WASHINGTON—The triple punch of a new filing, a news report, and a guilty plea has thrust special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation back into the spotlight, raising questions about whether the probe is accelerating toward the finish line.
Since May 2017, Mueller has led an investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and whether the president obstructed the probe. The inquiry has led to charges against 33 people, most notably 26 Russians.
The special counsel’s office kicked off the week on Monday with a filing accusing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of lying to investigators in breach of a plea agreement he made in September in connection with the Russia investigation. Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy and witness tampering and pledged to cooperate with prosecutors to get a lighter sentence.
On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Manafort covered up a meeting with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London before the 2016 election. Anonymous sources told the British news outlet that Manafort met with Assange in March 2016, the same month Russian hackers launched their effort to steal emails from the campaign of Hillary Clinton. In October, Assange published thousands of emails stolen from the Clinton campaign by Russian spies. Manafort adamantly denied the story, and WikiLeaks tweeted it was “willing to bet The Guardian a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange.”
Amid daily Twitter blasts against the probe, Trump on Wednesday said he had not dismissed the possibility of a presidential pardon for Manafort.
Then on Thursday, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen appeared in a New York City courtroom to plead guilty to lying to Congress in 2017 about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. He admitted to misleading the Senate Intelligence Committee about the timing of the project, which never materialized. Cohen previously pleaded guilty to federal charges related to campaign finance violations and later met for multiple interviews with investigators.
This month also saw a new level of cooperation with the investigation from the White House: Trump turned over written answers to investigators’ questions on Nov. 20. But the souring of Manafort’s cooperation represents a step backward. Manafort is considered a key witness for having been privy to a Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016, where Russians allegedly promised to pass on “dirt” about Clinton.
On Twitter this week, Trump called Mueller a “conflicted prosecutor gone wrong.” He said the special counsel’s actions were causing “TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice system,” adding that the investigation was “in search of a crime.” He also said prosecutors were “viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts” to get deals—a claim conservative author Jerome Corsi supported this week. Corsi told news outlets prosecutors wanted him to admit he had lied when he claimed he hadn’t. Both Corsi and another Trump associate, Roger Stone, are under scrutiny for alleged connections with Assange before the release of the Clinton emails.
The Mueller probe also has thrown a wrench into the Republican agenda for the lame-duck session of Congress. Some lawmakers took exception when Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned and the White House appointed his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general. Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., are pushing for a vote on a bill to protect the Russian probe from being dismantled or Mueller from being fired by the Department of Justice’s new leadership.
The bill cleared committee earlier this year, but GOP lawmakers have blocked it from a floor vote. Flake, an outgoing senator, vowed Nov. 14 that he would vote against all of Trump’s judicial nominees until the Senate considered the bill on the floor. Republicans blocked another attempt Wednesday to bring up the bill for a vote. And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had to cancel votes set for Thursday on almost two dozen judicial nominations.
Flake’s blockade is likely giving the White House a taste of what is to come next session. Democrats in control of the House of Representatives will wield investigative power and have increased leverage to obstruct items on Trump’s agenda, from securing funding on a border wall to ratifying the United States–Mexico-Canada Agreement as a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It seems Washington may not have to wait long for further developments. Wired reporter Garrett Graff pointed out that Mueller has already released more than 290 pages of information in major court filings and may be on the verge of more indictments. On Friday, a federal judge will hear from both Mueller’s team and Manafort, raising the possibility that new details may emerge.