After a brief lull, we are suddenly awash in revelations about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, all of which point to the likelihood that there is serious wrongdoing at the heart of the Russia scandal, Mueller is closing in on it, and President Trump is on the verge of doing something that would induce a constitutional crisis.
The most recent of these reports broke Wednesday afternoon, but pertains to conduct that occurred last summer. According to the New York Times, criminal attorney John Dowd, who resigned as head of Trump’s legal team last week, approached lawyers for Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn in 2017 to dangle the possibility that Trump might pardon them, presumably in exchange for their silence.
This raises fairly obvious questions about whether Dowd has exposed himself or Trump or both to witness tampering allegations—Mueller has already successfully compelled testimony from one of Paul Manafort’s former lawyers—and whether Dowd’s resignation wasn’t altogether voluntary. But a broader inference stems less from whether Dowd will have to testify in the future than from why he tried to entice Manafort and Flynn in the first place. It’s an incredibly risky move, both legally and politically, unless you’re quite certain that Manafort and Flynn possess damaging information about Trump. Notably, Dowd’s entreaties didn’t stop Flynn from striking a plea deal with Mueller and becoming a cooperating witness, but Manafort continues to resist Mueller’s concerted efforts to flip him.
Those efforts include securing cooperation from Manafort’s long-time business partner Rick Gates, who also served as Trump’s deputy campaign manager. A memorandum Mueller filed in DC district court on Tuesday reveals he has established that Gates spoke repeatedly, in September and October 2016, with a former officer of the Russian intelligence agency behind the hacking of Democratic Party emails. The memo strongly implies that the former Russian intelligence officer is a business associate of Manafort and Gates, Konstantin Kilimnik, whose ties to Russian intelligence continued throughout the 2016 election. While Manafort and Gates were running the Trump campaign, in other words, one of their employees was a potential liaison to the Russian hackers who stole emails from the DNC.
Whether Mueller substantiated that explosive information from Gates directly, or through other means, it suggests that Gates has a great deal to share with Mueller, not just about Paul Manafort’s financial crimes, but about the Trump campaign’s involvement in the conspiracy to sabotage Hillary Clinton and subvert the 2016 election.
We’ve seen many signs over the past several weeks that Trump and his inner circle are unusually agitated about Gates’ decision to cooperate with Mueller. Just two days ago Politico reported that Trump world is “very concerned” and “worried about” what Gates might tell Mueller. Before Gates decided to strike a plea deal, the behind the scenes jockeying to get him to keep his mouth shut was so contentious that it broke through the veil of secrecy in the form of false leaks that Gates wouldn’t plea out and would fire his attorney.
Mueller’s Tuesday memo paints a much clearer picture of why Trump world is so freaked out.
It also might help explain why Trump world has been furiously dumping opposition research on Mueller, and why multiple groups of senators on Tuesday publicly expressed concern that Trump may be preparing to fire Mueller or tamper with his investigation.
The common thread running between all of these developments is panic. Or at least awareness that Mueller is closing in on Trump through the people most likely to possess incriminating information about him.
It is possible to interpret almost everything the White House does as evidence that President Trump has worked himself into a lather over some looming development in the Russia affair. On Twitter, the most fertile breeding ground of idle speculation in the history of mankind, you can always find seasoned political observers musing publicly about whether Trump is attacking Robert Mueller because he’s scared, or attacking someone else because he wants to divert attention from Mueller’s investigation, or even stoking a global trade war as a means of asserting his power, to offset the ways the Mueller investigation has rendered him helpless.
Whether it explains any or all of this administration’s erratic behavior, the panic itself is now fully evident, and the risk that Mueller will be fired never greater.