At Year’s End, What We Know About Mueller’s Probe of Trump and Russia
Fred Lucas /
As the second year of investigations of President Donald Trump wraps up, he and his lawyers probably won’t be able to take a breather in 2019, when the Democrats’ new House majority creates a third track of probes.
Legal experts agree that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian election meddling won’t conclude by year’s end, as many had projected.
Federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York, acting separately from Mueller, could seek to expand their investigation of campaign finance violations. And the incoming Democratic majority in the House reportedly is poised to fire off 85 subpoenas against the Trump administration.
“Mueller is not on anyone else’s schedule,” Andrew McCarthy, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney, told The Daily Signal. “The fact that wrapping it up would be better for Trump or even better for Congress isn’t a concern for him. … The Southern District of New York will continue on its own.”
Ahead for Congress
The prosecution of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, revealed that the Trump Organization (the president’s business entity, not to be confused with the Trump campaign) negotiated with Russian officials over building a skyscraper in Moscow.
The timeline for the negotiations overlapped with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
While this may not prove anything legally, it’s a political point for Democrats in Congress to make.
“Mueller is limited to investigating crime and intelligence matters,” McCarthy said. “Democrats will not have such a limit, and can be political.”
Another entity almost certain to come under congressional scrutiny is the Trump Foundation, a charity that the Trump family dissolved Tuesday after a lawsuit by the New York attorney general’s office alleged the nonprofit helped Trump’s campaign for president.
A pair of reports released this week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence delivered official findings to confirm some of Mueller’s narrative about Russian election meddling, but with a key missing ingredient: the Trump campaign.
The Senate intelligence panel’s two reports focus on a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency. Established in 2013, the company has trolled social media and spread false information via Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.
The investigations concluded that Russians were involved in practically every social network platform in the United States.
The committee commissioned the two private reports.
One, “The IRS and Political Polarization in the United States,” came from cybersecurity firm New Knowledge. It states that along with a sustained social media campaign, the Internet Research Agency tried to hack online voting systems and steal Democrats’ emails.
The other report, “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” is by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and the social media research firm Graphika. It states that the same Russian company targeted every aspect of social media, beyond Facebook and Twitter and delving into Pinterest and other platforms.
Mueller already had secured indictments of more than two dozen Russian individuals and entities. The indictments outlined how Moscow hacked Democrats’ emails and promoted misinformation on social media consumed by Americans.
As of yet, no smoking gun has emerged to link these Russian efforts to Trump or his campaign for president. Still, the bipartisan Senate reports and other information will provide fodder for Democrat-led committees in the House.
Mueller Momentum From ‘Political Synergy’
An unexpected development in the Mueller investigation occurred Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan postponed sentencing for former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had admitted to lying to the FBI and the Trump administration about his communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump was inaugurated and Flynn was in the job.
“Arguably,” Sullivan told Flynn, “you sold your country out.”
Mueller had recommended that Flynn not do any prison time.
While this was a dramatic courtroom scene, McCarthy said he doesn’t anticipate it having any impact on the Mueller probe. Mueller wouldn’t have agreed to recommend no time behind bars for Flynn if the retired Army general could have provided more assistance to prosecutors, he said.
Although few dispute Russian mischief with the U.S. electoral process in 2016, as of this publication date Mueller hasn’t produced evidence in public that the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to advance his victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
However, court documents say the negotiations between Trump’s development company and Russian officials about constructing a Trump Tower in Moscow ran well into the presidential campaign season and overlapped instances of Russian government meddling in the 2016 election.
This overlap created a template for more questions going into the next year.
The “road map” is in place for connecting Trump’s business dealings in Moscow with Russia’s campaign meddling, said Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor now in private practice.
“My guess is that Mueller has a case for conspiracy,” Akerman told The Daily Signal, referring to a connection between the Russians and the Trump campaign.
Mueller’s Dec. 7 sentencing memo about Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, presents a case for the overlapping developments.
“In or around November 2015, Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who could offer the [Trump] campaign ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level,’” Mueller’s sentencing memo says.
“Political synergy” between the Trump Organization and Russia may sound similar to the word “collusion” that Trump critics bandy about.
But legal experts say there’s no clear game-changer yet—even though the recent court filings seem to provide more meat from the special counsel’s lingering probe.
Also this month, Muller accused Trump’s short-term campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of violating a plea agreement.
In August, Manafort was convicted on charges of committing financial crimes not directly related to the Trump campaign. Manafort became a key figure in alleged ties with Russia because of his lobbying work for pro-Kremlin interests in Ukraine.
Cohen’s cooperation could establish a stronger case for the special counsel, Akerman said.
The Russian side of the conspiracy to hack the Democratic National Committee and spread misinformation on social media is clear from indictments, he said.
“We still have to fill in the pieces regarding the American part of the conspiracy,” Akerman said, noting various questions about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between key Trump aides and a Russian lawyer.
Akerman added: “The question is about admissible evidence.”
Overlap between the Moscow skyscraper negotiations and Russian campaign meddling is far from a smoking gun, said lawyer and historian David O. Stewart, who was a defense lawyer during the House impeachment and Senate trial of U.S. District Judge Walter Nixon of the Southern District of Mississippi.
“It’s like you’re sitting at a bar and someone comes to you asking you to buy drugs. If you talk to him about it for a while, and then not buy any and go home, you haven’t broken any laws. You talked, but didn’t buy,” Stewart, author of “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy,” told The Daily Signal.
From what is known publicly, the Russia case still needs building, said Richard Serafini, a former trial lawyer in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. Serafini worked there for Mueller when the special counsel was an assistant attorney general.
“The Russia investigation is trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle,” Serafini told The Daily Signal. “What has been released so far raises further questions. What I’ve seen is there isn’t enough about a relationship between the campaign and Russia for a conspiracy indictment.”
Federal Prosecutors in New York
Cohen told federal prosecutors that Trump ordered him to pay hush money to two women who say they had sexual relationships with Trump before he was a presidential candidate, the goal being to protect his White House bid.
Prosecutors alleged that this constituted a campaign finance violation.
Cohen paid $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. She has said she had a one-night stand with Trump in 2006, which he has denied.
American Media Inc., parent company of the tabloid National Enquirer, paid Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for her story of an affair with Trump, which he has denied.
David Pecker, a friend of Trump’s, is chairman and CEO of American Media and publisher of the Enquirer. Pecker has an immunity deal with federal prosecutors in New York.
Those prosecutors referred to Cohen’s cooperation as “overstated” and “incomplete,” Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow with The Heritage Foundation, wrote in a Fox News op-ed.
“Another interesting note in the sentencing recommendation is a statement by the Justice Department that indicates that Cohen greatly exaggerated his access to Trump,” von Spakovsky wrote. “The department says that Cohen ‘secured a substantial amount of consulting business for himself’ by claiming he had ‘unique insights and access to Individual-1,’ referring to Trump.”
Von Spakovsky added:
Yet it cannot be emphasized enough that once again, as with prior documents filed by the Justice Department and the special counsel dealing with other defendants, there is no information in Cohen’s sentencing memorandum about the issue of possible Trump-Russia election collusion.
In December 2017, 58 House Democrats voted to bring an impeachment resolution to the floor for a vote. Many Democrats have continued to insist on impeaching Trump.
Reps. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., and Al Green, D-Texas, sponsored the impeachment resolution. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has functioned as the chief national spokeswoman for the movement to “Impeach 45.”
Some grounds for impeachment could be the supposed “political synergy” between Trump and the Russian government, and the alleged conspiracy to break campaign finance laws by paying hush money to the two women.
But Stewart, a lawyer, historian, and impeachment expert, contends that this falls short of a compelling case—at least so far.
“‘Political synergy’ could mean forming an alliance with countries. Presidents and candidates may legally do that,” Stewart said. “If an impeachment is done over a hotel that wasn’t built in Moscow, that doesn’t feel like a go.”
Stewart and other legal experts see the most clear-cut allegations against the president pertain to the payments to Daniels and McDougal, allegedly in violation of federal campaign finance laws.
“Forgive me, but it feels like it’s about sex,” Stewart said, drawing a parallel to the 1998 impeachment case against President Bill Clinton. That case alleged perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with Clinton’s covering up an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“When House members launch an impeachment and say it’s not about sex, it’s about sex. We are talking about decapitating the executive branch,” Stewart said.
In the end, impeachment may be only a talking point, said McCarthy, the former federal prosecutor and author of “Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.”
“The goal, while House Democrats may talk about impeachment, will be to push as much negative information out that Trump will be unelectable in 2020,” McCarthy said.
Understanding the Russian Timeline
Here’s a look at known events in the Russia case, showing the overlapping of Russian meddling in the presidential campaign with negotiations over construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow.
In October 2015, Donald Trump—then officially seeking the Republican presidential nomination—signs a letter of intent on behalf of his business with a Russian investor, with the goal of building the skyscraper in Moscow.
Within four months, in January 2016, Michael Cohen—acting as Trump’s personal lawyer—speaks to an assistant to Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to Russian President Vladimir Putin, about the proposed tower.
Here’s what happened next in 2016, according to court filings and news accounts:
April 26: George Papadopoulos, an unpaid member of a Trump campaign foreign policy advisory panel, meets in London with a professor with ties to Russian government officials.
Also in April: Russian hackers obtain emails from the Democratic National Committee that subsequently are published by an online avatar known as Guccifer 2.0, according to an indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller.
May 6: Cohen agrees to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, the next month to meet with Putin or Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to talk about Trump Tower Moscow.
June 9: Three key Trump aides—Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort—meet at Trump Tower in New York with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. (Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March and became campaign chairman in May.)
Before the meeting, Veselnitskaya promises to supply “very high-level and sensitive information” on Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. later says the lawyer actually wanted to talk about an adoption law.
June 14: Cohen ditches a plan to travel to Russia to meet with government officials, ending negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow in the midst of the presidential campaign, according to Mueller’s sentencing memo for Cohen.
July 18-21: During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the Trump campaign continues to be headed by Manafort when campaign aides remove language from a draft party platform that is critical of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
July 22: WikiLeaks posts thousands of stolen Democratic National Committee emails, largely exposing how Democrats seemed to tip the scale during the primary in favor of Clinton over her main opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Aug. 19: Manafort resigns as Trump’s campaign chairman after revelations in The New York Times that he secretly was paid $12.7 million by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party between 2007 and 2012.
Besides working for Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president from 2010 until he was removed from power in 2014, Manafort worked for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, also an ally of Putin’s.
Aug. 21: Trump adviser Roger Stone, also alleged to have ties to Russia, tweets regarding Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta: “It will soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” This tweet later prompts suspicion that Stone had insight into the forthcoming WikiLeaks dump of Podesta emails.
Oct. 7: WikiLeaks releases the hacked Podesta emails to the public.
Nov. 8: Trump defeats Clinton in the election.
In December 2016, Trump’s incoming national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, talks by phone with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
Jan. 20: Trump assumes office.
Feb. 13: Flynn resigns as national security adviser over how he has characterized the interaction with Kislyak.
May 17: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appoints Mueller, a former FBI director, to investigate Russian interference in the election and whether the Trump campaign cooperated in such meddling.
Months into investigations of Russia’s meddling by Mueller and several congressional committees, Cohen tells the Senate Intelligence Committee that negotiations to reach a deal with Russia to build a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, the month before the Iowa caucuses.
Oct. 30: George Papadopoulos, a volunteer on the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team, pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with a professor in London who allegedly had Russian ties.
Dec. 1: Flynn, who served less than a month as national security adviser, pleads guilty in the Mueller probe to lying to the FBI about his discussions with Kislyak. Flynn later says he was coerced, and Mueller doesn’t recommend jail time.
Feb. 16: Mueller announces indictments of 13 Russians, as well as Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a company involved in trolling social media and pushing out false information along Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.
The special counsel calls the company a front group to spread disinformation about the U.S. presidential campaign. The indictment says the Russian effort began in 2014.
That same day, a California man identified as Richard Pinedo pleads guilty to identity fraud in connection with the sale of bank account numbers to Russians involved in the social media accounts.
Feb. 23: Rick Gates, former deputy chairman of the Trump campaign and longtime Manafort protege, pleads guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators.
July 13: Mueller secures indictments against 12 Russian military intelligence officials for hacking into the Democratic National Committee and releasing emails.
Aug. 21: A federal jury in Alexandria, Virginia, convicts Manafort of eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud.
That same day, Cohen pleads guilty in the Southern District of New York to four felonies in connection with what prosecutors say are instances of tax fraud and campaign finance violations.
The latter charges are related to helping Trump to pay porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) and former Playboy model Karen McDougal for their silence on sexual relationships they said they had with Trump years before. Trump denies the affairs.
Sept. 14: Manafort pleads guilty to more charges brought by the Mueller team and enters into a “cooperation agreement.” Mueller later backs out of the agreement, asserting that Manafort lied.
Nov. 20: Trump’s lawyers submit the president’s written answers to questions from the Mueller team.
Nov. 29: Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Congress the previous year, when he said negotiations over the Trump Tower project in Moscow ended in January 2016. He says talks actually ended in June 2016.
Dec. 12: A judge sentences Cohen to three years in prison.