The striking subtext of the ‘bombshell’ week was the realization of just how much evidence the special counsel has collected
Special counsel Robert Mueller marked a return to an “active” public phase in the Russia investigation this week, with a rapid-fire series of court filings and document releases that followed a quiet period around the midterm elections and the Thanksgiving holiday.
But the striking subtext of the week’s headline developments – which included the disintegration of a plea deal with former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and the unveiling of a new deal with former top aide Michael Cohen – was the realization of just how much evidence Mueller has collected about activity inside the Trump Organization and presidential campaign.
“A lot of people are trying to give false information to the American public and to the investigation, and the Mueller team is not being derailed,” said Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor and former prosecutor on the international criminal court. “They are uncovering false statement after false statement, because they are able to prove what actually happened.
“That strikes me as the unifying theme, that the Mueller team knows a lot.”
Andy Wright, a law professor and founding editor of the Just Security blog, called it a “bombshell” week.
“In an investigation full of blockbuster surprises, this week the tempo and the gravity of what’s been happening outstrips anything we’ve seen so far,” he said. “At least rivals it, when we’re talking about the week that Manafort got indicted.
“Presumably there are going to be some more indictments in short order.”
Trump appeared to be feeling the heat. As he left Washington on Thursday for the G20 summit in Argentina, the president yelled denials over the roar of helicopter rotors. He then abruptly canceled meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin and other world leaders. Before dawn on Friday, Trump tweeted that he had “lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia” during the campaign but it was all “very legal & very cool”.
Congress may yet have the opportunity to judge whether Trump’s Russia ties were wholly legal. In a couple of years, voters might have the opportunity to register a verdict on whether they were cool.
Mueller, meanwhile, has advanced towards filling in the blanks in the story of Trump campaign contacts with Russian operatives and the significance of those contacts.
One major document to emerge was a draft statement of offense against conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, whom Mueller accused of having acted as a link between Trump adviser Roger Stone and WikiLeaks, which published emails stolen by Russia in a way seemingly timed to sway the election.
Corsi has denied contacting WikiLeaks on behalf of Stone, but Mueller’s apparent readiness to charge the case indicated that the special counsel had gained a good window on the flow of information between Trump associates and entities tied to election tampering, analysts said.
“I think it remains to be seen what the truth is regarding co-ordination with WikiLeaks,” said Barb McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former US attorney. “But if the truth could be found, I think Robert Mueller will find it, and President Trump could find himself in trouble either related to the alleged collusion or obstruction to impede the investigation.”
In retracting Manafort’s plea deal, Mueller signaled an equally robust knowledge of the former campaign chairman’s ties in the former Soviet bloc, accusing Manafort of lying to investigators when he was supposed to be co-operating. Mueller’s team said a “detailed” submission “that sets forth the nature of the defendant’s crimes and lies” would be filed next Friday.
“There’s just a lot of other information that’s going to come tumbling out here that we know of, over the next weeks and months,” said Wright.
‘It does feel like we are moving to the end’
Mueller also signaled that he has evidence of communications between the Trump Organization and campaign and the Kremlin, by persuading Cohen to admit on Thursday to lying to Congress about plans for a tower in Moscow. That evidence could be bad for Trump, many analysts pointed out, if the president’s written statements on the subject, submitted to Mueller earlier in November, were less than truthful.
Trump and his allies have tried to downplay the false statements charges, saying there was no underlying crime. Republican senator Lindsey Graham called the new guilty plea by Cohen “a process crime”.
“That really misses the point,” said Whiting, “because first of all, we’re not talking about ordinary day-to-day citizens who are caught up in making false statements: we’re talking about public officials who are making false statements to other branches of the government and to the American public, so in themselves these are pretty serious charges.
“Second, it’s a common tactic in an investigation [to prosecute false statements]. Third, it underscores how much the Mueller team knows and how inept the lies are – how ineffective the lies are.”
That sense might be sinking in for Donald Trump Jr, who last year made several statements to a Senate committee that have been flagged as possible lies, including denying awareness that Cohen contacted the Kremlin to negotiate the Moscow deal. It was revealed on Thursday that Cohen had “briefed family members of [Trump] within the company about the [Moscow] project”.
“If you’re somebody close to Trump and you’ve made statements to the Congress or you’ve made statements to the investigation and you see the Cohen information and you realize how much Mueller knows, that’s going to make you think twice,” Whiting said. “Should I start co-operating with the investigation?”
Last month, citing an unnamed friend, Politico reported that Trump Jr believes he could be indicted.
“It does feel like we are moving to the end of the investigation, because we are now getting to the heart of the matter,” said McQuade.
“There aren’t that many people higher in the organization left to be charged. And so that means they must be focusing on people like Roger Stone, maybe Trump Jr, maybe Trump himself.”
In these critical times …
… help us protect independent journalism at a time when factual, trustworthy reporting is under threat by making a year-end gift to support The Guardian. We’re asking our US readers to help us raise one million dollars by the new year so that we can report on the stories that matter in 2019. Small or big, every contribution you give will help us reach our goal.
The Guardian’s editorial independence means that we can pursue difficult investigations, challenging the powerful and holding them to account. No one edits our editor and no one steers our opinion.
In 2018, The Guardian broke the story of Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook data breach; we recorded the human fallout from family separations; we charted the rise of the far right, and documented the growing impact of gun violence on Americans’ lives. We reported daily on climate change as a matter of urgent priority. It was readers’ support that made this work possible.
As 2019 approaches, we would like to ask for your ongoing support. In an era of disinformation campaigns and partisan bots, trustworthy news sources that sort facts from lies are under threat like never before. Unlike many others we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep The Guardian’s reporting open to everyone, regardless of what they can afford. But we depend on voluntary contributions from readers.
We’re in this together – with your support we can keep exposing the truth. We hope to pass our goal by early January 2019. We want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported The Guardian so far.
Please invest in our independent journalism today by making a year-end gift.