Speaking to CNN a few months back, the legendary journalist Carl Bernstein insisted that Robert Mueller’s team of investigators were building a “vast narrative” of what transpired during the 2016 election between the Trump campaign and a variety of anti-American actors, including Russian intelligence and Wikileaks. At the time, Bernstein’s suggestion seemed tenuous, built more on hopeful speculation than known facts. But as each week passes, this seems more and more likely to be Mueller’s endgame. The question is: Does he have a viable path to accomplishing it?
Even before taking on one of the most sensitive national security investigations in U.S. history, Mueller was seen as sphinxlike. He was low key and by the book, but nevertheless a relentless investigator. He has had a long history of service to his country, as a Vietnam War veteran, prosecutor, and director of the FBI during the post-9/11 era. There would seems to be no question that, regardless of his affiliation with the Republican Party, Mueller has probably viewed his role in the Russia affair through a largely nonpartisan lens.
Given his reputation for thoroughness, it seemed possible at times that the Russia probe’s apparent scope and time length could simply have been a product of that thoroughness. Perhaps Mueller was just wanted to leave no stone unturned in the process of ensuring that America’s electoral system was secure against its enemies. Indictments have been handed down with regularity, often leading to criminal convictions. Yet, many of those indicted were peripheral members of the Trump orbit. And other than the Russian troll ring Mueller indicted last February, many of the crimes these figures were accused of seemed only tangentially related to the main purpose of the special counsel’s investigation.
Moreover, very few of the investigation’s targets seemed capable of directly implicating Trump himself. Michael Cohen, the closest person to Trump to plead guilty charges related to Mueller’s probe, was not directly connected to the campaign. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, did not seem to have been indicted for crimes directly related to collusion with Russia. But otherwise, Trump’s confidants, family members or anyone else that could directly connect him to possible Russian collusion seemed to have been ignored by Mueller. The president’s defenders, from his spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, to his cheerleaders at Fox News, assured the president’s supporters this demonstrated that there is no evidence of coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia or other anti-American actors.
But since the end of the midterm “blackout”—the common FBI practice of maintaining silence over politically charged cases during election seasons—Mueller has begun moving briskly, seemingly taking actions that could eventually implicate Trump and his circle. In the initial weeks after the midterms, the pre-election silence from the special counsel’s office remained in place, leading some to wonder if Mueller was beginning to wind down. We now know differently.
It was during the weeks following the midterms that Trump submitted his written answers to Mueller’s queries. Notably, this was also a period that saw a fair amount of bitter and unhinged behavior from Trump, even by his standards. We can now surmise that Mueller was waiting to review Trump’s answers before making his next moves. These moves, which began early last week and seemed to cascade through Thursday morning’s announcement of Michael Cohen’s second plea deal, have been striking in their aggressive and, at times, audacious posture in relation to a sitting president.
The week began with Mueller accusing former Trump campaign chairman and now convicted felon Paul Manafort of lying during his cooperation interviews with the special counsel, for which Mueller was determined to pull any recommendation of leniency in Manafort’s upcoming sentencing, and possibly to reopen further criminal charges. Initially, it was assumed that Manafort had lied about something directly related to the central investigation; however, the Wall Street Journal soon reported that the lies Mueller was referring to involved Manafort’s business dealings and connection to a former Ukrainian associate.
The pulling of Manafort’s plea deal for what appears to be tangential lies seems fairly heavy-handed. And no doubt it is, but we soon learned information about Manafort’s actions in the period since his cooperation agreement with Mueller that places the special counsel’s rather brutal move in a different relief. Manafort had continued to cooperate with the Trump legal team behind Mueller’s back during that period, apparently feeding them information about Mueller’s questions to Manafort. Thus, it would appear Mueller’s move against Manafort was less about prosecuting perjury and more about retaliation for double-crossing the special counsel.
We also learned of the first plausible—arguably, even likely—channel linking Trump himself directly to Wikileaks, and by extension, to Russian’s 2016 election sabotage. This was precipitated through an aborted plea agreement with Jerome Corsi, a longtime right-wing conspiracy theorist and rather pathetic toady to Trump’s own lackeys, such as Roger Stone. Having learned through sources, whose identity remains obscure, that Russian operatives had apparently given Wikileaks hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, Stone, according to Corsi, requested that Corsi seek out Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in order coordinate the release of these emails at the most beneficial moment for Trump.
The draft of the plea agreement, which Corsi released to various news outlets, made reference to specific emails Corsi had sent to Stone during the summer of 2016, and especially one particular email from August 2, 2016. In it Corsi, by turns: confirmed Wikileaks’ possession of the hacked emails; indicated their contents and the general time period of release; and even suggested insinuations against Clinton that Trump could make in the run up to the release of the emails, which the emails would then “confirm.” Stone has confirmed not only that he spoke with Trump throughout the summer of 2016, but that he spoke to Trump the very next day on August 3. However, Stone claims he inexplicably chose not to share this information with Trump.
Everything Corsi proposed in the email played out just as he suggested it would to Stone, right down to Trump’s insinuation that Clinton was in ill health and no longer up to the duties of the presidency, to which the Podesta emails ended up lending mild support. Yet Corsi, comically and unbelievably, continues to deny that he had ever made contact with Assange or anyone connected to him. Instead, in a bizarre interview with Ari Melber of MSNBC, Corsi, a famously accomplished liar, couldn’t come up with anything better than to say he had guessed, on the basis of no evidence at all, about the contents of the email he sent to Stone.
The revelation of the Corsi-Stone email exchange from August 2, 2016 should arguably be viewed as perhaps the most consequential development of the Mueller probe to date. This is because there is now, not just a plausible, but likely, chain of communication between Russian intelligence and Trump himself. Wikileaks received the emails from Russian hackers, who were likely affiliated with Russian intelligence. Corsi, then, despite his absurd denials, clearly received confirmation of this along with directions from Wikileaks, and passed it along to Stone, who, in turn, spoke to Trump the next day. The idea that Stone did not pass along this information to Trump seems utterly implausible, especially given that Trump appeared to follow the instructions Corsi relayed to Stone to the letter.
This is damning. By itself, it suggests a more than plausible likelihood of a willful conspiracy between a foreign power bent on throwing the U.S. presidential election and the Trump campaign, including Trump himself. Yet, the surreal week was not finished.
Thursday crowned the week with news of the blockbuster plea agreement between Michael Cohen and Mueller, in which Cohen revealed that Trump had been engaged in ongoing negotiations with Russia over the licensing of a new Trump Tower in Moscow throughout presidential primary campaign and into the early summer of 2016. Trump had lied about the existence of these negotiations to the press and the American public, while Cohen, under the direction of the White House, would go on to lie about the existence of these negotiations to Congress.
This will be the topic of my next post. But even now, we can note here that the leverage Russia would have had over Trump during the summer of 2016, was multidimensional and overdetermined. I have not even touched on other avenues in which Trump could have come by information suggesting Russia would intervene on his side, such as the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Don, Jr., Paul Manafort, and some obscure Russian nationals; or the incriminate email exchanges a few years earlier between Cohen and the Russian mafia appendage Felix Sater.
And this is only what we currently know. Trump has a long history of involvement with Russia, much of which could involved his personal life and financial dealings. The pressure points that Putin—who Trump, bizarrely, never fails to grovel to—could have over Trump may be deep and profound. All this suggests Russia had—and may still have—more than enough leverage over Trump to influence on his policy positions in relation Russia, such as, for example, altering the Republican platform during the 2016 convention to water down its support for Ukraine against Russian-influenced separatists.
With all this said, what finally can we guess at this point about Mueller’s endgame, given that the outlines of a potential case against Trump himself are just beginning to emerge?
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion at this point that there is not a great deal of evidence supporting Bernstein’s “vast narrative” prediction. We can see quite a bit of evidence that could be deeply compromising and politically damaging to Trump. But is it the kind evidence that could bring down Trump’s presidency? I have a hard time picturing this happening based on the evidence available. This is not to say that Trump hasn’t once again been exposed as morally and temperamentally unfit to be president, but if you frequent USRESIST NEWS you probably already knew that. Trump supporters don’t frequent USRESIST NEWS.
As I’ll write more about in the next post, the Trump Tower, Moscow, fiasco is deeply troubling, indicating that Trump was willing to flagrantly and knowingly lie, on stage, to his own supporters, not to the mention to the rest of the American public. There is also good chance it could strike close to home for him, as reports indicate that Mueller has looked closely at the activities of Trump’s children. And yes, there is compelling evidence at this point of at least some level of coordination, via Stone and Corsi, between Russian intelligence saboteurs in collaboration with Wikileaks and the Trump campaign, probably including Trump himself. Finally, as Manafort demonstrated, there is a virtual smorgasbord of evidence of obstruction of justice for Mueller to wade through. Yet, is this really going to be enough to bring down the Trump presidency?
Again, unless there are parts of this we are not aware of, Mueller seems to have approached this as the prosecutor he has always been, seeking to build a carefully circumscribed and airtight case against his targets. But even if everything the available evidence implies turns out to be true, these scandals ultimately seem unlikely to turn his supporters against him, which is the only way enough Republican senators would be willing to vote for conviction in an impeachment trial. Most GOP voters would probably have happily voted for him even knowing all this, likely viewing his actions as mere opportunism or self-defense, rather than treason, obstruction and conspiracy to defraud America.
On the other hand, Mueller does seem to believe there was a major conspiracy between the Trump campaign, including Trump himself to some degree, and various anti-American actors. He has invested significant professional and political capital in the investigation and moved aggressively and systematically against his targets, who appear to include Trump. The more aggressively he pursues Trump and his lackeys, as he did most recently in his brutal response to Manafort’s double-dealing, to fail to deliver the kind of devastating, presidency-ending vast narrative Bernstein predicted could be a humiliating stain on the stellar reputation Mueller spent his professional life cultivating. But how he gets to there from what we currently know of the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia remains unclear.
- ACLU has “worked for almost 100 years to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
- Protect the Investigation is a “nonpartisan initiative to educate the American people about the importance of the special counsel investigation and its current findings.”
- Propublica exposes “abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”
- Law Works engages “bipartisan voices and educates the public on the importance of the rule of law, the role of the special counsel in the justice system, and the integrity of our judicial institutions.”
- Nobody is Above the Law is a clearinghouse for organizing events to protect the Mueller probe.
- Stand Up America is an “organization born after the outpouring of resistance to Donald Trump’s election in 2016. They are committed to providing you with the information you need to take impactful action and make your voice heard.”
- Protect Democracy is a “nonpartisan nonprofit with an urgent mission: to prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.”
- Timeline of Corsi-Stone-Wikileaks backchannel (Washington Post)
This brief was submitted by USRESIST NEWS environment news analyst and Russia investigation reporter Jonathan Peter Schwartz: Jonathan@usresistnews.org
Photo by Samantha Sophia