If you're a certain kind of political junkie — the kind, say, who religiously watches MSNBC's Rachel Maddow every night at 9 and then tweets the highlights with your "Not My President" avatar — you were probably reloading Twitter or your favorite news website every few minutes on Friday afternoon, as the Labor Day weekend traffic mounted outside.
Why? For weeks, it's seemed like the 15-month-old criminal probe by special counsel Robert Mueller of the so-called Trump-Russia matter was rising to some kind of crescendo, or at least the Season 1 finale. The rumors swirled — that a Mueller report would dot the i's and cross the t's on White House obstruction, or that associates of President Trump like political hit man Roger Stone would be charged for their Russian contacts, or that key figures like Donald Trump Jr. may have lied to Congress or investigators.
But there's also this: A longtime Justice Department guideline to not lodge charges and try to make news that might influence an election, like the 2018 midterms. With Labor Day traditionally viewed as the start of the fall campaign season, Friday was perceived by many political observers as, instead, a kind of Groundhog Day: If Mueller didn't see his shadow, there would be six — actually eight — more weeks of uncertainty for America.
And so the Trump-Russia obsessives kept reloading … for the bombshell that seemingly never came. But here's the thing: Bob Mueller doesn't really do bombshells. His specialty is the precision strike that claims its intended target with pinpoint accuracy, and leaves just a tiny crater. And so you can't always get what you want, but those who believe the Trump-Russia scandal is a big deal with sweeping implications for the 45th president and American democracy may have got what they needed with news Friday afternoon of a guilty plea by a GOP political consultant named W. Samuel Patten.
Who is Sam Patten? That's what a lot of people were asking on Friday afternoon. Seems there's a lot to unpack here.
Sam Patten traveled in the same pro-Russian Ukranian circles as another longtime Republican insider — Paul Manafort, President Trump's campaign manager during the key summer months of 2016, convicted last month of eight felony counts related to money laundering. In the mid-2010s, Patten — like Manafort — worked closely with the network of allies of ousted pro-Vladimir-Putin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, helping to reelect an ally as mayor of Kiev.
Sam Patten had a close business and working relationship with a man that Mueller's probe has identified as an active member of Putin's intelligence network — a Russian spy. That man is Konstantin Kilimnik, also a close associate of Manafort and Manafort's ex-partner Rick Gates, who also has pleaded guilty to felony charges and was a witness in Manafort's recent trial. In 2015, as the American presidential campaign was starting to heat up, Patten and Kilimnik incorporated a business called Begemot Ventures International that promised to do political messaging at home and abroad.
Sam Patten — and this is where it gets more interesting — took a detour in 2014 and worked in the Oregon office of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm that Trump's campaign would later pay millions of dollars to use data it had mined, without authorization, from Facebook to conduct a stealthy social media campaign aimed at stirring up voter sentiment and tipping the election.
Sam Patten — and this is where it gets even more interesting — also admitted during his guilty plea on Friday that he illegally steered $50,000 from a Ukrainian businessman closely tied to Yanukovych to allow him and two other Ukrainians to attend Trump's inaugural festivities in January 2017. Foreigners are barred from donating to the inauguration. Patten's admission opens a window into an event that raised over $100 million — far more than any prior inauguration — with major questions about how those dollars were spent.
Sam Patten also acknowledged in court on Friday that he misled the Senate Intelligence Committee when he testified before the panel earlier this year — a potentially huge legal can of worms for Team Trump, given the web of often contradictory testimony that's been presented to lawmakers and investigators so far.
Critically, Patten has promised to tell Mueller's team and other prosecutors everything he knows. Despite the list of potential crimes, he pleaded guilty to just one felony count — failing to register as a foreign lobbyist while working on behalf of a Ukrainian political party — that carries a maximum of five years in prison. He definitely won't serve that long, especially if he can help answer one of the biggest unanswered questions of 2016: Did Russia's internet trolls get help from Americans in targeting U.S. voters.
Before his legal woes, Patten had boasted that his time with Cambridge Analytica had given him remarkable insights from the 2014 midterms into how to "micro-target" voters and influence them on social media. The firm that he launched on the eve of the 2016 election held out the promise of using those same techniques — except now he was working with a Russian intelligence agent.
Cambridge Analytica was launched by hedge fund billionaires who supported Trump in the 2016 campaign — Robert and Rebekah Mercer — and employed the man who who would become Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon. As I noted in a column 13 months ago about following the data to see how Russia illegally swayed our election, Cambridge Analytica's mission during that fateful fall was largely to discourage Democrats from voting on Nov. 8 or to prompt them to cast a ballot for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein instead of for Hillary Clinton.
The suspicious thing is that a Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg, where Mueller's probe later indicted a dozen people, was working on the exact same dark project, targeting those states where Trump carried the Electoral College by less than 100,000 votes. How did these Russians know which voters to target with which messages in which states? Now, we have a straight line — through Patten — from Cambridge Analytica and the dark arts it developed to an alleged Russian intelligence agent.
In other words, maybe Friday afternoon brought a kind of a bombshell after all — a missing link between key Trump players and Russia in the form of a consultant that few had even heard of before now.
Don't be surprised to see more of these prosecutorial drone strikes between now and the general election on Nov. 6. For one thing, for all the hype about the Justice Department not interfering in the fall contest, Trump isn't on the 2018 ballot and it's not clear whether any rules would even apply to him or his corrupt inner and outer circles.
What's more, the Mueller probe isn't really about bombshell revelations (not to rule out that one or two may still exist) at this point. The case against President Trump — that Russia helped his campaign (through hacked emails and internet trolls), that Team Trump supported this (at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, making pro-Russian changes in the GOP platform and promising to drop sanctions) and that as POTUS, Trump aimed to cover all of this up (by firing FBI chief Jim Comey and dictating a false statement about the Trump Tower meeting) — has been hiding in plain sight for months.
The question that looms much larger than what happened is what the heck are we going to do about it? The currently expiring Congress has shown a stunning lack of will when it comes to challenging a corrupt executive branch. The dates that matter are not Sept. 7 — a phony deadline for quick action in the Mueller probe — but the Nov. 6 election and then Jan. 3, 2019, when the 116th Congress convenes. Like a game of "Wheel of Fortune" in which almost all of the letters have been unveiled, it's going take some new players to solve the not-so-hard puzzle of Trump and Russia.