Mueller’s next steps worry White House

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON: The White House is brac­ing for the probe of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to fire up again.

Trump’s ad­vis­ers are pri­vately ex­press­ing wor­ries that the spe­cial coun­sel, who’s been out of the news for the past month, has been stealth­ily com­pil­ing in­for­ma­tion and could soon is­sue new in­dict­ments or a damn­ing fi­nal re­port.

Trump abruptly al­tered the chain of com­mand above Mueller Wed­nes­day, putting his work un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a Repub­li­can loy­al­ist who has been openly skep­ti­cal of the spe­cial coun­sel’s au­thor­ity and has mused about ways to cur­tail his power. But Trump and his aides are con­cerned about Mueller’s next move with the work that is com­plete, ac­cord­ing to a White House of­fi­cial and a Repub­li­can with close ties to the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

They in­sisted on anonymity to com­ment on con­ver­sa­tions they were not au­tho­rized to de­scribe.

Mueller kept a low pro­file for the past month as vot­ers were mulling their choices for this week’s elec­tions.

But a flurry of ac­tiv­ity dur­ing his quiet pe­riod, in­clud­ing weeks of grand jury tes­ti­mony about Trump con­fi­dant Roger Stone and ne­go­ti­a­tions over an in­ter­view with the pres­i­dent, hinted at pub­lic de­vel­op­ments ahead as in­ves­ti­ga­tors move closer to ad­dress­ing key ques­tions un­der­pin­ning the spe­cial coun­sel in­quiry: Did Trump il­le­gally ob­struct the in­ves­ti­ga­tion? And did his cam­paign have ad­vance knowl­edge of il­le­gally hacked Demo­cratic emails?

Trump has told con­fi­dants he re­mains deeply an­noyed by the 18month-old Mueller probe. The lat­est in­di­ca­tion of the fury came Wed­nes­day when he forced out his at­tor­ney gen­eral, Jeff Ses­sions, whose re­cusal opened the door to Mueller’s ap­point­ment.

To this point, Trump has heeded ad­vice not to di­rectly in­ter­fere, though a new chap­ter in the re­la­tion­ship with the probe may have be­gun with the ap­point­ment of Matthew Whi­taker as new act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral. Even if Whi­taker, Ses­sions’ for­mer chief of staff, does not cur­tail the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Trump could di­rect him to take a more ag­gres­sive stance in de­clas­si­fy­ing doc­u­ments that could fur­ther un­der­mine or mud­dle the probe, the White House aide and Repub­li­can of­fi­cial said.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­til now has been over­seen by Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, who ap­pointed Mueller last year and granted him fairly broad au­thor­ity.

“It’s very sig­nif­i­cant be­cause Whi­taker’s po­si­tion on in­dict­ments or fu­ture in­dict­ments may be dif­fer­ent than Rosen­stein’s, and Rosen­stein had given Mueller a broad man­date to pur­sue var­i­ous crimes,” Wash­ing­ton crim­i­nal de­fense lawyer Jef­frey Ja­cobovitz said. Trump Fri­day moved to dis­tance him­self from Whi­taker, say­ing, “I don’t know Matt Whi­taker.” But he also called him “smart” and “re­spected.”

The Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion has so far pro­duced 32 crim­i­nal charges and four guilty pleas from Trump as­so­ci­ates. But the work is not done.

A clear fo­cus con­cerns Stone, a long­time po­lit­i­cal dirty trick­ster. The spe­cial coun­sel’s team has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing Stone’s con­nec­tion to Wik­iLeaks dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign and whether he had ad­vance knowl­edge of the group’s plans to re­lease hacked ma­te­rial dam­ag­ing to Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Stone has said he did not, but emails, Twit­ter mes­sages and his own pub­lic state­ments show he por­trayed him­self as plugged into the Wik­iLeaks or­bit. That in­cludes im­ply­ing he had in­side knowl­edge in sep­a­rate email ex­changes with a Bre­it­bart ed­i­tor and Steve Ban­non, the for­mer Trump cam­paign chief ex­ec­u­tive, just days be­fore Wik­iLeaks be­gan re­leas­ing thou­sands of emails stolen from Clin­ton cam­paign chair­man John Podesta.

Ban­non and other Stone as­so­ci­ates have been ques­tioned, and mul­ti­ple wit­nesses have ap­peared be­fore the grand jury.

A fed­eral ap­peals Thurs­day court heard a chal­lenge to Mueller’s au­thor­ity brought by Stone aide An­drew Miller, who de­fied a grand jury sub­poena last sum­mer and was held in contempt by a judge.

In the pres­i­dent’s or­bit, there re­mains some con­cern about his el­dest son, Don­ald Trump Jr., though there are no out­ward in­di­ca­tions that charges are im­mi­nent, ac­cord­ing to a Repub­li­can close to the White House not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

Be­yond Mueller, but also within the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s over­sight, is a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Trump’s long­time le­gal fixer, Michael Co­hen, who ad­mit­ted as part of a guilty plea in Au­gust to co­or­di­nat­ing with Trump on a hush-money scheme to si­lence a porn ac­tress and an ex-Play­boy model who say they had af­fairs with Trump.

The pres­i­dent hasn’t been charged with any wrong­do­ing, but fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have said that a grand jury in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing and it tar­gets un­spec­i­fied “oth­ers.” Court pa­pers show Trump’s con­duct and that of top ex­ec­u­tives at the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion, some of whom have re­ceived im­mu­nity, have been scru­ti­nized.

It’s un­clear what ad­di­tional charges pros­e­cu­tors are pur­su­ing and how much of it per­tains to the pres­i­dent per­son­ally. Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have said in court pa­pers that the case in­volves nu­mer­ous “un­charged” third par­ties and have ar­gued against dis­clos­ing search war­rants and other doc­u­ments that would “cer­tainly re­sult in a very pub­lic guess­ing game” about their iden­ti­ties.

Over­see­ing it all is Whi­taker, a U.S. at­tor­ney from Iowa who was brought into the Jus­tice Depart­ment last year to serve as Ses­sions’ chief of staff. In the months be­fore, Whi­taker was a fa­mil­iar pres­ence on CNN, where he ques­tioned Mueller’s scope and reach.

In one ap­pear­ance, he de­fended a June 2016 Trump Tower meet­ing be­tween Trump Jr. and a Krem­lin-con­nected Rus­sian lawyer, say­ing: “You would al­ways take that meet­ing.”

He also once tweeted an ex-pros­e­cu­tor’s opin­ion piece that de­scribed the Mueller team as a “lynch mob,” and wrote his own op-ed say­ing Mueller would be out­side his au­thor­ity if he in­ves­ti­gated Trump’s fam­ily fi­nances.

Trump had en­joyed Whi­taker’s cable TV ap­pear­ances and the two men soon struck a bond. Trump told as­so­ci­ates that he felt that Whi­taker would be “loyal” and would not have re­cused him­self from the Rus­sia probe as Ses­sions had done, ac­cord­ing to two Repub­li­cans close to the White House not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

De­spite de­mands from Democrats that he re­cuse be­cause of his past com­ments, Whi­taker showed no signs Thurs­day that he in­tended to do so. –

Trump speaks to the me­dia be­fore board­ing Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House.

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