Littwin: Now that Mueller has made his opening move, no one has any idea what comes next

Now that the Manafort-Gates indictments are in and the Papadopoulos admission that he lied to the FBI is revealed, the question is how Donald Trump will respond.

Because, as we know, respond he must. It’s what he does.

What we don’t know is whether Trump’s response will set off a constitutional crisis, in which he attempts to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and Congress either does or doesn’t try to stop him. But let’s just say the chance of a crisis is  more likely than the chance of ever seeing a seven-homer, 13-12 World Series game again.

Trump’s tweets are not exactly a tell. They always sound pretty much the same. On the day before the big announcements, his desperate-sounding, attack-on-Clinton, heavy-on-the-caps tweet ended this way: DO SOMETHING! He didn’t say what he wanted done, only something.

And then on the morning of the announcements, he ended his desperate-sounding, attack-on-Clinton, heavy-on-the-caps tweet this way: “NO COLLUSION!” — as if the indictments against Paul Manafort and his aide, Rick Gates, for tax evasion and money laundering, the kinds of charges more often reserved for mobsters than for presidential campaign managers, meant Trump was off the hook.

But the hook is very much there, and maybe what was most surprising about the day is that Trump didn’t attack Mueller, which must mean that he’s listening to his lawyers. The Washington Post reports Trump was fuming as he watched the news break. What else is new?

I don’t know how nervous Trump is, but the people who know about these things say that Mueller’s strategy is pretty obvious, which is to apply the pressure and then keep increasing it. And if Trump’s not nervous — really, really nervous — he has to truly believe that Mueller is off on a wild-hoax chase. Does anyone else believe that?

It seems Mueller laid on the non-campaign-related charges against Manafort and Gates in an effort to get them to flip, as we say in the business. They could both be facing more than 10 years in federal lockup, and there’s nothing to stop Mueller from adding charges. And so the question for Manafort — whose ties to Russian-backed Ukranians are a matter of record —  becomes what did he know and when/if will he spill it. As he considers that question, Manafort, who pleaded not guilty, is out on $10 million bond. Gates is out on $5 million bond. What I’m saying is, this is high-stakes poker.

An hour later, Mueller sweetened the pot by announcing the deal with obscure campaign aide George Papadopoulos to show what can happen if you do cooperate. Papadopoulos, who may face little to no jail time, admitted to lying to the FBI about his Russian connections and, in the details of that deal, we learned that he apparently knew about the Clinton emails in April. Clinton campaign manager John Podesta — whose brother Tony was surprisingly caught up in the Mueller investigation and had to quit his Democratic-friendly lobbying job — had his emails hacked in March, just the month before.

There are other seemingly important revelations in the Papadopoulos charges, which held much more news than the Manafort-Gates indictments. Papadopolouos told senior Trump advisers that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton from thousands of emails, and at least one of those senior advisers encouraged him to look into setting up a meeting in Russia to learn more. It may not be coincidence that Papadopoulos’ revelations about the emails came not long before the infamous Trump Jr.-Manafort-Kushner meeting with the Russian lawyer and friends at Trump Tower. It may be, in fact, the critical link.

So, where does that leave us? Vox’s Ezra Klein has a point-by-point, where-there’s-smoke-there’s-often-fire list of reasons we should be suspicious. Here are just some of them — none of them, by the way, a smoking gun. But we know that Trump fired FBI chief Jim Comey for refusing to back away from investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. We know the unusual number of Trump campaign aides with Russian ties.  We now know that Papadopoulos knew very early about the Clinton emails and that the Trump campaign was apparently interested. We know about the Trump Jr. oppo-research meeting with the Russians. We know that Trump, in one of the strangest moves in his oh-so-strange campaign, publicly asked the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails and release them. We know that the Russians did hack Podesta’s emails, did use them to embarrass Clinton, did use social media in an attempt to swing the election.

Meanwhile, in breaks from attacking Clinton on the uranium deal, many in right-wing media — I’m talking about you, Fox News — are saying that Mueller should resign or be fired. In Congress, most Republicans — I’m definitely talking about you, Cory Gardner — weren’t saying anything about the indictments while Democrats were mostly cautious on the charges but insistent that Republicans should make it clear that Trump must not fire Mueller.

Would Trump really go that far? Sure, he would if this is, as it looks, only an opening move by Mueller. It’s the next one that has to worry Trump. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Photo by Mike Licht via Flickr: Creative Commons
He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


  1. The difference between Papadopoulos not being forthcoming about his foreign contacts and Jared Kushner “forgetting” his contacts on a security clearance application and interviews might be a bit problematic.

    And apparently, “U.S. District Court for D.C. has four sealed cases in its docket with case numbers between Papadopoulos’ (182) and Manafort’s (201).” Perhaps we can plan for a weekly reprise of Mueller Time?

Comments are closed.