Disclosures over the past few days in the Russia investigation suggest that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has improved his case concerning obstruction of justice and collusion, both of which President Trump continues to deny.
Let’s take the collusion case first. We already knew that the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 was intended to provide top Trump aides with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The Moscow Project also has enumerated dozens of contacts between Kremlin figures and the Trump campaign:
By the end of June, at least eight individuals involved with the Trump campaign — George Papadopoulos, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Michael Cohen, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and Rick Dearborn — reportedly had contacts or meetings with at least 13 Kremlin-linked individuals: Joseph Mifsud, the “Female Russian National,” Ivan Timofeev, Sergey Kislyak, Felix Sater, Rob Goldstone, Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, Irakly Kaveladze, Konstantin Kilimnik, Aleksander Torshin, Vladimir Putin, the individual who emailed Rick Dearborn, and, potentially, Oleg Deripaska. Though it is unknown how directly each individual was engaged in the Kremlin’s effort to support [President] Trump, both the number of meetings and contact and the high level of many of the participants on both sides offer key evidence of the two campaigns’ willingness to collude.
The case for cooperation between Russian figures and the Trump team got much stronger on Wednesday. A draft plea deal suggests that Roger Stone, a Trump confidant who regularly communicated with the campaign, had conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi reach out to WikiLeaks, the Russia cutout that released the hacked emails. Then comes the bombshell allegations, as the Moscow Project explains:
Through his intermediary Ted Malloch, Corsi contacted WikiLeaks about the stolen emails and then passed Stone advance information about the emails, information Stone could then pass to the Trump campaign. The emails between Corsi and Stone show they knew WikiLeaks “possessed information that would be damaging to then-candidate Hillary Clinton and that Organization 1[WikiLeaks] planned to release damaging information in October 2016.”
In short, the case for collusion, at least in part, posits that Russia hacked the emails and gave them to WikiLeaks to release at an advantageous time, and that “Corsi got information on how WikiLeaks planned to use the emails and passed it to Stone, who he knew was in regular contact with the Trump campaign.”
Corsi and Stone are denying the allegations, but if proved by documentary evidence, we have at least the basic outline for how a conspiracy would have operated. Trump, in his answers to Mueller, claims he never spoke with Stone about WikiLeaks, and did not know about the Trump Tower meeting. (The Post reports that Trump and Stone had ongoing middle-of-the-night conversations throughout the campaign, but the content of those discussions is not yet known.)
Then there is the obstruction case. We already know about a whole series of events pointing to Trump’s desire to derail the Russia investigation (e.g., asking then-FBI Director James B. Comey to take it easy on fired national security adviser Michael Flynn; later firing Comey and coming up with a false cover story to explain the firing; badgering then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself; ordering that Mueller be fired; drafting a false account of the Trump Tower meeting; spreading false conspiracy theories attempting to implicate President Barack Obama; working with the House Intelligence Committee to allow release of a misleading document that falsely claimed the warrant authorizing the surveillance of Carter Page was improperly obtained; and threatening to release classified information about the investigation). Previous reports suggested that Trump’s counsel also dangled possible pardons for Manafort and Flynn.
This week, Manafort’s plea deal with prosecutors blew up over alleged lies about a variety of topics. It came to light that, despite entering into a plea deal pledging to cooperate fully with the special counsel, Manafort, through his attorney, was feeding information to Trump’s attorneys about the Mueller inquiry. That is likely not a privileged conversation and is quite possibly another instance of attempted obstruction or even bribery (offering a pardon in exchange for information on Mueller and Manafort’s silence). “The open pipeline between cooperator Manafort and suspect Trump may have been not only extraordinary but also criminal,” former federal prosecutor Harry Litman wrote in a Post op-ed. “On Manafort and [Manafort lawyer Kevin] Downing’s end, there is a circumstantial case for obstruction of justice.”
Litman continued: “What purpose other than an attempt to ‘influence, obstruct, or impede’ the investigation of the president can be discerned from Manafort’s service as a double agent? And on the Trump side, the communications emit a strong scent of illegal witness tampering (and possibly obstruction as well).” Any lawyers involved in this harebrained scheme face possible professional sanction and even criminal prosecution.
It is noteworthy that all this came to light after Trump submitted written answers to Mueller’s questions. Part of the proof here might come from Trump’s answers, and whether they sync with Manafort’s story.
And then to top all this off, in an interview with the New York Post, Trump declared that a pardon for Manafort was still on the table. Whether made in private or public, an offer of clemency to a convicted felon cooperating in an investigation of the president smacks of obstruction and certainly flies in the face of the president’s constitutional obligations to take care that the laws are faithfully executed.
Norman Eisen, former White House ethics counsel, tells me that “this week’s revelations are the latest part of a substantial pattern of evidence pointing in that direction that began with Trump’s first loyalty demand to Comey and continues to accumulate to this day.” Collectively, these “individual pieces of a mosaic . . . form a giant red arrow pointing to Trump’s corrupt intent.”
The arrangement between Manafort, his lawyers and Trump’s lawyers is unprecedented. “I have no doubt that serving as a mole or double agent inside the office charged with investigating the president, and feeding to the president and to witnesses like Corsi or Stone key information about the investigator’s plans — and about what others are telling the grand jury — after gaining the special counsel’s confidence by ‘flipping’ in order to get a better plea deal meets even the narrowest statutory definition of criminal obstruction of justice and could also constitute still more witness tampering on the part of practiced witness tamperer Paul Manafort,” says constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe. Other legal experts agree with his take.
“Equally significant, if not more so, Trump’s agreement to engage in such an arrangement is strong evidence that he conspired corruptly with Manafort and others to obstruct justice,” Tribe added. “The Corsi and Stone emails provide powerful evidence of that conspiracy, and it would be amazing if Mueller didn’t have plenty of other evidence as well.”
No wonder Trump has been especially unhinged this week. The Mueller tide is rolling in, and the president is barely holding his head above water. A few more waves of pleas or indictments might sweep Trump under.