Opinion

Opinion

Editorials of The Times: What Is Robert Mueller Thinking?

Posted November 28, 2018 11:52 p.m. EST

Since his investigation into Russian election interference began 18 months ago, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has had very little to say. Mueller, in fact, has let court filings and appearances by his team of lawyers do all of the talking, at least publicly, as the law and facts have led to more indictments, convictions, sentences and rulings — mostly in his favor.

Friday, however, could bring Mueller’s richest revelation yet. A federal judge has ordered Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, and prosecutors to her courtroom that day to learn more about the extent of his “crimes and lies” in the course of cooperating with the special counsel, who has accused Manafort of breaching his plea agreement with the government. (Manafort informed the court Wednesday that he would not appear Friday, but instead his interests will be represented by counsel.)

Manafort, ironically, brought this latest round of troubles on himself. Mueller’s team has notified the judge that the president’s former adviser lied to the FBI and special counsel lawyers “on a variety of subject matters,” adding that there’s no reason to delay his sentencing any longer. And yet it’s hard not to wonder whether this development was part of a brilliant strategy by Mueller all along — and what bigger consequences Manafort’s gambit may still yield.

Then again, it’s already been a banner week for skulduggery on the part of those Mueller is investigating. The games began over the weekend, when a federal judge rejected the last-ditch effort by George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser, to avoid serving his 14-day prison sentence for lying to investigators.

Since being sentenced in September, Papadopoulos has become a Fox News and Twitter fixture, complaining about all the ways he believes he was framed by the government.

“Keep up the fight!” Papadopoulos tweeted Sunday night, hours before reporting to federal prison, where he’ll have no choice but to suspend his public crusade against the Department of Justice and the FBI, which he now maintains worked actively with British intelligence to infiltrate the Trump campaign.

Next came Manafort himself. There have always been doubts about just how truthful or useful one of Trump’s closest campaign advisers would be to the special counsel. But Manafort surprised many when he seemed to flip on the president in September by pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with Mueller’s office. Turns out Manafort had other plans: Late on Monday night, we learned through a court filing that the Mueller team is done working with Manafort.

“After signing the plea agreement, Manafort committed federal crimes by lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Special Counsel’s Office on a variety of subject matters, which constitute breaches of the agreement,” the filing read.

By Tuesday, The New York Times was reporting that throughout his supposed cooperation, Manafort had maintained, through one of his lawyers, close contact with the president’s legal team. These conversations were possible thanks to what’s known as a joint defense agreement — a common device in complex white-collar prosecutions, but a highly unusual arrangement, if not wholly unprecedented, after a defendant has agreed to cooperate with the government.

Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general at the Justice Department and a lawyer under Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani was the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, had this to say about the apparent Trump-Manafort arrangement behind Mueller’s back: “Giuliani would have torn up the plea agreement of any cooperator who was acting as a double agent and impaneled a grand jury to investigate the lawyers for obstructing the investigation.”

Not to be outdone, Jerome Corsi, the conspiracy theorist and Roger Stone associate whose book’s title, “Killing the Deep State: The Fight to Save President Trump,” may help explain what he is up to, has begun a media tour against Mueller’s office. The details of Corsi’s ploy are head-spinning.

Taken together, it’s hard not to assume all of this chicanery is performance art for an audience of one: Trump himself.

The president has met the week’s developments with his own stream of unhinged social-media rants and retweets indulging the worst elements of the right-wing fever swamp. “While the disgusting Fake News is doing everything within their power not to report it that way,” he wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday, “at least 3 major players are intimating that the Angry Mueller Gang of Dems is viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts & they will get relief. This is our Joseph McCarthy Era!”

To varying degrees, what Papadopoulos, Manafort and Corsi are doing is nothing new. By casting aspersions on Mueller’s work, which has otherwise been unflappable and by the book, they’re signaling to the president that they remain loyal to him, despite their initial attempts to at least admit some culpability and work with federal prosecutors.

Whether that means pardons or commutations may be awaiting them, only the president knows. But it is undeniable that their acts carry the whiff of interference, a feeling compounded by Trump’s recent appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general — an appointment that all but assures that the president will do whatever it takes to ensure that Mueller’s work is stymied at every turn, including whether its full extent ever sees the light of day.

Which brings us back to Manafort and his coming day in court. Could Friday or his future sentencing give the public a taste of the special counsel’s backup plan, a glimpse into what Mueller knows — without Whitaker’s signoff? Only time will tell.

But even if Friday is not the day, let us not forget Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. It’s been nearly a year since Flynn, as part of a deal, pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to investigators for his undisclosed dalliances with Russians, and he’s scheduled to be sentenced the week before Christmas. As part of that deal, Mueller already agreed to argue for a more lenient sentence, on one condition: that Flynn provide “substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense.”

That’s the kind of clause one can expect Mueller to honor.

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