Reading the Mueller Tea Leaves During a Confusing Week

There were stories this week that seemed to suggest Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the election may be winding down. But there were a handful of other reports that suggest the opposite–that the investigation is alive and well, with potentially serious implications for the president and his associates. Taken together, it’s difficult to conclude much more than this: We still don’t know where this thing is ultimately headed, and anyone who suggests they do probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Here’s a look back at some of the week’s developments.

Could the Mueller investigation be wrapping up?

As for signs that the investigation is nearing its conclusion, there was a court filing from the Mueller team that shows the special counsel is ready to sentence former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Once Papadopoulos is sentenced for lying to federal investigators (the crime to which he’s pled guilty), his cooperation with the investigation would come to an end and it’s likely Mueller wouldn’t expect him to appear as a witness at any related trials after that date.

“It means at least one aspect of it has been wrapped up. And hopefully it all gets wrapped up soon,” Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told POLITICO.

With  Papadopoulos’ sentencing report due Aug. 1  and none of the previous indictments or guilty pleas seemingly related to what he told investigators about his time on the Trump campaign, the question remains: How did Papadopoulos’ cooperation help?

“Typically federal prosecutors do not give someone a cooperation deal unless their cooperation would lead to a chargeable case against someone else or provide substantial assistance in a case against someone,” former federal prosecutor and Just Security editor Renato Mariotti, explained on Twitter. “So what we still don’t know is what Papadopoulos did to get his deal.”

But there are reasons to think that even with his sentencing moving forward, Papadopoulos could still take the witness stand down the road, said Alex Whiting, also a former federal prosecutor and Just Security editor. Papadopoulos’ potential sentence was minor to begin with (0 to six months, according to his plea agreement) and therefore provided Mueller with little leverage. Instead, it’s possible that because Papadopoulos has testified before a grand jury and is now locked into the account he told there, if he testifies differently at a trial in the future, Mueller could get him for perjury, or if he refused to testify, he could face charges of with contempt.

The other thing to remember with Papadopoulos is he isn’t an ideal witness, as the crime he’s being charged with is lying.

“It may be that the Papadopoulos evidence led to other independent, and better evidence,” Whiting said. “At the end of the day I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about whether Papadopoulos will be a witness or not, and if you could conclude he is not a witness, you couldn’t draw from that any conclusions about where Mueller is headed, or not headed.”

And there is one more aspect to keep in mind when thinking about Papadopoulos and other people who cooperate with Mueller: They could be providing information that is important and relevant to the counterintelligence side of the investigation, said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent and Just Security editor.

“If, for example, Papadopoulos provided evidence or information that Mueller could use to substantiate another FISA, that would never be made public. Or he may have provided intel that has allowed Mueller’s team to identify and monitor other Russian agents, or to ‘flip’ them, resulting in more channels of collection against Russia,” she said.

Another sign that seemed to point to the ending of a different part of the investigation was the news that Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, had finally received his security clearance. This news coincided with a report that Kushner sat down with the Mueller team in April for a seven-hour interview.

Experts and journalists were quick to draw the conclusion that this could be “an indication that he may no longer be under scrutiny by the special counsel.” The thinking being that if Kushner were under criminal investigation, Mueller would alert the intelligence community that Kushner should not have access to classified intelligence and his clearance would be denied. This is certainly possible.

But others think it’s too soon to draw that inference.

“To the extent that Mueller or the Eastern District of New York has information that would really make him unsuitable for a clearance, they are not going to tip their hand and reveal that at this stage,” Rangappa said. Put simply: keeping Kushner from getting a clearance is not worth compromising the investigation, especially since the president has the authority to grant a clearance to anyone he wants.

And there is certainly historical precedent of counterintelligence and criminal investigations into people who held secret clearances.

Lastly, Giuliani said this week that Mueller’s team hopes to wrap up its look into whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation by Sept. 1. While what Guiliani says should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, it was one more signal that Mueller may be winding things down.

Or is there still much more to come?

If the Papadopoulos or Kushner news left you feeling like maybe the Mueller investigation won’t have much to show for itself when all is said and done, there were plenty of other stories this week that suggest we don’t know the half of it.

In a court filing on Wednesday, Mueller’s office said, “The Special Counsel’s investigation is not a closed matter, but an ongoing criminal investigation with multiple lines of non-public inquiry.”

This was the strongest indication from the special counsel itself that it’s work is not close to done and much of it is still secret.

There was also a steady stream of new revelations of corruption and possible collusion with foreign governments on the part of Trump campaign officials and associates.

Donald Trump Jr., in a meeting arranged by private security contractor Erik Prince, sat down with George Nader, who “told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president,” the New York Times reported. Trump Jr. reportedly responded “approvingly” and “Trump campaign officials did not appear bothered by the idea of cooperation with foreigners.”  Nader was then “quickly embraced as a close ally by Trump campaign advisers — meeting frequently” with Kushner and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

The extent of Nader’s work lobbying on behalf of the two princes, along with Elliott Broidy, a top Trump fundraiser, was detailed in a bombshell report from the Associated Press. With multimillion-dollar windfalls lined up for themselves in exchange for their work on behalf of the UAE and Saudi princes, the two men appear to have successfully lobbied Trump to adopt an anti-Qatar policy that would benefit the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Nader, who frequently visited the White House during the early days of the Trump administration, has submitted to three interviews with special counsel investigators and four appearances before a grand jury. Broidy is also caught up in the investigation into Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, who used a secretive shell company, Essential Consultants, reportedly to keep quiet a relationship between a Playboy Playmate and Broidy, by paying her $1.6 million.

We also learned a little more this week about Cohen’s efforts to secure payments to Essential Consultants during the transition period. The Times reported that almost two weeks before Trump’s inauguration “a billionaire Russian businessman with ties to the Kremlin visited Trump Tower in Manhattan to meet with” Cohen. Weeks later, Columbus Nova, a private equity firm,  paid Cohen $1 million for a “consulting” contract. Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian billionaire with whom Cohen met, is Columbus Nova’s biggest client and securities filings referred to the American company as the “U.S.-based affiliate” of Vekselberg’s Russian conglomerate Renova.

Andrew Intrater, who runs Columbus Nova and is Vekselberg’s cousin, said Vekselberg “had no role in Columbus Nova’s decision to hire Mr. Cohen as a consultant.”

Finally, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that “former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone privately sought information he considered damaging to Hillary Clinton from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during the 2016 presidential campaign.” Stone’s intermediary with Wikileaks said in an email responding to one of Stone’s requests, “That batch probably coming out in the next drop…I can’t ask them favors every other day.”

Stone told the Journal that despite his requests, he never received anything and did not have special access to Wikileaks material.

Even worse for Stone, the emails that revealed these attempts by Stone to get Wikileaks to send him damaging Clinton info were not provided to congressional investigators.

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If these stories leave you spinning, you’re not alone. In total, the best conclusion one can draw is: Be patient. We don’t know yet what we don’t know.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

  

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).