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For President Donald Trump the fake news just got very real – and dangerous.
By charging three Trump 2016 campaign operatives with crimes, special counsel Robert Mueller just took the Trump-Russia investigation from the realm of speculation and debate and moved it into sworn testimony and court proceedings. One has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with investigators; the other two, former campaign chief Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, now have an enormous incentive to cooperate in a bid for leniency.
Trump reacted on Twitter by noting that the tax fraud charges against Manafort stem from events "years ago before he joined the Trump campaign." The president reiterated his frequent claim that there was "NO COLLUSION" with Russia in the 2016 campaign.
But the third defendant Mueller named Monday renders that claim increasingly tinny.
George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about conversations with an unnamed "professor" connected to the Russian government. The conversations, Mueller's court filing says, concerned "thousands of emails" promising "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.
That now makes two acknowledged attempts by the Trump campaign to obtain damaging material about Clinton from representatives of Vladimir Putin's government. The other was a June 2016 meeting arranged by the president's son Donald Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Manafort.
Until now, the conclusion by U.S. intelligence officials that Russia intervened in the campaign to help Trump win has remained abstract for American voters. The new details, unsealed Monday, made more concrete by Papadopoulos' guilty plea, threaten to further undermine Trump's historically weak political standing for a first-year president.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that just 38 percent of Americans approve the president's job performance — his lowest mark of the year. A 58 percent majority disapproves.
More significantly, he has suffered erosion among segments of the electorate important to both Trump and Republicans who will face voters in 2018 midterm elections. His approval among independents has fallen to 34 percent, and among whites to 47 percent.
Among whites without college degrees, the core support group that gave him 66 percent of their votes last November, his approval has dropped to 51 percent. White college graduates – a group Trump narrowly carried in 2016 – disapprove rather than approve the president's performance by 54 percent to 42 percent.
Already, those better-educated white voters divide evenly on which party they want to control Congress next year. Overall, Americans by 48 percent to 41 percent say they want Democrats to win back the House. Republican lawmakers have openly warned that a Democratic House in 2019 would set out to impeach Trump.
Additional developments in Mueller's investigation promise to further soften the ground beneath the president and his party. The special counsel's targets include former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired earlier this year for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his own conversations with a Russian diplomat.
Mueller's investigators, as they probe potential obstruction of justice, have also questioned former top White House aides including Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer. They worked for the president when he fired FBI Director James Comey, then leading the Russia investigation, earlier this year.
Monday's news comes at a particularly damaging moment for the president's legislative agenda. Congressional Republicans aim on Wednesday to roll out details of their tax cut plan, which they now call a must-win fight after the earlier failure to repeal and replace Obamacare.
On Twitter, Trump suggested that Mueller timed the developments specifically for the purpose of stopping tax legislation. But on that point, as on his core assertions about Russia, the charges leave the president's battered credibility only weaker.