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Trump, Mueller, and the Rule of Law

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—and onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's related surrender—advances the last-gasp hope that law and order might assert itself amid Trump’s unruly presidency

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On Monday, President Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort surrendered to federal authorities after he and his longtime business partner, Rick Gates, who also advised the campaign, were named in an indictment issued in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty to 12 criminal counts, including conspiracy, unregistered foreign lobbying, money laundering, and making false statements. When the indictment was unsealed Monday morning, a cooperation agreement between the Justice Department and George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign who had secretly pleaded guilty three weeks ago to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian sources, also came to light. Mueller’s investigation advances the last-gasp hope that rule of law might reassert itself amid Trump’s unruly presidency. Still, it seems likely that the Republican Party’s dominant political interests will trump any grave legal concerns or lingering fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Papadopoulos is the first Trump aide to plead guilty to a criminal count linked to the Russia investigation, and his deal with Mueller may be the earliest sign that Trump’s inner circle will finally come undone. In her Monday afternoon briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that the charges outlined in the indictment against Manafort and Gates had “nothing to do” with the presidential campaign, but a few reporters countered by saying that Papadopoulos’s guilty plea seemed to suggest that Russian influence could have gone further than just Manafort and his business dealings before the campaign. In July, reports that Manafort, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr., had met with a Russian attorney at Trump Tower during the campaign also suggested as much, but Papadopoulos — an obscure figure until Mueller’s announcement on Monday — is the first Trump aide to suffer serious legal consequences from the Russia inquiry.

Since Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to serve as special counsel in May, he has led his investigation with an air of enigmatic discipline. The intrigue piqued in August after the FBI raided Manafort’s home in Northern Virginia to secure tax and bank documents. The indictment finally sheds light on Mueller’s interest in those documents; the filing alleges that the duo tried to obscure business relationships with Ukrainian political figures linked with Putin and to dodge U.S. taxes on revenue from those partnerships, which the indictment roughly dates from 2008 to 2014. Trump and his supporters, scrounging for a bright side to these otherwise unsavory revelations, see this timeline as a godsend. Trump, who has so far tweeted only briefly about the indictments, stresses that the charges cover alleged criminal activity from “years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.” (Trump recruited Manafort to his presidential campaign in March 2016.) But the alleged criminal activity outlined in the indictments could offer context for Manafort and other Trump advisers’ correspondence with Russian sources such as Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya before Trump’s inauguration.

Manafort was long rumored to be the most vulnerable domino among Trump’s senior advisers, given his extensively reported ties to Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, and the Justice Department is expected to target other key political figures, including the Clinton strategist Tony Podesta, in the weeks and months to come. As more indictments cross the news wire, the Trump administration will morph and distort its recollections of the 2016 presidential campaign accordingly, just as Donald Trump Jr.’s memory faltered in July regarding his coordination with the British journalist Rob Goldstone, who introduced the Trump team to Veselnitskaya. Although Trump is as determined as ever to play dumb about the behavior of several campaign and administration figures, including senior advisers such as Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, these latest developments further reveal the Trump team’s entanglement with Russian figures and interests. But Trump has so far evaded any damning personal connection to Russian efforts to sway the election. At a point, Trump’s distancing himself from the ever-widening cast of figures implicated in the scandal will amount to his disavowing his presidential campaign altogether.

Mueller’s investigation has become a source of hope for Trump’s critics. Among those who regard the president as a catastrophe, Mueller is a folk hero in the making. His Russia probe poses the gravest threat to Trump’s presidency given its potential to subject key figures to criminal charges and, in the extreme, to provide grounds for presidential impeachment. But the trouble with that latter course, despite former FBI director James Comey’s spectacular testimony before Congress in June 2017 and Mueller’s pursuit of criminal charges, is that impeachment isn’t a legal recourse. It’s a form of political censure that would require a good deal of consensus within Congress. As the president’s party governs with a majority in both houses, Congress is unlikely to act.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was the first major GOP official to address the indictments of Manafort and Gates on Monday. A Wisconsin radio host asked Ryan about the breaking developments, and Ryan replied, “I really don’t have anything to add other than nothing is going to derail what we’re doing in Congress,” referring specifically to Republicans’ ongoing tax reform push. To date, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have expressed minimal concern about the alleged criminality and treason among Trump’s senior aides, and many Republican members of the congressional committees assigned to investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 election (apart from Mueller’s independent query) have quietly abandoned their mandates, according to a recent Daily Beast report. There is only Mueller, who serves independently, but who is subject to any number of methods by which Trump might fire him. If Trump does relieve Mueller, there is little chance of repercussion, and little hope that even pretense of the rule of law will successfully constrain Trump for the rest of his presidency. Richard Nixon didn’t survive his own Saturday Night Massacre of the Justice Department; Trump most likely will endure despite Mueller’s best efforts — and with a vengeance.