Last week, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller announced cases against three members of President Donald Trump’s former campaign as part of the ongoing investigation into ties between the president’s campaign and Russia — Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman; Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner and George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser.
Q: What launched the investigation into Russian inference in the election?
A: The consensus in the security apparatus that there was evidence of Russian interference in the election, which really generated the support in Congress to say that we must allow for some kind of special election to proceed. There were a number of people around Trump’s campaign that really exposed themselves to this kind of scrutiny. There’s also the reports that were put together by a group of conservative donors to try to find intelligence on Trump that the Democratic National Committee bought and that the Hillary campaign bought. The revelations that it was actually a group of conservative donors, I think, work to sort of poison the well between Trump and the Republican Party.
Q: What effect could these charges have on the Trump administration?
A: A lot of this will depend on the Republican Party. Even if the charges are true, there really is no precedent for saying that collusion with a foreign government itself is actually illegal. This will depend on whether the Republicans are willing to enforce a lot of these rules. And if the Republicans don’t, at least until we have a series of elections when Republican members might lose seats as a result of backing Trump, it won’t have a big role in pursuing their legislative agenda. And I think that is the type of gamble they are taking right now.
Q: Trump tweeted Oct. 31, ‘Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!’ What does this Tweet mean?
A: Before the bully pulpit turned into Twitter, you would expect the president let his communications staff deal with that messaging. With Trump, I think at least for the moment, you just take that as him distancing himself.
The question that will be politically significant is even if he doesn’t come under personal scrutiny legally, there are the questions of how this reflects on his leadership style and ability of selecting his advisers. A lot of people will say even if Trump doesn’t go to jail, he’s selecting people who are.
Q: In light of George Papadopoulos’ guilty plea, do you think more members of the Trump campaign will be found guilty?
A: It depends whether Manafort is willing to bend to whatever pressure is going to be exerted on him on unrelated charges. In interviews with Ty Cobb and Trump’s legal team, they don’t appear to be particularly worried. But we’ll have to see.
If Manafort is faced with 10-20 years in prison as a result of massive embezzlement, then that might make him turn.
Q: Will Trump be able to be tried while in office?
A: How much this is going to actually affect Trump himself is really hard to say. According to Dershowitz and a few other legal scholars, there may actually be no way for Trump to be tried while he is in office because he has absolute power to lift any kinds of legal prohibitions against anyone. I think that kind of institutional power will really insulate him, and then whether that will affect his base is another kind of question.