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What Mueller's indictments mean for Trump

Michael Knigge
October 31, 2017

By indicting two former Trump campaign officials and getting a guilty plea from a third associate, the independent probe into Russian election meddling has entered a new phase. Here's how it will affect the presidency.

F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller speaks at a news conference at the bureau's headquaters
Image: Getty Images/C. Somodevilla

How dangerous are the indictments for US President Donald Trump?

It is important to note that the indictments against the former manager of Trump's presidential campaign, Paul Manafort, and another former campaign associate, Rick Gates, are not directly linked to the Trump presidential campaign and the president. It is also important to state that Manafort and Gates are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Having said that, the 12-count-indictment against Manafort and Gates which include charges of money laundering, failure to report foreign bank accounts and failure to report working as a foreign agent for a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party "reveals strong ties to Russia and financial motives to assist Russia," said Lisa Kern Griffin, a law professor at Duke University.

And because three of the charges against Manafort include the period he served as Trump's campaign manager — contrary to what Trump tweeted — there is at least a chronological connection between the Manafort case and the Trump campaign.

Read more: Donald Trump aide Paul Manafort pleads not guilty to 12 charges

Still, Trump's first reaction was likely relief that the indictments were not directly campaign-related, said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina. And should the case go on trial and the defendants be acquitted, the danger the issue poses for the Trump presidency would be greatly reduced, said Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University.

But assuming, as the scholars tend to, that this is likely just the first major step in Mueller's widening probe into Russian election meddling and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, then President Trump has reason to be worried.

"This is very threatening", said Professor Shane. That's because even while not directly linked to the Trump campaign, the indictments and the guilty plea convey a clear message to others who may be in Mueller's legal crosshairs.

"It sends a strong signal to all potential witnesses and potential defendants that Mueller is going to proceed without fear of the external political noise and he is going to charge everyone for whom the facts support a charge", said Professor Kern Griffin. "Everyone in the orbit of the Russian connections to the campaign has reason to be concerned."

What's more, unlike the indictments against Manafort and Gates, the indictment against Papadopoulos, albeit a lower level campaign aide, does assert a direct Russia link.

According to the document, Papadopoulos tried to facilitate a contact with a "professor" with ties to the Russian government and met with a "female Russian national." The focus of at least one of their conversations was "thousands of emails" allegedly in the possession of the Russian government containing "dirt" on electon rival Hillary Clinton.

Read more: Hillary Clinton 'won't rule out' contesting election

Papadopoulos' guilty plea is also a reminder to others potentially in Mueller's crosshairs to consider whether they may not want to cut a deal to provide valuable information to authorities in exchange for going free or for a more lenient sentence. The information provided in these initial cases can then be used to build additional indictments.

"There is no doubt that these prosecutions do give increased leverage over the people who have been indicted in terms of their providing information", said Shane. "It is clear that this not the end of the investigation."

"There will be more defendants charged," predicts Duke's Kern Griffin.

Can President Trump fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller?

Read more: Robert Mueller in possession of Donald Trump letter explaining Comey firing

Yes, he can. Given that Trump has repeatedly called the probe into Russian meddling in the US presidential election and the Trump campaign a "witch hunt" and that he fired former FBI chief James Comey, who had alleged in a memo that the president had asked him to close the Russia investigation, which Comey would not do, it is not a stretch to wonder whether Trump would be considering firing Mueller to end his Russia investigation.

The best legal option for him to do so would be via the Justice Department. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the matter because he is implicated in it himself, Trump could ask Sessions' deputy Rod Rosenstein to dismiss Mueller. But firing Mueller is not easy since it would require him to establish a "good cause" as to how he violated the Justice Department's prosecution policy, said Shane. Should Rosenstein refuse to dismiss Mueller, Trump could fire him and essentially continue with this process until he finds someone willing to do so, he added. But firing Mueller would surely cause a major political firestorm and probably lead to legal challenges.

"If he tries to fire Mueller on his own it will be on the constitutional basis that could be disputable," said Michael Gerhardt, constitutional law professor at University of North Carolina. The "disputable" constitutional foundation that Gerhardt refers to is called "unitary executive theory" and stipulates in a nutshell that the constitution gives the president complete authority to fire anyone in the executive branch. It is highly contentious among legal scholars; should Trump fire Mueller directly based on this principle, the move would surely be challenged in the courts.

Can President Trump pardon his former campaign manager Manafort and other aides?

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Read more: First charges filed in US special counsel's Russia investigation

Yes, he can. Not only can he pardon Manafort and any other defendants for any federal offenses committed, it is pretty well established, noted the scholars, that he can even issue a presidential pardon before a trial has begun.

But the reported collaboration of Mueller's team with New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman's office on the Manafort case could blunt the benefit of any potential presidential pardon. That's because while the president can pardon for federal offenses, he can't pardon state offenses. And several of the charges filed against Manafort and Gates — such as money laundering — could be prosecuted under state law as well. So should Trump issue a pardon, then Manafort and Gates could be charged under New York state law.

While pardoning Manafort and Gates would thus appear to have a limited impact, they would trigger a major backlash. But that still does not mean that Trump wouldn't do it.

"If he can pardon Sheriff Arpaio, he can likely pardon Manafort," said UNC's Gerhardt.

Asked about the likely steps President Trump and his team would take now next after his former campaign manager has been indicted, Duke's Lisa Kern Griffin summed up the legal scholars sentiment like this.

"What happens in TrumpWorld defies the logic of past political actions and similar investigation."