Robert Mueller has been a very busy man over the last week. The former FBI director and special counsel leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Donald Trump campaign has stepped up his operation in a big way. Dozens of charges have been issued, guilty pleas have been filed, deals have been made, and one trial is set to begin in a federal courtroom later this year.
On Friday, February 23, Mueller struck a plea bargain with Rick Gates, the former deputy campaign chairman of the Trump campaign, a deal that would trade a lesser prison sentence in exchange for full, complete, and unreserved cooperation on matters related to the special counsel’s inquiry. Based on the charges, Gates – a father of young children – could have spent decades behind bars if he refused to cooperate and if his case went to trial. That was more than enough incentive for the former Trump campaign official to take a deal with Mueller’s office, the fifth guilty plea agreement Mueller has struck over his nine months of work.
Where all of this legal manoeuveing leaves President Donald Trump is still an open question. To date, Trump can take a marginal amount of comfort in knowing that none of the charges filed by Mueller’s prosecutors pertain directly to Trump campaign operations or touch Trump personally. The one man who presumably knows the most about the inner workings of the campaign’s workings, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, remains tight-lipped despite the bevvy of fraud, money laundering, and illegal lobbying charges filed against him. The question of collusion – whether Trump ordered, tolerated, or knew about campaign staffers cooperating with the Russians to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton – has still not been proven. Indeed, Trump himself never tires of mentioning this fact publicly: after Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three companies for attempting to influence the American political system, the president quickly tweeted that the special counsel’s office had yet to find members of the Trump campaign actively participating in the scheme. “The results of the election were not impacted,” Trump confidently declared. “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion.”
If President Trump genuinely wants the special counsel investigation to go away, he will need to turn an entirely new leaf and let his lawyers handle his defence.
Unfortunately for the president, possible collusion is only one part of the special counsel’s investigation. By virtue of Trump’s own actions, from his firing of FBI Director James Comey and his thwarted termination of Robert Mueller last year to the president’s misleading statement about his son’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the campaign, the investigation is as much about potential obstruction of justice as it is a grand Trump-Russia conspiracy. And that is where Trump could get into serious trouble; while there is no evidence yet of collusion, there is a lot of smoke on obstruction.
When the pressure is on, Trump has demonstrated a unique ability to cause more legal and political problems for himself. Either due to his own lack of impulse control, his desire to cover up past sins, or loyalty to his own staffers, Trump has made one bad mistake after another. He has exhibited a pattern of straying into dangerous waters in order to shut down or discredit the investigation, in one instance even asking senior intelligence officials within the government to refute or disapprove any allegations of collusion with Moscow. And with every bad decision Trump makes, Robert Mueller is given that much more ammunition to continue his inquiry. Every statement issued or tweet written is a goldmine if information for prosecutors on the president’s state of mind and his motives. While they may not lead to anything, all of these comments provide the special counsel’s office with clues on which rock to turn over.
The prediction by Ty Cobb, one of President Trump’s lawyers, that Mueller’s inquiry will be wrapped up in early 2018 appears to be dead wrong. Mueller, a diligent federal prosecutor with decades of experience, will not terminate his inquiry until every stone is turned, every lead is tracked down, and every witness that knows something is deposed. We can expect more subpoenas, more depositions and interviews, more guilty pleas, and more indictments in the weeks and months ahead. The longer the investigation proceeds, the more likely President Trump will make another mistake.
If President Trump genuinely wants the special counsel investigation to go away, he will need to turn an entirely new leaf and let his lawyers handle his defence. If the last nine months have proved one thing, it is that the last person Trump should be taking advice from is himself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.