Trump ‘congratulates’ America on anniversary of Mueller investigation - but where is the Russia probe headed?

Nineteen indictments in 365 days point to how expansive Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe has become 

Clark Mindock
New York
Friday 18 May 2018 10:45 BST
Mr Mueller's team is seeking to interview the president
Mr Mueller's team is seeking to interview the president (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election is one year old, and President Donald Trump has congratulated the American people in a mock celebration of the birthday.

“Congratulations America, we are now into the second year of the greatest Witch Hunt in American History… And there is still No Collusion and No Obstruction,” Mr Trump tweeted.

It’s not the first time Mr Trump has labelled the investigation a witch hunt - using a second tweet to call it "disgusting - and given the scope of the investigation we’ve seen so far, it is unlikely to be the last.

In 365 days, the American public has seen glimpses of what appears to be an ever-broadening and aggressive investigation by the team attempting to get to the bottom of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and whether officials with the Trump campaign were complicit in that effort.

The investigation has led to more than a dozen indictments. It has seen countless tweets from Mr Trump. And it has polarised American political discourse.

One year on, here is what Mr Mueller's investigation has brought to light.

What do we know has happened?

Since Mr Mueller’s investigation was created a year ago by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, 19 people have been indicted alongside three Russian companies, as Mr Mueller's team has sought to investigate any connections between the 2016 election and Russia.

Those indictments have led to three guilty pleas from former Trump campaign or administration officials: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, and campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. All three of these men are reportedly cooperating with Mr Mueller’s investigation, leaving open the possibility that they could provide crucial information about potential coordination between Trump associates and Russians.

None of those charges show that any collusion with Russians occurred, but Mr Flynn and Mr Papadopoulos both pleaded guilty to charges that they lied to the FBI about contacts with Russians, or foreigners with connections to Russians. Mr Gates has pleaded guilty to a charge of financial fraud and a charge of lying to investigators.

The other indictments have been filed against former campaign chairman Paul Manafort – who has pleaded not guilty to charges including money laundering – as well as 13 Russian individuals and three companies that ran Russian troll operations online that used propaganda to boost Mr Trump’s campaign.

One man, Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, has already been given a prison sentence after pleading guilty on charges of lying to Mr Mueller's team about contacts with Mr Manafort and Mr Gates. Mr van der Zwaan is the son of a Russian oligarch.

The probe has led to the withdrawal of KT McFarland, Mr Trump's nominee to become the ambassador of Singapore, after reports emerged that she had discussed with Mr Flynn his contacts with Russian officials. Sam Clovis, a former senior Trump campaign official also withdrew his nomination for a top job at the Department of Agriculture, over communications with Mr Papadopoulos.

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How has what we know about the investigation changed?

Mr Mueller’s investigation was birthed in the aftermath of the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, and the initial thrust was to look into possible coordination between people in Mr Trump’s orbit and Russia. But, it has since then expanded.

The charges against Mr Gates and Mr Manafort were for alleged crimes unrelated to the 2016 election, and instead focused on business dealings the two had with a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine years before the campaign.

The investigation also appears to be looking into Mr Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, and business dealings he has had with major companies like AT&T and Novartis in which he was paid six- or seven-figure commissions for “insights” since Mr Trump's inauguration, which Mr Mueller apparently knew about in November, but just became public knowledge just days ago. Mr Cohen allegedly told the drug maker on his access to Mr Trump, and the payments – ostensibly for lobbying – have been generally seen as unconventional in their approach.

Mr Cohen’s offices were also raided by the FBI and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, in an investigation that itself appears to be multi-faceted – from potential campaign finance law violations for paying adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money to keep her silent about an alleged 2006 affair with Mr Trump – and has been thought to have been aided, at least in part, by findings from Mr Mueller’s probe. One of Mr Trump's lawyers, Rudy Guiliani, has said that there has been no campaign finance violations.

Mr Mueller’s team is also reportedly looking into potential obstruction of justice by Mr Trump. That obstruction could include Mr Trump allegedly urging Mr Comey to “let go” of his investigation into Mr Flynn, as well as Mr Trump’s public musing about potentially firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from concerns related to the Russia case.

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In terms of who has been interviewed, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner was questioned last year about Mr Flynn. Trump's White House counsel, Don McGahn, has been in to see Mueller's team, as have former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former communications director Hope Hicks, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, California real estate developer and longtime Trump friend Tom Barrack – and dozens of other witnesses. A Russian-American lobbyist who attended a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower involving Donald Trump Jr, the subject of which was potential damaging information about his father's opponent, Hillary Clinton, has also provided testimony.

How does this investigation stack up against past independent investigations?

The Mueller investigation may seem like it’s taking quite a long time – Vice President Mike Pence and Mr Sessions, who have both said they think the affair should conclude, sure seem to think so – but analysts say that it is actually moving at a pretty remarkable speed compared to other investigations.

The Whitewater scandal in the 1990s, where the Clintons were investigated for real estate dealings, did not produce indictments for a year and a half, for instance. That investigation droned on for nearly eight years, and included several independent counsels who investigated the allegations. The Clintons did not face criminal charges.

How has the president been responded to the investigation?

Mr Trump has not been shy about expressing his feelings about the investigation, tweets like the one on Thursday where he called the probe a "witch hunt" once again.

It is not clear how much of an impact that could actually have. While public support for Mr Mueller continuing to do his job has waned in the year since he was assigned, the majority of the public still supports the investigation.

Is the president going to be interviewed?

Nobody knows the answer to this question except, perhaps, Mr Trump himself. The Trump orbit has given various hints as to whether he will. Mr Mueller’s team, for their part, have provided Mr Trump’s lawyers with topic areas they would like to discuss.

Mr Giuliani, who is heading up Mr Trump’s legal response to the investigation, has indicated that he does not plan on making it easy for the special counsel. He’s suggested that Mr Mueller may have to subpoena the president for him to talk.

Mr Trump has at times expressed a desire to be questioned by the special counsel team, though his mood towards the investigators soured considerably following a raid targeting his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen — as part of the offshoot investigation in New York City.

Mr Mueller has dozens of questions he'd like to put before the president, largely focused on obstruction but also on the underpinning issue of possible campaign collusion.

If Mr Mueller has to take the extraordinary step of seeking a grand jury subpoena to force his testimony, it could prolong the investigation by many months and may end with a fight before the Supreme Court.

Either way, experts have mused that the very fact that Mr Mueller wants to talk with Mr Trump may show that the investigation may be coming to a head, at least as far as the president is concerned.

What can we expect next?

By most accounts, Mr Mueller’s team at this point is likely looking to piece together all of the connections after their year investigating potential connections. It’s hard to say exactly what that means — the general public likely knows very little about how much Mr Mueller’s team actually knows. The public has seen some highlights, but what the puzzle shows when put together is anyone’s guess.

That said, one might expect to hear a bit more about Mr Cohen’s business dealings and we are almost certainly going to hear more about the alleged Daniels affair — even if the new details are not strictly connected to Mr Mueller’s investigation.

Mr Manafort will be in court this summer in a trial that could send waves through Washington. That’s in spite of his efforts to have his trial thrown out because it is related to non-campaign issues.

But, 2018 is also an election year, and primaries are already being held ahead of the midterms. The Justice Department has a long history of attempting to keep quiet about its investigations in election years, for fear that their investigations could influence voters. Respecting that history, Mr Mueller may pull his investigation back a bit, or information about the investigation may just be released at a slower rate.

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How does this all end?

It’s anyone’s guess how damning the information Mr Mueller uncovers will be or is, but he will almost surely write a report about his findings when he’s done, whether Mr Trump is implicated or not.

The president is unlikely to face any criminal charges related to the inquiry, as the judicial system has generally not allowed sitting presidents to be indicted.

But, if Mr Trump is implicated in the report, he could face impeachment, depending on the political headwinds he finds himself. That could happen, for instance, if Democrats regain control of the House this November and are armed with a report showing bad behaviour on his part. It appears unlikely that Mr Trump would be removed from office even if he is impeached, as it would take a vote in the Senate – where it is much less likely Democrats will regain control – for that to go through.

As for what the public ends up knowing, it is hard to say. The Justice Department may determine that it is in the public’s interest to disclose most or all of the report, or it may not. They will likely hand the materials over to Congress, but, again, it is hard to say whether Congress would make the report public.

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