With each passing day, Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, seems to add another brick to the case he is building – one more indictment, one more interview, one more guilty plea. Trump and his advisers insist they are not worried because so far none of the charges implicate the president. Yet no one outside Mueller’s office knows for sure where he is heading, and the flurry of recent action seems to be inexorably leading to a larger target.
“When you put that all together, the White House should be extremely worried,” said Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of Lawfare, a blog that analyses legal issues, and a friend of James Comey, the former FBI director who was leading the Russia investigation until being fired by Trump last year. “You have to ask the question about whether there is a certain measure of self-delusion going on here.”
In the last 10 days, Mueller has indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies on suspicion of secretly trying to help Trump win the election, added new charges against Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman, and secured a guilty plea from a lawyer tied to Manafort’s business dealings with pro-Russian figures. The guilty plea on Friday by Rick Gates, the former deputy chairman, raised the pressure on Manafort.
Trump is correct that nothing produced publicly by Mueller to date has claimed any wrongdoing by the president nor any illegal collaboration with the Russians seeking to influence the 2016 election. The indictment of the Russians – who are accused of flooding Facebook and other social media with disinformation and propaganda – cited only contact with “unwitting individuals” connected with Trump’s campaign.
The charges against Manafort and Gates depict an expansive money-laundering and fraud operation stemming from their work for Ukrainian leaders aligned with Moscow, not from their involvement in the campaign. Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, a former campaign adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russians or intermediaries but not to collusion.