Special Briefing: Robert Mueller Strikes

Special Briefing: Robert Mueller Strikes

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017.

SourceJabin Botsford/Getty

Why you should care

The White House gets Trumped.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

Why You Should Care

What happened? It may be Halloween, but it’s also Mueller Time in America. After six months of speculation and anticipation, special counsel Robert Mueller and his team announced yesterday the first set of charges in the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, along with his business partner Rick Gates, a campaign adviser, surrendered to authorities after being indicted on 12 counts, including money laundering, making false statements to federal authorities and “conspiracy against the United States.” Both men pleaded not guilty.

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US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House August 3, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Source Brendan Smialowski/Getty

Does that mean there was collusion? According to the president, “there is NO COLLUSION!” between his campaign and Russia, but as he was tweeting that yesterday morning, Mueller hit the White House with a second body shot, disclosing that George Papadopoulos, a former campaign foreign policy adviser, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his ties to the Russian government. Federal investigators claim that Russian intelligence services contacted Papadopoulos through intermediaries to offer “dirt” on opponent Hillary Clinton in April 2016 in the form of “thousands of emails.”

So what do we know now? The admissions made in Papadopoulos’ plea agreement, including his efforts to gather dirt on Clinton from officials in the Russian Foreign Ministry, are the most damning evidence of collusion to date. We now know that members of the Trump campaign were open to Russian government help to damage Clinton and that they knew about Russia’s email hacking well before it was public knowledge.

What to Know

D.C. freak-out. The walls are closing in at an increasingly scared White House in response to this year’s October surprise. “This has not been a cause of great agita or angst or activity at the White House,” White House lawyer Ty Cobb told reporters, but The Washington Post reports that the president was “fuming” behind closed doors while one anonymous senior Republican said of White House staffers: “Everyone is freaking out.”

A ghost in $1,000 suits. The shadowy figure of Manafort continues to hover over the Trump campaign. Prosecutors say he laundered more than $18 million he received lobbying for a pro-Putin Ukrainian party and used his hidden wealth to furnish a lavish lifestyle that included spending $5.5 million on a home in the Hamptons and $1.3 million on clothes. That’s still less than his bail, which is set at $10 million.

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Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves federal court, October 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, have been indicted by a federal grand jury in the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

Source Keith Lane/Getty

Any questions? Forget David S. Pumpkins. This year’s question-raising character, and last-minute Halloween costume alternative, is the aviator-shades-wearing George Papadopoulos, 30, America’s favorite “proactive cooperator.” Papadopoulos has been downgraded from an “excellent guy” in 2016 to a “low-level volunteer” by the president, but the former adviser, who has been cooperating with investigators since being arrested in July, may be the small fish who helps Mueller net bigger ones.

Mueller’s scare tactics. In yesterday’s carefully orchestrated legal pincer movement, experts say Mueller is sending a strong message to potential targets and witnesses that they can either cooperate, like Papadopoulos, or face serious legal jeopardy, like Manafort and Gates. The foreign lobbying rules Manafort is accused of flouting are rarely enforced, but he is still looking at roughly 20 years in prison unless he starts singing for Mueller — or is pardoned by the president.

A fire insurance policy? “With these two indictments, I think the special counsel protects himself from being fired,” says former deputy director of the CIA and OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin, “unless Trump does something truly foolish.” But some, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, are urging Trump to hit back and defund the investigation.

What to Read

Begging Your Pardon, Mr. President, by David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey in The Wall Street Journal

“Mr. Trump can end this madness by immediately issuing a blanket presidential pardon to anyone involved in supposed collusion with Russia.”

It Sure Looks Like There Was Collusion Between the Trump Operation and Russia, by Ezra Klein at Vox

“At this point, it would be a truly remarkable coincidence if two entities that had so many ties to each other, that had so much information about what the other was doing, and that were working so hard toward the same goal never found a way to coordinate.”

What to Watch

White House Reacts to Charges Against Manafort, Points Finger at Clinton

“The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS and Russia.”

The News: A Horror Movie

“Jimmy Fallon attempts to escape the terrifying Trump news cycle on The Tonight Show.”

What to Say at the Water Cooler

Some tricks and treats to watch out for from the Mueller probe in the coming months:

Obstruct what? White House lawyers have already started to lay the legal groundwork for the argument that a president cannot by definition obstruct justice when he is exercising his discretionary constitutional authority.

Wired up and ready to go. Some legal experts speculate that court documents referring to Papadopoulos as a “proactive cooperator” signal to potential targets that he may have been wearing a wire to talk with former Trump officials since he began working with authorities this summer.

Draining the swamp. According to seasoned prosecutor and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Papadopoulos’ plea agreement suggests there are more charges to come against Trump officials.

Hot seat. Former Iowa radio host and Trump campaign adviser Sam Clovis, who will seek confirmation from the Senate next month to become the Department of Agriculture’s top scientist, reportedly was questioned last week by Mueller’s team. He could be the next official in Mueller’s sights. According to prosecutors, he encouraged Papadopoulos to meet with Russian officials in August 2016.

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