White House braces for re­port

Trump ad­vis­ers wor­ried about Mueller’s next move af­ter Ses­sions’ forced res­ig­na­tion

Bay of Plenty Times - - World - USA

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 on Thurs­day, putting his work un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a Repub­li­can loy­al­ist who has been openly scep­ti­cal 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.

Mueller laid low 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 18-month-old Mueller probe, be­liev­ing it is not just a “witch hunt” but an ex­pen­sive and lengthy neg­a­tive dis­trac­tion. The lat­est in­di­ca­tion of the fury came on Thurs­day 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,” said Wash­ing­ton crim­i­nal de­fence lawyer Jef­frey Ja­cobovitz.

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 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 then-Trump cam­paign chair­man, 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. One as­so­ciate, Jerome Corsi, said in a video record­ing that he’s “been in­volved in a re­ally con­stant ba­sis” for two months with Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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.

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 Or­gan­i­sa­tion, some of whom have re­ceived im­mu­nity, have been scru­ti­nised.

But it’s un­clear what ad­di­tional charges pros­e­cu­tors are pur­su­ing and how much of it per­tains to the pres­i­dent per­son­ally.

Over­see­ing it all is Whi­taker, an 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 a 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.

De­spite de­mands from Democrats and ethics watch­dogs that he re­cuse be­cause of his past com­ments, Whi­taker showed no sign he in­tends to do so.

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