In any normal administration, the announcement of an indictment of the man who had managed the election campaign of the president would be a political earthquake. That is how the mainstream media are treating the indictments of Paul Manafort, who ran the Trump campaign from June to August 2016, and Richard Gates, Manafort’s longtime business associate who also worked on the campaign, as well as a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a onetime foreign-policy adviser. The liberal press responded to the leak last Friday about the coming indictments with anticipation and greeted them with barely restrained glee on Monday morning. But while this is an embarrassment for Trump, it is not a catastrophe or even necessarily very damaging. That’s something that he, White House staffers, and Capitol Hill Republicans should keep in mind in the coming days.
The indictments against Manafort and Gates paint a dismal picture of their activities. According to Mueller, the duo used their consulting business to carry out a massive money-laundering operation in which shell companies and offshore accounts were used to launder millions of dollars, which allowed them to get rich without paying taxes on a major source of income. This began years before Trump announced his candidacy. Hiring a bad actor like Manafort wasn’t to Trump’s credit, and he’s paying for that misjudgment today. It’s also true that the Trump campaign, including its lower levels, should have been more careful about staying away from anything that could have been linked to Russia.
But the problem for those who have been counting on Mueller to take down Trump is that the words “collusion with Russia” don’t appear in the indictments. Nor is there anything in them that is remotely connected to the president.
Enthusiastic liberals have responded to this obvious observation with hopeful remarks about these being just the first in what they hope will be an eventual avalanche of indictments that will lead all the way to the top. In particular, they expect that the prospect of conviction on these serious charges will induce Manafort and Gates to accept plea bargains that will require them to give up crucial information about Trump that will ensure his fall. But while this is a theoretical possibility, the expectation that the pair will fold in this manner (and that they have anything damning to say about Trump in the first place) is based on nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of those who still hope that a legal coup will reverse the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Papadopoulos plead guilty for lying to the FBI about the efforts of the Russians to reach out to the Trump campaign with talk about providing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. On the surface, this plea is potentially more of a problem. But here again, the emails that have been released show nothing more than that the Russians were interested in making mischief and the Trump campaign was always ready to listen to those who claimed to have damaging information on their opponent. Despite the attempt to hype this into proof of a connection between Trump and the Russians, there is nothing here (as was also the case with the meeting in Trump Tower involving Donald Trump Jr.) that can justify charges that this led to actual collusion. Nor was Papadopoulos a senior figure with connections who might have had any influence on campaign activities. And revelations about the funding for the much-ballyhooed Russia dossier shows that both parties were always willing recipients of anything that fell under the category of opposition research, no matter its source.
This will be enough to energize the anti-Trump “resistance” and its cheering section in the mainstream press and on CNN and MSNBC. As such, this may present an irresistible temptation to Trump to lash out at critics or at Mueller, whose appointment is something that Trump still holds against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein. But as angry as today’s coverage will make him, Trump must hold his fire.
The problem for the “resistance” is that stories that would be epic defeats for any normal administration won’t have much impact on Trump. In our bifurcated political culture, there is virtually nothing that could happen that might convince Trump’s supporters to abandon him. The same is true for Trump opponents who are always ready to believe anything that confirms their preexisting conclusion that the president should be impeached.
The problem for the ‘resistance’ is that stories that would be epic defeats for any normal administration won’t have much impact on Trump.
Yet it is that same assumption about Trump’s guilt that undermines the effort to portray Mueller’s actions as significant developments. Though they’d like to scale back expectations about Mueller’s work, Democrats, whether they like it or not, have set a very high bar for him to meet. It won’t be enough to take down figures such as Manafort and Gates or even snaring a low-level volunteer on an advisory council that met once (such as Papadopoulos) for lying about contact with the Russians. No matter how many indictments or pleas Mueller gets by the time he is through, none of it will mean a thing if he doesn’t wind up proving actual collusion between Trump and the Russians, and nothing we heard today did that.
That’s why it would be another colossal unforced error — like his firing of FBI Director James Comey — if Trump were to fire Mueller or even to expend any effort in trying to discredit his work or to pardon any of those under indictment.
Like all his predecessors who served as special prosecutors or counsels, Mueller treated his brief as an invitation to conduct a fishing expedition in which he could investigate anyone for any possible crime. That made it a certainty, given the enormous power of his office, that some indictments and guilty pleas would follow. But Trump must let him do his worst and suffer it in silence, lest he provide his foes with more ammunition. The only thing he should worry about is a finding that would justify impeachment. Anything less than such a smoking gun won’t have any real impact on his political future.
Unless and until Mueller produces something that proves collusion, Trump is still winning an argument that Democrats have started about throwing him out of office. The lack of such proof will be a weapon for Trump to use against his critics in 2018 and beyond. Some rarely displayed discipline on the part of the president, even in the face of accusations and innuendo that are likely making this thin-skinned man furious, will pay dividends for him and other Republicans in the future.