One of the most basic methods of striking fear in others is to pick a scapegoat and make an example of him, which is essentially what Special Counsel Robert Mueller did on Monday. He didn’t arrest a lowly underling, but President Donald Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, along with his partner, Rick Gates.
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Mueller didn’t make do with minor accusations, but indicted Manafort and Gates on serious charges of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering, which could send them both to jail for a long time.
By using such shock and awe tactics, Mueller made clear to Washington in general, and to Trump in particular, that he’s not afraid of anyone and that he will stop at nothing in pursuing the evidence he uncovers, even if it leads him to areas that are technically outside the scope of the alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. This may be what scares Trump most of all.
Mueller secured the detailed, 31-page grand jury indictment of Manafort and Gates earlier than expected. Previous special counsels and investigators required a much longer investigation before they were ready to issue their first indictments. But Mueller wanted to create a fait accompli. He is signaling to Trump supporters who dream of stopping him that this train has left the station, and it won’t be coming back.
Trump’s only remaining option is to fire Mueller, with a possible claim that he has exceeded his authority. Many of Trump’s rivals in Washington are anxious for such a development, which would create an acute constitutional and political crisis, spark automatic associations to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” and give a serious push to efforts to launch impeachment proceedings against the president.
Trump will try to play on the fact that the indictment against Manafort and Gates, which details their efforts to launder and conceal the many millions of dollars they earned representing Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, has nothing to do with him or his presidential campaign.
But in addition to Mueller’s indictments, Trump had another unpleasant surprise waiting for him, one that should make his Halloween even scarier. With no apparent connection to the accusations against Manafort and Gates, hitherto court-sealed documents released on Monday detailed the confessions of George Papadopoulos, a relatively obscure foreign policy adviser in Trump’s election campaign.
Papadopoulos has admitted lying to the FBI to conceal his contacts with an unnamed professor in London with close Kremlin ties and with a “young Russian woman” who presented herself as a close family relative of President Vladimir Putin. The two offered to share “thousands of emails” with damaging information about Hillary Clinton just a few short months before those emails were actually leaked to the media.
Papadopoulos, who is collaborating now with Mueller, corresponded with his two Russian contacts over several months. More incriminatingly, he advised his superiors in the Trump campaign about the contacts. Were it not for the accumulating fatigue from the so-called Russiagate affair, Papadopoulos’ testimony could be billed as a smoking machine gun. It certainly undermines Trump’s efforts to describe the allegations of his staff’s collusion with Russia as fake news.
The assumption is that Mueller is betting that the severe indictment handed down against Manafort and Gates will persuade them, or other senior Trump campaign officials, to collaborate with his investigation.
Mueller “followed the money,” as the famous Watergate maxim advised, and compiled what certainly seems like detailed incriminating evidence against the two. Perhaps Manafort and Gates could be persuaded to spill all in exchange for lesser charges, or their colleagues made to understand what awaits them if they don’t.
The trick-or-treat message is that those who don’t hurry to testify about Russiagate could find themselves facing even more serious charges about nefarious activities they may have carried out before the 2016 campaign, even if there is no direct link between the two.
The spate of bad news catches Trump at a time when he is already down in the dumps, and it's doubtful whether the news published Monday of the capture of one of the perpetrators of the 2012 attack in Benghazi will change the trend.
His approval ratings are nose-diving, part of his Republican caucus in Congress is rebelling and his international standing, with the exception of a few peculiar countries in the Middle East, is as low as ever.
In this situation, the reasonable presidential reaction would be to lay low, pretend to collaborate with the investigators, hope the probe will hit a brick wall and quietly try to resurrect his public standing. But since it’s Trump we’re dealing with, and since this is not what his belligerent loyal right-wing base expects, the chances that Trump will try the reasonable route are slim.
Instead, he can be expected to amplify his unfounded claims that it is Hillary Clinton who colluded with Russia because her campaign funded the controversial and salacious dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, and because the Obama administration approved a 2010 purchase by a Russian firm of a Canadian uranium mining company owned by heavy donors to the Clinton Foundation.
This will certainly convince Trump fans and dedicated Fox News viewers that he is the victim of a vast liberal conspiracy.
Trump could grow even more aggravated with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who he still sees as having deserted him by recusing himself from the Russia investigation and thus failing to close it down before Mueller was even appointed.
And Trump could certainly reach the conclusion, after Mueller's latest show of force, that even if he won’t be able to connect him to collusion with Russia, he could certainly indict him for obstruction of justice when he fired then-FBI Director James Comey in May. Trump’s big mouth, after all, has already owned up to that one.
The White House and Trump’s advisers will undoubtedly try to tame the president’s reaction to Monday’s moves by Mueller, though it seems like a lost cause.
Trump, like a certain Benjamin Netanyahu, lives in his own twilight zone – between calculated propaganda tactics and a genuine sense of persecution. Within hours or days, Trump will begin to think Mueller has humiliated him in front of his fans and made him a laughingstock throughout America. This is exactly the trigger that could push Trump to take drastic action such as firing Mueller or granting a blanket presidential pardon to anyone remotely involved in his campaign. Then, and only then, will all hell break loose.