Opinion writer

Remember Robert S. Mueller III? The special counsel may have been quiet — respecting the traditional protocol that prosecutors don’t take public steps affecting a campaign in the final weeks before an election — but he hasn’t stopped working. And once the election is over, the Russia scandal is likely to heat up again.

We were reminded of that by the exposure of what was apparently a ludicrous scheme on the part of some fringe right-wingers to falsely accuse Mueller of sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, a team of Post reporters reveals that Mueller is aggressively pursuing longtime Trump associate and political dirty trickster Roger Stone regarding his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.

The question is whether Stone — who is, among other things, the former business partner of onetime Trump campaign chairman and convicted felon Paul Manafort — coordinated WikiLeaks’s release of Democratic emails stolen by Russia, which were timed to inflict maximum damage on the Clinton campaign.

Stone claims that his contacts with WikiLeaks were meaningless and he didn’t coordinate its activities. But if he did (and let’s just say nobody in politics would take Stone’s word on anything), and if he was in communication with his old buddy and client Donald Trump, his old buddy and partner Paul Manafort, or anyone else in the Trump campaign, then what you’ve got there is the magic word: collusion.

That’s a lot of ifs, of course. But the truth is we already know there was collusion. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the president’s campaign chairman, son and son-in-law/chief adviser took a meeting with a group of Russians for the specific purpose of colluding, and then afterward the president lied about it.

But to return to Mueller, there’s another intriguing story line, one that has to do with the still-unresolved question of whether the president will answer his questions and whether he will be forced to issue a subpoena to get that cooperation. Nelson Cunningham, a former prosecutor and Clinton administration official, examines a series of recent, unusual legal filings related to a conflict between Mueller and Trump’s attorneys over a grand jury subpoena, in which the person being subpoenaed is not identified. Cunningham makes a good case that the pattern of filings and rulings suggests that the question being argued over is whether the president will have to appear before the grand jury, which would mean that Mueller has already subpoenaed Trump. It’s a little complicated, but here’s the summary:

We cannot know, from the brief docket entries that are available to us in this sealed case, that the matter involves President Trump. But we do know from Politico’s reporting that it involves the special counsel and that the action here was filed the day after [Trump lawyer Rudolph W.] Giuliani noted publicly, “[W]e’re pretty much finished with our memorandum opposing a subpoena.” We know that the district court had ruled in favor of the special counsel and against the witness; that the losing witness has moved with alacrity and with authority; and that the judges have responded with accelerated rulings and briefing schedules. We know that Judge [Gregory] Katsas, Trump’s former counsel and nominee, has recused himself. And we know that this sealed legal matter will come to a head in the weeks just after the midterm elections.

If this really is about whether Trump will testify, it would mean that one of the biggest and most important questions in the entire investigation is on its way to being answered. All along, Trump’s lawyers have been utterly horrified at the prospect of the president testifying under oath, because they are certain he’d commit perjury. “Why do you want to get him under oath? Do you think we’re fools?” Giuliani has said. “You want to get him under oath because you want to trap him into perjury. Well, we’re not going to let you do that.”

But the thing about a perjury trap is that you can’t fall into it unless you’re willing to commit perjury. A perjury trap usually occurs when the witness doesn’t realize everything the prosecutor knows, so he thinks he can lie and get away with it. Then when the prosecutor asks the right questions, the witness lies and he’s caught in the trap.

But that’s not what Trump’s lawyers are afraid of. They worry that Trump will commit perjury almost no matter what he gets asked about, because that’s just what Trump does. Or at the very least, he’ll be confronted about previous lies, get evasive and disingenuous, and wind up looking guilty as sin.

If Cunningham’s interpretation is correct, it would mean we’re beyond where Kenneth W. Starr and President Bill Clinton ended up. Clinton rebuffed Starr’s requests for an interview, Starr got fed up and issued the subpoena, and instead of fighting it the courts, Clinton’s lawyers negotiated for a long interview not before the grand jury but in the White House. The result was that the question of whether the president had to answer an independent counsel’s subpoena was never definitively resolved.

If Trump is willing to take a chance with the courts, he has good reason to think they’ll protect him. After all, one way or another a case will end up at the Supreme Court — where there are five conservative justices who have shown time and again that serving the interests of Republican presidents and the Republican Party is high on their list of priorities.

In any case, it’s looking as though the special counsel’s investigation is approaching its climax. Even if Trump doesn’t have to answer questions, we’ll learn what Mueller has discovered about what he and his aides did in 2016. Even if Trump gets a new attorney general after the midterms and orders that person to fire Mueller, it will probably be too late. And then it’ll be up to the political system — Congress and the voters — to decide what to do about it.

Read more:

Harry Litman: Time for Mueller to bring out the big guns

Paul Waldman: Enough already. Trump needs to answer Robert Mueller’s questions.

Randall D. Eliason: The Mueller and Trump dance may finally be coming to an end

Nelson W. Cunningham: A Mueller report may never see the light of day

Quinta Jurecic: Robert Mueller can’t save us