President Trump and his defenders are anxious to portray Monday’s indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a “nothing burger.” The quasi-official state broadcaster, Fox “News,” in fact, was trying to distract viewers’ attention with an actual story about cheeseburgers — or, to be, exact, cheeseburger emojis–as the big news was breaking. That may work for those who have already drunk the Kool-Aid along with their cheeseburgers. It won’t wash for anyone who retains even a speck of objectivity.
It is not every day that a president’s former campaign manager and another campaign worker are indicted on felony charges. In fact the last time it happened was 1974, when Nixon’s campaign manager John Mitchell was indicted. Trump’s claims that “this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” aren’t true. The indictment says that the money laundering and conspiracy for which Manafort and his associate Rick Gates are being charged continued “through at least 2016” — i.e., through the period, from March 29 to August 19, 2016, when Manafort was working for Trump. Gates remained at the campaign even after Manafort was ousted.
Trump’s other claim — “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” — is marginally more compelling, insofar as it’s true that the indictment of Manafort and Gates does not accuse the Trump campaign of colluding with the Kremlin. But that’s like Al Capone bragging that his indictment didn’t say anything about racketeering. Money laundering and tax evasion are offenses that prosecutors charge in order to nail a suspect for a whole range of other egregious behavior.
In this case, the likelihood is that Mueller is going to use the pressure of major jail time to force Manafort and Gates to come clean about what they know regarding the Trump campaign’s dealings with the Russians. Odds are that Manafort knows a lot, given his close connections to the Russians. The money he was charged with hiding from U.S. authorities came, after all, from his pro-Russian clients in Ukraine.
The contention that there is “NO COLLUSION” became even less compelling a few minutes after the Manafort and Gates indictments when Mueller unveiled another blockbuster indictment: Former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about his efforts to solicit “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from an unnamed “professor” in London who was closely connected to the Kremlin. According to the indictment, “The Professor” told Papadopoulos in April 2016 that the Russians “ ‘have dirt on her’; ‘the Russians had emails of Clinton’; ‘they have thousands of emails.’”
Note that the Russian hacking had only occurred in March and did not become public until June. So Papadopoulos clearly was in touch with someone who had access to top-secret details of the Russian plot to influence the U.S. election—and Papadopoulos let his superiors at the campaign know what he was up to. In other words, he was as eager for Vladimir Putin’s help as Donald Trump Jr. was when he wrote “I love it” on June 3, 2016, in response to another offer of incriminating information on Hillary from another Russian emissary. If this isn’t collusion, then the word has lost any meaning.
It is important to keep in mind, moreover, that we have seen only a small portion of the evidence that Mueller is accumulating. What has been reported in the media is damning enough. Just last week, for example, we learned that the head of Cambridge Analytica, the data firm paid $5.9 million by the Trump campaign, contacted Julian Assange of Wikileaks to ask for help in finding Hillary Clinton’s emails. Just imagine how much Mueller knows that isn’t public knowledge. No one in the media, for example, was talking about Papadopoulos until Monday. Mueller will learn even more if he can “flip” more of his “targets” and turn them into cooperating witnesses against the president — something that has already happened with Papadopoulos.
This is how a prosecutor builds his case — and Mueller has assembled a team of the best prosecutors in the Department of Justice. There’s a good reason why, the day before the indictments were unsealed, Trump was having a meltdown on Twitter. Among his Sunday morning tweets was this desperate plea to his supporters: “DO SOMETHING!” This sounds like something that Al Pacino, as Tony Montana, might have said near the end of “Scarface” as he saw an army of gunmen invading his mansion.
The only salvation for Trump now may be to try to fire Mueller and to issue blanket pardons to his campaign associates. That would be the legal equivalent of Tony Montana going down guns blazing. Or would it?
If Trump were to use his authority as president to try to shut down the special counsel investigation, he would be guilty of obstruction of justice and should be impeached. But as a practical matter impeachment would only be possible if Democrats win a majority of the House next year and a number of Senate Republicans are willing to convict the president. Republicans, in other words, could soon be forced to choose whether they are loyal to the rule of law or the rule of Trump. I fear that by this point the “rule of law” caucus will constitute only a small minority of a once-proud party.