Jurisprudence

This Was the Week the Mueller Probe Switched From “What If” to “What Else”

Real-world conspiracies don’t unravel neatly. But this is a week we’ll look back on.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen, former personal attorney to President Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

At some point in the future, we will perhaps look back at this week as the week that brought a time switch in the Mueller probe. This was the week in which we learned that a lot of what had been reported as speculative, or reported but not taken seriously, or reported but forgotten, now maps onto real facts. This was the week that Trump confederates were shown to be liars or admitted to being liars. The president’s former lawyer has now established that he was lying to Congress to protect the president. The president, or “Individual 1” as he’s now described in legal filings, himself is now certainly a subject of great interest to federal investigators.

There are many things we do not know. But it is worth recognizing that we have gone from a state of being in which Trump and his campaign were lying about Russia if certain things were shown to be true, to a state of being in which the president and his campaign were simply lying about Russia. Is that in and of itself illegal? No. But whatever it is, this is not a witch hunt.

Instead, it’s clearer than ever that, in addition to an ongoing obstruction investigation, Mueller is now setting down markers around which of Trump’s advisers and associates and family were involved in Russian entanglements that may have compromised them and with efforts to cover those entanglements up. As former federal prosecutor Ken White put it in the Atlantic:

The president of the United States’ personal lawyer admitted to lying to Congress about the president’s business activities with a hostile foreign power, in order to support the president’s story. In any rational era, that would be earthshaking. Now it’s barely a blip.

The blip-y nature of this news is understandable. For one thing, this all took place on a news week that included the G-20, George H.W. Bush, tear gas at the border, red Christmas trees, and several natural disasters. For another, it’s frankly easy to become lost in this maze of Mueller news, to slide into a googley-eyed trance simply trying to parse the Manafort-Trump-Mueller-Assange-Corsi-Stone–Don Jr. –Putin-Flynn- Cohen-Sater-Ivanka–Erik Prince–Deutsche Bank Mad Libs on TV chyrons.* Even Ocean’s Twelve didn’t have this many characters. In the absence of a mile-high whiteboard or pocket Collusion flashcards, it feels hard to get your bearings. That’s to be expected—Paul Waldman had a smart piece this week in which he reminded readers that actual criminal conspiracies tend not to take place via elegantly dressed criminals laying out the details of the crime in crisp declarative sentences:

The Hollywood version of a conspiracy involves careful planning, skilled operatives, multiple moving parts coming together with uncanny efficiency and usually a scene in which everyone involved gets together so the leader can say, “Okay, here’s the plan,” which he then runs through so everyone understands how the whole thing will go down.

We’re not going to get our explanatory scene in the real world. We’re learning about the case in real time, not reconstructing something in reverse. Sometimes a criminal conspiracy looks more like a sweating blob of rugby players than a well-orchestrated pairs skate. But what’s important to process this week—in addition to the fact that the president and those around him are starting to sound panicky—is that we can say with certainty that Mueller is building a slow, well-supported, public case for wrongdoing that was covered up with public lying and lies told under oath. It’s still unclear if any of these acts will prove criminal, and it is unclear what happens if they do. But that’s what’s happening.

It is worth recognizing that at the same rate that Bob Mueller is amassing a mountain of provable factual evidence, the president is continuing to construct his national political movement based on the principle that reality should mostly be a choose-your-own-ending kind of enterprise—see this week’s dismissal of his own government’s game-changing climate report. His response to the Cohen news was equally predictable—hoax, witch hunt, he just “lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia,” all very cool and very legal. But as Democrats take control of key committees in Congress in a few weeks, it will prove harder and harder to claim that the witness testimony, and facts, and evidence that the public will see with their own eyes is actually a grand-scale “Deep State” conspiracy. That is all about to happen, and as this week’s deluge demonstrated, it is likely to happen at a pace that will be challenging for many of us to keep up with.

There is no doubting that for millions of Americans, nothing Robert Mueller ever reveals will ever dislodge anything. But even without the delicious caper-movie master-plan reveal scene, it is becoming clear that Mueller’s investigators have been and are building to something that cannot be easily discounted. You can decide for yourself if all this is the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning or merely the middle of forever. But what it is not is the end—thank you Sen. John Thune—or even the middle of the end. For anyone who still allows the facts to determine outcomes, even through the confusion and the hectic pace, this was the week it got real.

Correction, Dec. 2, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Erik Prince’s first name as well as the name Deutsche Bank.