Robert Mueller
Credit: Medill DC/Flickr

Robert Mueller’s indictments of thirteen Russians who conspired to swing the election to Donald Trump came as a shock to almost everyone in politics, even some of the best connected people in the capital. The most obvious upshot of the indictments is the shocking expansiveness and aggression of the Russian campaign, and the large number of contacts between its operatives and Trump campaign, both knowing (as in the case of Veselnitskaya and Donald Jr.) and unknowing (as in the indictments.) The conspiracy, at least on the Russian side, is bigger than we knew.

But there’s another important piece here: the American political class had no idea these indictments were coming. So far as most political observers knew, Mueller was making a slow and methodical case against Trump officials about Trump campaign finances, the meeting between Don Jr. and the Russians, and Trump’s obstruction related to James Comey. It seemed that as far as the Russians themselves there wasn’t much happening, and as far as collusion it centered almost wholly on the meeting. This in turn led to some concerns that the probe was either too narrowly focused, or that there really may not have been much provable contact or collusion beyond the Don Jr. meeting itself.

But crucially, Robert Mueller knows things we don’t know, and apparently is running the tightest, leak-free ship in the country. Jonathan Swan at Axios was struck by the same thing this morning and just barely beat me to it:

  • We’ve only been reading about [Mueller’s] interviews with Trump associates and White House officials — because these are the folks that Washington reporters talk to.
  • But Mueller has been picking apart complicated, secretive and well-funded Russian networks that could only have originated from the Kremlin.
  • Mueller’s indictments are not the work product of some frivolous fishing expedition to indict Trump, as some of Trump’s conservative allies have claimed.
  • This shows that Trump was wrong when he said during a debate that the DNC hacker “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” It’s not fake news.
  • This shows Mueller has been doing consequential work, not just sniffing around the White House looking for an excuse to indict Trump.

There’s another intriguing component to this as well. There are now three possibilities, all of them damning for Trump. First is that Mueller’s probe has discovered Russian conspiracies that were wholly unknown to law enforcement previously and to the President, in which case his legal jeopardy is far larger than he knew. Second is that the FBI knew about much of this previously and brought it to Trump’s attention, but he chose to lie about it, which would dramatically increase his jeopardy further. Or third, the FBI knew and Trump never read or listened to his briefings, which would itself be an impeachable offense.

No matter what, it’s clear that Mueller is working at a much deeper level than we knew, and that Trump and his team are in much bigger trouble than we might have guessed based on available information. That doesn’t mean that Mueller has a magic bullet that will end the Trump Administration. But it does mean that until all the indictments are unsealed, most of the chattering classes, myself included, are at best making educated guesses based on incomplete information.

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.