News & Politics

Robert Mueller Is Just Getting Started

Special Counsel Robert Mueller may finally be getting to the biggest issues—and getting closer to the president.

Photo Credit: West Point - The U.S. Military Academy / Flickr

Despite all the guilty pleas among people associated with the Trump campaign and the growing pile of evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 election, members of the press have pushed a narrative that Special Counsel Robert Mueller could only go after President Donald Trump for obstruction of justice. After all, that was the heart of the case against former President Richard Nixon back in the day. (He was never shown to have known about the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate.) And for some, it seems inconceivable that Trump could possibly have colluded with a foreign government — possibly because he's too unorganized and inept to have pulled it off.

As it turns out, Mueller can walk and chew gum at the same time. He's lately been questioning witnesses about just what Trump knew about all this Russian interference and when he knew it. He's been inquiring specifically about whether Trump knew about the hacking of Democratic emails in advance and whether or not he might have had a hand in their "strategic release." NBC reported:

Mueller's investigators have asked witnesses whether Trump was aware of plans for WikiLeaks to publish the emails. They have also asked about the relationship between GOP operative Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and why Trump took policy positions favorable to Russia.

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The line of questioning suggests the special counsel, who is tasked with examining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, is looking into possible coordination between WikiLeaks and Trump associates in disseminating the emails, which U.S. intelligence officials say were stolen by Russia.

Setting aside the fact that his campaign was crawling with Russian contacts, that he vetted no one and that his campaign manager was millions of dollars in hock to a Russian oligarch, it's not as if Trump's own behavior during the campaign wasn't suspicious.

Obviously, the first thing was his uncharacteristic unwillingness to criticize Vladimir Putin, a privilege he has extended to no one else but members of his own family to this day. This stood out at the time and was remarked upon by all of us who were watching the campaign unfold. It looks even more dubious in retrospect. He stood alone among all the candidates of both parties in his unusual admiration for the Russian president.

Mueller has also been asking people if Trump has ever met Putin — which is a reasonable question, since Trump has been all over the map on the topic. For instance, on May 5, 2016 — about three weeks after Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos learned that Russia had possession of a boatload of Clinton emails and was drunkenly spilling the beans to Australian diplomats — Trump was asked by Bret Baier of Fox News if he'd ever spoken to Vladimir Putin.

“Yeah, I have no comment on that,” he responded. “No comment.”

When Baier pressed him, Trump said: “Yeah, but I don’t want to comment because, let’s assume I did. Perhaps it was personal. You know, I don’t want to hurt his confidence. But I know Russia well."

Later in the campaign he insisted he'd never spoken to Putin and didn't know him, including at the infamous rally where he asked Russia to release the "33,000 emails."

There's also the matter of Trump's speech the day after the June 6 meeting at Trump Tower between Russians bearing dirt and the trio of Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort.

"Monday of next week, and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons," Trump announced. "I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?"

So yes, there could be reasonable suspicion that Trump himself was aware of the Russian interference plot. There are dozens more. The man's behavior toward Russia and the Russian president has been inexplicable from the beginning, long before we knew there was a plot to disrupt the election process.

Mueller was also said to be looking very closely at Trump's relationship with Roger Stone, who allegedly was "fired" in 2015, as the campaign was just taking off. They have been close for years, and that parting of the ways was always rather obscure. But maybe the man who popularized the term ratf**king could have been involved in the biggest ratf**king in politics.

That brings us to Stone's relationship with WikiLeaks. What he knows about the hacking of the DCCC's proprietary information and his relationship with purported Russian hacker Guccifer 2.0 — which was used to help the GOP win in some congressional races — are two of the biggest missing pieces yet. Stone has denied any direct association with WikiLeaks itself, but this week The Atlantic's Natasha Bertrand revealed private Twitter messages between them. This too is of great interest to the special prosecutor, since Stone foolishly tweeted "it would soon be Podesta's time in the barrel," weeks before WikiLeaks released the Clinton campaign chairman's private emails to the public. What's the likelihood that Stone wouldn't tell Trump if he knew about this?

But Trump couldn't stop praising WikiLeaks in the final days of the campaign. He publicly mentioned them 145 times in the last month alone. He clearly believed that it was a useful line of attack. If he knew about it in advance or helped strategize the emails release, that would be what we call "collusion" — something that Trump has insisted thousands of times that he did not do.

Of course, the minute his son read the email that said the Russian government was supporting his father's campaign and wanted to offer dirt on his opponent and he declared that he "loved it" and suggested they might want to release it later in the summer — and sent it to Kushner and Manafort — the campaign was likely colluding. Reporters may forget it, but Mueller likely doesn't.

Whether anyone in Trump's inner circle broke the law is still to be determined. But Mueller, to our knowledge, hasn't made a move yet on things that seemed so long ago. And when he does, it would be worth wondering if Donald Trump made Watergate into the second worst political scandal in American history.

 

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Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.