For the longest time, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the Russia mess looked like a backyard drainage ditch. Into it flowed a regular stream of witnesses, evidence and press speculation. But when was it ever going to amount to anything real? When was Mueller going to rent a hydraulic excavator and dig for real glory? After accepting the guilty pleas of Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, and spraying Paul Manafort with a few dozen indictments, the Mueller ditch had grown big enough to serve as a family plot. But dedicated followers of the scandal made no effort to high their disappointment. Is this what prosecutorial dither looks like?
Then, two weeks ago, Mueller’s modest ditch opened like a sinkhole as he filed an indictment against 13 Russians and three Russian entities for monkeying with the 2016 election. Last week, the maw yawned a little wider as Manafort’s former business partner Rick Gates pleaded guilty to many of the charges also filed against Manafort and agreed to turn on him. The question today is no longer: When will the Mueller machine get going? Now, it’s: Who will escape Mueller’s big dig?
Standing at the hole’s unstable rim and looking into the chasm is son-in-law Jared Kushner. He had a very bad week, suffering a humiliating downgrade from a top-secret clearance to one lower than the White House chief calligrapher. But that bad news wasn’t the worst. Although still a free man with no charges filed against him, Kushner exudes legal liability, blithely mixing business interests with his role as an adviser to the president of the United States. Mueller will seize on Kushner’s conflicts of interest like signposts to guide his investigative voyage.
Conflict No. 1: Kushner’s family business accepted huge loans from two financial empires after he met with their executives in the White House. Were any laws or ethics boundaries violated? Conflict No. 2: In early 2017, he hit up Qatar’s minister of finance for a loan and then a month later, with no loan forthcoming, he backed a blockade of the country. If it’s a coincidence, it’s a rotten one. Conflict No. 3: Officials from four countries—UAE, China, Israel and Mexico—think of Kushner as a sucker. They’ve privately discussed using his financial weakness to manipulate him on matters of state. Conflict No. 4: What role did he play in his family’s promotion of the foreign visa investment program, which has attracted the interest of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York?
Will Kushner jump from the White House before Mueller pushes him into the sinkhole? Or will Kushner even get his chance to jump? White House staffers and the president are now thought to regard Kushner as a political liability, and the president has reportedly asked Chief of Staff John Kelly for help in elbowing both Jared and wife Ivanka Trump out of the White House.
Ivanka Trump might toss her husband a lifeline and plead with her daddy to keep them on. But she’s in a precarious position, too. FBI scrutiny of a Trump Organization deal in Vancouver could block her application for a full security clearance as a presidential adviser and lend Kelly the oomph he needs to give her the full Omarosa and escort her out of the White House. Nobody is saying—yet—that the sinkhole will claim Ivanka. They’re not saying that about her former employee, Hope Hicks, who functioned for three years as Trump’s press go-between and portal to the real world. Hicks placed her big toe over the sinkhole’s edge this week when she gave Capitol Hill testimony confessing to occasional white lies for her president. A communications director can’t very well admit to lying and keep her job, so she resigned. Having established herself as a sometime prevaricator, Mueller will not leave her be until he unmasks the untruths he finds relevant to his investigation. If she knows anything valuable—and how could she not, given that she appears to have played a role in drafting the inaccurate statement about Donald Trump Jr.’s notorious meeting with the Russians—Mueller will extract it from her.
The Mueller machinations pointed this week to a new criminal case against the Russians suspected to have hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and distributed the emails via Wikileaks. According to NBC News, Mueller has asked witnesses how much Trump knew about the stolen emails before their theft became common knowledge, and what he did, if anything, to spur their release. Both Trump associate Roger Stone and Trump’s eldest son Donald Jr. communicated with WikiLeaks. Stone appears to have foreshadowed the release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails with a tweet that said, “it would soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Several weeks later the stolen Podesta emails were released by WikiLeaks.
Mueller’s investigators, who still want their interview with Trump, also want to know more about his Russophilia and his crush-like adoration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He may have already placed his staff in peril, Politico tells us, by defying his lawyers’ orders not to talk to aides, including Hicks, about the Russia investigation. Current and former Trump staffers say he “often fails to observe boundaries about the Russia probe and [he] calls staffers into his office and raises the subject without warning.”
Trump knows more about working on the edge than any politician not currently in jail. As a part-time Floridian, he should know plenty about sinkholes, too. But has he studied their geology? If the water table drops, sandy soil in the porous limestone yields and houses can disappear overnight. In 1981, a sinkhole in Winter Park, Fla., choked down a car dealership, two streets, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a three-bedroom home. It’s common for new sinkholes to pop up next to existing ones and become their partner in annihilation. As Trump would say, “Yuge.”
I’m partial to tornadoes myself. Send notes about your natural disaster favorites to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts dig volcanoes, my Twitter feed thrills to earthquakes, and my RSS feed smiles at the sight of a wildfire.