For the last 12 months, Donald Trump has done everything in his power to discredit the Russia investigation. He called it a "witch hunt." He dismissed it as "fake news." He blamed it on Democrats who couldn't accept the fact that Hillary Clinton lost the election. He begged James Comey to end it, and fired him when he refused.
Last week, he and House Republicans began yet a new line of attack: trying to shift the focus from Trump to Clinton by launching investigations into the Democratic funding of an opposition research "dossier" on Trump and the Russian government's purchase of a Canadian firm that had mining rights to a relatively small amount of American uranium.
Both issues are non-starters. The Trump dossier was initially funded by Republican Never-Trumpers during the GOP primary; Democrats merely took over funding using the same company once Trump won the nomination. And while the State Department under Clinton did indeed approve the Russian uranium deal, it was only one of 11 government agencies, led by the Treasury Department, to do so – and by law, none of that uranium can be sold outside the United States without U.S. approval.
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But no matter. Any traction Trump and Republicans might have gained from those diversions was crushed on Oct. 30, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller lowered the boom on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates. According to Mueller, Manafort and Gates hoovered up $75 million working for Ukrainian political parties tied to Russia and then laundered that money to hide payments from foreign entities. They've been indicted on 12 counts, including conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to launder money.
At the same time – and much more damaging for Trump – Mueller revealed that former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to set up meetings with Russian officials. Trump may argue that any crimes Manafort and Gates committed predated the Trump campaign, but not so with Papadopoulos.
Trump's doing his best to infantilize Papadopoulos as if he were a baby in diapers last year. No sale. Papadopoulos was a member of Trump's hastily convened foreign policy advisory committee – Trump called even him an "excellent guy." He reported to top campaign aides and actively worked on behalf of the campaign to set up meetings with Russian operatives who promised "dirt," including emails, on Hillary Clinton. If that's not collusion, I don't know what is.
Even more perilous for Trumpers is the fact that Papadopoulos has been cooperating with the special counsel's team since his arrest in July. Mueller describes him as a "proactive cooperator." Did he wear a wire? He's definitely been talking. And that alone should make Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and other top aides nervous.
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Because one thing is clear: The Russia investigation is not going away. It doesn't end here. This is just the first stop on Mueller's long road ahead. As one of Mueller's team told the judge in the Papadopoulos hearing that "there's a large-scale, ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part." There will be more indictments. There will be more people charged, leading from campaign workers to White House staffers and perhaps all the way to the Oval Office.
Make no mistake about it. This is HUGE. Or, as Joe Biden might say, this is a BFD. Mueller's actions prove that everything Trump has said about the Russia investigation so far is wrong. It is not a witch hunt. It is not about nothing. It is not a sideshow created by Democrats. It is a serious investigation into serious issues of collusion and obstruction, conducted by a serious senior prosecutor. In five short months, it has already uncovered evidence of criminal activity by three members of Donald Trump's political team.
We learned a lot about Donald Trump this week. We learned that he lies even more than we thought, that he's in denial about the gravity of the Russia investigation and that his staff did, in fact, collude with Kremlin operatives on the 2016 election.
We also learned a lot about Robert Mueller. He's tough. He's fearless. He's a brilliant prosecutor. He's in it for the long haul. And he can keep a secret. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knew he'd arrested George Papadopoulos and recruited him to turn state's evidence.
Most of all, we learned this week who's the most feared and powerful man in Washington today. No, it's not President Donald Trump. It's Robert Mueller. And he's just getting started.