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The real target of special counsel Robert Mueller lives in the Kremlin, not the White House.

That presents some challenges. For instance, how much pressure can you apply to someone to crack and talk when he could get a dose of polonium-210 in his coffee if he does?

Now that is the type of question usually asked from beneath a tin foil hat. In this case, though, it is fair.

Mueller is in charge of looking into Russian government interference in our 2016 election. The grand jury he leads indicted Paul Manafort, a campaign adviser then chairman for Donald Trump, the successful candidate.

Manafort and his partner are charged with laundering $18 million of $75 million they earned overseas since 2005, all to avoid taxes. The $18 million came from pro-Russian Ukrainian clients, with payments still coming in as late as this year.

Polonium-210 was the poison that killed Alexander Litvinenko. There are many other, more recent examples of the dangers of delving into shady dealings from Russia under Vladimir Putin. The shooting of Boris Nemtsov on Feb. 27, 2015, is an especially good example. Those other killings were done in much more conventional ways, though. Litvinenko's murder still sets the bar for both brazenness and cruelty.

Litvinenko was an effective Putin critic and alumnus of the KGB. Putin is another KGB fellow and now the president of Russia. Putin was Litvinenko's boss in the successor organization to the KGB, where Litvinenko worked. Litvinenko blew the whistle on corruption there -- a lot. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and left Russia in 2000 after his acquittal. Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006 while investigating shady Russian business dealings in Spain and the death of a Russian journalist.

Highly radioactive polonium-210 has a half-life of less than five months. This rapid decay makes it very rare in nature but it can be manufactured. It is lethal even in minute amounts. This poison was slipped into Litvinenko's tea at a London hotel, Scotland Yard concluded. He died an slow, agonizing and unpreventable death that was indisputably murder. Putin's government refused to extradite the two men the British authorities wanted to arrest.

Putin is not some villain out of a James Bond movie, although he suits the role. He is a tough hombre, though. He is a politically astute KGB man who rose to the top. He answers to no higher authority. No cautious politicians tell him no, that maybe it is not a good idea long-term to overtly intervene in U.S. domestic affairs. Of course, no cautious politician would have believed his interference could be so wildly successful.

Trump accepted Manafort as an advisor to the campaign in March 2016. By June Manafort was campaign manager. Knowingly or not, Trump brought in an associate of dangerous people. Manafort represented Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych openly for a decade before that day. Right now, Yanukovych is being tried in absentia for treason in the Ukraine after he fled to Russia.

Manafort's hiring by this pro-Putin regime was no secret, but the laundered money was. Manafort was still getting paid by Yanukovych's political party when he offered his services to then-candidate Donald Trump -- free of charge.

Manafort has spent $934,350 at an antique rug dealer in less than two years. He once told a congressional committee that he did not accept clients until they pay him a $200,000 retainer. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that Paul Manafort is not a man driven by a sense of volunteerism.

The most charitable assumption possible about these circumstances is that Trump did not look Manafort's gift horse in the mouth. He should have. But Trump was facing a possible floor fight at the GOP convention from the "Never Trump" folks. Manafort was a rare bird with relevant experience. He helped then-president Gerald Ford squelch exactly the same kind of fight in 1976.

It was all too good to be true. Things too good to be true usually are.

Picture the most evil thing either Trump or his 2016 election opponent, Hillary Clinton, was ever accused of, however bizarre. Well, enemies of Putin and his cronies really do wind up dead. Putin and his cabal really do rob their country blind while wrapping themselves in Russian patriotism, stomping on dissent and threatening others.

That is who Mueller is up against.

Commentary on 11/04/2017

Print Headline: Mueller's true target

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