Mueller’s Message to Trump Allies

Save yourselves.

From left, Robert Mueller, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump

Alex Wong/Getty Images, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

To get some perspective on a blockbuster news day, which saw indictments for Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump adviser and Manafort associate Rick Gates—not to mention the revelation that former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI about contacts with Russians—I spoke by phone with Juliette Kayyem, former U.S. assistant secretary of homeland security for intergovernmental affairs and a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Robert Mueller may have bought himself some time, what signal he may be sending to Trump world, and the danger of forgetting how serious this scandal already is.

Isaac Chotiner: Is Papadopoulos the big story today, and if so, why?

Juliette Kayyem: For two reasons. The first is that it shows that someone within the fabric of the campaign—there will be debates about how close he is, and they are going to try to isolate him—but clearly someone within the fabric of the campaign was in contact with people representing the Russian government to get information about emails and Hillary Clinton. The indictment is clear on the face of it. That in itself may not be a crime, but this is the closest we have gotten to evidence of a concerted, conscious collusion.

The second piece is the extent to which Mueller is hinting to outside world, to the Trump people, that Papadopoulos has turned, he’s talking, and he has the goods. It’s a signal, and it’s a signal that is going to make lots of people nervous.

Did you think it was interesting that the Manafort indictment didn’t mention Trump?

I am not surprised that it did not mention the Trump campaign because Mueller may not want to go for the jugular yet, or he may not have the jugular yet. All I know is that Manafort is facing some serious freaking time. And if you are him, you are not a Trumpster or son or son-in-law, you are not a true believer. And you are looking at lots and lots of years behind bars. I don’t know what Mueller’s calculation is, but part of it must be to the outside world: If you aren’t a true believer, come forward now. Because everyone—the believers and the nonbelievers—could go down.

I read the Papadopoulos indictment and guilty plea, and I don’t know any other way to read it than that there was collusion. It all but says that here was a guy tied to senior members of the campaign going back and forth and talking to [the Russians].

Attempted collusion, but we don’t know what came of it.

Right, and the question is whether Mueller does and is keeping it quiet, or is he trying to smoke out others that may know more.

The last week has seen all this Republican spin about Hillary Clinton and the “real collusion,” and then today comes all this. You could read that as the White House having been tipped off this was coming, or Mueller himself sending a message.

I think this is clearly a Mueller message to Trump world that someone is talking. I can’t ascribe intent to Robert Mueller, but I can describe the consequences of what he did. By these actions today, he bought himself some time. I don’t want to say he was nervous about getting fired, I don’t know what he was thinking, or if he was nervous about Republicans saying this has to stop. But there is no way, given what unfolded today, that people can say this is just a far-flung witch hunt with no specifics.

You said somewhere people shouldn’t bifurcate the collusion and dirty money issues.

I will be on air for CNN or something, and people will say, “He’s just looking at Manafort’s money and blah blah blah.” And I am guilty of this too. We think all the deep financial dealings in some way are not related or could only possibly be related to collusion. It’s just as possible that money motivated the collusion and that either the debt or the desire to become richer or to protect property became the reason Trump or members of the Trump campaign are receptive to the Russian overtures. So instead of thinking they are different, they may be related.

We tend to think Manafort is financial and Flynn might be collusion, but that is not a construct that has been proven yet. It may be that Mueller has a single theory of the case that brings the two threads together. That was in reaction to a lot of talk on Friday, like, “Manafort isn’t really about the election.” Uh, people are motivated to collude for a reason. People don’t just wake up and say, “Oh let’s be with the Russians.”

What are you most worried about happening to Mueller’s investigation?

[Sighs.] I think he bought himself time, as I said. We have a tendency to view this as wins and losses. I am worried that we forget what this is actually about—those of us who opposed Trump for 10,000 reasons unrelated to collusion to Russia. Sometimes I worry that even I get into the “gotcha” aspects. If you take a step back you say, “My God. This was about our election, and—let’s be honest—we aren’t doing anything about 2018.” We can get so absorbed with who is doing what. Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back. Let’s just remember what this was.

What was it?

I think there is growing evidence that senior members of the Trump campaign were willing to cooperate and be directed by the Russians to win a campaign. And that might not even be against the law or proven against the law, but boy, are we a long way from …

Abraham Lincoln?

Yeah, and even normal dirty politics. You grow up knowing not to do this. You don’t need to be told. What am I most worried about? That we will forget how shocking this is.