The first public legal actions in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections roiled the White House and Capitol Hill on Monday, as President Donald Trump again declared there was no evidence of his campaign's collusion with Moscow, while critics of Mr. Trump said it was probably just the tip of the iceberg in the investigation being led Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who obtained the first guilty plea of the Russia probe.
That guilty plea came from an unpaid foreign policy adviser on the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos; documents released by the Special Counsel's office showed Papadopoulos admitting to repeated efforts to get "dirt" from Russian contacts and Russian diplomatic officials about Hillary Clinton.
The White House said repeatedly that Papadopoulos was a minor player, who did little on the campaign - though he was at the table with President Trump in March of 2016 for a meeting of his foreign policy advisers (orange arrow).
What's next in this investigation, which has dominated the news for months?
1. No, it's not the end. It's really the beginning. If you were hoping that Robert Mueller would be packing up and closing down his operation in coming months, that's not going to happen. The detail of the Manafort/Gates indictment shows that would be a case that goes on for some period of time. Obviously, there is a lot more at work for Mueller and his investigators, and there could well be intelligence and counterintelligence aspects of this investigation that would be difficult to work with in a public setting, which could slow things down as well. Monday night's public assessment from the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would probably not get much agreement in the halls of Congress, where the investigations of the Russian interference in the 2016 elections also isn't anywhere close to wrapping up.
2. The Papadopoulos guilty plea is very interesting. For months, supporters of President Trump have said there was no evidence of outreach from the Trump camp to any Russians. That's been knocked down along the way, and it was even more with the documents related to George Papadopoulos, who was part of a foreign policy board that President Trump convened in late March of 2016. The White House said he was an unpaid adviser who had no pull within the Trump Campaign, but the plea bargain statement released on Monday sure showed a lot of efforts to get dirt on Hillary Clinton via the Russian government, and to keep top officials up to date on what was going on. Some wonder whether Mueller put this out guilty plea to short circuit some of those same type arguments from the White House, or maybe even to put other people on notice. Here's the guilty plea - read it.
3. Could there be other guilty pleas ready to go? Reporters who check out the details of the federal court system were able to determine that four different cases, numbered in between the indictment of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates - and the guilty plea of Papadopoulos - remain sealed. That means they were filed within the time frame of the Mueller investigation, but remain off limits to the public for some reason. Could these cases be unrelated to the Russia probe? Absolutely. But the fact that four more sealed cases are already on file makes some people wonder might be next in Mueller's investigation. Stay tuned.
4. GOP lawmakers not worried that Trump will fire Mueller. One of the questions asked of Republicans on Capitol Hill soon after the indictments were released was a very simple one - what if President Trump fires Special Counsel Robert Mueller? In the hallways, there wasn't the fear that was there a few months ago on that subject. Yes, there are a couple of bills in the Senate that would try to prevent that - but frankly, they are not going to be considered unless President Trump decides to get rid of Mueller. "I just cannot imagine an administration taking a step like that," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). "I don't feel an urgent need to pass that law," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). "I don't think anybody in their right mind at the White House would think about replacing Mr. Mueller unless it was for a pretty good reason."
5. Social media companies now under the microscope. Starting on Tuesday afternoon, officials from Facebook, Google and Twitter will kick off a series of hearings on Capitol Hill, looking at how the social media giants dealt with questions regarding Russian efforts to use those social media platforms to cause some trouble during the 2016 campaign. Facebook will evidently report that over one-third of the U.S. population saw some sort of Russian-sponsored material come their way, which was related to the elections. Lawmakers are certain to push the companies to address the matter of telling people who paid for digital ads which might come up on some of those sites, just like the telling, "I'm Donald Trump, and I authorized this message," in regular TV and radio commercials.
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