Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Robert Mueller torpedoes Trump’s line of defense

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort speaks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide, is at Manafort’s right.
Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort speaks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide, is at Manafort’s right.

Twin torpedoes from special counsel Robert Mueller have just sunk several frigates that were important parts of Donald Trump’s protective convoy.

President Trump has long insisted allegations that his campaign colluded with Russian operatives are much ado about nothing. Lately, he has labored to establish a counter-narrative: that Hillary Clinton and her team, and not he and his, should be under investigation. The reasoning: Her campaign’s having paid an ex-British spy to gather information about Trump’s Russian entanglements is evidence of the very kind of collusion of which his team is suspected.

But the indictment of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates exploded the notion that there was nothing worth investigating about Trump’s team. And so Trump quickly regrouped. The new line: The indictments weren’t about campaign activity, but rather possible wrongdoings — money laundering, tax evasion, and the like — that Manafort and Gates had committed in other capacities.

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That’s true. But then the second torpedo struck, in the form of the revelations about campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now a cooperating witness.

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The “Statement of Offense” that contained that news also said there had been multiple communications between Papadopoulos and Russians with ties to the Kremlin; that Papadopoulos had been told the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton and e-mails of hers; that a campaign official encouraged him to make a trip to Moscow to meet with Russian officials; and that, in an e-mail communication between campaign officials, one said that someone “low level” in the campaign should make any such trip so as not to “send any signal.”

That torpedo sent Trump’s this-wasn’t-about-campaign-activity claim sinking toward the sea floor. The next defense came quickly: Papadopoulos was naught but a volunteer, one whose role was, in Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ words, “extremely limited.”

Three problems: Low-level volunteers generally aren’t named by the candidate himself when asked about his foreign policy team; they usually don’t meet with the candidate and top campaign officials; and they generally don’t enjoy e-mail access to top campaign officials.

On Tuesday, Trump regrouped yet again, tweeting that Papadopoulos is a liar. It is certainly true that he has been, as the special counsel’s own filing showed. (Trump sycophants Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity, apparently unaware of the shifting defense, on Monday shrugged off Papadopoulos’s lies to the FBI on the grounds that he was a dewy 29 or 30, and thus apparently too young to know better.) But if Papadopoulos lies, so, too, does Trump, and rather routinely.

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The events that the special counsel has outlined may not have been successful collusion, but they certainly look like an attempt to collude. In that respect, it’s part of a constellation of occurrences that include the meeting Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort had with three Russians in June — a meeting Trump Jr. believed would deliver damaging information about Hillary Clinton. (On the same day that Trump’s son signed off on that meeting, the candidate promised to give a big speech to discuss Clinton’s “corrupt dealings” and the way she had given favorable treatment to “the Russians, the Saudis, the Chinese.”)

Papadopoulos may not know if Trump himself had been privy to any discussions about getting the Russians to convey dirt on Clinton, or whether he signed off on those efforts. But Manafort and Gates, who are staring at the possibility of long years in prison, likely do.

No, we don’t yet have a discernible torpedo churning directly toward the USS Trump itself. But these developments show just how swift and effective the special counsel has been. Anyone in his periscope now has to be looking nervously about for the nearest lifeboat.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.