Harry Litman is a former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania who also served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice in the 1990s. He is an attorney in private practice specializing in whistleblower cases and teaches constitutional law at the University of California, San Diego.
The past week probably has been the most consequential to date in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Mr. Mueller has unleashed a salvo of significant developments: 1) a 20-hour no-holds-barred interview of former White House aide Steve Bannon; 2) a new 32-count indictment against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates; 3) the guilty plea of Alex van der Zwann for lying about a report Mr. Manafort instigated; and, most momentous, 4) the indictments of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations for an elaborate, expensive and successful campaign to meddle in the 2016 election.
All of these developments came more or less out of the blue, as Mr. Mueller’s team continued to display the military discipline and professionalism that have marked its investigation and kept suspects jumpy waiting for the next shoe to drop.
What is particularly impressive about this most recent series of advances is not just their number but their breadth and their potential to generate further charges. Mr. Mueller had appeared focused on building an edifice to support obstruction of justice charges, but he now has laid down several new foundations, each of which might come to house a whole new facet of the probe.
The dominant theme to these latest developments is that Russia apparently launched an extensive 21st-century attack on our political process and hoodwinked untold numbers of voters. We now must confront the likelihood that a pillar of our democracy was, at least in part, hijacked by a hostile foreign power.
The indicted Russian defendants will never stand trial in the United States, of course, because they will stay out of the country — except virtually. Still, Mr. Mueller’s indictments point urgently to the need for our political leaders to make every effort to ensure that our elections are never infected like this again.
Early signs from the White House in this regard could not be more dismal. The president continues to stonewall any effort to impose sanctions on Russia, despite bipartisan legislation passed by Congress in July, while his mendacious press secretary parrots the Orwellian tweet that Mr. Trump “has been tougher on Russia in one year than Obama was in eight.”
The Russia indictments nevertheless have political significance. They will help quiet the calls from some on the right for the heads of Mr. Mueller and his boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Republicans in Congress will be loath to appear indifferent to so much evidence of foreign meddling in our electoral system. They disparage Mr. Mueller’s work at their political peril.
In terms of reading the legal tea leaves, the Russian indictments, the new charges against Messrs. Manafort and Gates and the guilty plea of Mr. van der Zwann all point to an all-out assault by the special prosecutor on Mr. Manafort.
To date, Mr. Manafort’s legal liability appeared based on financial misdeeds involving his work for the pro-Vladimir Putin party in Ukraine and his close business relationship with an autocrat propped up by the Russian president. But the question now arises as to whether Mr. Mueller is looking into more sinister possibilities.
Intelligence professionals such as Steven Hall, retired CIA chief of Russian operations, have pointed out that, by virtue of his financial vulnerability and access to inside information of interest to the Russian government, Mr. Manafort was a tailor-made candidate to recruit to spy for Russia. Should it turn out that Mr. Manafort was leading Mr. Trump’s campaign while taking orders and money from Moscow and providing information in return, it would be a scandal to rival any in American political history.
Of course, this possibility still must be counted as far-fetched, along with darker speculations about the president’s own indebtedness and susceptibility to blackmail at the hands of the Russians. Yet there are a welter of details — including Mr. Trump’s consistent and singular deference to Mr. Putin — that continue to defy plausible explanation.
In any event, there is greater cause for hope this week than last that the full contours of the story — whether it involves actions that are sinister, bumbling, criminal or unwitting — will in due time come clear. So long as Robert Mueller stays on the job.