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This is Mueller’s big week

Court filings could reveal what Trump wants to keep secret

This week, Robert Mueller will spell out in court filings much of what he has learned from his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

His office is scheduled to file “sentencing memos” in the cases of three of Trump’s closest associates — Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort — all of whom have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to committing federal crimes.

The implications go far beyond how much prison time these men will serve.

As special counsel, Mueller is a creature of the Attorney General’s office. While he not only has authority to investigate, but also to prosecute, there is disagreement about whether a sitting president can be indicted, and Mueller is not expected to go after Trump. Instead, he will gather his findings and present them to the Attorney General in a report, which the law does not require to be made public, although there will be immense pressure to release it.

Trump is very much interested in keeping that report secret. It’s certain he knows much more than the public about what will be in it. We have every reason to believe it will be damning. According to insiders, Trump thinks about little else; and his public behavior suggests he’s very worried about it. Right after the November elections, he fired Jeff Sessions from the Attorney General position, and replaced him on an interim basis with Matthew Whitaker, who is personally loyal to Trump.

The move was initially seen by much of the media and public as the Trump version of Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” and carried out for the same purpose: Squelching the investigation and keeping its findings secret.

Technically, Whitaker can fire Mueller, and presumably would if Trump asked him to, although this is now thought to be unlikely because of the intense political blowback such a move would generate. There are already moves in Congress to protect Mueller, and with Democrats set to take over the House of Representatives in January, a frontal attack on Mueller almost certainly would lead to impeachment proceedings.

A more probable strategy for Trump and Whitaker to pursue is to contain the political damage from Mueller’s investigation by keeping his report under wraps. There would be sharp public criticism of such a move, but that’s more easily weathered than allowing incriminating revelations to become public.

That strategy isn’t foolproof, though. House Democrats could try to subpoena the report. But Trump and Whitaker might be able to stave off its release for a prolonged period of time by challenging any House subpoena in the courts. The case would certainly go to the Supreme Court, where they would expect a friendly reception from the court’s conservative majority. (Whether they would get it as another matter.)

Here’s where Mueller’s sentencing memos come in: By lacing them with information, Mueller can preempt Trump and Whitaker by releasing the key findings of his investigation through these legal filings, and nobody can stop him from doing it. All indications are Mueller plans to do exactly that.

Trump has called Mueller’s investigation a politically-motivated witch hunt. He has tried to paint Mueller as a “rogue prosecutor with an ax to grind,” and referred to him and his team as “Democrats.” But Trump has virtually no chance of making these characterizations stick, because nothing about them rings true. Mueller is highly respected in D.C. He has an impeccable record of public service. He’s a lifelong Republican who served as FBI director for 10 years under Presidents Bush and Obama, and was named Special Counsel by Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee. He is universally seen as an impartial, competent, and highly professional investigator whose only bias is the public interest, in sharp contrast to Trump, virtually all of whose statements and actions are self-serving.

It’s pretty difficult to label an investigation a “witch hunt” when it has produced 192 criminal charges against 36 individuals and entities, 8 of whom have already been convicted or pleaded guilty, and 3 of whom are serving or have served jail time as a result of Mueller’s investigation. Clearly, something’s rotten in Denmark. By contrast, Trump is a well-known liar, and his own statements and denials have repeatedly been refuted. Apart from his fanatical supporters, Trump is already seen as guilty by much of the world.

And guilty he is. The only question is, of what and how much? The sentencing memo in Cohen’s case reveals that Trump violated federal campaign laws when he directed Cohen to buy the silence of two women with whom he had affairs in order to avoid potential electoral consequences. Cohen says Trump was involved at every step. We know Manafort, as Trump’s campaign manager, acted as a go-between in obtaining stolen Hillary Clinton emails from Russian spies via Wikileaks, and a few days ago we learned that Trump offered to give Putin a $50 million Moscow condominium.

The chances that Trump isn’t corrupt are zero. The odds that he hasn’t committed federal crimes are vanishingly small. It’s a given that Russia interfered in the 2016 election; every American intelligence agency has reached that conclusion. But while it seems likely he has committed impeachable offenses, it’s unlikely he’ll be removed from office. As things stand now, the GOP-controlled Senate almost certainly will give him a pass, if House Democrats impeach him, although that could change if Mueller’s revelations are damning enough to cause Trump’s public support to collapse.

Keep in mind that whatever happens, (1) Mueller isn’t going to prosecute Trump, and (2) impeachment is a political process, the outcome of which depends on public reaction to the president’s offenses. In American history, three presidents have faced impeachment; one resigned, and the other two survived Senate impeachment votes. It’s very, very hard to remove a president from office, and both parties must be willing to do it, and they won’t without a strong public wind at their backs.

But even assuming Trump serves out his term, what Mueller reveals in his court filings this week could cripple him politically, and impair his re-election prospects in 2020. What’s certain is that a big week for Mueller is bound to be a bad week for Trump.

(Sources: here and here)

 


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