The beginning of May marks the longest period of public silence from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team since his first charges last October—more than two months without any new plea deals, fresh indictments, or publicly “flipped” witnesses.
At the same time, though, it’s been a period of aggressive moves that continue to illustrate an investigation that is far from complete, including the raid by federal prosecutors on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office, court evidence that shows Mueller’s team successfully sought permission to expand the scope of the probe, the release of former FBI director James Comey’s memos documenting his interactions with the president, continual hints that the special counsel is probing the UAE, the odd meeting by Blackwater founder Erik Prince in the Seychelles, and numerous other aspects of the complex, multi-part investigation.
Recent weeks have also seen President Trump tweeting regularly about the investigation and the capital W, capital H “Witch Hunt,” and in his train wreck of a phone interview with Fox & Friends last week, he hinted that his patience is wearing thin, referring to “our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won't.”
“I’ve taken the position—and I don’t have to take this position and maybe I’ll change—that I will not be involved with the Justice Department. I will wait until this is over. It's a total, it's all lies and it’s a horrible thing that’s going on, a horrible thing,” he said. “They have a witch hunt against the President of the United States going on.”
It’s clear that this is no made-up 'witch hunt.'
Then, last night, the final hours of April held one final surprise: The New York Times published a list of questions that, according to Donald Trump’s legal team, Mueller’s office wants to ask the president. The more than four dozen questions span a spectrum from the Steele dossier to suspicious, Russia-friendly changes to the GOP’s party platform during the 2016 Cleveland convention, but most of the questions focus on the president’s own statements and reactions to various steps of the investigation, and his interactions with three key figures: former national security adviser Mike Flynn, attorney general Jeff Sessions, and Comey.
Donald Trump himself tweeted about the questions early Tuesday, saying it was a “disgrace” that they leaked, but the Times story sources the leak to people on Trump’s side; Mueller’s team continues to operate almost entirely leak-free. It’s also hard to read the leaks as anything other than an attempt to bring public pressure on Trump to refuse an interview with Mueller’s team. (According to media reports, Trump has been keen to sit down with Mueller, but his legal team has advised against it.)
Mueller’s proposed questions are primarily high-level—presumably the starting point for what would then be increasingly detailed follow-ups, backed up by specific emails, documents, telephone records, and other files Mueller’s team and FBI investigators have accumulated in an investigation stretching back more than two years. While the initial 49 questions are intriguing on their own, they primarily line up with what’s publicly known about the investigation so far. There’s nothing out of left field. Thus, the real mystery is the follow-ups: Why, precisely, is Mueller interested?
Taken as a whole, the leaked questions help shape and underscore some key takeaways:
1. Mueller always knows more than we think. Every single indictment has been deeper, broader, and more detailed than anyone anticipated. This “misunderestimating” of what Mueller knows has been true of both the public and media reports, and of his witnesses and targets: Both Rick Gates and Alex van der Zwaan were caught in lies by Mueller’s team, who have known far more specific information than their targets first realized. Presumably, Mueller’s questions to Trump are informed by even more evidence that we haven’t seen.
2. Mueller is building a bulletproof case. Paul Manafort spent the spring trying to argue that Mueller was a loose cannon, a reckless, out-of-control prosecutor straying far beyond his assignment. His court case, though, proved just the opposite: The release this spring in court of a previously classified memo by Rod Rosenstein makes clear just how cautiously and conservatively Mueller is proceeding legally. One of the key members of Mueller’s team, Michael Dreeben, specializes in looking down the road at potential legal pitfalls and how cases might appear not just at initial trials but in later appellate courts. And Dreeban’s work has paid obvious dividends: After reviewing the evidence in Manafort’s effort to dismiss the charges against him and Mueller’s highly detailed 282-page rebuttal, Judge Amy Berman Jackson told Manafort’s lawyers, “I don’t really understand what is left of your case.”
3. There are more loose threads than ever. Perhaps the most troubling conclusion after reading Mueller’s proposed questions is just how many questions exist about the behavior and motivations of the President of the United States during his first year in office. The 49 questions lay out just how much remains unanswered and unknown, publicly at least, nearly a year into Mueller’s special counsel work. It’s hard to tell from the questions alone which ones represent the most possible jeopardy for the president, but when matched against the five core areas of Mueller’s investigation, it’s clear that Mueller wants to talk with President Trump about nearly all of them, from obstruction of justice to the Trump Organization’s business deals in Russia to the 2016 Trump campaign’s involvement with various Russian officials. Add in the full breadth of the investigation, from New York taxi medallions to Virginia rug stores, and the “supporting players”—including Erik Prince, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Tony Podesta, Carter Page, Sergey Kislyak, Sergey Gorkov, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, as well as the hackers of Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear—and it’s clear that this is no made-up “witch hunt.” There are likely more indictments yet to come.
4. We still don’t know the biggest, most important evidence. There’s an ever-growing pile of evidence that exists that hasn’t become public yet. That includes, obviously, the evidence that George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, and Rick Gates all traded to Mueller for their plea deals over the last seven months. Presumably, Mueller considers each defendant’s testimony worthy of trading months—and even years—off of a potential prison sentence, so it seems significant that more than seven months after Mueller “flipped” Papadopoulos, we still haven’t seen a single iota of the evidence he presumably provided to the investigation.
5. Mueller likely already knows how this story ends. Add up the four above points and it seems clear that Mueller might actually be relatively close to wrapping up the investigation. Given that the FBI raid on Michael Cohen’s office, stemming from an investigation by federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, was sure to provoke a reaction from President Trump—the investigative equivalent of kicking a hornet’s nest—it seems likely that Mueller and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who approved the raid, understood that one or both of them might be fired by the president in its wake. It seems likely that before they took such a provocative step on the case that they could see their way through to the investigation's end.
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