What’s left in Mueller’s probe?

There have been bomb­shells aplenty but still a lot yet to be an­swered

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Megerian

It has won ver­dicts and out­lined Moscow’s med­dling, but a lot is yet to be an­swered.

WASH­ING­TON — Some­times it feels as though the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III has been one bomb­shell after an­other. He’s suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted some of Pres­i­dent Trump’s clos­est aides and pro­vided a de­tailed blue­print of Moscow’s at­tempts to in­ter­fere in U.S. pol­i­tics.

But there’s still a lot we don’t know about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and some of the big­gest ques­tions of the case re­main unan­swered. Here’s where ma­jor is­sues in the case stand and what we’re still wait­ing to learn.

What ex­actly was Moscow do­ing dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign?

This story line is the clear­est part of Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion at this point since his team has used in­dict­ments to out­line in de­tail a two-pronged ef­fort by Rus­sia to in­ter­fere with the U.S. elec­tion and boost Trump’s can­di­dacy.

The first in­volved the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, a so-called troll farm based in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia, that spread mis­in­for­ma­tion on so­cial me­dia.

The sec­ond uti­lized of­fi­cers of the GRU, Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence agency. They hacked Demo­cratic Party emails and, pos­ing as a Ro­ma­nian hacker, pro­vided them to Wik­iLeaks. The mes­sages were re­leased at sev­eral points dur­ing the cam­paign, start­ing shortly be­fore the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion and con­tin­u­ing into the fi­nal weeks be­fore the elec­tion, dom­i­nat­ing news cov­er­age at key mo­ments.

Was there a con­nec­tion be­tween Wik­iLeaks and Trump?

It’s clear that Trump was ea­ger to cap­i­tal­ize on Wik­iLeaks dur­ing the cam­paign, even though con­sid­er­able ev­i­dence ex­isted at the time that the emails be­ing re­leased by the or­ga­ni­za­tion had been hacked by Rus­sian op­er­a­tives. Whether a more con­spir­a­to­rial con­nec­tion ex­isted is an open ques­tion.

Most at­ten­tion has cen­tered on Roger Stone, a long­time ad­vi­sor to Trump, who may have tried to con­tact Wik­iLeaks. Ac­cord­ing to a draft court fil­ing pre­pared by Mueller’s of­fice, Stone asked Jerome Corsi, a right-wing writer, to reach out to the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The fil­ing does not say whether that ef­fort was suc­cess­ful, and Corsi and Stone have de­nied any wrong­do­ing. But Mueller ap­pears to have been build­ing a crim­i­nal case in­volv­ing Wik­iLeaks, in­clud­ing grand jury tes­ti­mony from Stone’s as­so­ciates.

What was Paul Manafort try­ing to do?

An im­por­tant and un­ex­pected rev­e­la­tion be­came pub­lic last week when de­fense lawyers for Manafort, Trump’s for­mer cam­paign chair­man, in­ad­ver­tently dis­closed that pros­e­cu­tors be­lieved he pro­vided polling data to a Rus­sian col­league in Ukraine. The col­league, Kon­stantin Kil­imnik, has been ac­cused of hav­ing ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence.

Manafort, who was con­victed last year of bank fraud and tax eva­sion in­volv­ing his work as an over­seas po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant, has de­nied any wrong­do­ing re­lated to the elec­tion. But we know pros­e­cu­tors be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing him be­cause they sus­pected he might have served as a back chan­nel to Rus­sia dur­ing the cam­paign. And we know Manafort was work­ing for Trump for free at a time when Manafort was deeply in debt.

Did the polling data find their way into the hands of Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence or the In­ter­net Re­search Agency? And was that Manafort’s in­ten­tion in pro­vid­ing the in­for­ma­tion to Kil­imnik? He hasn’t ex­plained his ac­tions.

What else is Rick Gates telling pros­e­cu­tors?

Gates worked for Manafort in Ukraine and later served as his deputy on Trump’s cam­paign. He tes­ti­fied against Manafort dur­ing his trial last year, pro­vid­ing the jury with de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on a scheme to avoid taxes and ob­tain fraud­u­lent mort­gages. But pros­e­cu­tors haven’t moved for­ward with sen­tenc­ing Gates, who pleaded guilty to ly­ing and con­spir­acy. That sug­gests Gates’ co­op­er­a­tion with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion hasn’t ended.

It’s un­clear what he’s been telling the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice, but Gates could shed light on a va­ri­ety of is­sues. Not only did he serve at top lev­els of Trump’s cam­paign, but he also worked for Trump’s in­au­gu­ral com­mit­tee, which is re­port­edly un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion as well.

Could the Trump Tower meet­ing lead to charges?

One of the most in­fa­mous episodes to come to light dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was a meet­ing at Trump Tower in New York a few weeks be­fore the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion. It in­volved top cam­paign of­fi­cials and a Rus­sian lawyer who had promised to pro­vide dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about Hillary Clin­ton. Be­fore ac­cept­ing the meet­ing, Don­ald Trump Jr. was told by an in­ter­me­di­ary that the of­fer was backed by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. “I love it,” he re­sponded. But the en­counter has not been re­ferred to in any of the court fil­ings from Mueller’s of­fice, and no one has been charged in con­nec­tion with it. (The Rus­sian lawyer has been charged with ob­struc­tion in a sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing money laun­der­ing.)

Among the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’s unan­swered ques­tions: Will Mueller de­ter­mine that any laws were bro­ken with that meet­ing? And will he con­firm that the meet­ing ac­tu­ally rep­re­sented a quasi-of­fi­cial out­reach by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment?

What about that plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow?

Michael Co­hen, Trump’s long­time lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty to ly­ing to Con­gress about his pur­suit of a Moscow real es­tate deal that had been a goal of Trump’s for decades. He ad­mit­ted to speak­ing with a Rus­sian gov­ern­ment of­fice about the pro­posal, which he pre­vi­ously had de­nied, and down­played how of­ten he dis­cussed the ini­tia­tive with Trump or his fam­ily. Co­hen had claimed the idea was aban­doned be­fore the Iowa cau­cuses in Jan­uary 2016, when it ac­tu­ally re­mained in the works un­til after Trump se­cured the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion.

The dis­clo­sure shed new light on Trump’s push for closer re­la­tions with Moscow while he was a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date — his per­sonal busi­ness would have ben­e­fited. But it’s un­clear how the pro­posal might fac­tor into other ques­tions in­volv­ing the elec­tion: Did Rus­sians wield some kind of fi­nan­cial lever­age over Trump? Was the project dis­cussed in con­junc­tion with Moscow’s sup­port for Trump’s can­di­dacy?

Did any­one else lie to Con­gress?

Co­hen’s guilty plea could be an omi­nous sign for oth­ers who have tes­ti­fied on Capi­tol Hill. Democrats say they be­lieve some peo­ple who ap­peared be­fore the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee weren’t hon­est with law­mak­ers, and they want to pro­vide the full tran­scripts to Mueller. Since the spe­cial coun­sel has al­ready proved will­ing to press charges when peo­ple lie to Con­gress, more charges could be on the way if pros­e­cu­tors de­cide there are ad­di­tional crimes.

Did the pres­i­dent ob­struct jus­tice?

We know that Mueller has been ex­am­in­ing whether Trump ob­structed jus­tice by try­ing to in­flu­ence the out­come of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. So far that re­view hasn’t pro­duced any crim­i­nal charges or pub­lic state­ments from the spe­cial coun­sel im­pli­cat­ing the pres­i­dent.

This part of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion could end up be­ing one of the most se­ri­ous threats to Trump’s pres­i­dency. Ob­struc­tion was one of the charges against Pres­i­dent Clin­ton when he was im­peached. Pres­i­dent Nixon was ex­pected to face the same charge be­fore he re­signed, avoid­ing im­peach­ment.

Some of the key episodes that could fac­tor into an ob­struc­tion case are al­ready pub­lic knowl­edge, most no­tably Trump’s de­ci­sion to fire James B. Comey as FBI di­rec­tor and his sub­se­quent ex­pla­na­tion that “this Rus­sia thing” was on his mind at the time.

White House lawyers ar­gue that a pres­i­dent can’t be ac­cused of ob­struc­tion for acts that fall within his con­sti­tu­tional pow­ers, in­clud­ing fir­ing se­nior of­fi­cials.

Ting Shen New China News Agency

SPE­CIAL COUN­SEL Robert S. Mueller III has kept quiet, but the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion he leads has suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted some of Pres­i­dent Trump’s clos­est aides and out­lined Moscow’s in­ter­fer­ence in U.S. pol­i­tics.

Man­del Ngan AFP/Getty Images

FOR­MER Trump cam­paign chief Paul Manafort is be­lieved to have given polling data to a col­league in Ukraine ac­cused of hav­ing ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence.

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