What the Russian spy’s guilty plea tells us about Trump’s chances of surviving Mueller’s investigation.
A report this week by NBC News that suspected Russian spy Maria Butina will plead guilty to violating laws regarding government agents operating within the United States is the worst news Donald Trump has faced in months, but not for the reason many think.
Butina will reportedly admit to conspiring with a Russian official believed to be Alexander Torshin "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics . . . for the benefit of the Russian Federation" (Torshin recently retired from being a deputy director of the Russian central bank). She will also admit to attempting to influence the National Rifle Association and “Political Party 1,” believed to be the Republican Party. Butina will admit to setting up a meeting between senior officials of the NRA and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in December 2015, in the early months of the Trump campaign. She later reported to Torshin, “We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
Butina has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia, whose investigation was separate from that of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, so you would think that would come as good news to Trump. But Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was also charged by the D.C. U.S. attorney and the U.S.attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia as well, and it is known that Mueller has been cooperating with the U.S. attorneys for D.C., Eastern Virginia, and the Southern District of New York as well. So the fact that Butina is pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate means that Mueller will be a beneficiary of what she knows about Russian influence in the election of 2016. But even that isn’t the worst news Trump got this week.
No, what Trump should really be worrying about is what Butina’s guilty plea says about his friend Vladimir Putin in Russia. Butina was obviously operating as an intelligence agent of the Russian state, and she wouldn’t be agreeing to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators for Mueller or anyone else if she hadn’t been given the go-ahead by her bosses back in Moscow. Butina faces a sentence of zero to six months under the federal statute she was charged with, and even if she ends up serving time, she will be deported immediately upon her release from prison.
Marina Butina wouldn’t have anyplace to go in Russia if her handlers at the Kremlin hadn’t told her it was okay to tell U.S. prosecutors everything she knows about how her attempt to influence American politics worked from 2015 through 2016. If Putin has decided to cut Butina loose, he’s cutting Trump loose as well.
Trump, whose approval ratings as of a poll by CNN this week stand at 39 percent, may have supporters, but he has a diminishing list of friends. He has lost numerous members of his cabinet to either scandal or resignation. His White House staff is in complete disarray. Not even Nick Ayers, the 36-year-old chief of staff to Trump’s Vice President, would agree to replace departing chief of staff John Kelly. He’s holding onto his support among Republicans in the house and senate only because of their fear that his rabid right wing supporters will turn on them. And now he’s lost the one friend among world leaders he could count on, Russian president Putin — maybe Trump saw this coming, Putin didn’t exactly go out of his way to give him the love at the recent G-20 summit in Argentina.
The beneficiary of all of this is of course Special Counsel Mueller. Sometimes it’s useful to take a moment to see how we find ourselves where we are today, so let’s have a look at how Robert Mueller got to be such a busy, busy man.
Mueller’s appointment as Special Counsel flowed directly from Trump’s firing of James Comey on May 9, 2017. Comey had appeared before the House Intelligence Committee several weeks before, on March 20, and testified that the FBI had been running a criminal and counterintelligence investigation of “persons associated with the Trump campaign” since July of 2016.
When Comey testified later before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he refused to publicly clear Trump in the FBI investigation. He also dismissed Trump’s contention that the Democratic National Committee emails could have been hacked by “China, could’ve been a lot of different groups.”
“The intelligence community with high confidence concluded it was Russia,” Comey testified. He also refused to answer several questions about whether Trump himself was under FBI investigation, leaving open the possibility that the president himself might be a focus of the investigation.
Angered by Comey’s refusal to clear him in the FBI Russia investigation, Trump met with aides later that week at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and concocted a letter justifying the firing of Comey. After meeting with White House Counsel Don McGahn, Trump arranged with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for a letter justifying the firing of Comey.
The next day, May 9, Trump fired Comey, citing Rosenstein’s letter critical of Comey’s handling of the announcements of the investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email server. The following day, Trump met in the Oval Office with Russian Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Kislyak was already known to be a focus of the Russia investigation because of Flynn’s conversation with him on December 29 about lifting Russian sanctions. No American reporters or photographers were allowed into the meeting with the Russians. Russian media present in the Oval Office later reported that Trump had told the two Russian diplomats, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” The sources said Trump also told the Russians, “I am not under investigation.”
On May 11, Trump gave an interview to NBC News anchor Lester Holt and blew up the entire edifice his aides had spent two days building around Comey’s firing, discounting the Justice department’s reasons entirely: “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
One week later, on May 16, Trump interviewed former FBI Director Robert Mueller about taking the job of FBI director again. The very next day, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as Special Counsel in the Russia investigation.
Last week, sentencing memos were filed on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. And this week, Maria Butina agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors.
With all of the guilty pleas and sentencings in court this week, speculation has been flying that Special Counsel Mueller is reaching the end of his investigation. Don’t believe it. The Washington Post reported this week that 14 Trump friends, associates, and campaign and transition officials had contacts with Russians during the 18 months of his campaign.
Every single one of them lied about Russia. They started out by flatly denying they had any contacts at all with any Russians. Then they admitted they had a few, but the contacts were innocuous. When numerous meetings with Russians came to light, they said the contacts didn’t amount to anything. When it turned out the contacts were serious, they began denying there had been any “collusion” with the Russians. Trump made it a refrain, that there had been “no collusion” with Russians during the many times he now had to admit his people had met with them.
Robert Mueller, who has indicted and/or taken guilty pleas from 33 individuals and at least three companies, is turning from indictments of Russians to indictments of their American counterparts. He is focusing his investigation not on “collusion,” but on conspiracy to defraud the United States of America. That’s what he indicted 13 Russians who worked for the Russian troll factory, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg: conspiracy “to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence agents for “Conspiracy to Commit an Offense against the United States” by hacking into Democratic Party emails and to “stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.” He accused the Russians of using false identities and making false statements to hide their connections to “Russia and the Russian government.”
Mueller has been after a conspiracy between Trump and the Trump campaign and the Russian government all along. And he’s using fraud and conspiracy statutes under the U.S. Code to do it.
Mueller is going to connect Donald Trump and his campaign directly to the government of Vladimir Putin. This week, with the guilty plea of his agent Maria Butina, Putin appears ready to help him.
Robert Mueller has never cared about “collusion.” All he has cared about is breaking the law, which Donald Trump has done plenty of. Trump can tweet all he wants, but he can’t stop the big truck coming straight at him driven by Robert Mueller.