Since Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel 16 months ago, his investigation has endured an unrelenting onslaught of attacks from the president and his allies. But Friday morning provided the latest, strongest evidence that the probe has not been hindered.
President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort announced a deal with the special counsel’s team Friday morning, pleading guilty to two criminal charges and agreeing to cooperate with the investigation.
The plea was all the more stunning for the fact that Manafort is the fifth Trump aide to plead guilty in connection to the special counsel’s probe. His business partner Rick Gates, who testified against him in his trial in Virginia last month, pleaded guilty to two criminal charges, including lying to investigators. Mueller has also gotten guilty pleas from former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, while Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in a case referred to the Southern District of New York by Mueller’s office.
In total, Mueller has indicted or extracted guilty pleas from more than 30 people and three companies. The investigation has exposed the inner workings of the Russian influence campaign against American elections, a detailed and elaborate scheme by Manafort and Gates to hide money made through foreign lobbying work from the U.S. government and multiple instances of people later lying to investigators about their behavior.
All the while, the investigation has been under a barrage of attacks by Trump, who has openly mulled shutting it down, called it a “rigged witch hunt” and an “illegal scam” and accused Mueller of political bias and leading a team of “angry Democrats.” Because of the Justice Department’s official view that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted, Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have decided to fight the investigation as a political battle as well as a legal one. “This case is not going to be tried before a jury,” Giuliani told TIME in June. “It’s not a criminal case. It’s an investigation that’s going to result in a report, and the issue will be what happens to that report, and public opinion is going to have a lot to do with that.”
But that doesn’t help the others caught in Mueller’s line of fire. Earlier this year, Manafort criticized his former business associate Rick Gates for cooperating with investigators, saying, “I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence.” And last month Trump praised Manafort for being “brave” and refusing to “break” to take a plea deal.
But Manafort’s shocking reversal Friday morning indicates how Mueller’s team is working behind the scenes, systematically going after lower-level associates and crimes related to finances and false statements, methodically flipping one witness after another. It shows that “Manafort has something of value to offer Mueller,” tweeted former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. “Mueller would not have given him a deal unless Manafort was able to help Mueller make a case against someone else or significantly strengthen an existing case.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday that Manafort’s guilty plea “had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 Presidential campaign.”
It’s true that nothing public in Mueller’s investigation so far has touched Trump on the central questions of collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice. But Manafort’s guilty plea — and, one could argue, other developments like it — “underscores the seriousness of this investigation,” said Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. “The Special Counsel must be permitted to follow the facts wherever and however high they might lead, because in the United States of America no one is above the law.”
Robert Anderson, assistant director of counterintelligence for Robert Mueller at the FBI from 2011 to 2013, explained in TIME last year that going after financial crimes to get witnesses to flip is a classic strategy for Mueller.
“When you talk about people who are used to spending nearly $1 million in three years on business suits out of a place in Cyprus, those guys are not going to do 25 years in jail,” Anderson wrote. “That’s why Bob Mueller’s going about this in the way that he is. He knows these guys are not seasoned criminals. And he knows they’re going to roll over on each other. Mark my words, it will start becoming a race to the special counsel’s office.”
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