Special counsel Robert Mueller’s sweeping investigation produced its first results Monday – the indictments of two former Donald Trump campaign officials, plus a surprise guilty plea of a third that represents more evidence of a connection between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
While Trump and his defenders try to downplay and distract, this is just the early stages of a probe that could seriously damage, or even imperil, his presidency.
And that’s why Congress – especially Republicans – must say right now and with one voice that Mueller should be allowed to complete his inquiry without interference from the White House.
This includes the 14 Republican House members from California, who have been shamefully quiet as Trump has sought to undermine Mueller by calling Russian interference in the 2016 election a hoax and the investigation a witch hunt. Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has actively colluded with the White House to obstruct the inquiry.
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Bills to protect Mueller, who was appointed in May, have not gained much traction in the House, but there are two bipartisan bills in the Senate.
The president already has fired FBI Director James Comey over the Russia probe; Mueller is reportedly investigating whether Trump obstructed justice leading up to that action. If Trump were to order top officials at his Justice Department to dismiss Mueller, it would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
On Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said that Trump has “no intention” to try to get rid of Mueller. Unfortunately, Americans have learned that we can’t trust the president’s word.
And Sanders continued the recent effort to create a smokescreen by claiming that Hillary Clinton, not Trump, colluded with Russia, citing disclosures that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee funded research that led to the salacious “dossier” concerning Trump and Russia. The Trump machine is also trying to revive conspiracy theories about a 2010 uranium deal with the Russian nuclear energy agency that was approved by the Obama administration while Clinton was secretary of state.
Neither case, however, has led to anything close to the 12-count indictment against Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner Rick Gates, who are charged with conspiracy to launder money and making false statements related to their work advising a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine before the 2016 Trump campaign.
What could prove even more damaging to Trump is the guilty plea by former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who is cooperating with the investigation.
Mueller disclosed Monday that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to the FBI about an April 2016 conversation with a professor with close ties to Russia, who allegedly told him that Moscow had “dirt” on Clinton in thousands of emails. While the White House says Papadopoulos had a very limited role in the campaign, court documents say senior officials knew of his contacts with Russians. And in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Manafort and Jared Kushner met a Russian lawyer who also promised damaging information on Clinton. That was the meeting that the president, himself, tried to spin as about adoptions.
Indicating that Mueller’s isn’t partisan, his investigation of Manafort led him to Democratic Washington lobbyist Tony Podesta, the brother of Clinton’s campaign manager, who quit his firm Monday because of the probe. That should silence Republican calls for Mueller’s firing.
But Trump has demonstrated he won’t let facts or decorum get in his way, and he is certain to lash out more aggressively as Mueller’s investigation circles closer.
So if Republicans in Congress truly believe that no one is above the law, and if they really take seriously Russian interference in our democracy, there’s a good way to prove it: They will make sure Mueller can finish his job.