By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – The dominoes have begun to fall.
The news that two campaign aides for President Donald Trump had been indicted and that another had entered a guilty plea – along with an agreement to cooperate with investigators – had the feel of the first shots fired in what’s likely to be a long battle.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
First shots often are warning shots. They’re fired to send a message.
The message in this case from Special Counsel Robert Mueller:
We’re just getting started.
The president reacted to both the news and the warning in predictable fashion.
First, he came unglued.
Then he lashed out.
Trump responded through that most dignified and presidential of media platforms – Twitter – by saying that neither his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, Manafort associate and former Trump campaign aide Richard Gates III nor former campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos ever had much to do with the campaign.
After asserting that bit of absurdity, the president then demanded an investigation of Democrats.
It was classic Trump: Deny, deny, deny, then attack, attack, attack.
The president and his besieged team tried to make a case that Mueller’s actions exonerated them because the indictments of Manafort and Gates focused on financial dealings and alleged transgressions before the campaign begin. That “proved,” the president said, that there had been no “collusion.”
He missed Mueller’s method.
Mueller and his team have documented with precision the many transactions – transactions amounting to at least $75 million — Manafort and Gates had with Russian interests. Many of those transactions Manafort and Gates apparently went to some lengths to hide, either because they were of questionable legality or because they wanted to avoid paying taxes on their gains.
Mueller’s team also released campaign communications demonstrating that Gates and Manafort were working to broker a relationship between Russian officials who had dirt on Trump’s opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
While Mueller may not yet have made an airtight case that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the 2016 election, he is establishing that at least two senior players on the president’s campaign staff had plenty of motivation – at least 75 million reasons – to want to do Russia’s bidding.
Mueller also made it clear that, with Papadopoulos – the campaign volunteer who pled guilty and now is offering insider information to investigators – he has a way to verify or challenge accounts of events offered by other Trump staffers. If they don’t tell the truth, they can face charges of obstructing justice, lying to law enforcement officials or perjury.
It’s an elegant box Mueller has constructed.
Perhaps that is why the president reacted in the unhinged fashion he did.
If nothing else, Donald Trump has first-rate survival instincts. He knows when he’s in trouble.
The trouble in this case is compounded by the fact that the president’s typical defense mechanisms – diversion, throwing up smoke screens, blustering, bullying, and, as a last resort, buying his way out of difficulties – can’t and won’t work here.
In all his previous political battles, Trump has encountered opponents who tried to ignore him or rise above him or, occasionally, out-Trump him. None of these strategies worked, because Trump can’t be ignored, is adept at dragging any adversary into the muck and can’t be beat at his own game.
But in Robert Mueller the president has met a man who is everything Trump is not – methodical, understated and unswerving.
Mueller won’t be distracted by smoke, baffled by bluster or deterred by insults or threats. He will just keep coming forward.
More important, he will be operating in an arena congenial to his quiet but detailed approach and inimical to the president’s improvisational style of guerrilla warfare – the courts.
There’s a reason President Trump’s greatest setbacks so far have come in courtrooms. The rule of law does not bend easily to people who make stuff up as they go along.
Three dominoes tied to the Trump presidency fell early this week.
More will follow.
Count on it.
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.