There’s never been a presidency as chaotic as Donald Trump’s. Although relatively little has happened on the legislative front, there’s been a seemingly endless stream of tweets and tell-all leaks. With all the distracting minutia, it can be hard to keep sight of the big picture.
One major stream that sometimes gets pushed into the background is the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a serious man with serious credentials who has assembled a dream team of prosecutors with deep expertise.
Mueller matters in his core work — investigating activities and identifying and prosecuting criminal activity. But he also matters for how the White House and its allies are reacting and for the political responses created.
Less than a year into the Trump presidency, Mueller has secured plea deals with two and has multiple indictments for another two, and there’s no indication the probe is ending anytime soon. His work builds on an FBI investigation that started before he got involved.
Like other presidential scandals, top staff members are involved. During Watergate, President Richard Nixon’s campaign manager John Mitchell was indicted, although for crimes associated with his activities while attorney general. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort has been indicted. During the Iran-Contra affair, President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser John Poindexter was indicted. Now Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has pled guilty and is cooperating with the investigation.
Like every presidential scandal, today’s probe involves some players no one’s known much about. George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign, was called a mere coffee boy by another campaign staffer. But Papadopoulos seems to be more important than that, both in the foreign policy job he held and in this burgeoning scandal.
A lot of what we know about what Papadopoulos did can be found in his plea deal. Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his campaign dealings with Russia, first when he was interviewed by the FBI a mere week after Trump’s inauguration, four months before Mueller became special counsel.
Later Papadopoulos fessed up to a series of meetings with Russians, including one in April 2016 where he was told there was “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and thousands of hacked emails. According to the New York Times, in May 2016, after a night of heavy drinking, Papadopoulos bragged about what his Russian contacts said to an Australian diplomat; later this diplomat informed the FBI, prompting them to begin their investigation of Russian interference with the presidential election.
There’s ample criminal exposure. Flynn and Papadopoulos committed felonies rather than tell the truth under penalty of perjury. Manafort and another campaign aide, Rick Gates, face multiple charges each. And, as former Trump top aide Stephen Bannon told reporter Michael Wolff, Mueller’s hiring of a top prosecutor for money laundering cases implies this is where the probe is going, and it may lead to charges against Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Moreover, it’s blatantly obvious that Trump and some Republicans have tried to thwart or end the investigation. Trump told journalist Lester Holt he considered “this Russia thing” while deciding to fire FBI Director James Comey. Trump also did not want Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself because he hoped Sessions could block the probe. Mueller will decide if anyone will be charged with obstruction of justice.
If Trump fired Mueller, this would create a political firestorm but it wouldn’t erase the evidence, vacate the guilty pleas, or stop the upcoming trials for the indicted two who haven’t pled guilty.
How does this matter politically?
Truth be told, little is likely to shake Trump’s most loyal supporters.
Most people will vote in November 2018 in part based on whether they see improvements in their own lives and if they think Trump bears responsibility for the good or the bad.
But we’re also in a time of remarkable citizen activism against Trump. The largest demonstrations in American history were held the day after his inauguration, with masses of homemade signs and people in pink pussy hats. Democratic voters came out in droves in Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere. Citizens called elected officials about health care and taxes and sat in and held protests.
This investigation contributes to most Americans’ perception that this is a decidedly abnormal, even corrupt, administration, and this will affect who votes and for whom.