President Donald Trump has not hesitated to castigate the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller. So when presented with the combination of Mr. Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians for interference in American politics and the 17 deaths in a Florida school shooting, Mr. Trump attacked the FBI for spending "too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign" rather than following up disturbing reports about the school shooter.
This remarkable conflation of two unrelated events – one tragic, the other political – came as the greater significance of the indictment that a Washington grand jury handed down became clear: Last week's actions by Mr. Mueller may be only the beginning of the investigations into the activities and ties of Mr. Trump and his campaign associates. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Sunday that he believed that "there are other shoes to drop here besides this indictment," suggesting on CNN that Mr. Mueller may examine financial activities of the Trump organization.
Indeed, with these indictments, Mr. Mueller almost certainly has signalled that his investigation has only just started – and those signals came amid ominous warnings that the Russians, persistent and largely operating beyond the reach of American justice, will try again to influence the U.S. political system.
Far from ending the threat to the Trump camp or to the integrity of this autumn's midterm congressional elections, Mr. Mueller's actions have provided oxygen for his investigation. They have forced a more aggressive set of congressional probes, assured his own job security and – especially ironic given the explicit disclaimer that Trump campaign officials were not implicated in this first set of findings – given the special counsel and his team of investigators even broader licence to examine the activities of the campaign and administration.
All that as the latest developments put immense fresh pressure on Mr. Trump to deal, through diplomacy or economic sanctions, with Russian interference. He'll also be called upon to take action to ensure the November elections that will determine whether the Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress will be fair and free of outside influence.
The President's response over the weekend was a curious alchemy of relief and recrimination. Nowhere was Russia the target of his anger. Instead, the President argued that the astonishing 37-page indictment released late last week exonerated him even as he struck out at two of his favourite targets, Barack Obama (because the Russian interference began in 2014, when the 44th president was still in the White House) and the FBI (his tweet: "Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable.").
By embracing the findings of the Mueller investigations, the President has made it far more difficult for him to dismiss the special counsel. That would have been politically risky in any case; the optics of firing a respected former FBI chief for investigating the President were formidable enough. But this indictment transformed Mr. Mueller from an investigator into a prosecutor – and substantially heightened the risks involved in dismissing him.
At the same time, the Democrats' role and options have been reshaped significantly.
Their fervent belief that Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election undercut the fortunes of Hillary Clinton has been undermined; the first trumpet blast from Mr. Mueller makes clear that the outcome of the election was not affected. Yet, they still harbour hopes that if the election was not illegitimate, Mr. Trump's presidency still is – a nuanced argument built on the notion that the President, his family, or his campaign associates colluded with Russia in violation of standard American campaign practice and perhaps of American law.
The clear evidence that Russia intervened in the 2016 election will make it imperative that congressional investigations into the episode continue – and increase the media attention that those proceedings produce.
Meanwhile, the Mueller inquiry will continue at its own pace – the investigation into Bill Clinton's activities began in 1994 and the final Senate vote on the matter did not come until 1999 – and the Trump White House will continue to be on the defensive.
The indictment frees Mr. Mueller, if he is inclined to do so, to do what Ken Starr did in the Clinton affair: to widen his inquiry and to follow strings of accusations and evidence. Both the Richard Nixon impeachment effort (1974) and the Clinton impeachment (1998, months before the Senate trial) began with significant but small investigations that led to broader but far more damaging inquiries.
Moreover, there almost certainly will be important Capitol Hill hearings on Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, Russia's plans for the midterm congressional elections this year, and the 2020 election. These surely will be followed by demands for action beyond the indictment, which likely will have no practical legal effect because the alleged criminals are beyond the reach of American law and will not be extradited to the United States.
Mr. Trump has been reluctant in recent days to criticize the Russians and in truth has very few tools to bring to bear against Russia. But his Republican allies on Capitol Hill will demand action and his Democratic foes will join the cries. The result may be the rare moment of bipartisanship that the American people have yearned for in an era of political chaos amplified by the unwanted involvement of a country that doesn't share American political practices or values.