End Game: Mueller signaled this week that he’s ready. Is Trump?

Get ready for Mueller's end game.

Special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

It’s been axiomatic from the start of the Russia investigation that it is different from Watergate in one important way: the crimes that Nixon committed behind closed doors in the White House secretly, Trump is committing out in the open. Repeatedly lying to the American public? Every time Trump tweets or opens his mouth. Obstruction of justice? Firing Comey. Firing Sessions. Calling Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” and calling for its end. Tampering with witnesses? Dangling pardons. Engaging in a cover-up of a crime? As he lives and breathes.

But there is one thing Donald Trump and his people have sought to keep secret from the earliest days of his campaign right up to the present moment: their connections with Russians. If, in the past, we thought we knew about most of the Russian contacts, events this week have taught us that we were wrong.

First there were new revelations about contacts between Roger Stone and WikiLeaks involving Jerome Corsi and others. The Guardian even reported that Stone had met with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Then it was announced that the cooperation agreement between Special Counsel Robert Mueller and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had blown up. Incredibly, it was revealed that Manafort’s lawyers have maintained an open channel of communication with Trump’s legal team, presumably informing them of the focus of Mueller’s investigation and everything the FBI and prosecutors from Mueller’s team had asked Manafort. Mueller filed a document telling the same court that had signed off on Manafort’s plea bargain and cooperation agreement that he had lied to the FBI and withheld information in violation of his agreement with prosecutors.

On Thursday morning, Mueller sprang another surprise when his prosecutors marched into federal court in Manhattan with former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen. Judge Andrew L. Carter Jr. patiently took Cohen through the steps of pleading guilty to lying to two congressional committees about the project initiated by Donald Trump to build a tower in Moscow. “I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1,” Cohen told the judge, referring to Trump as “Individual 1.” He went on to admit “I was aware of Individual 1’s repeated disavowals of commercial and political ties between himself and Russia, his repeated statements that investigations of such ties were politically motivated and without evidence, and that any contact with Russian nationals by Individual 1’s campaign or the Trump Organization had all terminated before the Iowa Caucus, which was on February 1 of 2016.”

In other words, Michael Cohen told the Congress of the United States the same lies that Donald Trump had told the American people during his campaign and after he became president of the United States, when he said repeatedly that he had no deals in Russia, that he had nothing to do with Russia, and that he knew of no contacts between his campaign and Russians.

Over the last 18 months, we have discovered that during Trump’s campaign for the presidency and afterwards, members of his campaign and others close to him like his son and son-in-law were meeting over and over again with Russians. There were the contacts between his campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page with Russians. There were the multiple meetings between his top foreign policy adviser Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

There was the meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort with six Russians who had told the Trump campaign they had information that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton. There were meetings between Trump advisers and Kislyak at the Republican National Convention and on the sidelines of a major foreign policy speech Trump delivered at the Mayflower Hotel. There were repeated contacts between Trump’s campaign adviser Michael Flynn and Sergey Kislyak. There were meetings in Trump tower between Flynn, Kushner, Bannon and others and Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the chairman of Vnesheconombank, a major state-owned bank in Russia with close connections to Vladimir Putin. There was the meeting in the Seychelles Islands between Trump adviser Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian banker with close connections to Vladimir Putin, attempting to establish a “back channel” between Trump and Putin.

The contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign were so many, they were hard to keep up with.

And this week we learned that Trump’s people had been even busier than we had thought with Russians. The criminal information filed in court on Thursday in connection with Cohen’s guilty plea is stuffed with connections that we haven’t known about between Trump’s people and Russians. Cohen was in contact in January of 2016 about Trump’s Russia project with the office of Dmitry Peskov, described as a “senior aide to Putin.” (Peskov is in Argentina at the G-20 summit right now with Putin, serving as his press secretary) Cohen stayed in contact with people in Russia through Felix Sater, identified as “Individual 2” in the criminal information. Sater is a felon and former FBI informant who worked with Trump on the Trump Soho Hotel project. Cohen discussed in May of 2016 the possibility of traveling to St. Petersburg, Russia to meet with either Putin or the Russian prime minister. He discussed arranging for Trump to travel to Russia to meet with Putin about the Trump Moscow project after the Republican National Convention. The discussions about travel to Russia continued into June, with messages between Cohen and Sater on June 9 through June 14.  Throughout the entire time, according to the criminal information, Cohen spoke about the Moscow deal with Trump multiple times and kept his children informed about his activities.

You will recall that others in Trump Tower were busy with Russians in June. On June 3, Donald Trump Jr. received an email offering to set up a meeting with several Russians who had incriminating information about Clinton. The meeting took place on June 9. On June 14, Michael Cohen met Felix Sater in the lobby of Trump Tower and told him that he would no be traveling to Russia, marking the end of Trump’s Russia project, according to the criminal information filed Thursday.

Upstairs at Trump Tower on that same day, Paul Manafort was being promoted to chairman of the Trump campaign for president.

The dates of the Russia connected events in the Trump campaign are interesting for one very important reason. On May 26, CNN announced that having won the Indiana primary on May 3 and won the remaining May primaries running uncontested, Trump had passed the threshold of 1,237 delegates necessary to guarantee his nomination as the Republican candidate for president.

So when the Russians offered dirt on Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign in June, and when they were in contact with Felix Sater trying to set up meetings between Michael Cohen and Putin before the convention, and with Trump after the convention, they knew they were dealing with the man who would be running for president of the United States as the Republican nominee.

That’s why Trump’s Moscow tower project was canceled on June 14. It was done mutually by Trump and Putin, because neither man wanted to run the risk of damaging Trump’s chances to be elected president in November.

Putin had already begun helping Trump’s election chances. On June 12, the Washington Post reported that the Democratic National Committee email servers had been hacked. We didn’t know then who had hacked the Democratic Party emails, but we know now who did it. On July 13, Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officials for hacking the Democrat’s emails. U.S. intelligence agencies previously announced that the hacks were done on the orders of Vladimir Putin.

On June 15, the day after Manafort’s elevation to campaign chairman and the closure of the Moscow Trump tower deal, an online figure calling himself “Guccifer 2.0” released the first Democratic Party emails. We now know that “Guccifer 2.0” was a Russian intelligence officer.

Throughout his campaign, Trump had been praising Putin. On June 3, Trump had told a campaign rally, “Putin said Donald Trump is a genius and [the] next great leader of the United States.”

On July 25, Trump tweeted: “The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me.”

On July 27, Trump held a press conference and announced, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

All this stuff was kept secret. All the meetings between Trump’s people and Russians. All the contacts between Michael Cohen and Russians about the Trump Moscow tower. All the knowledge they had in advance of the leaks of Hillary Clinton’s and John Podesta’s emails.

They kept secrets for the same reason Nixon kept secrets: because they were guilty of crimes. Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort and others have plead guilty to their crimes. This week we learned that Mueller’s team is circling Trump Tower like sharks around the carcass of a dead whale. They even flew north to take Cohen’s guilty plea in a New York City courtroom.

Do you want to know how to tell Trump realizes how much trouble he is in? On Thursday, as they climbed the stairs to Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington D.C., and as they descended the stairs from Air Force One in Argentina, Donald and Melania Trump held hands. It was the first time the president and his wife had touched each other in months. They are massaging the family image, but it’s too little and too late.

There is speculation in Washington that Trump’s family is in Mueller’s cross hairs next. Congressman Adam Schiff, who will take over chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee on January 3, has said that it will be among the committee’s first business to release the testimony of Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner to Mueller’s investigators, something Devin Nunes and the Republicans have refused to do.

Also on Thursday, 170 police officers and German federal prosecutors raided the headquarters of Deutsche Bank AG in Frankfurt, Germany as part of an investigation into whether the bank helped criminals launder money. Last year, the bank paid a $425 million fine in the United States for helping Russian banks launder $10 billion. Deutsche Bank is the only major lender that has been willing to lend to the Trump Organization over the last decade. Trump’s latest financial disclosure forms revealed in May that he owes the bank as much as $175 million, according to MarketWatch.

Special Counsel Mueller issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank for information regarding Trump’s loans last December, according to The New York Times.

With Donald Trump, it’s always about the money. He is not going to sit in the White House and watch his business empire suffer the same fate as Paul Manafort, who forfeited $46 million to the government as part of his plea deal. He’ll resign with an assurance that he is pardoned for his crimes in the Russia investigation, the same way Nixon resigned with a pardon for his crimes in Watergate.

So Russiagate isn’t that different from Watergate after all. They will end up with the same end game.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Lucian K. Truscott IV has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, covering stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.