For two years, the possibility of Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election has been a topic that Americans discuss but do not fully understand. But this is about to change.
This week, Robert Mueller, the notoriously tight-lipped special counsel that is investigating Russia’s involvement is set to release sentencing memos for Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. On Tuesday, he released his memo for Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, in which he recommended a light criminal sentence because of Flynn’s cooperation with the investigation.
With three of Trump’s key advisors due to be sentenced in the next couple of months, pundits expect that Mueller, who strictly maintains secrecy and exclusivity when it comes to the investigation, may finally show his hand and offer a glimpse into its progress, depth, and potential impact.
First, a quick rundown of the Russia-Trump relationship that the public is currently aware of: as far back as 2015, Trump and Putin were publicly supporting each other. George Papadopoulos, former national security advisor to the Trump campaign—who began his fourteen-day jail sentence for lying to the FBI last Monday—connected Russian officials with Trump senior advisors. Thus, a number of Trump’s advisors began meeting with Russian officials. Trump was elected President on November 2016. On May 9, 2017, FBI Director James Comey was fired by Trump while investigating potential Russian collusion, in an act that potentially set a dangerous precedent for Trump’s involvement in the investigation. On May 17, 2017, former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed to lead a special investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. 567 days later, the American public is still does not know whether or not the presidential election was subject to foreign meddling.
Mueller was chosen for his discretion and his fastidiousness. He stays out of the spotlight and has a reputation of being so steadfast that journalists dare not ask for leaks on his investigation. He is notoriously reticent with the press; lawyer Lanny Davis, who served on a federal oversight board when Mueller was the director of the FBI, recalls him saying “I play it by the book and I tell anyone who works with me you better play it by the book.” There are no leaks and guilty parties do not know if or when he will prosecute them. When Mueller prosecutes, he will have an airtight case.
Mueller began slowly playing out his endgame with the arrest of Papadopoulos in July 2017. Papadopoulos was the first—but likely not the last—to serve jail time. Mueller has since received pleas from thirty-three people and three companies, the most recent being Michael Cohen who was charged on eight counts and who went back to court last Thursday to admit to lying to the FBI about the development of a Trump Tower in Moscow. With the next election less than two years away, it is becoming increasingly important that citizens are aware of what happened in 2016 before voting again.
Mueller seems poised to make that happen. The report delivered on Tuesday of this week is not expected to be made public, but the report expected on Friday from Mueller will, explaining his team’s decision to withdraw Manafort’s plea deal, as Manafort allegedly lied to Mueller’s special counsel. Manafort also allegedly lied about his dealings with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian intelligence officer, to get a pro-Russia candidate elected in the Ukraine.
While some say that this new development is not a big deal, Trump certainly seems to be feeling the heat of the Mueller investigation. He went on a tweet rampage, attacking Cohen for testifying against him and calling for Cohen to have the full prison sentence. Trump also went after Mueller, tweeting:
In a now classic Trumpian move, the President maintains that the allegations are lies and attacks his accusers, while also sending the news media spiraling trying to report on his rapid-fire tweets. But politicians and lawyers accuse him of something quite serious: these tweets could be considered witness tampering in a federal investigation. Lawyer George Conway, who happens to be Kellyanne Conway’s husband, tweeted that Trump’s tweets violated 18 U.S.C. § 1512.
But what will the consequences of the Mueller investigation be for Trump? With many of his advisors set to be sentenced—and many expecting that Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. aren’t far behind—there are several potential outcomes. Some argue that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but it is doubtful that argument will hold if the sitting president ultimately was not democratically elected. More likely, if Mueller’s evidence proves overwhelming, Congress will have to impeach Trump.
But the larger question still looms: if Trump was not fairly elected, meaning he should not ever have actually been president, what do we do? Are his policies automatically voided? How do we treat the past two years? The constitution offers us no direction. There is only one thing that can be said with a degree of certainty: Robert Mueller is leading America through uncharted territory.
The image featured in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law.
Lucy Ritzmann is a first year prospective Political Science major interested in political media and law. Last summer, she interned at the Manhattan Borough President's Office. For winter quarter, she is a Fellow's Ambassador at the IOP. In her free time, she enjoys being with her friends and zumba.