Today marks the one-year anniversary of Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s contact and relationships with Russia. For all the talk of the president’s lawyers and the vice president about how it’s time to “wrap it up,” the truth is that for a federal investigation, Mueller’s probe has moved with impressive rapidity—and, contrary to the president’s repeated assertions of a “witch hunt,” the validity of the investigation has gotten more solid with every passing month.
Today, the first person sentenced to prison in Mueller’s probe, a Dutch lawyer who lied about his knowledge of campaign chair Paul Manafort’s past business dealing is Inmate #35255-016, serving his prison sentence at Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.
Mueller’s inquiry has also resulted in guilty pleas from Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, campaign aide Rick Gates, and campaign aide George Papadopoulos, as well as two others swept up in the case. Manafort himself is preparing for trial on dozens of charges; if found guilty on all of them, he could face more than 300 years of prison time. Contradicting the “witch hunt” language, a judge just this week upheld the charges against Manafort, saying that the former campaign chair’s work with Trump makes him a natural target for Mueller’s investigators. Mueller’s team of investigators also charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies with interfering in the election.
That’s just the formal charges. The probe—and its ever-expanding implications—has had a much wider impact on the president’s circle: It has led to the withdrawal of the president’s nominee to be ambassador to Singapore, as well as the withdrawal of a former senior campaign aide nominated to one of the top jobs in the Department of Agriculture, and the downgrading of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s security clearance.
And there’s more: the questioning under oath of presidential namesake Donald Trump Jr.—about a previously undisclosed campaign meeting with Russian officials who proclaimed they had damaging information on Trump’s opponent—as well as the still unfolding revelations about the president’s affair with and $130,000 hush money payment to a porn star that was also entirely hidden, which may turn out to be a crime itself. Then there’s the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, himself conflicted out of overseeing the investigation because of his own involvement in meetings with Russian officials during the campaign.
And let’s not forget Michael Cohen, the president’s one-time fixer and personal lawyer, whose offices were raided by the FBI and prosecutors from the Southern District of New York as part of an investigation that appears to involve everything from taxi medallions to potential campaign finance violations. Cohen’s business empire, such as it was, included suspicious payments from top companies, as well as Russian a company closely connected to oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Vekselberg, meanwhile, is just one of the who’s who of Russian oligarchs Americans are being educated about as they become caught up in the Mueller probe: There’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka “Putin’s Cook,” indicted as part of the Internet Research Agency’s disinformation and discord attack on Facebook and Twitter. There’s Oleg Deripaska, former business partner of Manafort. There’s Aras Agalarov, the real estate oligarch, and his son, Emin, who helped set up the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
Altogether, it’s hard to imagine, in fact, that any recent American president would have survived politically the year of revelations that have surrounded the Mueller investigation and related probes, including that by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which just Wednesday released findings from the panel’s Democrats that the National Rifle Association was used by the Kremlin “as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign.”
In fact, a year into Mueller’s probe and nearly two years after the launch of the original FBI investigation (which we now know was codenamed CROSSFIRE HURRICANE) there are more open questions—and concerning assertions—than there were when the case began.
The broad outlines of the investigation are by now clear: Mueller’s probe involves at least five distinct lines of inquiry—money laundering and past business deals, information influence operations, active cyber penetrations, suspicious Russian campaign contacts, and obstruction of justice. However, in recent weeks, it’s become clear the investigation has grown, with little public understanding, into something that’s clearly much larger than a “simple” investigation into Russian’s campaign meddling.
The year of Mueller’s probe has established four conclusions inconvertibly:
1. Russia did it
Outside of the fever-swampy corners of @realdonaldtrump’s Twitter account and Congressman Devin Nunes’ conspiracies, the rest of the US government has concluded, clearly, that Russia was behind a multifaceted, complex influence operation and active cyber attack on the 2016 presidential campaign. Before Mueller’s probe even began, the nation’s intelligence community had concluded that fact, largely based on classified information. Then Mueller’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency established publicly beyond any question that people close to the Kremlin meddled extensively, expansively, and expensively in the election. Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee also on Wednesday announced that there was bipartisan agreement that not only had Russia attacked the 2016 presidential election but that it had done so to aid Donald Trump and harm Hillary Clinton.
2. There’s a troubling timeline
The revelations since Mueller’s appointment has established plenty of questions about the unfolding aspects of the Russian attack and the campaign’s potential knowledge of it, including that George Papadopoulos reportedly was telling Australian diplomats in London that there was damaging information on Clinton weeks before word about the DNC thefts leaked. Add in other developments, from the aborted attempts to restart a Trump Tower Moscow Project to candidate Trump’s musings about wanting Russia to release Clinton’s emails to Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels to the still-unexplained attempt to change the GOP platform to be more pro-Russia to the odd telephone calls and meetings during the transition, and it’s clear there’s a lot more explaining to do.
3. People are lying—and committing crimes
Or maybe just everyone is forgetting about the truth a whole lot, consistently, when it comes to Russia. It’s notable that so many of the president’s top aides, from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Jared Kushner to Donald Trump Jr. to Michael Flynn to George Papadopolous have gotten in trouble because of “forgetfulness,” omissions, or outright lies concerning meetings with Russians and Russian officials during the campaign and the transition.
4. This is bigger than anyone thinks
Mueller’s probe today might just be the largest corruption investigation in recent American history, involving not just the attacks by the Russian intelligence services, the FSB and the GRU, on the election and Trump’s relationships with Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs but also examining the seemingly related and interconnected influence of a variety of foreign countries on Washington, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and potentially even China. We’ve seen some of the capital’s top lobbyists and lobbying firms already felled by the investigation. And there’s plenty of strange activity still unexplained, including a meeting by Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in the Seychelles that may have been an attempt to set up a backchannel with Russia.
So, with those four collections of facts and implications established in the first year of the Mueller probe, where does the investigation head next? We appear to be entering a new stage of the inquiry, one that focuses primarily on how the puzzle pieces connect.
We have thus far watched the Mueller investigation through the public equivalent of a soda straw, seeing only bits and pieces of what is clearly a sprawling effort—a subpoena here, a search there, a witness testifying here. Bit players come and go, disappearing and reappearing without a clear indication of their ultimate importance. (Few Americans could explain who Joseph Misfud or George Nader is)
As Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic says, “You get just a tiny glimpse, and there’s a lot you can’t see.”
When the public hears about a new development, we quickly learn that Mueller has known about it months earlier. As just the most recent example, the blockbuster revelations of recent days that Novartis and AT&T paid Trump fixer Michael Cohen six- and seven-figure payouts for “insights”—revelations that led to the ouster of top executives at both companies—were actually known to Mueller all the way back in November. Mueller’s first arrest and guilty plea, of George Papadopoulos, came without a single public rumor or peep until months later. By the time we find out someone like Viktor Vekselberg is even involved in the case, we find out that Mueller’s team already intercepted him at a New York City airport months earlier.
If Mueller is running four to six months ahead of public perception, it’s safe to assume we have absolutely no idea where his investigation is today.
What does seem clear, though, is that Mueller knows where this is heading. Mueller is inside the room where we’ve been only peering through the keyhole.
It’s safe to say that he has what he views as incredibly important evidence—including the cooperation of Flynn, Gates, and Papadopoulos—that hasn’t become public, yet some of which he’s had potentially for eight months.
It’s not public yet because Mueller doesn’t want to make it public—which in and of itself is significant, in so far as it tells us that that evidence is key to as-yet-unknown parts of the probe.
So far, we’ve viewed each indictment distinctly; the Internet Research Agency indictment notably stops short of any implication of official Russian involvement, yet we know that the government believes it knows enough to indict Russian officials involved in the hacking. Manafort’s alleged money laundering stops short of discussing his campaign role, even though the scheme continued into his time at the campaign. The suspicious campaign contacts, by Papadopoulos and Flynn, stop short of any implication of active cooperation.
What seems likely is that the next stage of Mueller’s investigation will begin to connect pieces that we’ve only seen individually thus far, seeking to provide an answer to the big, looming question: How closely coordinated were the efforts by Russia to attack the election—and who helped them on the American side?
While every day of the Trump administration seems a 1,000 news cycles long, each week packed with a year’s worth of scandals and outrages, it’s worth remembering just how short a time a year is in political investigation actually is. Watergate took twice that to play out. Ken Starr, Whitewater, and Monica Lewinsky took four times as long.