Almost exactly one year ago, President Trump accomplished something no American had before: winning the presidency despite never having served in any previous government job or in the military.
The events Monday were the clearest illustration of the struggles of Trump in the year since his election victory. Oct. 30 was the day that the Russia investigation got really real. But it has dogged Trump’s presidency from the beginning.
- Controversies around the connections between Trump and Russian figures — including the allegation that he and his team accepted Russia’s help to win the election — followed Trump even before he entered office. Those controversies turned into a full-blown federal investigation, which on Monday resulted in two people who’d served as advisers on Trump’s 2016 campaign being charged with 12 counts of criminal activity, while a third pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
- A Gallup tracking survey released Monday put the president’s approval rating at just 33 percent. FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls puts Trump at about 37 percent, so maybe Gallup is a bit of an outlier. But at 33 or 37, Trump is one of the most unpopular first-term presidents in modern history.
- The president’s press secretary reiterated that Trump stays committed to his goal of passing an overhaul of American tax policy by the end of the year. It is an extremely ambitious aim, since the bill has not yet been released and there are only nine weeks left in 2017. But the desperation in the administration to get a big policy goal implemented makes sense, after Trump and congressional Republicans spent months pushing health policy legislation that died.
In theory, Trump could weather the Mueller probe and emerge a fairly popular president, the way that Bill Clinton did after a scandal that resulted in his impeachment. Clinton, though, was considered good — or at least not mistake-prone — in other parts of his job. He wasn’t regularly at odds with his staff, fellow members of his party, the press and foreign leaders.
The Russian probe is a cloud over Trump. Monday showed that it is not going away. Trump could govern effectively in spite of that cloud. But the last year suggests that Trump overcoming this controversy is very unlikely.
Trump says there’s no collusion. Others aren’t so sure. But as the day winds down, it’s important to remember that the term doesn’t refer to a specific crime, although there are illegal activities that could fall under the umbrella of “collusion.” I wrote earlier that Paul Manafort is likely to at least weigh the possibility of cutting a deal with Mueller. So what kind of information could he offer that would have legal implications for others in the Trump camp?
One possibility, according to Paul Rosenzweig, a lecturer in law at George Washington University, is that Manafort could provide evidence that a Trump campaign official violated U.S. election law, which prohibits foreigners from contributing something “of value” to electoral campaigns. For this to be criminal, the official would have to both know that he or she was talking to a foreigner and realize that the foreigner was offering valuable assistance to the campaign. This means that simply interacting with Russians isn’t enough to run afoul of the law — and it’s also not enough for a campaign official to accept something of value if they don’t know it’s from a foreigner.
In all of this, it’s important to distinguish between what collusion means in a colloquial sense and what might be a smoking gun from a legal perspective. Evidence that Trump campaign officials knowingly solicited valuable campaign information from the Russians could result in criminal prosecution. But revelations like today’s news that George Papadopoulos was offering potential “dirt” on Hillary Clinton via Moscow — while not what he’s being charged for — call to mind “collusion” as it would be used in general parlance. And as Julia noted earlier, this could be a political problem for Republicans down the road — regardless of what happens on the legal side.
We just published this week’s politics podcast. Nate claims he knew Manafort would be indicted, but said the Papadopoulos news was more significant. FiveThirtyEight contributor Julia Azari joined the podcast to put the indictments in historical context. And Perry discussed how congressional Republicans are reacting.
We’ve been tracking how senators are responding to the indictments today through official statements, on social media, on their websites, in interviews with other news outlets and in response to emails or phone calls from us. So far, we’ve been able to collect responses from 33 senators — four Republicans and 29 Democrats (including Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats).
All four Republican senators who have responded expressed their general support for the Mueller probe. Here are their statements in full:
Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
“As always, it’s important to let our legal system run its course. While we don’t have any more information regarding the current status of the special counsel’s investigation other than what has already been made public, it’s good to see the Justice Department taking seriously its responsibility to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act. I’ve been raising concerns about lackluster enforcement of this foreign influence disclosure law for years now, regardless of administration or political party. It should be enforced fairly and consistently, regardless of politics or any other factor. The dirty little secret is that lots of people across the political spectrum in Washington have skirted their FARA registration obligations for years with little to no accountability. I’ve been working on legislation to improve the Justice Department’s enforcement of FARA, and expect to introduce it very soon. “The Judiciary Committee is continuing its work to ensure that the Justice Department and FBI are functioning free from inappropriate influence, consistent with our constitutional oversight responsibility.” — Statement from website
Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)
“Senator Hatch believes that it’s in the best interest for all parties involved to allow Bob Mueller to conduct a full and vigorous investigation. There will be procedural milestones, like today’s announcement, along the way, but that doesn’t change the basic equation that the Special Counsel needs the time and support necessary to get to the bottom of things.” — Email statement from Matt Whitlock, Hatch Spokesman
Mike Lee (R-Utah)
“I fully support Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing investigation and I’ll do everything I can to make sure that the system of checks and balances, the system of separation of powers in the federal government, is upheld.” — Email statement
Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
Sen. Rob Portman said he supports “the Mueller investigation and (thinks) it’s important it be completed. We know that Russia has tried to influence our elections, since long before 2016, and they’re going to continue to try to do so moving forward unless we do something about it.” — Columbus Dispatch
Many of the Democratic senators noted the seriousness of the indictments and called for Mueller’s investigation to continue without interruption. For example, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) both tweeted that the president shouldn’t get involved.
Paul Manafort and Rick Gates both pleaded not guilty at their arraignment earlier today, and their bail will be set at a status hearing later this week. (Federal prosecutors are asking for a whopping $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates.) What’s next after that?
It might be hard to believe after the drama and flurry today, but the saga of Manafort and Gates is about to disappear from view, according to Paul Rosenzweig, an attorney who worked on independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton and is now a lecturer in law at George Washington University. The next step in the case is discovery, where the defendants’ attorneys receive the evidence that the prosecutors plan to use at trial. That alone could take six to eight months, Rosenzweig said.
“There’s a mass of detail in that indictment, and it all gets handed over for Manafort’s lawyers to go through,” Rosenzweig told me.
The trial itself could be a year away — in other words, right before or after the 2018 midterm elections. In the meantime, Manafort will likely be considering whether he wants to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, which would initiate a series of discussions behind closed doors about whether Manafort has information that Mueller wants and what Mueller might be able to offer in exchange.
This is something of an open question, according to Rosenzweig, since Manafort is unlikely to receive the kind of plea agreement that George Papadopoulos appears to have gotten. “If I’m Mr. Manafort, I would like a deal that allows me to get out of jail before I die,” Rosenzweig said.
Manafort is 68, and a deal that would let him out within a few years might not be possible given the scale of the allegations against him. “Another possibility is that Manafort bets on a pardon,” Rosenzweig added.
Gates, on the other hand, is younger and may be able to cut a more favorable deal. That will depend, however, on whether he knows anything of value for Mueller’s investigation.
But none of these negotiations will be visible to the public. And in the scope of the Mueller investigation, today’s indictments are just one more chapter in a long and unpredictable story.
As the comments from Paul Ryan and Sarah Sanders today illustrate, both the White House and congressional Republicans are fixated on one thing: getting a bill with lots of changes to U.S. tax policy signed before Christmas. Both Ryan and Sanders were on message when talking about tax cuts amid the day’s huge news.
Here’s the interesting question: Do the indictments increase or decrease the chances of a tax reform policy being passed? Or do they matter at all?
The conventional view is that lawmakers get on board more when a president is popular. Trump is already unpopular, and it’s easy to see these indictments resulting in a slight dip in his approval ratings. So that’s the case for the indictments and a ramped-up Mueller probe hurting the tax bill’s chances.
Here’s the other view: Republicans in Congress might like it if Trump spends the next two months tweeting “fake news” about every Russia story and never speaking about taxes in public. There’s a whole group of reporters devoted to covering Trump. He often drives the news cycle. The Republicans are likely to release a tax plan that disproportionately benefits the rich while trying to sell it as a middle-class tax cut. More media scrutiny of the tax process is probably not going to help Republicans pass a bill. In fact, less media scrutiny may be the GOP’s friend.
I don’t know which of these views I hold. It’s hard to imagine the unveiling of the tax plan on Wednesday will get the kind of attention it would have if these indictments were not handed down two days before. At the same time, changing the tax code is a huge issue that affects tens of millions of Americans. The media is still likely to cover the tax bill extensively.
On the podcast today — we’ll have the full episode up later this afternoon — we discussed whether Mueller is moving relatively slowly or relatively quickly.
My vote is for “quickly,” and here’s why: Since there’s always the threat of Mueller being fired by Trump, Mueller wants to get what he has out on the table sooner rather than later. That’s both because he might not have the opportunity to do so later on and because it might be harder for Trump to fire Mueller without significant political repercussions once the investigation has begun to produce some promising findings.
There’s also some evidence for “quickly” in that Gates did not have his lawyer on hand today and instead was represented by a public defender, suggesting he hadn’t had a lot of advance warning.
You’ve probably picked up on the caution some of us have had regarding the political and electoral consequences of today’s indictments. It can be difficult to predict how the public reacts to scandal. And the public is often slow to react to news in general, as evidence by Trump’s approval rating tending to have a slow (not fast) decline.
There are cases, however, when the public changes its mind on an individual very quickly. Just four years ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was cruising to re-election and looked to be in prime position for a presidential run. Then Bridgegate hit. Christie’s numbers with Democrats and independents tanked — and with them his electability argument for president. Today, Christie received just a 14 percent job approval rating among New Jersey voters in a Suffolk University survey.
Obviously, I can’t predict whether Trump’s numbers will fall as news from the current (and potentially future) indictments reaches voters. What I am saying, though, is that it’s possible that Trump could see a straw that breaks the camel’s back rather than merely a continual slow decline.
I’m all about the narrative, of course, and I think it’s too early to tell whether this turns out more like Watergate — seen as a stain on the presidency, the president and, at least for a short while, the Republican Party — or more like the Clinton impeachment, mostly seen as a partisan embarrassment and a waste of time.
But it’s important to keep in mind that even when things turn out like they did for Bill Clinton, there can be a lasting impact on the party. Al Gore reportedly distanced himself from Clinton in the 2000 campaign, and then he chose vocal Clinton critic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate.
A major study found that voters’ attitudes toward Clinton affected their views in the 2000 campaign. And in a 1999 survey, voters gave the Republican Party a distinct edge on the question of “morality.” In other words, even if we stay in the realm of smoke rather than fire, future Republicans may have to contend with the legacy of this period.
We wrote this morning about some people whose reactions to the Mueller indictments would be important to watch. A couple of them have now reacted. Here’s what they said:
House Speaker Paul Ryan: “This is what Bob Mueller was tasked to do.”
That may sound like a slightly longer version of saying “no comment.” I’m not so sure. In some quarters of the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement, there is now deep skepticism about Mueller, including calls to fire him.
Ryan, in making these remarks, is not joining the anti-Mueller bloc in his party. That is significant. Ryan was, in effect, defending the investigation. Would Ryan start impeachment proceedings if Trump fired Mueller? I doubt it. Trump is still a Republican president, aligned with Ryan on most policy issues. But it matters that Ryan is not taking steps, like bashing Mueller, that might encourage Trump to take that step.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley: “The president should let the special counsel do his job.”
This is a more full-throated defense of Mueller’s investigation from a senior Republican in the Senate and a direct appeal to Trump. Again, this is a top Republican not joining the anti-Mueller crusade.
The consensus seems to be that the Papadopoulos news is the bigger story, but I’m still a bit stuck on the Manafort/Gates indictment. As I’ve been arguing, the political impact of today’s news is at least as important as the legal impact, and maybe more so.
Manafort’s position as a lobbyist is repeated and highlighted throughout the indictment. Americans are very suspicious of lobbyists and tend to view them as part of a set of powerful interests that harms democracy. A study just before the start of the Trump presidency showed Americans were divided on whether they expected the power of lobbyists to increase during his tenure — though Manafort’s activities may not be what people had in mind. The specific charges against Manafort and Gates aren’t directly related to the 2016 campaign, but they may play into larger public concerns about corruption and dishonesty in government, causing political damage that goes beyond the immediate legal implications.
I found a way to answer your question, Micah, and get around your artistic censorship:
If Trump is looking for an excuse to fire Mueller, he’s almost certainly going to need congressional Republicans to be behind that decision for it to be deemed politically acceptable. Specifically, he’ll need moderate Republicans to stick with him. One of those is New York Rep. Elise Stefanik. Stefanik, though, reiterated her support for the Mueller probe in a Facebook post and tweet earlier today.
I would say there’s fire for sure in that we have close associates of Trump being indicted and pleading guilty — this is no longer just a lot of whispers and question marks. The fire hasn’t reached Trump yet, but the smoke itself could still be deadly. In fact, that’s often what kills people when houses burn down.
Let’s play a quick round of one of our favorite games: Smoke vs. Fire!!! Break down today’s revelations/developments into the two categories. How much is smoke and how much is fire?
That’s important to remember. Despite Sanders’ bluster about the investigation (including that it would conclude “soon”), this is as much a legal battle for Trump as a political one. Cobb is representing Trump on Russia issues, so Cobb’s conciliatory statements matter too.
But one part of Sanders’ arguments that seemed strong but really is not: that Papadopoulos was unpaid.
Campaigns typically don’t pay a lot of people for policy advice (as opposed to, say, working on communications or get-out-the-vote stuff) because policy wonks love to give advice and will do that for free. Samantha Power was an unpaid adviser to Obama in 2008. But that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t close to him or that her views did not matter. She become one of his top aides at the White House and then the United Nations ambassador.
No, I don’t think “the real collusion is Hillary Clinton’s campaign” will move anyone outside of the most passionate Trump supporters. Two other things that Huckabee Sanders said are stronger arguments: 1. Manafort/Gates’s alleged crimes were mostly pre-campaign; and 2. Papadopoulos was a powerless adviser who was mostly ignored.
On who, Micah? This story is very much an eye-of-the-beholder situation. For Trump defenders who want talking points, they now have them. But I doubt the spin will do much to move people who are already skeptical of the campaign’s activities.
Do people think the spin we just saw in the White House press briefing from Sarah Huckabee Sanders will work?
During Huckabee Sanders’ press conference, a reporter made a reference to a new Gallup survey and whether the White House is hemorrhaging support. Gallup’s latest poll finds Trump’s approval rating at 33 percent — his lowest ever in a Gallup survey. Our own FiveThirtyEight aggregate doesn’t have Trump that low, but he’s still at just 37.3 percent. Huckabee Sanders responded by pointing to polls that supposedly said Trump would never be president. Of course, polls didn’t say that. And Gallup never actually conducted a horserace survey in 2016.
As Amelia just explained, this footnote in the Papadopoulos plea is interesting — it seems to indicate that high-level figures in the Trump campaign were worried about highly visible interactions between the campaign and Russia and so therefore used low-level figures to communicate.
This is consistent with a world in which there’s a lot of “fire” associated with peripheral figures in the campaign, but merely “smoke” (so far) associated with more central figures. That sort of pattern could have basically two explanations:
- (Good for Trump) The Trump campaign attracts all sorts of random oddballs, but the core of the campaign is smart enough to keep them at arm’s length and avoid doing anything too stupid or explicitly collusive with Russia.
- (Bad for Trump) High-level campaign figures are using the random oddballs to do their bidding so that they can maintain plausible deniability. But the high-level officials are ultimately running the show and are not only aware of but are encouraging communications (and possibly collusion) with Russia.
With Papadopoulos (and perhaps soon also Manafort and Gates) now cooperating with the government, we’ll learn the answer to this question pretty soon.
The language of the charge against Papadopoulos makes it clear that he is cooperating with the Mueller investigation. That’s not a surefire sign that he has “flipped” — giving information to investigators doesn’t, for example, mean he will definitely testify against others — but it could still be bad for Trump.
Some of the indications that Papadopoulos is cooperating: He pled guilty to one charge of lying to the FBI, which he would be unlikely to do without some kind of incentive from Mueller. He is also only pleading guilty to one crime (with a five-year maximum sentence), which suggests that he may have bargained over what he was charged with — that’s typical in cases of cooperation.
There are also some small details in the charge that come into brighter focus in the context of other reporting on Papadopoulos. One breadcrumb stands out:
In May 2016, Papadopoulos emailed a “high-ranking campaign official” (Manafort) writing: “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and has been reaching out to me to discuss.” In a footnote, the government added that the campaign official forwarded the email to another official (Rick Gates, without CC’ing Papadopoulos) and added, “Let[‘]s discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
It’s not clear what “someone low level” was meant to do. It could simply be that the person was being delegated to give Papadopoulos the brush-off. But the fact that the other two people on the email thread were also indicted today — and that Papadopoulos is now in a position to explain the context of all of the exchanges cited in the charge to Mueller’s team — isn’t good news for Trump or the people in his orbit.
As today’s news shows, Trump isn’t always the best vessel for “Trumpism” — a sometimes vague mix of old-fashioned GOP orthodoxy, populism, nationalism, anti-establishment fervor and racial grievances. But whatever happens to Trump, Trumpism has a good chance of surviving, and even thriving — particularly in the many states where Republicans control all the levers of government.
Don’t believe me? We published a big piece today on Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin: He’s practicing Trump-style politics better than Trump.
Here’s an interesting tweet from Matt Miller, who was a spokesman at the Department of Justice when Eric Holder was the attorney general:
That seems like an accurate take on what happened today.
One clear loser in the Mueller indictments fallout: Trump’s war on leaks. Since early on in the investigation into his campaign associates’ possible connections with Russia, Trump blasted the leaks and suggested they were the real problem in the system.
After Trump’s complaints and public criticism of his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not being more aggressive in plugging the steady drip of information, Sessions picked up the gauntlet and announced a tripling of investigations into leak cases. He also announced the creation of a new FBI counterintelligence unit to address the matter. Though the most serious leaks were of classified information, other leaks also irked the president.
But on Friday, CNN reported that a grand jury had approved its first indictment in Mueller’s investigation. Grand jury deliberations are some of the most closely guarded legal processes in the country, and information from the process is not supposed to make its way into public by such unofficial channels. That Trump’s team couldn’t keep this sensitive — and traditionally well-guarded — information from the media suggests there is little in the information flow it will be able to manage.