The screws are tightening.
After nearly a year of legal work, a jury trial, eight guilty verdicts and vehement opposition from the president of the United States, special counsel Robert Mueller has unlocked what he sees as the "key" to a potential conspiracy case against President Donald Trump, legal experts said.
The president's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was convicted last month on a range of felony charges by a jury in Virginia, has agreed to cooperate with investigators examining possible links between the president's 2016 campaign and the Kremlin ahead of a planned trial in D.C. on a host of other charges.
Sol Wisenberg, the deputy to Kenneth Starr during the 1990s Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton, said that in the previous pleas that Mueller has obtained from top Trump associates, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn, there were few grounds on which to base a conspiracy case. With Manafort's cooperation, he said, that could change.
"Mueller sees Manafort as a key in that regard, or a final key," Wisenberg said.
To be sure, Mueller has not charged the president with any crime, and legal experts have raised doubts that a president can be prosecuted while in office. The White House said Friday that the Manafort agreement was "totally unrelated" to the president and his campaign.
"Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign," Trump's attorney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a statement. "The reason: the President did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth."
Moments later, however, Jay Sekulow, another member of the president's legal team, issued what he called a "corrected" statement – which omitted the words "and Paul Manafort will tell the truth."
Wisenberg said that, with Manafort's cooperation, that claim the case has nothing to do with Trump or his campaign will be tested.
"We will see what he has," Wisenberg said.