In the ever-widening Special Counsel investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump has gained a new title: “Individual No. 1”, an ominous-sounding designation that hints at the president’s alleged central role in collusion and associated corruption during the 2016 election campaign. After weeks of relative silence (which was intentional, in respect for last month’s midterm elections) Mueller and his team appear to be closing in on the central subjects of their investigation: Trump and his campaign team, including close family members; Russian individuals; and key figures who allegedly acted as intermediaries between these parties.
As the investigation has unfolded, more suspects and more legal infractions and cases of corruption have been drawn into Mueller’s net. The cast of characters is growing, the alleged crimes are multiplying, and the depth of the corruption engulfing the White House and the Republican Party is becoming harder to deny. Trump and his hardline supporters (who comprise roughly 30 percent of the US electorate) continue to insist that the Mueller investigation is nothing but a “witch hunt,” that the indictments are politically motivated, and that every emerging report about the investigation is simply “fake news.”
The complexity of Mueller’s findings to date, and the way that indictments have rippled out to include more people and spur more suspicions, means that the investigation can be quite hard to follow. What began as an attempt to ascertain how, to what degree, and by what means Russia might have influenced the 2016 elections in favor of Donald Trump now encompasses prosecutions of various individuals for bank fraud, obstruction of justice, dubious real estate deals, perjury, and conspiracy.
The latest developments in Mueller’s investigation have been some of the most dramatic to date. On November 30, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is already destined to serve prison time for a separate conviction, confessed to committing perjury before Congress about the timeline of Donald Trump’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. When he was questioned by Congress over a year ago, Cohen declared that Trump quit pursuing the Moscow property deal at the beginning of 2016. Now, chastened and humbled, Cohen says that the Moscow deal was under consideration well into the summer of 2016, ending on the eve of Trump’s nomination. Cohen now says that Trump and his team asked him to lie to Congress about the timeline of the prospective Moscow Trump Tower. This revelation certainly does not alleviate suspicions of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians. One can only wonder if the written responses Trump recently sent to Mueller will contradict Cohen’s confession. It could get awkward.
Then, on December 4, one of the very first people caught up in Mueller’s net, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, was back in the news again when Mueller filed a sentencing memorandum in Flynn’s case. Although much of the memorandum’s text referencing ongoing investigations was blacked out, the parts that were publicly accessible revealed that Flynn is collaborating robustly in the special investigation and “has provided substantial assistance” by providing documents and records of communications to Mueller’s team. He has probably also testified before the grand juries empaneled by Mueller. The extent and value of Flynn’s cooperation is such that prosecutors now say that he might not receive any jail sentence at all, despite having plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Kislyak in the period between Trump’s election and his inauguration in January 2017. Other parts of the redacted sentencing memorandum hint that Flynn is assisting with other investigations outside Mueller’s mandate. As several journalists have noted, “some big shoes are about to drop” in the ongoing case if Flynn has provided evidence of communications and dealings between Trump and the Russians.
Lacking Mueller’s full and final report, we can only piece together the disparate threads that have become visible in his numerous filings, memoranda, and indictments. Will those threads form a pattern that implicates “individual No. 1” decisively in collusion with Russia? If they do appear to be heading in that direction, could Trump fire Mueller? Before the mid-term elections, which delivered a major congressional victory to the Democratic party, the Mueller investigation was in greater danger of being quashed than it is now. Although one of Trump’s first acts after last month’s elections was to get rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump never forgave from recusing himself from the Mueller investigation, the Department of Justice is under scrutiny now because Trump’s appointment of Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker might not be constitutional. Trump has been slow to nominate a permanent Attorney General, and it is clear that he and Whitaker like each other a lot. Whitaker is not directly in charge of the Mueller investigation, though; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is. But Whitaker has expressed his doubts about the probe, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could try to halt it. Yet, Whitaker himself is under scrutiny for having a very meager legal resume as well as an involvement with a corporation that the Federal Trade Commission has accused of cheating investors.
Trump does not hold as many cards in his hand now as he did before the midterm elections, not only because the Democrats gained considerable ground and renewed power in the House of Representatives, but also because Republicans in the Senate have shown their willingness to criticize the administration and firmly take stances against Trump that would have seemed unimaginable just one year ago. Central to this emerging senatorial resistance is the case of murdered dissident Saudi journalist and permanent U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Republican and Democratic senators alike are not simply going along with the Administration’s efforts to sweep this hideous crime under the carpet. Despite Trump’s sending Sec. of State Pompeo and Sec. of Defense Mattis to Capitol Hill to calm doubts and dissension, senators from both sides of the aisle insisted that they wanted to hear about the Khashoggi case directly from CIA Director Gina Haspel. After her briefing, Republican senators Lyndsey Graham and Robert Corker left no doubt about their feelings: They asserted that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was directly involved in and indubitably guilty of Khashoggi’s killing.
Yesterday, a bi-partisan group of senators introduced a resolution saying that Muhammad bin Salman is complicit in Khashoggi’s murder. The measure was introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.).
Although the resolution is non-binding, and largely symbolic, it will put the Senate on the record as condemning MbS for Khashoggi’s slaying inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in early October. Trump is about to discover just how expensive his continuing support of MbS might be, especially since it’s creating rifts between Republicans while also building bridges to Democrats.
Over a year ago, as the Mueller investigation began, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein indicated that he did not think a sitting president could be indicted. Although many opponents of Trump in the United States and abroad are hoping for a decisive finding from the Special Counsel investigation that will put an end to Trump’s presidency, that is not likely to happen. Trump is half-way through his first (and hopefully only) term as president, and given that the Republicans control the Senate–even if some are now willing to speak out about Trump’s support of MbS–impeachment is unlikely. Trump’s ultimate fate will rest in the hands of the electorate, and in their messaging to leaders in Washington, DC. It’s looking increasingly likely that Trump might not be the GOP’s first pick as a candidate in 2020. He might be “individual No. 1” on Mueller’s list, but he won’t be no. 1 on the electorate’s list.