislyak, and his statements differed from other public statements, sparking concern Russia could compromise Flynn by threatening to leak information. 

In March, for the first time, Comey announced to the House Intelligence Committee that there was an investigation occurring on the Russian hacking and links to the Trump campaign. 

In May, Comey testified at a congressional hearing and was fired by Trump; he never publicly stated that Trump himself wasn’t under investigation, which the president had asked him to do. Former FBI Director Robert Mueler then was appointed special counsel to oversee the FBI’s investigation. 

According to Bill Moyers, in June, Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and said he believed he was fired because of the investigation.

“It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey said.  “I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”

Trump later accused Comey of lying, but has yet to provide recordings — if any exist — of his conversations with Comey.

On June 14, the Washington Post reported Mueller was investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice — a criminal act that could underlie impeachment — though on June 18 one of Trump’s attorney’s claimed this was not the case. 

Michigan state officials respond

In the poll, 67 percent of students claim they believe, to a certain extent, Russia was involved in the 2016 election in such a way that favored Trump. Additionally, 38.61 percent believe, to a certain extent, if there was Russian involvement in the 2016 election, Trump was also involved to favor his presidential victory. 

Prominent Democratic state officials have expressed similar concerns.

Immediately after the firing of Comey, Sen. Gary Peters (D–Mich.) worried that Trump suggests he can “fire” whomever he wants; Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General, was fired, as was the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York. Peters spoke on the Senate floor May 11 on the issue. 

“The past four months suggest that our president thinks he can simply tweet and fire his way out of this problem while continuing to cozy up to Russia the Russians,” he said.   

Peters expressed concern for the future of democracy in the country, saying it is time to put ‘country’ above ‘party.’

“If we have a festering, foreign infection that is left untreated, our democratic system will certainly weaken,” he said. “We need a special prosecutor to either identify and address any malfeasance or issue this White House a clean bill of health.”

Also in his address, Peters emphasized the principles of law and order in the face of controversy. 

“During his campaign, then-candidate Trump regularly talked about how he would be the ‘law and order’ president,” he said. ‘‘ ‘Law and order’ means different things to different people, but all of us should be able to agree that we cannot have law and order without the rule of law … Our system of checks and balances was designed to hold all levels of the federal government accountable, but especially the president. Without the rule of law — ‘law and order’ becomes merely, order — imposed by an unaccountable government.”

The Senate, according to Peters, can shape history. Though it appears many across the aisle are troubled the Comey firing, there is little movement. 

“But it appears that many are taking a wait and see approach,” Peters said. “They are taking a wait and see approach to Director Comey’s firing. They are taking a wait and see approach to how the administration replaces him. And they are taking a wait and see approach to the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia.”

Peters explained the “wait and see” approach will not work as more and more officials are fired, in what seems to be a pattern with Trump. 

In a joint statement released by Peters, Tom Carper (D–Del.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and others, the senators expressed this opinion in a statement the day after Peters addressed the Senate.

“The Attorney General’s recommendation and the President’s decision to remove Mr. Comey in the midst of the FBI’s most sensitive criminal investigation threatens the integrity of the Department of Justice and poses grave injury to the rule of law,” they wrote. “Yesterday, the President told NBC News that he asked Mr. Comey if he was under investigation while he was actively considering whether or not to retain Mr. Comey as FBI director, a question that in itself undermines the FBI’s independence.”

Five days later, after the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in the investigation, Peters released a statement saying he felt the appointment was the right step. 

"Russia's unprecedented interference into our election threatens our national security and the very foundation of our democracy,” he said. “The appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel is a good first step toward a thorough investigation that is free from political pressure or interference. The American people deserve to know the facts about Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election, any involvement with the Trump campaign, and any attempt by the President or other officials to improperly influence the FBI. The facts alone should drive this investigation.”

In a May interview, after Comey’s firing, Law Prof. Julian Mortenson said it was vague why he was fired. 

“It’s not totally clear that the reason for getting rid of Comey is to stop the ongoing FBI investigation, it’s not totally clear that the ongoing FBI investigation itself would have turned up material relating to the electoral collusion with Russia, and so everybody’s sort of in suspension externally—not clear on where the investigation sits right now internally,” he said.

Moreover, Mortenson said the congressional investigation — should it be allowed to continue — would probably be better at disentangling the larger political story.

“Criminal investigations for whatever their virtues — and they’re certainly an important part of justice and so forth — aren’t always the best vehicles for making sense of really complicated situations that involve many different players and a lot of uncertain information. And so to the extent that the desire is to identify those if any that have done something wrong here and impose sanctions on them because of that wrongdoing — great, that’s the sort of thing the FBI is pretty good at,” he said. “If the idea is to come away with some larger sense for how this all fits together geopolitically, how this all fits together with less than the kind of certainty you need for a criminal conviction that’s where the existence of a Congressional investigation would be important.”

Following Comey’s testimony, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.) released a statement emphasizing the importance of the special counsel and congressional investigations proceeding fairly.

“Director Comey’s confirmation that President Trump asked him to shut down the investigation into Michael Flynn, and the fact that he felt compelled to ensure the appointment of a Special Counsel, is deeply concerning,” she said. “It has become abundantly clear that the Russians attempted to interfere in our elections, and we need to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’ We need to be alert and understand how they may be trying to undermine the integrity of our democracy. It is our job to ensure there is an independent and non-partisan investigation, unobstructed by anyone, and that we are united as Americans in getting the truth.” 

In a June interview with the Daily, Dingell said she feels there needs to be an independent investigation in order to fully protect the country’s democracy. 

“I think that we need a strong independent investigation — both by the Department of Justice and the congressional investigation, and that we’ve got to let the special counsel Mueller do his job,” she said. “So I think we’ve got to get the facts. We need the facts, we need a complete report on this and then we have to follow the facts. I think we as a country need an honest accounting of what happened, and we have to make sure that we are protecting the fundamental pillars of our democratic institutions.”

She also said she is worried people may try to impede the investigation but that there needs to be a third party agent to find out what Russia is really up to so that the country can fully protect itself. Dingell said she would not make statements or calls for action until an investigation finds out everything it can about the case. 

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D–Ann Arbor) is also concerned for the future of democracy in the country. In a message to the Daily, he wrote elected officials should be trusted to encourage democracy. 

“This is an extremely troubling situation that challenges the very fabric of our democracy,” he wrote. “There are some things that should be sacred in America and our vote is one of them. Any elected official that has a role in tampering with our democracy should be held accountable for their actions."

However, it is not just Democratic Michigan officials who have been voicing concern.

In May, Republican House representative Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) called for an independent commission for an investigation. He became the second Republican state representative to back such a search.

“This investigation must be nonpartisan,” Amash tweeted.

Congressman Tim Walberg (R–Mich.) asked to hear the facts about the case before making a conclusion. 

“There are three separate bipartisan investigations already underway, and that process must continue to move forward and follow the facts where they lead. As part of this ongoing process, the House Oversight Committee has appropriately requested the full memo, and it is important to gather all the relevant facts before rushing to judgement.”

However, some conservative students remain in support of the president.

University of Michigan students and professors respond

LSA junior Amanda Delekta, the vice president of internal affairs for the University chapter of College Republicans, expressed support for Trump and emphasized there has been no evidence to prove the interference in an email interview.

“After months of investigation no convincing evidence has surfaced and it is time for our government to start talking about the issues that are hurting its people- let's talk about healthcare, let's talk about education and the criminal justice system,” she wrote. “It's time to stop wasting so many tax payer resources on an investigation that's going in circles.”

In the student poll, approximately 23.76 percent agreed to some extent with the statement that Trump will, in fact, be impeached — lower than the 38.61 percent that felt his impeachment would be appropriate. When asked if they felt impeachment was appropriate, 6.93 percent were uncertain; though, when asked if impeachment would, in fact, occur, 21.78 percent were unsure. 

In a statement from the University chapter of College Democrats, Lauren Schandevel, the public relations chair, expressed disappointment in the alleged interference but emphasized the importance of moving forward and focusing on policy. 

“College Democrats trusts the process to reveal the truth about Trump in due time,” she wrote. “Until that day comes, we will focus our efforts on tracking state and federal policy, helping Democrats get elected, and doing all we can to keep up the resistance.”

Charles Shipan is the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Professor of Social Science and chair of the political science department. In a May interview, Shipan said the impeachment process can be complex. 

“Impeachment is something that the constitution puts in place for removing the president or some other official,” he said. 

The impeachment process was established to remove officials from office, as part of the system of checks and balances, if these officials can be impeached for and convicted of “Treasury, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” 

Shipan noted impeachment is a big process because it involves one branch of government “striking down” another branch. It also happens incredibly infrequently. However, Shipan said, the terms “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” are vague. 

First, the House of Representatives must vote to impeach the president, and then the Senate most vote to convict. In terms of Trump’s impeachment, currently, the power rests with the House. 

“Basically what it comes down to is that if we’re looking at any situation and the question is, ‘is this an impeachable offense?’, the answer is, it is, if the House of Representatives thinks it is,” he said.

Shipan said it was too soon to tell if impeachment was plausible. 

“The issue right now is that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what happened, and that’s on two levels,” he said. “The one level is in terms what activities took place between the Trump campaign and Russia. The other is whether the president and others in his orbit have tried to stop investigations into that.”

With each day that passes, Shipan said, there is getting to be more evidence that there were activities between the campaign and the state of Russia, but it’s not clear whether what happened was illegal. 

“Anything is pure speculation at this point, and that’s why the FBI is conducting an investigation, that’s why there’s a special prosecutor, that’s why the House and Senate should be looking into this,” he said. “There’s enough suggestion and there have been enough people who have provided information that seems to indicate that there were these sorts of connections and the potential that some of them were somewhere in that realm between unethical and illegal.” 

Furthermore, he said there have been attempts to stop the investigation and there is more and more information indicating that members of the Trump team and Trump himself engaged in such activities. 

“Is this obstruction of justice?” he said. “And does obstruction of justice rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors? That’s a hard question. It seems pretty clear that the president has tried to stop some of these investigations from going forward. Whether that rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, though — now it gets political, rather than legal.”

He said the situation becomes political because it is up to the House of Representatives to decide if impeachment is necessary. Currently, however, there is a Republican majority in the House. 

“There is almost no way for a minority party to force an issue, to force an investigation, to force impeachment if the majority party doesn’t want to do it,” he said. “Right now, and again this is in the political realm, the House of Representatives seems to show no inclination to either conduct a detailed investigation of these things or to begin any sort of impeachment hearing.”

Shipan said the possibility of a future congressional investigation and impeachment hearing depend on a couple of factors: first, if the flow of information indicating such questionable activities remains constant, and second, if the public demands something be done in response. 

He said Republicans in Congress are perhaps thinking of their own professional status as well if it came down to opposing the president. 

Mortenson suggested impeachment would be a big step—  but thinks it is possible. 

“If the House and Senate were to conclude that Trump fired Comey in order to prevent an investigation into wrongdoing and collusion with Russia, in which either Trump or his close associates were involved, then—and that’s a big ‘if’, that requires them to be convinced of something and that may or may not be the case … that is, in my view, as impeachable as it gets,” he said.

Mortenson emphasized just because an act is impeachable, does not mean impeachment will result. 

“Given the statements that Trump himself has made about terminating Comey, I can definitely see how legislators might determine that he has essentially admitted to obstructing justice on a really important issue, and if I put those two things together, I think impeachment seems more plausible to me now than it did a month ago,” he said. “Does that mean it will happen? I have no idea. But if you think about the kind of events that have been viewed as impeachable in the past, and you think about what a good state legislator could possibly conclude from the public evidence, I don’t think it’s crazy.”

Trump’s firing of Comey presents another set of questions. Shipan said it can make Trump look bad because he fired the man investigating him for something he said he didn’t do. He said it also may send a message to other FBI employees that will steer them away from the investigation; that is, they won’t want to lose their jobs, as well. 

As for public scrutiny, Shipan said the word ‘impeach’ gets thrown around too casually. He emphasized impeachment is not a tool to be used when people simply disagree with a president or don’t like his policies, yet that is how the term is often used. 

Again, Shipan said it is too early at this point to determine if impeachment is necessary, but that Mueller’s appointment and a congressional investigation is a step in the right direction. 

“It’s just much too early to say, and that’s why having a special prosecutor is an important step but I actually think it’s equally important that Congress be investigating any of these different accusations, because the special prosecutor will focus heavily on what happened and the legality of things that happened, but Congress has a broader reach,” he said. “Congress can look at anything involved in this and there are, at this point, in the view of a lot of people — and I put myself in this camp — there’s enough smoke here that I think it makes sense for Congress to look to see whether there’s a fire.”