Special counsel Robert Mueller had spent nine months on the job with little evidence that he was focusing on his original mandate: to investigate Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.
On Friday, a stunning new court document from Mueller changed that.
Mueller’s detailed indictment against 13 Russian nationals and a trio of Russian entities for illegal election activities, largely favoring then-candidate Donald Trump, sent a powerful signal that his team of prosecutors and FBI agents never took their eye off their initial directive of uncovering Russia’s fingerprints on the election — even as outsiders had shifted their focus to the second-order question of whether President Trump might have tried to obstruct justice.
The May 17 order from deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appointing Mueller as special counsel to lead the FBI’s Russia probe called the move part of the Justice Department’s effort “to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
And that was the core question Mueller returned to Friday, with an indictment that detailed a Russian “information warfare” operation that sowed dissent and confusion among American voters to the benefit of Trump and the detriment of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“What’s described in this indictment is the heart of the matter,” said William Jeffress, a Washington-based white-collar attorney who represented Richard Nixon after he left the White House.
Trump and his attorneys signaled in the hours after the indictment’s release that they were vindicated by where it stopped. “Very happy,” the president’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, told POLITICO. Trump himself celebrated on Twitter, saying that Mueller’s showed that his campaign “did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
But veterans of criminal investigations said the president’s celebration may be premature.
While the indictment says three Trump campaign officials may have played “unwitting” roles in the specific Russian election interference it describes, the document draws no broader conclusions about any potential Trump campaign ties to the Kremlin — which has been alleged to take many different forms beyond the focus of Friday’s charges.
And they noted that Mueller’s latest move appears to establish the critical basis to charge American co-conspirators in the Russian election effort. Before Friday, it was unclear what crimes any U.S. persons might have been aiding or abetting. Now, a legal framework exists for criminal charges against Americans — including ones who do not show up in Friday’s court document.
The indictment mentions conspirators both known and “unknown” to the grand jury, legal experts noted.
“This language is purposeful,” said Elizabeth de la Vega, a former assistant U.S. attorney from the Northern District of California. “It unmistakably indicates there is much more to the story.”
“Think of a conspiracy indicting parties ‘known and unknown’ as a Matroyshka doll,” she added. “There are many more layers to be successively revealed over time.”
Joyce Vance, a former U.S. Attorney from Northern Alabama, said Mueller’s indictment now sends the signal that he believes it’s a federal crime for a foreign national to try and interfere in a U.S. election.
“That means any American who met with Russians in an effort to receive election assistance, also committed a crime,” she said. “And any efforts to cover that conduct up would be a very serious obstruction of justice.”
Mueller’s indictment also puts an exclamation point on findings from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election, both to disrupt the U.S. political system and out of President Vladimir Putin’s longstanding animus for Clinton.
While Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on those findings — Trump said during one October 2016 presidential debate that the hackers stealing Democratic emails “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” — the indictment presented evidence specific enough to form the basis of federal criminal charges.
“Frankly, Trump is the only one who says there’s no meddling. This lays it out chapter and verse,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who served as a deputy to the mid-2000s federal investigation into the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.
Several Democrats said Friday that Mueller’s latest indictment should put to rest claims that the notion of Russian election interference is some kind of hoax, and freshly underscores the need for Mueller to complete his investigation with full political independence.
Trump himself is under investigation for his attempts to tamp down the original probe, including the May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey — a move which prompted Rosensetein to appoint Mueller. More than 20 current and former White House aides have already met with Mueller as part of his wider inquiry – former Trump strategist Steven Bannon had multiple interviews earlier this week with the special counsel — and Mueller is seeking to ask Trump himself about the subject.
Meanwhile, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates are facing multiple charges — including money laundering and failing to register as foreign agents for lobbying work unrelated to the 2016 election. The federal judge overseeing the case has suggested a trial could start in the fall, though it’s unclear if that will happen. CNN reported on Thursday that Gates is talking with Mueller’s office about a plea deal in exchange for his cooperation. POLITICO has not been able to independently confirm that report.
Friday’s shift to the Russians’ social media campaign to influence voter behavior is unlikely to play out in the same way as the Manafort-Gates case given the defendants are all foreign nationals.
“How are you actually going to do anything against these guys if they all stay hidden in Russia?” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russian disinformation.
Mueller’s rollout Friday also came with an added wrinkle: a rare press conference to announce the charges from Rosenstein, the No. 2 official at DOJ who has supervising authority over Mueller and the whole Russia case. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation after charges that he provided inaccurate accounts of his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. while serving as a key surrogate and adviser for the 2016 Trump campaign.
Trump has fumed over Rosenstein’s handing of the Russia investigation. But the optics of Friday’s press conference showed the deputy attorney general squarely in charge of the investigation. They also aligned with Rosenstein’s previous claims that he was aware of and closely monitoring the special counsel investigation, which some Republican critics have portrayed as unmanaged and out of control.
“The window for Trump to fire Mueller or Rosenstein is now closed,” de la Vega said. “It is painted shut.”
But Randall Samborn, a former assistant U.S. attorney and spokesman on the Plame investigation, said he is not convinced that the deputy attorney general’s job is safe.
“It could cut either way,” Samborn said. “It gives them protection from naysayers on Capitol Hill but it may even put him in more jeopardy in the eyes of the president and his allies, who now see him in concert with Mueller. You can see this as both helping and hurting the longevity at the same time.”
As they digested Friday’s findings, Democrats and legal experts said it had piqued their interest in what other Americans might turn up in what are presumed to be more indictments on the way from the special counsel.
“The next step obviously is for the grand jury to decide whether there were any U.S. persons who are part of the conspiracy,” said Jeffress, who represented I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a senior George W. Bush White House aide ultimately charged in the Plame case.
“I suspect their names will be known to us soon,” New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Josh Gerstein contributed reporting.
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