President Donald Trump’s White House and personal lawyers scrambled Saturday to learn where the knife might fall in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, triggering a guessing game among aides after days of trying to turn attention away from allegations of collusion with Russia during the election.
Attorneys involved in the case said their cellphones have been ringing nonstop as they connected with each other, and with reporters, trying to gather more concrete details after a CNN report Friday night that a federal grand jury had approved the first charges in the Russia investigation.
While the report did not cite names, attorneys close to the case said they were discussing whether the indictment was for two known Mueller targets: former campaign chairman Paul Manafort or former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Several attorneys who said they were in touch with the Manafort and Flynn lawyers said they had not been notified of any matter related to an indictment — which is customary in a white-collar criminal investigation — leading them to believe it wasn’t either of those two former high-ranking Trump aides. An attorney for Manafort did not respond to a request for comment. Michael Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, declined to comment.
The attorneys close to the case also said they wouldn’t be surprised if the charges were targeting Flynn or Manafort family members, or a longtime accountant or lawyer.
Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller’s top attorneys and a frequent presence over the last month at the grand jury proceedings in Washington, including on Friday, was known to use that tactic to gain advantage when attempting to prosecute Enron executives in the mid-2000s. “That moves you toward making a deal when the son or a wife is indicted,” said a white-collar attorney familiar with the Mueller probe.
For example, an indictment of Flynn’s son, who worked for his father’s lobbying firm, could put pressure on Flynn to begin to cooperate with investigators. Flynn and his son have been under scrutiny for their lobbying work on behalf of a Turkish client with ties to the country’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Flynn Jr. also accompanied his father to Moscow in December 2015 for a paid speech, which Putin attended, celebrating the Russian propaganda outlet RT. Michael Flynn did not disclose the payments in his application to renew his security clearance in 2016; the Democratic and GOP leaders of the House Oversight Committee earlier this year said that was likely an illegal omission.
Barry Coburn, Michael Flynn Jr.’s attorney, also declined to comment. Alan Futerfas, an attorney for Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., said he had no insight into the CNN story or any Mueller indictments.
Aaron May, an attorney for Jeffrey Yohai, Manafort’s former son-in-law, who has come under scrutiny for real estate transactions conducted with Paul Manafort, said he couldn’t talk about the case, but not because he was under any kind of court order. “I don’t know,” he said.
Several lawyers close to the case were trying to gauge the accuracy of the original report, which POLITICO has not independently confirmed. Speculation also was rising over who would release information that is sealed by a federal judge. “If the leaker isn’t the defense, that could be a legal issue,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago, though he said that his “gut” suggests the story came from a defense attorney “who was told to have his client in court on Monday.”
A spokesman for Mueller, Peter Carr, declined to comment.
While Trump’s lawyers said they were just as in the dark in deducing what was happening on the Mueller indictment front, they noted White House staff interviews were continuing. They said the president’s team was adamant about maintaining a cooperative approach with the special counsel — even though the public push back from the president, his White House communications staff and even his 2020 reelection campaign were headed in a very different direction.
As Friday night’s news dominated the cable airwaves, the president on Twitter posted a link to a New York Post tabloid op-ed with the headline, “How Team Hillary played the press for fools on Russia” along with a 34-second video titled “WHAT HAPPENED.”
Trump earlier on Friday also went after the Russia investigations and added a jab at his 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton, tweeting, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!”
During her daily press briefing at the White House on Friday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump’s tweet about an expensive investigation wasn’t just about the Mueller probe. “That’s not the only investigation that’s taking place. Congress has spent a great deal of time on this — a better part of a year. All of your news organizations have actually spent probably a lot of money on this as well, which we would consider probably a pretty big waste,” she said.
The Trump campaign in a text message to supporters just before the CNN story broke blasted out a fundraising solicitation for upwards of $2,700 from “Trump Headquarters” with a subject line, “RUSSIA?”
“The Script Has Been Flipped,” the campaign’s website read. “Crooked Hillary and the DNC have been EXPOSED paying a company to use a foreign agent to take down my Presidency. … And the company they used has ties to Russia. I need the IMMEDIATE support of the American people. Contribute now and DEMAND answers from Crooked Hillary and the DNC!”
GOP operative and longtime Trump ally Roger Stone went on a Twitter tear against CNN commentators who were dissecting their scoop, tweeting multiple derogatory messages at the anchor. “If Carl Bernstein says something the overwhelming odds are that it’s false lied about Watergate lying lying now” he posted a few minutes later.
Stone is a longtime Trump associate who helped the billionaire set up an exploratory run for president in 1999 and became an informal adviser to his 2016 campaign. He is also a former Manafort lobbying partner.
Stone kept up the attacks in a pre-dawn email Saturday to POLITICO, this time training his fire on Mueller. “I hear Mueller has indicted Manafort’s driver for double parking and nailing Manafort’s housekeeper for tearing the tags off sofa cushions,” Stone wrote, calling for the former FBI director to be “prosecuted for his crimes.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, an outspoken House Intelligence Committee member, suggested via Twitter that Republicans would face their own troubles with their recent moves to open investigations into Clinton and the DNC. “Please, everyone, save this tweet. Trust me. #TrumpRussia,” the California Democrat wrote on Twitter, citing a @GOP message with the same line used by the Trump campaign: “The script has flipped on the Russia investigation.”
A Mueller indictment in a little over five months since his mid-May appointment — if accurate — would mean movement 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 historical legal record.
Mueller has been working off others’ efforts. In his testimony earlier this year to the Senate, former FBI Director James Comey explained that the FBI had been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election since July 2016. And Manafort’s work in Ukraine had been under DOJ scrutiny since as far back as 2014, according to an AP report this spring.
The only case that would have 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 that March 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 agreed to cooperate with Fiske as part of the wider Whitewater investigation.
For comparison, it took special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald nearly 22 months until October 2005 to indict Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for making false statements to the FBI, obstruction of justice and perjury over his testimony before the federal grand jury. Independent counsel David Barrett needed almost 28 months in his investigation of Clinton HUD Secretary Henry Cisernos, though the first charges were filed in September 1997 against Cisernos’s mistress, Linda Medlar-Jones, as well as her sister and brother-in-law, Patsy and Allen Wooten, on multiple charges including fraud, false statements, money laundering and conspiracy surrounding the purchase of a home financed by money from Cisernos.
A former senior DOJ official who has worked with Mueller — but was unable himself to confirm the latest report — said that if true it would be well within the former FBI director’s character to bring an indictment this soon. “Bob combines thoroughness and speed,” the former official said.
Josh Gerstein and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.
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