The Russia collusion probe is at a pivot point. Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators appear to be aimless and are wandering, Democrats are grasping at straws and President Donald Trump is lawyering up.
Going by what information has, so far, been made public, there is no collusion with Russia to be found - at least on the part of the Trump campaign. And with obstruction of justice difficult to establish, Mueller’s plate seems to be full of side dishes but no entree. After a few non sequitur indictments against Paul Manafort for offenses which took place years before the Trump campaign, along with a plea deal for Manafort’s partner, Rick Gates; and guilty pleas from Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos and former national security adviser Michael Flynn for offenses committed after the investigation began, it appears that Mueller has no clear bull’s eye.
So, what is Mueller’s next move? I’m not sure he knows. He has a team of more than 15 lawyers. How is he going to keep them busy without letting the investigation go places that are wildly outside his mandate?
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For their part, the Democrats are struggling to keep the investigation in the news. The demand du jour is legislation to “protect Mueller” from being fired. The absence of any suggestion by Trump that he would fire Mueller and specific denials that any such thing is being considered by Trump’s legal team has to be frustrating for Democrats, but it doesn’t keep them from creating a phony, pious talking point to give the story some life. Their allies in the media dutifully report their “concern” while they try to think of a new angle. Maybe, somehow, they thought or hoped their allies on Mueller’s team (which is comprised mostly of Democrats) would start looking at the Trump campaign-research firm Cambridge Analytica and its potential misuse of Facebook data, or the bizarre revelations of alleged company practices including the use of Ukrainian women to seduce and ultimately entrap politicians.
With the whole collusion story caving in and Mueller & Co. off on tangents, I guess the holy grail for Democrats would be for Mueller to become involved with - so to speak - Stormy Daniels. As discussed in my last post, the Stormy Daniels story has legs and more. A CNN (it figures) “legal analyst,” Paul Callan, even planted that suggestion. Callan went so far as to say Mueller’s “investigation should focus on possible election-law violations relating to the $130,000 hush money payment given to [Stormy Daniels].”
Meanwhile, reports that Trump has approached two high-profile lawyers about joining his team only further adds to the uncertainty of the moment. I have been around plenty of legal action, and generally speaking, no one lawyers up when things are winding down. But Trump constantly does things to make himself appear guilty. Let’s not even talk about his “congratulatory message” to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why would he say such a thing?! Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Trump’s lawyers. Reports are that the president has approached two of Washington’s best - former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova and former solicitor general Theodore Olson. I have known and worked with both men for decades. DiGenova is who you want when you are in a knife fight, and Olson is who you try to get when scholarly, elegant poise is needed on appeal. I understand that Ted is not coming on board, but Joe is ready for the fight. Things are about to become more interesting.
So, where does this leave us? Is Mueller winding down, content to hound a few bit players and shake his fist at the Russian trolls who will never stand trial? Can the Democrats continue to flog the collusion horse even though it hasn’t moved in months? Is Trump holding his fire, or is he about to unload and go on the offensive? The fact is the investigation that never should have started is prowling for a purpose. Anything could happen.
Ed Rogers is a contributor to the PostPartisan blog, a political consultant and a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses and several national campaigns.