Opinion writer

Senate Republicans are once again refusing to act to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Their spin is that there’s simply no chance Trump will ever go through with trying to remove him. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put it: “The president’s not going to fire Robert Mueller.” McConnell added: “Nor do I think he should.”

Inconveniently enough, two new developments have now rendered this defense of inaction even more untenable than it was before.

First, ABC News is now reporting that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is reaching a new plea deal with Mueller’s team and will plead guilty to having lied to Congress about his contacts with Russia during the campaign. While it’s not clear what Cohen will admit to having lied about, sources tell ABC that the Cohen testimony in question concerns statements that include exonerating the Trump campaign of any conspiracy with Russian sabotage of the election.

ABC also reports that Cohen’s cooperation with Mueller is “crucial” to his case. While we should treat anything concerning this oily character with extreme care, at a minimum, the fact that Trump’s personal attorney is now claiming he previously lied about Russia-related matters — and is prepared to tell Mueller about it — would seem to put Trump in greater peril, and further tempt him to try to impede the investigation.

Second, in a new interview with the New York Post, Trump flatly declared that a pardon for former campaign chair Paul Manafort is still a possibility. “It was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table,” Trump said. “Why would I take it off the table?”

To be sure, questions as to whether Trump will try to constrain Mueller and whether he’ll pardon Manafort are separate from one another. But what really matters here is the larger message Trump is sending with his new comments about a Manafort pardon: Trump once again signaled that he is determined to preserve for himself the ability to flagrantly abuse his powers to protect himself from accountability as it closes in around him.

It is easy to lose sight of the big picture when trying to decipher the Republican determination to protect Trump from Mueller. Republicans claim to object to the Mueller-protection bill — which would create a mechanism for Mueller to appeal his removal to a court and be reinstated if it were not in good cause — on constitutional grounds. That’s a reasonable debate to have, and Democrats have engaged it. But that debate also obscures the larger claim Republicans are making, which is that protecting Mueller is not necessary in the first place because Trump has no intention of trying to derail the probe.

Place that assertion in the context of the publicly available, widely known facts about Trump’s intentions toward Mueller, and it becomes inescapably true that Republicans are helping Trump preserve for himself the option of removing him, in the full knowledge that Trump wants to keep the space to avail himself of it if he decides it’s necessary.

Only moments ago, Trump’s two rage-tweets drew a direct link between his posture toward Mueller and his keeping alive a pardon for Manafort.

The “illegal” Mueller probe has shattered “innocent lives” like that of Manafort — something that could be used to justify either trying to close down the probe, or pardoning Manafort, or perhaps both.

Trump feels vulnerable

Bob Bauer, the White House counsel under former president Barack Obama, suggested to me that the confluence of recent events signals Trump feels newly anxious about what Mueller might be unearthing.

“Trump’s express, ongoing public advertisement of a possible pardon for Manafort, coupled with the increasingly shrill attacks on the special counsel’s office, bespeaks a feeling of real vulnerability on his part,” Bauer told me.

Bauer noted that Manafort attended the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. took in the full expectation of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, and pointed out that floating a pardon from Manafort could be about signaling to him a light at the end of the tunnel if he does not give away what he might know on that score. After all, this comes after we learned that a lawyer for Manafort has been briefing the Trump legal team on his ongoing interactions with Mueller’s prosecutors.

“Trump is allowing the appearance to develop that he’s just reinforcing a message to Manafort to keep steady, and good things may happen,” Bauer said, adding that Trump must be newly attuned to a “threat from Manafort’s direction, either for himself or for his son.”

Which brings us back to the GOP refusal to pass a Mueller-protection bill. What makes McConnell’s claim that Trump would never dream of moving on Mueller even more absurd is that Trump has already done so. Trump internally ordered Mueller’s firing not once, but twice — in June of 2017, and again in December of that year.

What’s more, everyone knows Trump appointed acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker precisely because of his repeated criticisms of the Mueller probe. Trump is reportedly happy with Whitaker and sees no urgency about replacing him. Everyone also knows he wants to keep his loyalist in place overseeing Mueller for as long as possible — again, preserving the option that Whitaker himself might fire or constrain Mueller.

Whether Trump or Whitaker will actually act on Mueller remains unknown. But what absolutely is known beyond any doubt is that Trump wants to preserve for himself as many options to protect himself against Mueller as possible, whether it’s pardoning Manafort or trying to close Mueller down. For Trump, Cohen’s new plea deal will only make this imperative more urgent.

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UPDATE: The Cohen plea deal has now been released. Cohen has pleaded guilty to falsely telling Congress, among other things, that a Trump Tower project in Moscow ended in January 2016, when talks over it actually continued into June of that year. Cohen repeatedly briefed Trump himself on this. The Post notes these details:

The document said Cohen lied because he hoped his testimony would limit the ongoing Russia investigations. …

According to the criminal information filed by prosecutors, Cohen sent a two-page letter to the committee in which he “knowingly and deliberately” made false statements, including that the Moscow project “ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others in the company”; that Cohen “never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow project and ‘never considered’ asking Individual 1 to travel for the project”; and that Cohen “did not recall any Russian government response or contact about the Moscow Project.”

The document does not identify “Individual 1,” but according to people familiar with the case, that person is President Trump.

“Cohen discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with Individual 1 on more than the three occasions Cohen claimed to the committee, and he briefed family members of Individual 1 within the Company about the project,” according to the information.

Read more:

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Ten reasons, Democrats, you should run for president

The stunning implications of the Manafort-Trump pipeline

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