Contact is not collusion. That was the line on the lips of U.S. President Donald Trump's defenders on Monday. While charges against two former senior campaign officials as well as a guilty plea of lying to federal agents by lesser players rocked the capital, they tried to say it was much ado about very little.
Good luck with that. This was a damning day for the Trump administration. It still has some ground to stand on. After a long period of investigation, there is still no clear proof that Trump officials engaged with the Russians in an act of subterfuge to affect the 2016 election.
But the idea that it's all fake news or a witch hunt, as Mr. Trump has claimed, took a good thrashing. Special counsel Robert Mueller demonstrated that he is building a case, that he is hot on the trail. The revelation that foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who made the guilty plea, is co-operating with the FBI, sharing e-mails between himself and Russians and Trump officials, is potentially devastating. The e-mails show collusion was considered. They may contain information from White House staff members that could incriminate them, if not the President himself.
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote off Mr. Papadopoulos as a bit player whose advice on ways to get dirt on presidential rival Hillary Clinton was ignored. As for charges of money laundering and tax evasion against Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, Mr. Trump tweeted it all predated their work on the campaign, even though the timeline cited in the indictments extended into 2017.
Mr. Papadopouls is squealing. To get more lenient treatment, so might Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates, who have both pleaded not guilty.
The Manafort charges were not unexpected, but the Papadopoulos revelations came as a shocker. His e-mails showed him to be in contact with his "good friend," a professor who had close ties to the Kremlin, and a woman he called Mr. Putin's niece. The professor told Mr. Papadopoulos the Russians had damaging information on Ms. Clinton: "They have dirt on her. They have thousands of e-mails." Mr. Papadopoulos's e-mails reveal he spoke to a Trump campaign supervisor, whom he did not identify, who said he would "work it through the campaign" and told Mr. Papadopoulos he was doing "great work."
Mr. Papadopoulos lied to the FBI. Why did he do that? Did his White House supervisor instruct him to do so? He was clearly not the only Trump campaigner interested in getting the goods on Ms. Clinton from Moscow. Recall that in June, 2016, a meeting brought together Mr. Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and a Kremlin emissary who promised incriminating information on her.
"Crooked Hillary" was another line of defence put out by the Trumpites. And they had some evidence to support the claim. Ms. Huckabee Sanders pointed to revelations last week that the Clinton campaign paid for research that was later found to include a salacious document made public by Buzzfeed about Mr. Trump's Russian connections and which, the White House says, is nonsense. Tony Podesta, brother of John Podesta, Ms. Clinton's 2016 campaign manager, announced on Monday he is stepping down from the Podesta lobbying firm. He worked with Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates on behalf of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian government.
That the Democrats' hands are soiled may help the Trump cause. But the news is crippling for the Republicans. In recent weeks, hopes had arisen over suggestions the Mueller investigation was getting nowhere, that it was indeed a witch hunt. But it now looks like new avenues are just opening, that the trail has many branches, that the pursuit could last long into the Trump presidency.
The new big shoe to drop could involve Mr. Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn who, like Mr. Manafort, was knee deep in controversial contacts with the Russians.
Mr. Manafort's work in Ukraine on behalf of the pro-Putin forces was of no bother to Mr. Trump when he tried him as his campaign manager in the spring of 2016. It has been a mystery since Mr. Trump began his campaign why he has rarely had a critical word to say about Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Mueller's revelations make it more likely we will one day find out.