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Opinion: Is this the beginning of the end of Donald Trump?

We don’t know at present exactly what all that has unfolded this week means or what lies ahead, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IS THIS THE beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s presidency? Seasoned political observers in the United States, as well as casual onlookers around the world, are considering the question this week. Before endeavouring to provide an answer, it is worth examining what we know now.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is looking into, among other things, the possibility that President Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government in 2016 in order that he would prevail and Hillary Clinton, whose negative opinion of and aggressive posturing against Vladimir Putin were no secret, would lose what one long-time Democratic operative has termed “the unlosable election.”

Accused of a number of federal crimes

On Monday morning, it was confirmed that Mueller and the team of lawyers and investigators working under him have convinced a grand jury that President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s close associate and protégé, should be charged and face trial. They stand accused of a number of federal crimes. If convicted, they could serve decades in prison.

Both pleaded not guilty on Monday afternoon. They are represented by exceptional defence lawyers and seem ready to contest vigorously what has been alleged. And already, some experts have asserted that it may be very difficult to establish a case against them insofar as criminal prosecutions for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (the basis for much of what is contained in court filings) are uncommon.

This was clearly no surprise to the Trump White House and the president almost immediately tweeted that the charges pre-date his campaign and, again, that there was “NO COLLUSION” with the Russians. It is true that most of what has been directed at Manafort and Gates preceded 2016 and that the president’s name appears nowhere in court filings, but former prosecutors expect Mueller’s office to use the potential for lengthy prison sentences as leverage to extract information from the two men about what transpired last year.

Lied to the FBI 

What apparently did come as a shock to the administration was the revelation that George Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old, unpaid, foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, lied to the FBI and has since been cooperating with investigators seeking further incriminating information on figures closer to the president.

In March 2016, Papadopoulos was in contact with a London-based academic claiming to have ties to Russian government officials who had emails containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

Papadopoulos was willing to accept the emails and communicated the possibility to high ranking individuals in the campaign over several months. These included Paul Manafort, who responded that, if this were to be done, it should be by someone at a very low level. Papadopoulos lied about the timing and substance of his interactions with Russians. He did not receive the emails, nor did he travel to Russia.

So, what does this all mean and what is next?

The two questions are inextricably intertwined. Robert Mueller is certainly living up to his impeccable reputation as a skilled prosecutor and hugely capable person who will not curry favour, politically or otherwise, and will pursue the truth relentlessly – no matter where it leads.

That the entire sequence of events involving George Papadopoulos seems to have been a secret to everyone in a city that collectively leaks like a sieve is indicative of the tightly controlled operations of the investigation itself and the highly disciplined nature of those carrying it out.

Some opine that far more grave disclosures are sure to follow this one. Others say it’s the equivalent of a “big nothing burger” and that Papadopoulos was just a “hyperactive campaign staffer” who had almost no relevant experience and was ultimately “shut down by senior staff.”

On one side, the outspoken left-wing attorney and journalism academic, Seth Abramson, tweets to his 294,000 followers that “I can assure you the amount of intel (sic) Mueller already has ‘dwarfs’ what we know – and what he ‘has or will have’ will be enough to impeach.”

Abramson, however, rather wildly maintained that Bernie Sanders would win the Democratic presidential nomination at a stage when numerical and all other realities rendered it an impossibility. He has also embraced nearly every salacious rumour, with or without solid evidentiary foundation, about President Trump.

Seeking contact with foreign officials is not a crime

By contrast, Michael Treacy, a similarly left-wing journalist with a large Twitter audience who has taken a dim view of the theories that there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians, writes (cynically in the first instance) that “you can tell this Papadopoulos character is a smooth operator because he voluntarily chose to make incriminating statements to the FBI”; that “once it was decreed that meeting Russians is heinous, not surprising that incompetent hangers-on would try to obfuscate” and that “seeking contact with foreign officials is not a crime, and was the ordinary course of business prior to this blathering frenzy.”

Nonetheless, Treacy has been extremely, probably excessively, dismissive on this front from the beginning. This week, things progressed to a point beyond which he arguably forecast they would.

Frankly, we don’t know at present exactly what all that has unfolded this week means or what lies ahead. Mueller’s comprehensive investigation will continue apace, in secret, and invariably biased speculation will persist without pause, in public. This ongoing conjecture is fascinating at one level and frustrating at another.

Moreover, how congressional Republicans position themselves in this context, which, as always, will be dictated by their own electoral self-interest and sense of how their constituents see things, will be telling. At least movements in politics and of politicians can be tracked.

Returning to the question posed at the outset, it is still much too early to call Monday the beginning of the end for President Trump. But even those – this writer included – who are sceptics when it comes to the “Russian connection” need to acknowledge – perhaps for the first time – that it could be the beginning of the end. And that’s why it was so significant.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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