Prepare for More Thrills From Mueller’s Russia Investigation
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Special counsel Robert Mueller never talks publicly, but his legal filings have told an increasingly detailed story about the people surrounding President Trump, their contacts with Russia during and after the 2016 election, and the lies they told about them. This has been particularly true in the weeks since November’s midterm elections, as the Mueller team closes chapters on three figures central to the inquiry: onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
“If you’re looking for one overarching, unifying theme, that hasn’t emerged yet,” says Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor at Lowenstein Sandler. But it may be starting to take shape. What’s become clear from the guilty pleas, sentencing memos, and hearings of the past several weeks is that Mueller has put together much, if not all, of the story. What hasn’t become clear is when—or how—it will end.
In a Dec. 4 filing in the Flynn case, prosecutors urged that he receive no prison time. Coming more than a year after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his work on behalf of the Turkish government, the filing said Flynn had given Mueller’s team “firsthand insight”—and, more significantly, that his choice to cooperate “likely affected” the decisions of other witnesses to come forward. The heavily redacted document also noted that Flynn had provided “substantial assistance” to Mueller on two ongoing inquiries in addition to the Russia investigation, neither of which has been revealed to the public.
There’s some evidence to suggest that Mueller may be homing in on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and, specifically, his site’s 2016 release of Democratic National Committee emails that prosecutors say were stolen by hackers working for Russian intelligence. Assange denies any election-related wrongdoing. Nevertheless, Mueller has interviewed more than half a dozen witnesses, including Randy Credico, a liberal comedian and onetime friend of Trump adviser Roger Stone, in an apparent effort to connect the dots between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. (WikiLeaks has been under U.S. investigation for years for disclosing classified government documents, and a court filing by a federal prosecutor in Virginia in an unrelated case inadvertently indicated that Assange has already been charged. A person familiar with the matter confirmed the charge, though details of the case are still unknown.)
At the center of this phase is Stone, who said during the race that he was in touch with Assange but has since denied having contact. On Dec. 3, Stone reasserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against providing documents and testimony in a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry, but he’s long acknowledged he may be charged in the Mueller investigation. A dozen Russian citizens have already been indicted on hacking charges related to the stolen emails; more than a dozen others have been indicted for a conspiracy to sow political discord via social media.
There’s no indication of when or if Stone—or Jerome Corsi, a conservative conspiracy theorist and Stone associate who may have relayed WikiLeaks updates to Stone—will be charged. Corsi has denied wrongdoing. There’s much that we do know, however, that hints at more surprises to come from the investigation. On Dec. 7, Mueller will submit a sentencing memorandum in Cohen’s case that’s expected to spell out further the extent of the former Trump lawyer’s meetings with prosecutors; on the same day, he’ll submit a separate filing in the Manafort case.
Cohen has cooperated extensively with Mueller, federal prosecutors in Manhattan, and the New York Attorney General’s Office, which is suing Trump’s foundation and its board for violations of state and federal law. The former fixer’s proximity to Trump’s affairs makes him potentially the most valuable witness in the various cases against the president; the dozens of hours Cohen has spent with prosecutors signal that Trump may have plenty of reasons to worry. By contrast, Mueller’s team said in late November that Manafort, who pleaded guilty in Washington on Sept. 14 to two conspiracy charges after being convicted on bank and tax fraud charges in Virginia, had torpedoed his cooperation agreement by lying to prosecutors “on a variety of subject matters” and committing new crimes. The Dec. 7 filing in Manafort’s case is expected to shed more light on the fresh allegations.
The special counsel’s inquiry may conclude with a report submitted to Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who can then decide whether to release it to the public, submit it to Congress, or attempt to bury it. The Democratic majority entering the House virtually ensures that it will see the light of day. Incoming Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler will be able to subpoena any report Mueller produces.
The special counsel appears to have plenty of work to do before he gets there. Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor on the Enron Task Force, now a law professor at Duke, says, “If he thinks there are people who are still in position to establish something really pivotal in the investigation, like some kind of direct link around the campaign and Russia, he’ll run that stuff into the ground.”
And there’s no rush. “The pressure on Mueller is to do a credible job and have this thing stand up to historical scrutiny,” Buell says. “The whole point of Mueller is he doesn’t care. He’s not trying to get famous off of this, so what’s the pressure?”
The Endgame for Manafort, Flynn, and Cohen:
• Nov. 26
Mueller’s prosecutors submit a filing saying Manafort breached his plea agreement
• Nov. 30
In a hearing, prosecutors discuss the possibility of additional charges against Manafort
• Dec. 4
A Flynn sentencing brief says he met 19 times with prosecutors and is helping on three pending investigations
• Dec. 11
Flynn’s lawyers will file their own sentencing memo; the government has until Dec. 14 to respond
• Dec. 12
A federal judge in New York will sentence Cohen, who’s said he hopes to avoid prison
• Dec. 18
Flynn will be sentenced by a federal judge in Washington, D.C.
• Feb. 8
Manafort will be sentenced in Virginia
• March 5
Manafort will be sentenced in D.C.
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