Commentary from Project Syndicate
As US President Donald Trump leaves for a ten-day trip to Asia, he finds himself in perhaps the deepest trouble since his troubled presidency began. And as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation draws in more of his associates, he will have an even harder time than he has had up to now governing the country he was elected to serve.
WASHINGTON, DC – Like the rest of his fellow Americans, US President Donald Trump is learning that, when it comes to an investigation of a president and his team for criminal activities there’s a vast difference between the hypothetical and the actual. Trump received that lesson this week, with the indictment of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and of Manafort’s business partner, Rick Gates. More ominous still was the fact that a young foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, had reached a plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and had been cooperating with investigators since early summer.
Americans have known for months that Mueller, an FBI director for 12 years and highly respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, meant business; he was appointed Special Counsel after Trump made the disastrous mistake of firing FBI Director James Comey over “this Russia thing.” Mueller is known for his tough, airtight, and relentless investigative methods, and nothing had leaked from his office for months. It wasn’t until the indictments of Manafort and Gates were announced on Monday morning, October 30, that the public learned anything about what Mueller was doing or finding. Mueller picked up on the efforts the FBI had already undertaken to ascertain whether Trump’s campaign organization or his outside allies had colluded with Russia’s attempt to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
TRUMP IS THE TARGET
Though Trump likes to say that he isn’t under investigation – he claims Comey had told him so, and it may have been true at the time – there can be no doubt that the president is Mueller’s ultimate target. Such is Mueller’s reputation for probity, however, that it is widely assumed that if he doesn’t find collusion on Trump’s part, he will not strain to bring charges against him. Nor will he reach for something spurious, in the manner of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s attempts to charge Bill Clinton with something, anything.
Using classic investigatory practice, Mueller is proceeding by indicting people lower on the totem pole, in the hope that those charged early, once they realize that they are facing many years in prison, can be persuaded to cooperate with the Special Counsel and his team. To encourage their cooperation, Mueller has hired a former federal prosecutor famous for his ability to “flip” defendants – that is, turning charged suspects into government witnesses.
So, when it emerged that Manafort, a onetime delegate counter for Republican presidential candidates and since then an ever-higher-flying political consultant and fixer known for his flamboyant lifestyle, and Gates had been marched into FBI headquarters to respond to multiple criminal charges, a shock wave went through the US capital. Mueller has leveled the most serious charges against Manafort, who is accused of 12 criminal offenses, including laundering millions of dollars parked in overseas banks and using the funds to purchase an extraordinarily expensive wardrobe, luxury cars, antiques, real estate, and more. Together with charges of tax evasion and making false statements on federal lobbying forms, Manafort could face decades in prison. Gates was charged with lesser crimes, but still faces the prospect of a long prison sentence. Both men pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, including one of “conspiracy against the United States.”
The charges against Manafort reveal greed – Washington’s social disease – on a gargantuan scale. But, because the activities for which he is being charged took place before the 2016 campaign, the president allowed himself a moment of public exuberance by tweeting, “NO COLLUSION!” It is not known whether Trump’s lawyers had by then explained to their client the prosecutorial strategy behind the indictments, but one should assume that they have done so.
And it likely didn’t escape the president’s notice that by indicting Manafort and Gates for business activities preceding the election, Mueller may have been sending a signal that he might proceed against Trump in the same way. Trump has warned that that would cross a red line for him; but even highly partisan congressional Republicans have warned Trump that he shouldn’t even consider firing Mueller.
In any event, whatever relief Trump may have felt from the fact that Manafort’s indictment didn’t touch on dealings with Russia during the campaign was short-lived. An hour after the news of the two indictments had sunk in, observers were stunned by the unsealing of the guilty plea by Papadopoulos, a fairly obscure adviser to the president’s campaign who had been charged with lying to the FBI and apparently had been cooperating with the authorities for several months. Papadopoulos’s activities represent the gravest threat Trump faces (at least for the time being), because for months Papadopoulos had tried to connect the campaign with Russians whom he believed had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Nor was Papadopoulos acting on his own: he had been encouraged by higher-ups in the Trump campaign, one of whom, Sam Clovis, the campaign’s national co-chair, has been talking to Mueller and the grand jury.
Taken together, these three cases signal that the president is in serious trouble. Much will depend on whether Manafort strikes a plea bargain with the prosecutor; but his alternatives to cooperating are to serve up to 20 years in prison or to rely on Trump to pardon him. Trump has indicated that he takes his power to grant pardons seriously. But its wanton use in a case concerning suspected dealings with Russia could get Trump in trouble on Capitol Hill, where it could be seen as obstruction of justice. In any case, the New York state attorney general is also investigating Manafort, and the president’s power to pardon extends only to federal charges.
RUSSIANS IN THE ROOM
Papadopoulos’s story fits an emerging pattern whereby Russians trolled for Americans close to the Trump campaign, offered them unspecified “dirt” on Clinton, and hoped they would fall into the trap. The revelation of Papadopoulos’s plea immediately recalled a meeting held in Trump Tower in June 2016, after the then-candidate’s son, Donald Trump Jr. was offered “dirt” on Clinton by a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer. After responding by email, “I love it,” Donald Jr. convened a meeting in his office of the entire upper echelon of the Trump campaign, including Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law and current White House adviser, Jared Kushner, along with the Russian lawyer and some of her colleagues.
Once the existence of the meeting became known, Donald Jr. issued a dubious public statement claiming that the topic had been the Kremlin’s ban on adoption of Russian children by US parents. And all of those present at the meeting declared that nothing had come of it. It is not yet known (at least publicly) whether this is so, but Mueller is almost certainly looking into the episode. Later it was learned that just as reports about the meeting became public, the president had spent some time while returning from Europe on Air Force One concocting Junior’s story about it. Mueller is known to be very interested in the president’s role in helping his son lie to the public about the meeting.
Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election evidently reflected President Vladimir Putin’s view that Trump would be a softer touch than Hillary Clinton, whom Putin disliked. Above all, the Kremlin was seeking an end to the US economic sanctions that President Barack Obama had imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and which he then tightened when Russian interference in the presidential campaign became known.
Prior to the election, US intelligence agencies issued a statement expressing their unanimous belief that Russia was interfering. But the statement received little attention at the time, because it coincided with the news of the recording of Trump in which he boasted to the host of the entertainment program “Access Hollywood” about his sexual assaults against women.
WHAT THE PRESIDENT KNEW
Trump maintains – or pretends – that he doesn’t believe that the Russians interfered with the 2016 election. But he’s stuck now: having insisted from the outset that Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt,” a plot cooked up by the Democrats to cover for the fact that they lost the election, he cannot admit otherwise.
One can only assume now that Trump is in serious trouble, both legally and politically. Opinion polls put his popularity at historic lows even before the news of the indictments and the guilty plea. Much depends on where the story stops as Mueller works his way up the ladder toward the president. The assumption has long been that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a criminal offense. He can resign and hope for a pardon, as Richard Nixon did. The normal course would be that the special counsel reports any such crimes to Congress, to address as it sees fit. One path could be impeachment.
It’s already clear to many that Trump is vulnerable to a charge of obstruction of justice for firing Comey and for asking him and others to “go easy” on General Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, whose conversations with the Russian ambassador about lifting the US sanctions were recorded by the FBI. Flynn lied about those conversations, and a number of observers believe that Flynn may have struck a plea deal with the prosecutors and is cooperating with investigators.
So, as Trump leaves for a ten-day trip to Asia, he’s in perhaps the deepest trouble since his presidency began. Even if Mueller doesn’t catch him in a crime, Trump, it is now clear, will leave a lot of wreckage in his wake. And as Mueller’s investigation draws in more of Trump’s associates, the president will have an even harder time than he has had up to now governing the country he was elected to serve.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.
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