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The Globe and Mail

Forget North Korea, the Mueller probe is Trump’s explosive threat

While the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump were grabbing all the headlines with their nuclear threats this week, a greater threat to Mr. Trump was gaining momentum.

The probe by Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading the investigation into Russian collusion in last year's U.S. election, is closing in on all the president's men.

Reports this week, based on leaks, suggest that Mr. Mueller has expanded his probe to 13 areas of investigation, that he's targeted at least 12 associates of Donald Trump, that an indictment of one key player, Paul Manafort, who served as Donald Trump's campaign manager, is expected soon.

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Mr. Mueller has assembled a murderer's row of big-name prosecutors to probe the matter and continues to add to it. The team includes specialists on money laundering, criminal fraud, public corruption. It now includes James Quarles, a veteran of the Watergate prosecution team.

Mr. Mueller, the former FBI director, would not have expanded the inquiry to the degree he has without good reason. He appears to have found evidence of subterfuge, whether it be Trump officials abetting Russian interference in the campaign, or obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump, or his involvement in shady real-estate dealings with Russian underground figures.

Mr. Trump has been strangely quiet the last few weeks about the Mueller probe. Don't expect that to last for long. Things are getting too hot.

Among the highlights of what was reported:

  • E-mails from Mr. Manafort shortly before Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination offering private political briefings to Oleg Deripaska, a Kremlin-linked Russian billionaire. Revelations that the FBI won court permission to surveil Mr. Manafort beginning in 2014 and extending into this year. News that Mr. Mueller’s team has told Mr. Manafort he should expect to be indicted.
  • Mr. Trump’s lawyers advised the President as recently as June that Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, be cut loose from the White House because his Russian connections could present serious problems.
  • That there are no less than 13 areas of special interest by the Mueller team on which it has asked the White House for information. Of particular interest is Mr. Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and a subsequent meeting at which Mr. Trump reportedly called Mr. Comey a “nut job” and revealed classified information to Russians in attendance. Bad news for Mr. Trump is that obstruction of justice is becoming an increasingly intense focus of the Mueller investigation.
  • There is open feuding among the President’s legal team over what to disclose to the probe. The turmoil spilled over into a Washington steakhouse, with a conversation between lawyers overheard by a New York Times reporter. One dispute that the reporter’s story revealed involved documents locked in a safe in one Trump attorney’s office which another attorney wanted access to. The Mueller probe will undoubtedly want access to those locked-up documents as well.
  • Another disclosure suggested Mr. Mueller has obtained information about $100,000 (U.S.) in Facebook ads seemingly placed by Russian agents. On Thursday, Facebook said it was turning over more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to Mr. Mueller and congressional committees probing the Kremlin’s influence in the election.

Of the Mueller probe, Mr. Trump said in June, "You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!" In a recent interview on 60 Minutes, his former senior adviser Steve Bannon said Mr. Trump's decision to fire Mr. Comey was the worst mistake in modern political history because it is what triggered the Mueller investigation.

The growing breadth of the Mueller probe has increased speculation that Mr. Trump will go so far as to try and terminate it, arguing that Mr. Mueller is biased and is exceeding his mandate.

Such a move could prompt an upheaval in Washington not seen since Watergate times. It would be an enormous risk for Mr. Trump to take. But with the Mueller investigation advancing on so many fronts, don't count it out. He may conclude that he has no other choice.

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