Day 6

Mueller's Russia probe inches ever closer to Trump

Seth Abramson says the plea deal with George Papadopolous shows that Robert Mueller is closing in on President Donald Trump. And the Impeach-O-Meter is on the rise.
(Left) Donald Trump says he does not recall any conversation with George Papadopoulos that involved the Russian government. (Centre) Former Trump campaign chief, Paul Manafort, and business associate (right)Rick Gates, were both indicted this week. (Getty Images)

When Donald Trump generates headlines, Day 6 fires up the "Impeach-O-Meter," inviting political experts to estimate the odds his presidency will end in impeachment. These are, of course, subjective and hypothetical scores and the impeachment process is complex and dependent on many factors.

The arrest of a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign shows special counsel Robert Mueller's long-term strategy in action, as the Russia investigation circles closer to the White House.

That's according to Seth Abramson, a former criminal investigator and a professor with the University of New Hampshire, who says that the goal of Mueller's investigation is to get people to turn on senior members of the campaign.

With George Papadopoulos, who was among a small group of foreign policy advisors announced by Trump in March 2016, Mueller may have found a means to do that.

On Monday, an unsealed court document revealed that Papadopoulos had been arrested back in July and that he's pleaded guilty to charges that he made false statements to the FBI. 

The document also shows that Papadopoulos is now cooperating with Mueller's investigation into allegations that Trump's campaign colluded with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.

George Papadopolous, former adviser with the 2016 Trump campaign, is now a cooperating witness in special counsel Mueller's Russia investigation. (George Papadopolous/Linkedln)

"It could be wearing a wire. It could be the use of a cell phone, social media, text, e-mail," Abramson told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "In some way he was being encouraged to continue the high level contacts he previously had within the Trump campaign and now the Trump administration."


Papadopoulos as a gateway to more senior officials

The goal, says Abramson, would be to find evidence against figures like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former campaign aide Sam Clovis, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, or Carter Page - another foreign policy advisor to the campaign - among other members of the campaign's National Security Advisory Committee.

The court document says that Papadopoulos coordinated with a professor abroad who has ties to the Russian government, all as part of an effort to get "dirt" on Hillary Clinton by way of "thousands of emails."

The document says that Papadopoulos brought a potential opportunity for then-candidate Trump to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That is the second known proposed arrangement between representatives or associates of the Russian government and the Trump campaign. In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, on the premise of gathering information to potentially hurt the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Trump has accused Papadopoulos of being a liar, adding that he does not recall any such discussion with him and that Papadopoulos was only a "volunteer."

Robert Mueller, former FBI Director and now special counsel in the Department of Justice investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Abramson disputes that assertion, noting that Papadopoulos stayed with the campaign longer than Paul Manafort, who was at one point Trump's campaign manager. He says Papadopoulos had at least three "high level contacts associated with or in the Russian government."

"One of them was actually a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," says Abramson.

Manafort and his deputy at the time, Rick Gates, were indicted Monday on 12 offences.


Getting Manafort to turn

Abramson says that this is part of a concerted strategy to put Manafort and Gates in a similar position as Papadopoulos.

"Manafort's a 68-year-old man now looking at 10 to 15 years in federal prison. Those 12 indictments [...] will all be used to try to get him to look ahead, see the possibility of a life in prison and possibly cooperate with Mueller," says Abramson.

Former Donald Trump presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort (Elsa/Getty Images)

Reuters reported a similar theory in July, when Mueller was looking into Manafort's real estate holdings and his links to Ukraine.

"If Mueller's team can threaten criminal charges against Manafort, they could use that as leverage to convince him to cooperate," a source told Reuters.

Abramson anticipates that Mueller will next move against Sam Clovis, since he hired members of the Trump campaign's National Security Advisory Committee.

"And then," Abramson says, "I think he'll be looking at other members of the National Security Advisory Committee, including, most particularly, it's head ... Jeff Sessions."

"Really more indictments to come at any time. I certainly think more grand jury testimony from major Trump officials could come at any time," says Abramson.


What does this mean for the Impeach-O-Meter?

With all of that in mind, where does Abramson think Trump lands on the Day 6 Impeach-o-Meter? Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick gave a score of 35 per cent back in late September, where 1 means Trump is totally safe, and where 100 means that impeachment is imminent.

Abramson's score is 65 on the Impeach-O-Meter.

"Consider the fact that George Papadopoulos had access to top Trump officials, and therefore we're honing in on Manafort and Gates. You're at a level that's very senior to some top Trump officials and very close to the president," he says.

To hear our full interview with Seth Abramson, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.