Mueller is about to take a big step closer to Trump

Special counsel Robert Muller is as tenacious as they come:

To date, four people have pleaded guilty to charges brought against them by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team. Two were ancillary characters: a businessman who apparently sold bank account numbers to Russian trolls; and a lawyer who had worked with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime partner Rick Gates.

Two were closer to the campaign. One is campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, whose connections to Russia-linked characters helped spur the initial investigation in July 2016 into whether President Trump’s campaign had aided Russian interference efforts. And then there’s Michael Flynn, a campaign aide who wound up as Trump’s national security adviser. Both Papadopoulos and Flynn have apparently agreed to work with Mueller’s team in its investigation, but it’s not clear how much either knew about what the campaign was doing. Flynn’s role was the same on paper as Papadopoulos’s, but he was clearly closer to Trump.

Neither, though, is known to have had intimate familiarity with what the Trump campaign effort looked like. Which makes Friday’s news of an intent by Gates — both a campaign staffer and, before that, a Manafort partner — to cooperate with Mueller potentially very significant.

Mueller’s team dug deep on Gates and Manafort and uncovered a slew of questionable business practices. Between the two, they face 58 criminal counts, including conspiracy charges, bank fraud, lying to federal officials, income tax charges and more. Gates faces more charges than Manafort, giving him all the more reason to try to reduce the burden of any criminal penalty.

Remember that Mueller’s mandate isn’t only to suss out what Russian interference in 2016 looked like. It’s specifically to determine the answer to the question first prompted by Papadopoulos: Did anyone from Trump’s campaign help? While Gates was involved in the campaign more directly than Papadopoulos — he was deputy chairman — his work almost certainly paled next to how significant Manafort’s was.

That’s the clear utility for Mueller in Gates cooperating. Gates was privy to a big chunk of Manafort’s financial transactions that are being questioned by prosecutors, and his willingness to aid their cause makes it much, much more possible that they’ll be able to convict Manafort. Just as the admission of guilt by that attorney, Alex van der Zwaan, may have made it more possible that Gates would be convicted, upping the pressure on him to flip, knowing that Gates would take the witness stand against him would give Manafort a lot of incentive to figure out a deal with Mueller’s team, too.

And getting Manafort to agree to cooperate would be huge. Save flipping a member of Trump’s family, like son-in-law Jared Kushner, there are few people who were higher in the Trump campaign infrastructure during 2016. Manafort is much more likely to be aware of efforts to shift the direction of the campaign, including any ways in which those shifts crossed ethical or legal lines.