Mueller's charges pitch US towards constitutional crisis

Is this the beginning of the end for President Donald Trump? Only Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is in any position to answer that, and perhaps not even then. But his target is clear.

The decision to indict Paul Manafort, Mr Trump's former campaign manager, for money laundering, tax evasion, and 10 other criminal counts, is dramatic enough. Never before has a presidential campaign manager been charged with laundering millions while working for a foreign agent-nowhere close.

That Mr Mueller swiftly followed up with the disclosure that George Papadopolous, a former Trump campaign adviser, had confessed to having lied to the FBI over his contacts with Russia cemented the message. Mr Mueller could have published the Papadopolous charge sheet weeks ago. He did so within two hours of releasing the Manafort indictment.

Three things are clear. First, Mr Mueller aims to prove that Mr Trump's campaign colluded with Russia. We cannot know whether he will succeed. But it is clear that he is shaking every tree and pursuing every lead available.

Papadopolous has clearly "flipped" and is cooperating with his investigation. Manafort and his business associate Richard Gates are now under pressure to follow suit. The multiple charges against them could result in many years behind bars. They will be highly incentivised to strike a plea deal with Mr Mueller to slim down their charge sheets.

Others in Mr Mueller's sights include Mr Michael Flynn, Mr Trump's first national security adviser, who resigned shortly after he took the job over having failed to disclose his campaign contacts with the Russian government.

Further up the chain, Mr Mueller's targets could include Mr Donald Trump Jr, the President's eldest son, and Mr Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, both of whom joined Manafort for a meeting with a Russian government-linked lawyer during the campaign.


Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort leaving the federal court in Washington on Monday after his indictment. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The more Mr Mueller squeezes, the more indictments are likely to follow. As the most seasoned investigator in the US, it is safe to say Mr Mueller knows what he is doing. When and how he moves will be carefully thought out.

Second, Mr Trump is an expert at diversion. Expect dramatic fireworks in the coming hours and days. Over the weekend, Mr Trump sent a flurry of tweets about Mrs Hillary Clinton's alleged collusion with a Russian-owned uranium company while she was secretary of state. The story has been relentlessly pursued by Fox News, Breitbart and other pro-Trump outlets.

Republican legislators are threatening to set up congressional inquiries into Mrs Clinton's role in approving the sale of a controlling stake in Uranium One, a Canadian-owned company that mines roughly a fifth of US uranium extraction. That story is likely to intensify. Mr Trump urged nameless entities on Twitter on Sunday to "DO SOMETHING" about Mrs Clinton's "crimes". Either way, the "lock her up" mantra is back in the headlines and is directly related to Mr Trump's sense of vulnerability.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump's 11-day trip to Asia, which is his most strategically important since becoming President, is likely to be overshadowed, if not consumed, by the fire back in Washington. He leaves on Friday. Should we expect a new round of rhetorical salvos on North Korea?

Third - and most critically - the judgment that matters most is that of the Republican Party. Mr Trump has made it clear he would like to fire Mr Mueller. Most people would see that as obstruction of justice, which is an impeachable offence. No court can prevent Mr Trump from firing Mr Mueller. Mr Trump can only be impeached by Congress, which is Republican-controlled. Nor can any court stop Mr Trump from pardoning people whom Mr Mueller indicts. Only Republicans can hold Mr Trump to account.

So far, very few elected Republicans have said anything about the Manafort indictment. Nor have they drawn a red line against the firing of Mr Mueller.

Opinion polls suggest Republican voters remain strongly behind Mr Trump, which is the number that matters most to Republican legislators. Unless that changes, Mr Trump may feel that he can get away with sacking Mr Mueller. At that point America would be plunged into a constitutional crisis. I would now put the chances of that happening at more than 50-50.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2017, with the headline 'Mueller's charges pitch US towards constitutional crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe