The rich specificity of the emerging Trump-Russia narrative, found in the indictments of special prosecutor Robert Mueller, is now smothering the president’s defenses, overwhelming his counterattacks and depriving him of options and friends. No wonder Trump is in a terrible mood.
The details of the furtive machinations of the Trump entourage and the coterie of Vladimir Putin, from Trump Tower to the Seychelle Islands, brings to life the story of how these two power cliques came together to do business during and after the 2016 presidential election.
Some say that reporting and dwelling on such facts constitutes the "demonization" of Russia and the Russians. It is true that the actions we know of—thanks to skillful leaking of Mueller’s team and solid reporting by the New York Times and the Washington Post—do not necessarily reveal criminality. But the emerging story is the very definition of collusion, and in multiple dimensions.
Trump & Co., we now know, wanted a back channel to Putin, a means of communicating secretly beyond the view of the public or the U.S. government for reasons that have yet to be clarified.
Was it money? Jared Kushner, stuck with a terrible New York real estate investment, needs an infusion of capital. He launched the effort to establish such a channel via a Russia banker shortly after his father-in-law was elected. In January, Erik Prince, the mercenary security entrepreneur and Trump confidante, met with another Russian banker in the Seychelles. Prince told the House Intelligence Committee, under oath, that the meeting was accidental. Mueller now has witnesses who say it was an effort to establish confidential communications.
Was this the outgrowth of Russia’s help during the campaign? The indictment in December of 13 Russians and three companies documented another aspect of collusion: the Russian campaign to help Trump with covert digital operations.
“Mueller wants to end the debate over whether there was Russian interference in the election,” Robert S. Litt, the former general counsel to the director of national intelligence, told the Times. He has. Even CIA director Mike Pompeo, a Trump loyalist, now feels obliged to admit the obvious: Russia sought to swing the 2016 election to Trump.
Mueller’s indictment of Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort illuminated the financial face of collusion. “This is all about money laundering," former adviser Steve Bannon told Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff. “[Robert] Mueller chose [senior prosecutor Andrew] Weissmann first and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to f**king Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner.”
Except Mueller’s case is, by many reports, primarily about obstruction of justice, which is perhaps the most obvious and provable offense. It also has the fringe benefit of strengthening any underlying criminal charges. Why obstruct justice if you’re innocent? Whether Trump doesn’t understand the law or he doesn’t care, he keeps engaging in behavior that lawyers discourage in order to avoid obstruction-of-justice charges.
All of which is why the president wants to get rid of Mueller, and why he can’t. The strength of the case and scope of the charges against him has empowered even his allies to defy him or abandon him. Trump is now thwarted at every turn.
In order to get rid of Mueller, Trump needs to get rid of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the only man with the authority to fire the special counsel. Rosenstein says Mueller is doing a swell job. When Mueller indicted the Russians, Rosenstein made the announcement.
Last June, Trump ordered Don McGahn, White House general counsel, to fire Mueller. McGahn told associates he would quit rather than carry out the order, and Trump backed down. Then Trump said he had done nothing of a sort, raising the question, "Did Trump ask McGahn to lie or did he forget he tried to fire Mueller?"
Trump wants to but cannot get rid of Jeff Sessions, the only man who could fire Rosenstein, because Sessions needs to protect himself from legal liability. That’s why he recused himself from the Russia investigation early on. Besides, Sessions relishes his neo-Confederate reign as the nation’s top law enforcement officer too much to surrender to Trump’s whims. With allies in the Senate refusing to confirm a successor, Sessions is untouchable.
Trump can’t get rid of Mueller by shaking up his administration. He wants to but cannot fire Chief of Staff John Kelly because no one wants the job. He can’t fire Defense Secretary James Mattis because the Pentagon has seven wars to fight and a record budget to spend.
Trump can’t even count on dyed-red conservatives to risk their careers for him. If McGahn had followed through on Trump’s order to get rid of Mueller, the task would have fallen to the department’s third-ranking official, the Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand. Some speculated Brand, a longtime conservative judicial activist and Trump appointee, might carry out such an order. No such luck. Brand announced last month she is leaving the departmentfor a job with Walmart.
Trump’s Capitol Hill allies are a dwindling asset. The distraction tactics of the House Intelligence Committee have provided content for right-wing media platforms and talking points for Republicans on Capitol Hill. But invoking the Uranium One “scandal”—recently debunked by the Trump Justice Department itself—doesn’t protect insider witnesses called to testify before Mueller’s grand juries. This week, Roger Stone's sidekick, the addled Sam Nunberg, learned swiftly that media theatrics are not a viable legal defense strategy.
Crying “Uranium One” or “Benghazi” will not protect a witness from a subpoena or a perjury charge or a jail term. Political posturing was not a realistic option for George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates and now George Nader, three of many former Trump campaign associates who are now cooperating with Mueller’s investigators.
Of course, key questions remain unresolved: Will Mueller indict Trump if he finds clear and convincing evidence of criminal misconduct? Or will he, as special prosecutor Ken Starr did in the investigation of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, simply refer his findings to Congress for possible impeachment proceedings?
A larger question remains open too: Whether the U.S. legal and poltical system is capable of reining in a president like Trump who respects no law or fact that conflicts with his desires. For now, Mueller has Trump tied down with ropes of evidence. For how long, is a different question.