(CNN) — The arrest of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort Monday and former Trump campaign official Rick Gates saddled the White House with a grave new political reality.
By taking one or more people into custody, a prospect first reported by CNN Friday, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller creates ushers in a perilous time for the White House, reflecting the gravity of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and alleged collusion by Trump’s associates.
So far the charges laid against Manafort and Gates have not been unsealed. But the scope of the indictment will be crucial to calculating the political fallout.
If the charges are not linked to accusations that there was collusion between the campaign and Russia, the President’s supporters will argue that they are irrelevant to Trump.
But a decision by Mueller to probe Manafort’s past business relationships with Russia and possible tax arrangements would signal how he interprets his understanding of the nature of his mandate. That could have implications for how he could proceed in his investigations into others in Trump’s circle.
And just the idea that someone who was once close to Trump has been charged with a federal crime brings political problems of its own.
Trump and his team deny any wrongdoing, and so far there is no conclusive evidence from Mueller’s closely held investigation or several congressional probes of nefarious links with the Russians.
At minimum, news of charges will complicate the White House’s argument that the Russia drama is nothing but a drummed up Democratic plot born of despair at Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss last November, and be a distraction from the Republican tax reform effort this week.
More significantly, the charges could be the first step in a series of actions by the special counsel that strike at the heart of Trump’s inner political and family circle, and could even put his presidency in jeopardy.
But the immediate political fallout of whatever unfolds in the coming days depends on who is initially targeted by Mueller, their proximity to Trump, and how the President reacts to this threshold being crossed.
“The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R’s … are now fighting back like never before,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!”
The special counsel has taken up several strands of inquiry, including into the business affairs of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, claims that members of the President’s campaign team, like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, transgressed in their alleged contacts with Russian officials and whether the President’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey amounted to obstruction of justice.
Sending a message to Mueller?
Trump’s Sunday venting posed an important question that may be answered this week: Will Trump be able to direct his anger in a way that does not put him in deeper legal and political jeopardy or anger the special counsel?
On many occasions throughout the Russia episode, Trump’s conduct has appeared to expose him to deeper risk, for example over the Comey firing that led to Mueller’s appointment. The President’s political vulnerability is becoming more acute as well — an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll Sunday put his approval rating at 38% — the lowest point of his presidency.
Ty Cobb, the President’s top counsel, sought to make clear that Trump’s Twitter eruption Sunday was not an attempt to antagonize Mueller.
“Contrary to what many have suggested, the President’s comments today are unrelated to the activities of the special counsel, with whom he continues to cooperate,” Cobb told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny.
But given the timing of the Twitter response on a weekend dominated by CNN’s reporting of impending arrests, Cobb’s explanation was open to question.
The President’s anger appeared to represent a clear attempt to shape the political battlefield after a week in which the White House and allies sought to muddy the narrative on the Russia investigation.
There is still rampant speculation in Washington that Trump could seek to dismiss Mueller, a move that could trigger a constitutional crisis and put Republican leaders in Congress in a dicey political position.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board and some conservative columnists are calling on Mueller to resign, saying his history with the FBI makes it impossible for him to fairly investigate the bureau’s involvement in the Russia drama.
Should the first charges be focused away from the President, such as regarding business dealings unrelated to Trump, he could also use the moment to declare victory and say it’s time to wrap up an investigation that couldn’t find any collusion between Russia and the presidential campaign.
Impact on agenda
Signs Mueller is moving forward could also deepen divisions within the Republican Party, after several senators accused Trump of debasing the nation, at a time when unity is imperative for the tax reform push.
Questions about the investigation are also likely to pursue Trump on the most important foreign trip of his presidency so far when he goes to Asia later this week, with a nuclear showdown with North Korea reaching a boiling point.
Preet Bharara, former US Attorney for the southern district of New York, said Sunday that Trump’s reaction to Monday’s expected drama will be crucial.
“I would look for a couple of things, one, whether or not Donald Trump has some reaction and talks in a way that could be used against him in the future, because Bob Mueller would do that,” Bharara said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“And the second thing I would look at is to see if the President of the United States is sending some kind of message to the potential defendant or other witnesses.”
Going after Clinton
The White House is torching a familiar foe, Clinton, highlighting a sale of a uranium firm to Russian investors while she was secretary of state.
It also seized on a Washington Post report that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee hired a law firm that engaged opposition research firm Fusion GPS that compiled a dossier including salacious allegations about Trump’s alleged links to Russia.
Trump claims this shows that Clinton — and not the President — should be investigated for colluding with Russia to influence the election.
Such a view, however, ignores the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia developed a plot to interfere in the election in 2016, and over time developed a preference for Trump.
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