The real reason Robert Mueller is now putting all his focus into Donald Trump’s pal Roger Stone

Paul Manafort is finished. He’s two weeks away from being convicted on several felonies, which will ensure that he spends the rest of his natural life in prison no matter how things might go in his second and more complicated trial this fall. Manafort seems intent on never flipping, which means he’ll end up having been remembered as a mere pawn in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s game. It’s time to focus on Mueller’s real target at the moment: Roger Stone.

Donald Trump’s oldest friend Roger Stone is such a cartoonish stooge, it’s tempting to think of him as nothing more than a sideshow when it comes to the Trump-Russia scandal. But consider that even as Robert Mueller’s underlings have been leading the trial against Manafort this month, Mueller has been putting all his focus into indicting Stone. We’ve lost count of how many Stone associates have been hauled before Mueller’s grand jury of late, making clear that Stone is the target these days. But it’s not just about indicting and arresting him.

When Robert Mueller arrests Stone, it’ll be the first time Mueller busts a member of the Donald Trump campaign for conspiring with the Russians to try to alter the outcome of the election. That’ll get Mueller to “yes collusion” in the court of public opinion. It’ll suck every last bit of what little air is left in Donald Trump’s argument that Mueller’s probe isn’t actually Trump-Russia election collusion. It’ll also allow Mueller to take down WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, throwing open all kinds of doors for busting open the entire Trump-Russia conspiracy.

But while Paul Manafort himself has become little more than a pawn, his trial is in fact crucial. There isn’t much doubt about the verdict; Robert Mueller isolated the quickest-to-prove charges into the first Manafort trial in order to get a conviction as quickly as possible. The minute Mueller has his first conviction, he’ll have a platform for making any aggressive moves he wants. Based on his grand jury work, it’s clear that the big post-Manafort move will be Stone.

For whatever reasons, Robert Mueller has decided that the most efficient way to get to Donald Trump isn’t to go through Michael Cohen, or Jared Kushner, or some other Trump campaign adviser, but to go through Roger Stone. Maybe Mueller expects Stone to selfishly cut a plea deal against Trump, or maybe Mueller is just banking on the fact that Stone knows forty years’ worth of Trump’s personal secrets. We’ll soon find out. But the minute Manafort is convicted, it’ll be Roger Stone’s proverbial time in the barrel.

Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report