By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – As I watched events unfold these past few days in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, one image kept recurring.
That of a cat playing with a trapped mouse.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
Mueller is the cat.
President Donald Trump is the mouse.
The mouse shimmers and shakes, feints and fakes, desperate to find a way out of its predicament. The cat uses each duck and dodge to limit the mouse’s range of options and make the outcome even more inevitable.
Consider what happened in the past few days.
Mueller told the court that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort lied to investigators and violated the terms of his plea deal. Manafort now faces additional prison time and the very real possibility that he will face his last days on earth behind bars.
When the Manafort news broke, it was viewed in some quarters as a setback for Mueller, a sign that the Trump ally wasn’t cooperating with the special counsel. The president tried to treat it that way and again dangled the possibility of a pardon for Manafort.
But it wasn’t a setback.
It was an object lesson in what could happen to other Trump cronies who try to stonewall or short-circuit the investigation.
The surprise guilty plea by former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen makes that clear. Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about his and, by implication, the president’s dealings with Russia during 2016, the year Trump captured the White House.
Both Cohen and Trump had claimed that they had no contact with Russia that year. Now, Cohen says they were in extended and detailed negotiations to build a Trump tower in Moscow. One Trump associate even toyed with the idea of bribing Russian President Vladimir Putin with the $50 million penthouse in the proposed tower.
Cohen’s guilty plea matters for several reasons.
The first is that it sends a powerful signal to other Trump cohorts that the special counsel has ways to determine if they’re lying and that Mueller isn’t reluctant to drop the hammer if they do.
The second is that Cohen’s plea undercuts House Republicans’ vindication of the president. Those Republicans exonerated Trump based on Cohen’s assurances there was no contact with Russia after January 2016. Now, at the very least, that exoneration has been called into question – and gives Democrats who just took control of the House a reason to reopen every investigation into Trump’s conduct.
The third is it increases the legal jeopardy for the president. Trump’s hints he would pardon Manafort may have increased his exposure to obstruction-of-justice charges. It’s also possible Mueller set a perjury trap for the president by waiting to let Cohen’s guilty plea happen until after Trump had responded to the special counsel’s questions.
What follows now is likely to be messy.
But, then, the conclusion of cat-and-mouse contests most often are.
Particularly for the mouse.
It’s an open question whether a special counsel – or anyone, for that matter – can indict a sitting president. Department of Justice rules, though, forbid it, so Mueller is unlikely to take that route, both because he is a straight-shooter and because the legal skirmishing over the issue would create further opportunities for delay and distraction.
The president’s family members, several members of whom seem to have been neck-deep in Russia communications, aren’t spared the prospect of being indicted. They could face prison time. That doubtless will weigh heavy on Trump’s mind.
The clearest path in legal terms for Mueller is to file a report recommending impeachment to the attorney general. Given that the president has installed a loyalist and lackey in that office, there’s a chance such a report could be suppressed.
So, Mueller is providing in court reports all the information necessary for a new House controlled by Democrats to follow the trail and begin issuing subpoenas to Trump associates, friends and family members. Even if the Democrats opt not to impeach the president – and the odds of them getting a conviction in the Senate are long to non-existent – the House investigations are likely to make public still more damaging revelations and expose the members of Team Trump to greater and greater legal peril.
But that’s the way it goes with cat-and-mouse games.
The ending almost always is ugly.
Again, particularly for the mouse.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.