Monday, November 13, 2017

It's Mueller Time, Con't

With all indications that Robert Mueller is closing in on former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and his son Michael Jr. and that either indictments could be handed down very soon or that Flynn is already cooperating with Mueller in his investigation, the guesswork goes to where Mueller may be headed next by looking at what his all-star team of prosecutors is doing.

His most experienced attorneys have discrete targets, such as former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and current White House aides. Mueller’s longtime chief of staff is coordinating all the lawyers, including some who cover multiple topics. Select FBI special agents have been tapped to question witnesses. 
Spearheading the criminal case against Manafort and his longtime deputy Rick Gates are three prosecutors schooled in money laundering, fraud, foreign bribery and organized crime: Andrew Weissmann, Greg Andres and Kyle Freeny. 
And at the center of the investigation into Flynn is Jeannie Rhee, a former Obama-era deputy assistant attorney general who most recently worked with Mueller at the WilmerHale law firm — and whose name has so far appeared only on publicly available court documents relating to the guilty plea of former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. Assisting Rhee on the Flynn case is Zainab Ahmad, an assistant U.S. attorney from New York with a specialty in prosecuting and collecting evidence in international criminal and terrorism cases — and whose name hasn’t yet appeared in Russia-related court filings at all. 
Mueller’s org chart pulls back the curtain on how the special counsel’s relatively small team is handling an array of investigative targets ranging from campaign contacts with Russian operatives to possibly Trump himself. 
“Division of labor is essential here,” said Samuel Buell, a Duke University law professor and former assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Weissmann in the prosecution of Enron executives in the early 2000s. “There’s got to be some carving up of this thing into nests of facts.” 
Mueller’s investigation began with a focus on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, but he’s free to pursue any crimes he finds. Former Justice officials said the special counsel’s team needs to be flexible as it scrutinizes Trump aides’ contacts with Russians, Manafort’s overseas lobbying, Flynn’s firing due to his failure to disclose conversations with Russian officials, and the president’s decision to oust FBI Director James Comey. They could cast a still wider net; Trump and his lawyers have warned Mueller to stay away from the president’s real estate deals
One lawyer in Mueller’s office has indicated publicly that the different parts of the special counsel’s work are interconnected. During Papadopoulos’ plea agreement hearing in October, Mueller prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky urged the federal judge to restrict Freedom of Information Act access to the court files because “there’s a large-scale ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part.”

Flynn is a keystone to this whole mess, as was made clear over the weekend as reports that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica sought out stolen DNC emails from WikiLeaks after joining the Trump campaign as data analysts in 2016.

During that same time period, Republican operative Peter W. Smith tried to obtain the Clinton State Department emails. In his search for the emails, he said he was working on behalf of Michael Flynn, a Trump campaign adviser. One of the cyberexperts Smith met, a man named Matt Tait, told Smith that his mission would entail trafficking in stolen emails obtained by Russia. Smith made clear this didn’t bother him. “Smith and I talked several times about the DNC hack, and I expressed my view that the hack had likely been orchestrated by Russia and that the Kremlin was using the stolen documents as part of an influence campaign against the United States,” recounted Tait. Despite impressing upon them the ethical and legal dangers of cooperating with a probable Russian intelligence plot, “Smith, however, didn’t seem to care.” 
The Journal also reported last summer that American investigators “have examined reports from intelligence agencies that describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary.” 
Flynn also worked as a consultant to Cambridge Analytica — a fact he failed to disclose until this last August. We don’t have proof that all these figures were acting together. But it certainly appears that Cambridge Analytica was heavily involved with trying to get Clinton’s stolen emails, and was aware that Russia had engineered their theft, and played an important role facilitating cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The road to Mueller recommending charges against Donald Trump will continue to be a long one, but Mueller has the right people for the job, and that road leads through Michael Flynn.  The issue has always been whether or not the GOP-led House would impeach, or that the Senate would conduct a trial and actually remove a chief executive, or if things would take a Nixonian path and Trump would resign before it got that far.

I'm sure Mueller will have those recommended charges at some point ready to go. I'm far, far less sanguine about believing that Trump or the GOP will actually give a damn, and that's where we get into the truly ugly scenarios.

Part of that remains whether or not the investigation is completed before the 2018 midterm elections come around.  I would suspect that we'll find out the answer to that next summer or sooner.  A GOP facing charges against Trump saying "we refuse to hold an impeachment vote" may run into some issue with the voters next November, just saying.

We'll see.

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