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Mueller probe may ground Trump's unconventional success

Donald Trump can't tweet his way out of this one.

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Analysis by Stephen Collinson (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Donald Trump can't tweet his way out of this one.

The President's tried and tested political defense mechanism is to whip up chaos to tip his enemies off balance and launch a fierce counter attack. He'll also take cover with his ultra-loyal political base, rely on Republicans who are too cowed to repudiate him and fog an issue with alternative facts.

But Robert Mueller's first big splash Monday suggested that Trump's methodology -- which has helped him defy all the normal rules of electoral politics and the presidency -- will face its sternest test yet with the relentless special counsel.

As the events of a dramatic day unfolded, there was a sense that the White House was being forced to engage on Mueller's home turf rather than in the wild and whirling political environment where Trump feels most at home.

Mueller's first indictments of former Trump campaign aides, the unveiling of a surprise guilty plea by a former campaign foreign policy adviser and the manner in which he set out his case suggest his probe is sweeping, strategic and steeped in detail. And it's clear he's just getting started.

"The criminal justice interest being vindicated here is there's a large-scale ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part," said Aaron Zelinsky of the special counsel's office in a plea hearing for former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos that was unsealed on Monday.

In fact, Mueller's methodical performance suggests that Trump's orbit has much to fear from Mueller, a foe who is far more consequential than his folding GOP primary rivals, a tainted Hillary Clinton or the "fake" media -- all of which have struggled to find answers to his unorthodox approach.

First salvo

Mueller's command of the Washington game and mechanics of the law, on show in his first salvo against the Trump team, also represent a test for Trump's instinctive mastery of disruption and diversion.

"This was an impressive strategy that played out," Frank Figliuzzi, former assistant director of the FBI's counter intelligence division, told CNN.

Figliuzzi said Mueller, by unveiling a sealed plea deal with Papadopoulos, was sending a message to other potential targets in the case that if they wanted to play hardball, he had people cooperating with him.

Of course, if Trump has nothing to hide, then he has nothing to fear from Mueller, who has still yet to prove any clear evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia -- the most explosive allegation facing those around the President.

But faced with his resourceful new adversary, Trump's go-to mode of defense -- a tweet in capital letters -- seemed hardly adequate.

"There is NO COLLUSION!" the President wrote on Twitter.

As it sought to find its balance, the White House was quick to seek out vulnerabilities in Mueller's initial gambit. But it was also immediately clear that its efforts, while serviceable in a political context, were much less suited to the constraining legal reality that is now facing Trump.

"Today's announcement has nothing to do with the President, has nothing to do with the President's campaign or campaign activity," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

People close to the White House, meanwhile, set about undermining the credibility of cooperating witness Papadopoulos, describing him as an overzealous low-level adviser who was a "zero" in terms of campaign seniority.

One White House official told CNN the President was bewildered by Papadopoulos being swept up in the case, apparently seeking to further diminish his role as a linchpin in Mueller's presentation.

"The President is going, 'Really, this is the guy?'" the official said.

But CNN legal analyst Laura Coates said that while such arguments may make sense politically, they are irrelevant to Mueller's mandate -- to probe whether there was collusion between any Trump associate and Russia.

"The directive was not a certain level official, a certain level of campaign person," said Coates. "To try to parse it in this way belies all logic to me legally."

Even if the timeline of the charges against Manafort and Gates, related to their work for a formerly pro-Russian government in Ukraine, covers a period before they worked for Trump, the pair might pose a threat to the White House in other ways -- a possibility that Sanders did not address.

Given the gravity of the charges against them which carry long potential prison terms, and their treatment -- both are now under house arrest -- each man has a strong incentive to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.

"If I was representing Paul Manafort, unless I was sure my client was getting a pardon, I would be talking to him about potentially cooperating with Mr. Mueller," said former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti on CNN.

Political spin

In her briefing, Sanders also renewed the political charge that Clinton's campaign -- and not Trump -- was guilty of colluding with Russia, citing the infamous Fusion GPS dossier on the President's alleged past ties with Russia.

But if the events and documentation made public Monday prove anything, it is that the political spin on which the White House has relied to dismiss the building storm over the Russia drama may not be enough to help Trump aides, and even the President himself, this time.

From court filings and other documents, it is also clear that Mueller is operating on a broad canvas. Despite Trump's insistence last week that it is now "commonly accepted" that there is no collusion involved, Monday's developments show that is a line that is being seriously pursued.

By indicting Manafort and Gates on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, he is sending a signal he is willing to target wrongdoing in diverse forms. That may chill those around a President who has warned that he would see any attempt by Mueller to probe his family finances as an overreach.

It was also another poor day Monday for Trump's increasingly thin claim that the Russia matter is nothing more than a "hoax" perpetrated by Democrats still sore about Clinton's 2016 election debacle.

In documents outlining Papadopoulos' guilty plea, Mueller laid out what appear to be clear attempts by Russian intelligence to court the former foreign policy advisor, through someone identified as a "professor," a Russian foreign ministry official -- likely a cover for an intelligence officer, and a woman he believed to be President Vladimir Putin's niece.

He also delivers a hint that he may not be done with Manafort -- including evidence showing that Papadopoulos emailed the campaign manager with the news that Russia wanted to meet with Trump.

He bolstered the case for collusion -- in contradiction of the White House claim that there is nothing to answer for -- by including an FBI statement saying that, as late as August 2016, a campaign superior told Papadopoulos to go ahead with a trip to Russia to meet officials.

But the most daunting disclosure for the Trump camp may be the comment by attorney Aaron Zelinsky on Mueller's team that the Papadopoulos question was part of a "road map" of a much larger case.

Faced with such challenges Trump has few options.

Were he to try to dismiss Mueller, in a similar manner to the way he dispensed with FBI chief James Comey, he could incite a constitutional crisis. Trump's reflex to lash out in fact in the Comey case is the reason he is facing a special counsel probe in the first place.

Should Trump pardon Manafort and Gates, he could close down the case but ignite a political firestorm. So he may have little option to sit and wait, and watch the special counsel weave his web.

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