In special counselor Robert Mueller’s investigation, the guilty plea announced today by former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, as well as the indictments of former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his top aide Rick Gates, are not the end of the matter for the government, but rather the beginning of a long process.
Muller set out to find out if the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 presidential election but his traditional method is not to hit that nail right on the head, but to find those in a position of knowledge and develop ways to put pressure on them to “flip” from a witness for the defense to a witness for the prosecution.
That is what Mueller has done throughout his career, and this has the earmarks of being the first step in that process.
Let’s start with Papadopoulos, whose admissions come the closest to date to taking Mueller’s investigation inside the Trump campaign.
If he is doing what federal prosecutors have done in the past, the work with Papadopoulos goes well beyond just asking him questions.
Former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman, now an attorney in private practice and a legal contributor for MSNBC, told MSNBC host Ali Velshi today “It’s obvious Mueller is playing this out very skillfully.”
Akerman said Papadopoulos, who has already pleaded guilty to felony charges, has been in custody since sometime in July. That means Mueller has had months to question him and then use the leverage he has over the former foreign policy advisor – who stands to go to jail for years – to get his cooperation.
Akerman explains: “If I were the prosecutor – and I guarantee that Robert Mueller has done this – he’s had him out there wearing a body wire, on the phone, having him playing dial-a-crook on the phone trying to get recorded conversations that can be used as evidence against other people. If I were other people – and they know who they are – I’d be extremely nervous right now.”
What Mueller will do with each person caught in his trap is what he is already doing with Manafort. First, you get the evidence to convict, and then use that to “flip” that person from a friend of the defense to a witness for the prosecution against bigger fish – all the way up to the White House.
“First of all that [Manafort] indictment is a slam-dunk, as I said before, it’s proven by documents,” says Akerman, adding the indictment documents show Mueller doesn’t need any witnesses to make his case.
Once Manafort is about to be convicted – and understands he could go to jail for a long time – that is when Mueller goes from playing bad cop to good cop.
As Akerman envisions the conversation between Mueller and Manafort, it might go something like this. “You might start telling us about more of this stuff,” the prosecutor would say, “and maybe some of this can go away, and it might not weigh as heavily on you.”
In other words, the way to save yourself, Manafort, is to start talking about what you know about Trump, Sessions and others who were part of the 2016 campaign operation.
In the meantime, Trump’s options have started to be limited by today’s action as well.
Akerman said he is sure Trump would love to fire Mueller, “but this has made it a whole lot more difficult because now it’s not like we’re having a witch hunt that is nothing, now we’ve got something that is real. “
What Mueller has, says Akerman, is “a campaign manager that is unquestionably going to be convicted.”
What he has, Akerman is implying, is the leverage to get Manafort and his co-conspirator Gates, to seek a deal to save themselves from jail time, huge fines and public shaming.
That is very powerful.
“The agency starts at the bottom or periphery of an organization and works inward,” Wired reported today, “layer by layer until it’s in a position to build a rock-solid case against the person at the top.”
“This investigative method,” adds Wired, “has been at the heart of the FBI’s (and the Justice Department’s) approach since the 1980s.”
First, the government encourages the person facing charges to cooperate “against the bosses in exchange for a lighter sentence,” explained Wired, “and then repeat the process until the circle has closed tightly around the godfather or criminal mastermind.”
“There’s no reason,” concludes Wired, “to think that this investigation will be any different.”
Wired suggests there will never be a charge of “collusion” by Trump or others because that would be too hard to prove and gets into areas of law that are undefined.
“As the case unfolds,” writes Wired, “there will almost assuredly be charges that, in many ways, form the foundation of many federal cases: obstruction of justice, perjury, or lying to federal agents (aka making false statements).”
“These charges are particularly common,” added Wires, “in special counsel-type investigations and can end up targeting people unrelated to the original criminal act.”
So all of the analysis of the little bit of information that has surfaced is not the best indication of where this investigation and the criminal case may lead.
The success of the Special Counsel will depend on being able to “flip” the witnesses, and then flip more witnesses as the investigators move up the organization chart.
So if Papadopoulous has been wearing a wire, and if Manafort and Gates can be convinced to save themselves by squealing about others, what seems like something not directly related to the real subject of the investigation – the Russia probe – may turn out to be the most indirect but most effective way to get there.
As the number of indictments grows, so will the pressure on Trump, which will begin to limit his ability to function as president, shake confidence in him even among his base, and begin to set his friends against each other.
Trump can try and hold his cohorts together by promising to give everyone involved a pardon, but even that would come with tremendous political costs and could lead directly to an impeachment or prove the obstruction of justice charges that started when the President summarily dismissed the FBI director.
The game is finally starting to get more intense for Trump and those tied to him. If the pre-Watergate period with Nixon or the impeachment process with Clinton shows, the closer the prosecutor gets, the more the wheels of government grind to a halt.
This could also have a huge impact on the 2018 midterm elections. If the Democrats can use it to take back control of the House, then the investigations will get even more intense, and so will Trump”s problems. He won’t be able to tweet his way out of that.