Up until this week, Donald Trump could say, with some veracity, that the special counsel investigation into Russia’s attempted meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion with his campaign hadn’t produced a single tangible result.
After this week, Trump can’t make that claim. Or anything close to it.
When we look back at the long arc of Russia’s interference in last year’s election, the past four days will stand out as the week that the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller got very real for President Trump and his political inner circle. This will be the week that this all went from a theoretical discussion of who did what wrong when and who knew what when to a deadly serious endeavor with potentially long-running impacts not just on Trump’s administration but the nation more broadly.
From the indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on Monday to the forgetfulness of Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed on Thursday, this week was a seminal one.
Monday: Just after 8 a.m. ET, the news breaks: Manafort and his protege, Rick Gates, are indicted on 12 counts ranging from money laundering to improperly filing disclosure forms about foreign lobbying.
But that’s not even close to the biggest news to break that morning! It also comes out that former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty back in July to lying to the FBI about the nature of his conversations with the Russians. The court papers suggest that Papadopoulos has been a cooperating witness to the special counsel investigation since this summer. Both Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the charges.
Tuesday: The Trump White House works overtime to downplay Monday’s twin bombshells. The Manafort indictment has zero to do with Trump or collusion. And Papapdopoulos was nothing more than a “coffee boy” in the campaign. “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar,” tweets Trump. “Check the DEMS!”
Wednesday: We learn that at a March 2016 meeting with his foreign policy team, Trump entertains the possibility of a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The idea is proposed by – you guessed it! – Papadopoulos. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has previously – on Monday - said that Trump has no recollection of the March meeting; “It was a brief meeting that took place quite some time ago,” she said. “It was the one time that group ever met.” The group actually met five or six times, according to CNN’s reporting, but Trump only attended one meeting. Trump decides to call two New York Times reporters out of the blue Wednesday afternoon to insist “I’m not under investigation, as you know.”
Thursday: Where to start? 1) Sam Clovis, Trump’s nominee to be the chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture, withdraws his name from consideration for the government post amid his connections to the Russia probe. 2) Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy aide, says that he told Sessions at a dinner in June 2016 that he was planning a trip to Russia the following month in an unofficial capacity. 3) We learned that Sessions put the kibosh on a Trump-Putin meeting in that March meeting of foreign policy advisers and Trump. That seems to directly contradict past Sessions’ assertions that he knew of no contacts or attempted contacts between surrogates for the Trump campaign and Russian officials. 4) Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law to the president, has been asked in recent weeks by Mueller’s team to turned over documents and other witnesses in the investigation have been asked about Kushner’s involvement in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
Friday: Trump is up early – sending a flurry of tweets before he leaves for a 12-day Asia trip, many of them trying to distract from the news on the Russia probe. “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems,” Trump writes in one.
On his way out the door of the White House, before leaving for Asia, Trump said he remembered little of the March meeting with Papadopoulos: “It was a very unimportant meeting, took place a long time [ago], don’t remember much about it.”
No one who looks back at this week thinks this is the end of Mueller’s investigation. Rather, it feels like his opening gambit in a much larger play. And, Trump, being Trump, seems unlikely to back off of his rhetorical attacks – even if they don’t serve his purpose legally speaking.
Which means that this past week of Russia revelations from Mueller and counter-attacks from Trump will likely be the rule rather than the exception going forward. Buckle up.