|TOM BRENNER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES|
Looking back two and a half years, it is befuddling that the outlines of what became known as the Russia scandal were not obvious early on. Befuddling, but not surprising.
This is because of the arc big scandals take, be they the Teapot Dome, Watergate or Iran-Contra. What begins as whispers in smoke-filled rooms and vague newspaper stories germinates into a few hard facts and then official investigations accompanied by denials and a frantic cover-up by the perpetrators.
Oh, and bombshell revelations such as those revealed on Friday in court documents that should have disabused anyone skeptical of whether there is in fact a Russia scandal.
The documents pertained to Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer and fixer, and revealed Trump himself to be a felon twice over in the view of his own Justice Department, and to Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign adviser, who was revealed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to be a duplicitous liar who has remained in close touch with his pals at the Trump White House through a backchannel although he was under indictment and then in prison.
As we slouch toward the new year and do the usual stock taking yada-yada, three rather extraordinary things put the Russia scandal in context, as well as a league of its very own:* Its enormity.
By comparison, Richard Nixon's description of Watergate as a "third-rate burglary" was accurate. The scope of the Russia scandal is so enormous that there is only one comparable in American history -- the Soviet theft of atomic bomb secrets in the late 1940s.
The Russia scandal's sheer size, and we're talking about much more than simply interference and meddling in the 2016 presidential election, boggled even the most astute minds until Mueller and media heavyweights like The New York Times and The Washington Post began figuring out where the bodies were buried.
* Its characters.
There are so many characters that figuring out who and what is important in the Russia scandal is difficult. Add to that the fact there is some truth to the rejoinder in Trump's defense that his campaign advisers were so naive and dumb that they couldn't have colluded with Russia.
Indeed, some characters were incredibly dumb, their efforts to collude went nowhere and occasionally were comic, if anyone should feel like laughing. Other characters like Donald Trump Jr., Carter Page and George Papadopoulos were dumb, but they succeeded to varying degrees in the goal of electing Trump with Russian help.
* Its flukiness.
Vladimir Putin, for the most part, was not giving orders to the campaign, and his success to a great extent rested on factors well outside his control. For openers, he could not have scripted so perfect, greedy and blackmailable a patsy as Trump to get the Republican nomination.
Two other factors that Putin couldn't have scripted underlie the Russia scandal: GOP resistance to the idea Russia was meddling, which gave him breathing room through the summer and fall of 2016 and made his cyberespionage of the patsy's heavily-favored opponent -- longtime right-wing whipping girl Hillary Clinton -- that much easier.
Now that we've figured out all of that, plotting where Mueller goes from here becomes fairly easy. This is because Mueller was well ahead of the curve in knowing the lay of the Russia scandal forest, determining which trees were important and working from the smaller outlying trees toward the big trees at the center.
This shrewdness, which sometimes has involved his prosecutors simply following the money as in the Trump Tower Moscow deal, has helped him to fashion a long game in which he has never showed his hand until he has had good reason to do so, although we can expect a big round of indictments, perhaps as early as next week, possibly including Donald Jr. and Jared Kushner. About Ivanka I'm not so sure.
This long game has been absolutely brilliant when you considered the forces arrayed against Mueller.
These include an impatient public, short-attention-span news media, those Vichy Republicans in Congress, an assortment of world-class liars and plethora of lowlifes adept at kissing up and punching down, the occasional high-powered defense attorney (although most certainly not Rudy the Clown), and most importantly, the president himself with the immense power and protections conferred on his sorry-assed self and the office itself at his disposal.
Nevertheless, 2019 is shaping up to be the worst year of Donald Trump's life except for all the years that will follow it.
It matters less whether Mueller gambles that an indictment of a sitting president will hold up in court, whether his final report will see the light of day or when House Democrats initiate impeachment proceedings and how far that gets. Or that the aforementioned indictment of Trump family members precipitates a meltdown and invocation of the 25th Amendment.
Maximum Bob understood the full contours of the Russia scandal long before most of us did. But now that those contours, minus a few missing puzzle pieces (did Cohen go to Prague?), are well known and Trump's criminality as felon, witness tamperer and obstructer of justice is beyond question, how and when he goes away may be less important.
This is because, one way or another, Trump is not merely disgraced. He's toast.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.