The Russian probe has now entered a new phase, one where facts might trump spin — pun intended.
The charging of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates with tax fraud and money laundering last week, coupled with former Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos' guilty plea for lying to federal authorities, guarantees that the outcome of Robert Mueller's investigation will now be determined by the rules of evidence, not the nightly exchange of competing cable TV narratives.
Much has recently come into focus.
We now know that Papadopoulos had conversations about the "emails of Clinton" two months before there'd been any WikiLeaks release of John Podesta's emails and long before any report of the Democratic National Committee having been hacked. Carter Page is another Trump campaign representative who met with Russian representatives, according to a newly released transcript from his House Intelligence Committee interview. Page did so during a visit to Russia in July of 2016 and reported back to the campaign about the meeting. So let's place those events within the previously known timeline:
What's clear is that there were many interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian representatives; Papadopoulos, Page, and Trump Jr. all had some degree of contact — not to mention Jeff Sessions' and Michael Flynn's exchanges with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. What is publicly unknown and most important to Mueller is whether the Trump campaign aided the Russian hacking effort – meaning whether there was actual coordination within the chronology. At a minimum, the recent developments call into question President Trump's assertion, on Feb. 16 of this year, that he knew of "nobody" from his campaign who'd had contacts with the Russians. Most interesting to Mueller might be what exactly the president was told at a March 31 meeting where Papadopoulos was present with both Trump and Sessions.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to treat the matter as a political problem, as evidenced by his Twitter storm just before departing for Asia. Perhaps yielding to the get-tough advice his former adviser Steve Bannon offered on the day Manafort and Gates were charged, Trump dispatched the following missives:
But the only way any of that matters is if the prosecution is derailed or if Congress ignores it.
Without question, throughout the campaign and in the first nine months of the Trump administration, his base has supported him — regardless of what he says or does. With the Russian probe it seems there will again be no impact of his words and actions — but for the opposite reason. Because, no matter the president's bluster or tweets or capital letters or threats, Mueller's not listening.
Early last spring, on my Saturday CNN program, Page was scheduled to make his first public response to the breaking news of Russian meddling. In the category of "you can't make this up," he texted me the night before while I was watching CNN's breaking coverage about him. I confirmed that we would certainly discuss the story, and mentioned that at the moment, I was both watching the news and planting my summer garden vegetable seeds indoors.
Page replied with a reference to the latest news and my green thumb:
"Your vegetable seeds have a much higher probability of eventually producing something of substance, but sure — it'll be fun! 9 months of fallow ground here, yet still more of the same from the Obama/Clintonite farmer collective …"