Robert Mueller delivered a punch in the rapidly-expanding Russia investigation by simultaneously indicting Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, two of the most prominent figures in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
But the special counsel sent a more powerful signal to others around the president with the public release of plea deal struck with low-level loyalist George Papadopoulos, which was full of details about the former foreign policy adviser’s email traffic to still-unnamed high-ranking campaign officials about a “request from Russia to meet Mr. Trump.”
“In unsealing it, he knows he’s sending messages to at least three or four other operatives and their lawyers that he’s got somebody in his corner who could be damaging to their interests,” said Randall Samborn, a former senior aide on the George W. Bush-era special counsel investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
Top White House officials including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that despite the latest developments the Mueller probe was still moving toward a quick conclusion. But that brand of optimism ran counter to the analysis provided by several veterans from previous special counsel investigations who said they expect more targets to wind up in court.
“I’d be very surprised if it’s the last indictment we see,” said Julie Myers Wood, a former lead prosecutor during Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton.
Solomon Wisenberg, also a former Starr prosecutor, said Mueller’s opening moves demonstrated the probe has been “moving quickly” thanks in part to the work he inherited before his mid-May appointment.
He said Manafort and Gates are now on track for a criminal trial that for anywhere from nine to 16 months. And in the meantime, Mueller with his Monday disclosures has helped to insulate himself against presidential attacks by filing the criminal charges against two of Trump’s highest-ranking campaign aides.
“Nobody can say this is a chicken-shit prosecution,” Wisenberg said. “It makes it that much harder I think for somebody to try to either pardon someone like Manafort or get Mueller fired.”
Trump himself reacted to the indictments via his favorite platform: Twitter. There, he riled up his supporters by noting Mueller’s charges involve actions pre-dating the 2016 campaign, all the while turning the tables back on his Democratic nemesis.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus????” Trump posted Monday, adding a few moments later, “…Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
Meantime, some of Trump’s top allies, including former top White House strategist Steve Bannon, are urging Trump to undermine Mueller’s investigation by going after its budget, according to multiple people familiar with his thinking. Republicans over the weekend also complained that Mueller’s office was behind the initial leak to the media that the indictments were coming – a criminal offense if proven true.
Yet the special counsel demonstrated that his prosecution team can avoid leaking big news. Papadopoulos’ July arrest at Dulles International Airport, his subsequent meetings with the government “on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions,” and his plea deal all remained secret until released by Mueller on Monday.
Mueller’s office over the last five months has avoided much in the way of public comment on anything beyond its staffing hires and other basic logistical moves. On Monday, his office launched a new website under the Justice Department’s banner with his unsealed court filings, contact information and a link to his underlying mandate.
Several former federal prosecutors said Mueller made a smart strategic decision by waiting until Monday to release the Papadopoulos plea, which signals legal exposure to anyone who was in contact with the foreign policy aide during the campaign as well as people who were in touch with him in more recent months without knowing he was cooperating with investigators.
“I’m sure there are a lot of phones ringing off the hook to folks’ lawyers,” Myers Wood said. “They’re rethinking any interaction with him in the last few months.”
The plea document revealed the FBI, for example, first interviewed Papadopoulos on Jan. 27, 2017 — just a week after Trump inauguration and the same day the then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates met with White House counsel Don McGahn to raise red flags about then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Mueller’s filings in the Manafort and Gates cases leaned hard on the work of investigators from the Treasury Department, IRS and the FBI—a sign that those teams are seamlessly supporting Mueller’s core team of prosecutors.
“It’s obvious they’ve got good ones,” Wisenberg said of the FBI agents and other staffers detailed to Mueller’s investigation far. “That’s important. You don’t always get good people.”
David Sklansky, a Stanford Law School professor, said the criminal charges against the former campaign chairman and his deputy would “put considerable pressure” on both men to start cooperating with the special counsel.
Even if neither man flips, Sklansky added, the indictments showed Mueller’s team had managed to untangle complex transactions. “They can follow money trails designed not to be followed, they can unravel complicated webs of deceit and collusion crossing international borders, and they can do this relatively rapidly,” he said.
Mueller’s first indictments came at a much faster pace than the 17-month average seen in the nine previous independent counsel and special counsel cases that date back to the Carter administration where any criminal charges got filed, according to a POLITICO analysis of the historic legal record. The only case that had moved at a faster pace than Mueller’s — Whitewater — had certain similar circumstances.
In that probe, the first independent counsel, Robert Fiske, inherited a number of earlier investigative efforts involving the Clintons’ land deals in Arkansas that sped along his first major action just two months after his January 1994 appointment. Fiske notched a guilty plea on federal fraud charges against David Hale, an Arkansas political insider and former municipal judge who said Bill Clinton as governor had pressured him to approve an illegal government-subsidized loan.
Hale, in turn, agreed to cooperate with Fiske as part of a wider Whitewater investigation that would last more than seven-plus years and ended up covering the suicide of White House attorney Vincent Foster, irregularities in the White House travel office, allegations of misuse of confidential FBI files, false statements by a top White House attorney and finally the president’s sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“The game has just begun,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior counsel from Starr investigation. “Don’t expect a resolution any time soon — this is just the bottom of the second inning in a long game.”
Annie Karni contributed to this report.
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