Robert Mueller’s net closes in on team Trump
The inquiry into Russian election influence is reaching a conclusion and edging closer to the president’s family, as David Charter writes.
‘‘Lock her up, that’s right ... If I did a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today.’’
Michael Flynn, who would go on to become United States President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, was in full self-righteous mode when he egged on chants about Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
That was before the retired three-star general lied to FBI investigators about his Russian contacts, leaving him facing his own spell inside. This week, we learnt how he seized the chance of a get-out-of-jail card.
Flynn, 60, was a key member of Trump’s campaign team. He has been interviewed 19 times by Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the investigation into ‘‘Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and related matters’’.
The heavily redacted sentencing memo released by Mueller before Flynn’s rendezvous with a judge on December 18 has added to the impression of a net slowly closing around Trump’s innercircle as the 18-month Russia inquiry nears its conclusion. The memo suggested that several lines of investigation were active, although the details were hidden from public view.
Further tantalising glimpses into the direction of the secretive, and so far leak-proof, investigation will come today, with a letter to the judge who, on December 12, will sentence 52-year-old Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer. The letter will outline more details of Cohen’s co-operation with Mueller’s office.
Cohen pleaded guilty to several crimes, including campaign finance fraud, telling a court he was ordered to break the law to make hush-money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump, 72.
Also today, Mueller’s team will inform a judge in Washington about alleged breaches of a plea agreement by Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. The 69-year-old is accused of lying to prosecutors after promising to co-operate.
Mueller, 74, a former Marine decorated for his service in Vietnam and director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013, was appointed special counsel by Rod Rosenstein, America’s deputy attorneygeneral. Jeff Sessions, who was the nation’s attorney-general until last month, ruled himself out of the Russia probe because he had been part of Trump’s election campaign team.
The Mueller investigation has already led to charges against 36 people and companies, on a total of 192 separate counts, with guilty pleas from seven of those indicted and one trial conviction – Manafort, who was found guilty in August on eight charges of financial fraud unrelated to Russian election influence.
Trump has made his views of the inquiry plain in frequent tweets, attacking it as a ‘‘witch hunt’’ and a ‘‘hoax’’.
He has declined to appear before the investigation and instead answered a series of written questions. He recently praised Roger Stone, one of his campaign advisers, for his ‘‘guts’’ in refusing to co-operate with prosecutors.
A plea deal was also turned down by Stone’s associate, Jerome Corsi, who has been investigated as an alleged intermediary between Stone and WikiLeaks, which published emails during the campaign that had been stolen from the Democratic Party by Russian agents.
The WikiLeaks connection appears to be a significant strand of the Mueller investigation.
WikiLeaks started publishing emails stolen from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, less than an hour after the emergence of the Access Hollywood tape on which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women.
The Democratic email leak helped to take the focus away from the damaging tape, which had almost scuppered Trump’s presidential campaign. If Mueller could prove co-ordination with the Russians over the release, then that could lead to conspiracy charges.
Another strand is the link between any Trump business deals and possible favours for the Russians. Cohen revealed as part of his plea deal in court last week that Trump was involved in a property project in Moscow to build a ‘‘Trump Tower’’ while running for the Republican nomination.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s company planned to give a US$50 million penthouse in the new skyscraper to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump, who tweeted in January 2017 that ‘‘I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!’’, said last week after Cohen’s revelation that ‘‘he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. We were very open with it . . . There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it ... It was my business. So he’s lying very simply to get a reduced sentence, OK?’’
Flynn has provided information about interactions between Trump’s transition team and Russian government officials, including several conversations he had with Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the US, in December 2016.
These included a discussion about lifting economic sanctions imposed by US President Barack Obama on Russia and asking Moscow to delay a United Nations security council resolution on Israeli settlements.
‘‘A very senior member of the transition team directed’’ Flynn to contact Kislyak, according to the prosecution in Flynn’s initial court appearance last year.
It is widely believed that the very senior member could be Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who attended one of Flynn’s meetings with the Russian ambassador. Kushner is also under investigation for his role in a meeting at Trump Tower arranged by Donald Trump Jr in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer who promised ‘‘dirt’’ on Clinton.
As the inquiry continues, edging closer to Trump and his family, Democrats are leading calls for legislation to protect Mueller from interference by Matthew Whitaker, the recently appointed acting attorney-general, who is a strong critic of the inquiry.
Whitaker has assumed oversight of the investigation from Rosenstein. Washington is abuzz with speculation that this is part of a White House plot to clip the inquiry’s wings, perhaps by Whitaker starving it of resources.
Mueller’s final report will be presented to the acting attorneygeneral, who will decide what to make public. – The Times
The Mueller investigation has already led to charges against 36 people and companies, on a total of 192 separate counts, with guilty pleas from seven of those indicted and one trial conviction.
Robert Mueller’s investigation into ‘‘Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and related matters’’ is closing in around United States President Donald Trump, as, one by one, it picks off former associates.
Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer and fixer, has been co-operating with the Mueller inquiry.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, is accused of lying to prosecutors after promising to co-operate.
Former United States national security adviser Michael Flynn has cut a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller.