The hardest part for official Washington is not knowing what happens next.
Amid the escalating criminal investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, every corner of the city finds itself preparing for the unexpected.
Democrats fret that President Trump might try to shut down the inquiry. Republicans worry that their last best hope for a legislative win, a tax overhaul, could fall victim to the scandal. And the president’s denial that his campaign worked in any way with Russia continues to be tested by new disclosures.
The only person with any significant control over events, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, offered no hints Monday on his next move beyond the day’s bombshells — legal filings that included the indictment of two former Trump campaign officials and the guilty plea of a third.
And the possibilities seemed only to grow as the day wore on. Hours after the first indictments landed, a leading Democratic lobbyist, Tony Podesta, announced that he would leave his firm after its apparent role in a Ukrainian lobbying campaign was described in court papers.
“We are in a real testing time for democracy,” said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “You really have to go back to Watergate to find anything of this scope and dimension.”
Former Democratic strategist David Axelrod liked to say that presidential campaigns provide MRIs of candidates’ souls. The corollary is that criminal investigations can similarly expose the hidden malignancies of Washington.
The release of the charges followed the disclosure last week that a prominent Democratic lawyer and a news outlet backed by a major Republican donor had at different times paid a firm that compiled opposition research on Trump alleging ties to Russian interests that could threaten national security.
Both disclosures were the sort of tradecraft that rarely becomes public, but there was little sign that they would be the last. Mueller has signaled that he will seek to turn every stone in his search and use all available legal tools. Monday’s court papers revealed that he had decided to file charges under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a nearly 80-year-old law that regulates lobbying for foreign powers but rarely leads to criminal charges.
Legal experts say the Mueller investigation is likely to bring more charges, not to mention a protracted legal process that is likely to distract from other priorities.
“The charges brought last week could easily result in prosecutions extending into 2019, just on the trial level, not even the appellate level,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University Law School. “That is going to continue to have a dysfunctional impact on the Trump administration.”
That raises the prospects for political distractions that could continue into the 2018 campaign season, possibly complicating Republican efforts to hold the House and Senate. It also undercuts the expectations of White House aides, who say they expect the Mueller investigation to conclude soon.