The indictments of two former aides to President Trump on Monday, and the guilty plea entered by a third, plunge the country into frightening new territory. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, has now found evidence that Trump hired a campaign chairman with a history of sketchy dealings with Russian-backed entities, and that another member of his staff courted Russian representatives during the campaign.
Mueller charged the former chairman, Paul Manafort, with a slew of money laundering and conspiracy counts related to his work for a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party, most of which occurred before he joined the Trump campaign. The charges are supported by reams of evidence, including wire transfers from tax havens and shell companies controlled by Manafort. A few hours later, Mueller also disclosed that a Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had admitted to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian professor with ties to the Kremlin. Papadopoulos is now said to be cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. (Another aide, Manafort sidekick Rick Gates, was also charged. Both Gates and Manafort deny the charges.)
Together, the charges confirm press accounts that the Trump campaign was receptive to political help from Russia, and hired as a campaign leader an individual who’d already been an accomplice in shady Russian dealings. These charges should be a clarifying moment for the country: Despite efforts by the Trump White House and its allies to change the subject, the special counsel investigation has shown that fears of collusion are credible, that the investigators are doing their job, and that the probe must be completed unhindered.
Indeed, there is already ample evidence that collusion happened, despite Trump’s adamant denials. Papadopoulos received an offer from his Russian contact for thousands of e-mails from Hillary Clinton. Trump’s senior aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner and son Donald Trump Jr., met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer who they were told had damaging information about Clinton. Trump continues to tweet that there was no collusion, as if repeating it in capital letters makes it true, but the growing documentary record says otherwise.
Whether laws were broken in the process — or, subsequently, by the administration, in an attempt to obstruct the FBI investigation into Russia’s action — remains for Mueller and the courts to determine. And Congress must ensure that they can: Legislation to protect Mueller is overdue. Trump should not have the power to fire the man investigating his campaign.
The Republican leadership in Congress continues to temporize, though, months after bills to protect Mueller were introduced. The GOP is seeking to cut taxes for the wealthy and businesses, and can’t afford to alienate the thin-skinned president.
But that same desperation for a tax cut also provides leverage to civic-minded Republicans — if they choose to use it. Republican politicians like John McCain, Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, and Bob Corker have all expressed alarm at the president’s behavior, and with the GOP’s slim advantage in the Senate they will all be needed to pass a tax cut. It may also take a willingness to use that raw political muscle to create protections for a prosecutor whose work now seems more important than ever.