Gates, who is 45, is a junior partner and Manafort’s protégé. Like Manafort, he joined the Trump campaign. He remained after Manafort left, but was forced out of a pro-Trump outside group in April amid the Russia probe.
The first charges in Mueller’s case come at a delicate time, and the way Washington reacts to them could set the stage for the next weeks, months, or even years in American politics.
Although the political world has been focused on questions of whether there were links between the Trump campaign and Russia, the charges unsealed on Monday do not get to that matter, nor do they involve President Trump himself, except through his hiring of Manafort.
In recent days, an increasing number of Republican officeholders and conservative pundits have suggested that Mueller’s investigation should be disbanded. A campaign among conservative journalists has sought to recirculate an old story about a uranium deal as new information, framing it as more pressing than potential Russian collusion with the Trump team.
“The president tweeted last night that Republicans, all in caps, needed to ‘DO SOMETHING,’” Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me Monday. “Hard to escape that was a reaction to the indictments. What is he asking Republicans to do? It certainly looks like he’s asking them to focus on his vanquished opponent.”
Although it sometimes feels as though the Russia probe has been years in the making, Mueller was only appointed to his post in May, shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. In comparison with other, similar investigations, like the Clinton-era Whitewater case, the first charges here come unusually soon. While Mueller, a respected former FBI director himself, has tended to shun politics, and his team has been unusually leak-resistant, bringing charges now could serve the purpose of justifying his investigation by showing results.
The president’s reaction to the charges is another X factor. At times in the past, Trump and his allies have issued threats to the Mueller team through the press, attempting to restrict the scope of the investigation by suggesting that Trump might fire Mueller. Sunday morning, Trump tweeted, “All of this ‘Russia’ talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!”
Although Trump has been less eager to defend Manafort than some other former aides swept up in the investigation—former Press Secretary Sean Spicer once claimed that Manafort “played a very limited role” on the campaign—the president could still attempt to force Mueller out. That would threaten a reprise of the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, in which President Richard Nixon, seeking to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, saw his attorney general and deputy attorney general resign. Solicitor General Robert Bork did fire the prosecutor, but the incident ultimately hastened the end of Nixon’s presidency.