A long-awaited series of court filings from Robert Mueller and other prosecutors this week seemed to rattle the White House, laying out a series of public hints that the special counsel’s team is closing in on President Donald Trump and his inner circle.
The documents offer a series of tantalizing but incomplete glimpses of Mueller’s probe, including new indications of how prosecutors believe Trump’s top aides and intermediaries for the Russian government engaged in a kind of courtship as the 2016 campaign unfolded.
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Trump and his closest aides responded to the latest salvos with characteristic bravado Friday.
“Totally clears the President. Thank you!” Trump declared on Twitter.
A rare official statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who almost always defers questions about Mueller’s investigation to the president’s personal legal team — claimed there was nothing of note in the memos, which detail alleged lies by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the ongoing cooperation of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, both of whom have pleaded guilty to multiple federal felonies.
“The government’s filing in Mr. Manafort’s case says absolutely nothing about the President,” Sanders said.
“Fake News coverage can’t change the reality that Mueller’s late Friday dump demonstrates yet again no evidence connected to President,” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani added Saturday on Twitter, while also claiming Cohen is “still lying.”
None of those responses, however, addressed Mueller’s accounting of how Manafort lied about his contacts with the Trump administration, the special counsel’s note in another filing that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was still assisting the investigation, or the fact that prosecutors’ memos regarding Cohen mentioned Trump — described as “Individual 1” — no fewer than 30 times.
The deluge of often-vague references to the president and the people around him suggests a couple of possibilities: either Mueller and his federal prosecutor counterparts are growing more provocative in hopes of shaking something loose in the president’s orbit, or they are sitting on explosive charges that could put Trump himself at risk.
Here are eight takeaways from a frenetic week of Mueller filings:
1. Prosecutors say Trump was linked to serious campaign finance crimes, but they don’t accuse him of illegal activity
Trump has not been charged with wrongdoing, but he has faced accusations from the start of the Mueller probe, including claims he conspired with a foreign power to win the 2016 presidential election or obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey.
Enter Stormy Daniels.
Manhattan federal prosecutors on Friday, working in tandem with Mueller’s office, detailed an elaborate scheme in which Cohen made hush money payments to the adult film actress and another woman, both of whom claimed to have had affairs with Trump, in order to silence them in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.
As Cohen offered a series of guilty pleas in court last August, he said the payments were made at Trump’s direction. On Friday, prosecutors concurred that Trump had directed the payments, which the government attorneys portrayed as a grave breach of federal election law.
That immediately raised questions among legal experts about whether Trump would be charged with illegal activity as well.
“They can’t just drop it,” former Obama Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller wrote on Twitter of the prosecutors.
But noting long-standing DOJ protocol that says a sitting president can’t be indicted, Miller said federal prosecutors are essentially left with two options: sending an impeachment referral to Congress or waiting to prosecute Trump once he’s out of office.
“Theoretically you could wait and indict in 2021 (before the statute [of limitations] runs) if he loses re-election, but that’s both an abdication of responsibility & risks losing any mechanism for accountability,” Miller wrote.
2. But there’s a potential wrinkle in any legal case against Trump over the payments
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the documents released Friday “outline serious and criminal wrongdoing” that includes felony violations of campaign finance laws directed by Trump. Former Obama acting solicitor general Neal Katyal also interpreted the filing as concluding the president “has committed a serious felony.”
Former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi told POLITICO the Cohen filing had a “subliminal message” aimed at Trump. “If it were dealing with a private citizen, he would be receiving a target letter and soon be indicted for conspiring to commit campaign law violations,” he said.
However, several other experts weren’t so sure. While ignorance of the law is usually no defense, criminal campaign finance violations require proof the defendant knew what he or she was doing was unlawful. Prosecutors were silent about Trump’s knowledge of the law, and it could be tricky to prove a businessman in his first major run for political office was as versed in campaign-finance rules as Cohen, an attorney.
“I don’t think we know yet that prosecutors have concluded Trump violated campaign finance law, given that Trump would have to know that his conduct was illegal,” former Justice Department official Eric Columbus wrote on Twitter.
3. Others at the White House could be in trouble
Veteran defense lawyers say Trump and his allies should be spooked by Mueller’s claims that Cohen and Manafort dished on their dealings with the White House. That kind of testimony could help build an obstruction of justice case against the president or others in the West Wing.
“Cohen provided relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period,” the special prosecutor’s team said.
They did not elaborate on those contacts, but they said among the topics Cohen discussed with administration officials was his plan to lie in congressional testimony about at what point during the election he abandoned attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
The filing on the collapse of the plea deal with Manafort says he denied any contacts with administration officials, but evidence shows chatter through various intermediaries into 2018. The officials with whom he interacted are not named.
“There’s undoubtedly a number of people who are going to sweat this one out,” said Joyce Vance, an Obama-era U.S. attorney from northern Alabama.
4. So could others in Trump’s wider circle
Mueller’s sentencing memo for Flynn earlier this week listed a “non-exhaustive summary” of his interactions between “individuals” on Trump’s transition and Russia. Legal experts and several defense lawyers working with clients in the Russia probe said that should concern people in the president’s orbit.
“That’s a holy cow moment,” said Rossi, the former federal prosecutor. “It could be three items. It could be 30. We don’t know. That’s why ‘non-exhaustive’ would scare the living daylights out of me.”
Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law and a top White House aide, and K.T. McFarland, who briefly served as deputy national security adviser, were two Trump transition officials who had discussions with Flynn and may have had knowledge about his contacts with Russian officials. Their attorneys did not respond to requests for comment about Mueller’s latest Flynn memo.
The filing also contained another potential warning for Trump’s administration: Mueller’s view that “senior government leaders should be held to the highest standards.”
5. Mueller is chipping away at Trump’s “no collusion” mantra
It has long seemed there were at least attempts by Trump’s associates to work with the Russians, particularly during a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York at which various Trump aides including Manafort, Kushner, and Trump’s oldest son met with a Russian offering damaging information about their Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
On Friday, Mueller said in court filings that Russians also pitched the Trump camp on plans that would align their business and political interests.
According to one filing, Cohen said he’d been approached around November 2015 by a Russian national offering “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.” The individual repeatedly proposed a meeting between” Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying it promised a “phenomenal” impact, “not only in political but in a business dimension as well.”
Buzzfeed reported in June that the Russian official was Dmitry Klokov, an Olympic weightlifter who got in touch with Cohen through the president’s daughter Ivanka.
Cohen said he didn’t pursue the offer — but only because he was eyeing other channels at the time in hopes of building a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Cohen also told prosecutors that, while he had initially said Trump did not know he tried to arrange a confab with the Russian leader during the 2015 United Nations General Assembly session in New York, he had actually talked with Trump about the idea. The meeting never came to pass, prosecutors said.
Mueller made additional cryptic references to Moscow meddling in the heavily redacted Flynn memo earlier this week, noting he assisted their investigation “concerning links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” as well as “interactions between individuals in the Presidential Transition Team and Russia.”
Trump finally submitted written answers to Mueller last month after a year-plus negotiation over the special counsel’s questions about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. If his accounts differ significantly from anything his former aides told prosecutors, he could be in hot water.
6. Mueller is lenient with those who cooperate — and he’ll excoriate those who don’t
Even before this past week, Mueller rewarded cooperators. Former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates, who pleaded guilty in February after being charged alongside Manafort, has been granted a variety of freedoms — from travel to not having to wear a GPS ankle bracelet — as he meets repeatedly with prosecutors to explain what he knows about the president and Russia.
A similar scenario is playing out for Flynn, with the special counsel recommending little or no prison time because of his early cooperation.
Law enforcement veterans say Mueller is playing it by the book.
“Bob Mueller did not invent the cooperation agreement. He’s a god for many things. But that’s not his idea,” said Joe diGenova, an informal Trump legal adviser and former Justice Department official.
Manafort, however, might now be looking at a more severe prison sentence after Mueller lambasted the 69-year old longtime GOP lobbyist for allegedly lying to prosecutors about his contacts with the Trump administration and with a former business partner believed to have ties to Russian intelligence.
7. Mueller’s filings could provide a road map for Democrats intent on impeachment
Even if Mueller’s team does not make a legal case against Trump, Democrats have been rumbling about the possibility of impeachment for months. The public court filings are laying out leads that Democratic lawmakers are already planning to follow up on once they take control of the House in early January.
“@SDNY says @realdonaldtrump directed Cohen to commit a felony,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where impeachment proceedings would commence — tweeted on Friday, referring to the Southern District of New York prosecutors working on Cohen’s case.
Responding to questions about how he’d handle impeachment, Nadler earlier in the week told MSNBC he’d be looking at “all the evidence that the special counsel comes up with, the things that are being done in public, the things we find out are being done, and make decisions.”
Nadler said he “may very well” wait for Mueller to finish his investigation before launching any kind of impeachment process. “It depends how long the [Mueller] takes to complete that work,” the lawmaker said.
And Nadler cited a “three-part test” he plans to apply to the situation: First, having “real solid evidence” of impeachable offenses; second, whether the offenses are of “sufficient gravity” to justify a contentious national debate; and third, whether the evidence “is so sufficiently clear” that “an appreciable fraction of the opposition vote base will say, ‘They had to do this.’”
“You don’t want to tear the country apart,” Nadler said.
8. Mueller has plenty more work to do
Yahoo News reported that attorneys for witnesses in the case were told that Mueller’s team is tying up loose ends. And before the new filings emerged Friday, Trump seemed focused not on the threat of additional prosecutions, but on the challenge posed by a potential Mueller report alleging coordination between the campaign and Russia.
“We will be doing a major Counter Report to the Mueller Report,” Trump wrote Friday morning on Twitter, in one in a series of missives lambasting the special counsel. “This should never again be allowed to happen to a future President of the United States!”
However, there’s more on Mueller’s to-do list.
Manafort’s two sentencings are scheduled for February and March. And Mueller’s office said in mid-November that Gates, who remained in Trump’s orbit long after Manafort’s ouster in 2016, was still providing information in “several ongoing investigations” and told the court it wasn’t ready to put his sentencing date on the calendar.
And Mueller remains locked in at least two legal battles over subpoenas for witnesses. One case, involving Stone associate Andrew Miller, awaits a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, with Miller’s lawyers vowing to try for a Supreme Court hearing next year if they lose. Another challenge, involving a mystery appellant, is scheduled for oral arguments Friday.
From a historical perspective, Mueller’s investigation appears far more complex than the two other major independent counsel probes since Watergate: the Reagan-era investigation into secret U.S. arms sales to Iran and one into scandals surrounding Bill Clinton.