Published 9:56 PM EDT Sep 14, 2018
President Donald Trump calls special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation a “witch hunt.” If so, Mueller just bagged another “witch” — a big one.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, pleaded guilty Friday two felony conspiracy charges and is cooperating "fully and truthfully" with Mueller and his team. Manafort has had extensive financial and professional ties with Russia and with Kremlin-backed politicians in former Soviet republics over more than a decade. He is intimately familiar with financial interactions between Russians and Americans, including perhaps Donald Trump.
Manafort also headed the Trump campaign during June, July and August 2016 when much of the campaign’s apparent collaboration with Russia likely took place. He was present at the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Trump’s son, his son-in-law and other top campaign officials met with a Russian agent promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. He knows who else was at that meeting and what was said. And he likely knows what Trump knew about it.
In sum, Manafort knows a lot and he is now willing to talk. He has every incentive to do so in order to shorten his prison sentence. He is no longer banking on the alternative strategy of seeking a pardon from Trump.
Manafort can answer many questions
This is more bad news for Trump on top of lots of bad news already. Thus far in this “witch hunt,” prosecutors have secured convictions and guilty pleas from, among others, Manafort (in an earlier trial in which he was convicted of eight counts of bank and tax fraud); Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen, his top national security adviser Michael Flynn, his deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, and even the campaign’s so called “coffee boy” (and Russia go-between) George Papadopoulos. All are cooperating with the prosecution.
Mueller is still investigating such matters as the Trump Organization’s finances (where has Trump been getting his money since most U.S. investors abandoned him after multiple bankruptcies in the early 1990s?); what exactly was discussed at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Kremlin-connected Russians; and who in the Trump campaign authorized Papadopoulos to meet with Russian contacts in the United Kingdom. It is very likely that Manafort knows the answers to some if not all of these questions. And he also likely knows information that would implicate yet other Trump campaign staffers in the investigation. Like Manafort and all the other defendants thus far, they will probably be willing to turn state’s evidence to save themselves.
Despite what Trump repeatedly says and tweets, Mueller is not looking for make-believe “witches.” He is after culprits, witnesses and facts. Real facts, not “alternative facts.” And these facts point to very serious criminal conduct — much of it involving financial relationships with and possible collusion with a foreign adversary that spied on a U.S. political party and on a general election candidate for U.S. president.
More: Trump Twitter attack on Sessions and Justice is most serious impeachment fodder yet
Pardon Trump to get him out of the White House? America should make that deal
Trump's 5 reasons to fire Rod Rosenstein reveal true aim: Obstructing Robert Mueller
Most incriminating are Trump’s own words and actions. He fired FBI Director James Comey because Comey would not drop the Russia investigation (Trump admitted as much on U.S. television and told Russians in an Oval Office meeting that the pressure was off). He has repeatedly attacked Mueller (a Republican) as being politically motivated without a shred of evidence to support that allegation.
He has berated his Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for their refusal to curb the Russia investigation. His tweets about the Russia investigation are so frequent and venomous that many people question his mental stability. He has attacked the FBI and his own intelligence agencies and enlisted allies in Congress to do the same.
And then there is his inexplicable behavior around Vladimir Putin, whom he embraced two months ago after publicly saying that our longstanding allies in Western Europe were in fact our enemies.
All of this suggests a man with a very guilty conscience about anything having to do with Russia.
Mueller's investigation is accelerating
Increasingly, it’s looking as if Trump’s principal cause for hope is the fact that the law is very unclear on whether prosecutors can indict a sitting president before his impeachment and removal. Rather than indict Trump, Mueller may simply turn over his report on the president’s conduct to Congress.
And this explains why Trump is so desperate to keep his friends in Congress.
For now, unfortunately, we probably can expect more inaction, or perhaps even support for Trump, from members of Congress. Republican representatives and senators behaving rationally would have long ago lent their support to the Russia investigation — knowing that regardless of the outcome, even if it were bad for Trump, Republicans would still control the White House (every person in line for the presidency, should Trump resign or be removed, is a Republican).
Congressional Republicans could have supported Trump’s policies (or those policies they agreed with) but not his recalcitrant attitude toward the Russia investigation. They could have been arch conservatives without appearing to betray the United States to a foreign adversary.
But Republican lawmakers — a lot of them — chose otherwise.
With Manafort’s guilty plea and cooperation, Mueller’s investigation is accelerating. In November, Americans may decide that an investigation in Congress should go full speed ahead as well, and flock to the polls to vote accordingly.
Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, was chief White House ethics counsel for George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter: @RWPUSA