President of the United States
The 2017–present Special Counsel investigation is an ongoing United States law enforcement investigation of the Russian government′s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including investigation of any possible links or/and coordination between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government, "and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." The scope of the investigation reportedly also includes potential obstruction of justice by President Trump and others. Since May 2017, the investigation has been led by a United States Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, a former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Mueller's investigation took over several FBI investigations including those involving former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, both of which started before the 2016 presidential election. President Trump and his supporters have attempted to discr the investigation by questioning the motives of Mueller and his team, referring to the investigation as a "witch hunt," and promoting conspiracy theories in an attempt to falsify the evidence Mueller has accumulated.
Thus far, the investigation has resulted in dozens of indictments for high-level federal crimes. Manafort has been indicted on various tax, financial, and bank fraud crimes in October 2017 and faces trial in September 2018. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and became a cooperating witness in December 2017. Mueller further secured guilty pleas from Manafort's business partner Rick Gates, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan, and Richard Pinedo, all of who became cooperating witnesses to the probe. In February 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russian citizens and 3 Russian entities, most notably the Internet Research Agency, and in June 2018 added an indictment of Konstantin Kilimnik, Manafort's business partner. In July 2018, 12 Russian intelligence operatives who participated in an operation known as Fancy Bear, responsible for the 2016 DNC email hacking, were indicted. Investigations into Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen were referred to the US Attorney's office of the Southern District of New York.
While initially enjoying bipartisan support, the special counsel investigation became subject to criticism by President Trump and his surrogates in the conservative media within months, eventually peddling a "deep state" conspiracy theory. Several allegations of investigators' misconduct have been raised and were almost immediately debunked, including supposed unlawful wire-tapping of Trump Tower during the campaign, unmasking of Trump associates on intelligence intercepts, FISA court abuse against Carter Page detailed in the Nunes memo, and the alleged installation of a spy in the Trump campaign.
A January 2017 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that Russian leadership favored presidential candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally ordered an "influence campaign" to harm Clinton's electoral chances and "undermine public faith in the US democratic process.":7 It is alleged that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in order to increase political instability in the United States and to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign by bolstering the candidacies of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.
The Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Mueller, a former Director of the FBI, to serve as Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) in May 2017. The reference for the investigation is to examine Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, including exploring any links or coordination between Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government, "and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation", and any other matters within the scope of 28 CFR 600.4 – Jurisdiction.
The appointment followed a series of events that included President Donald Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey and Comey's allegation that Trump asked him to drop an FBI investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Rosenstein, in his role as Acting Attorney General due to the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has authority over the use of DOJ resources by Mueller and the investigation. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rosenstein said he would recuse himself from supervision of Mueller if he himself were to become a subject in the investigation due to his role in the dismissal of Comey. If Rosenstein were to recuse himself, his duties in this matter would have been assumed by the Justice Department's third-in-command, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, who has since herself stepped down. So long as no successor fills that office, Solicitor General Noel Francisco assumes the authorities of Associate Attorney General.
As special counsel, Mueller has the power to issue subpoenas, hire staff members, request funding, and prosecute federal crimes in connection with the election interference. According to Rudy Giuliani, who is leading President Trump's legal team, Mueller's team told him that they cannot indict a sitting president; they can only write a report at the conclusion of the investigation. The decision aligns with Justice Department guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted. Giuliani also added that he believes the Constitution prevents indictment of a sitting president. However, this remains an unsettled matter of Constitutional law.
On August 3, 2017, Mueller empaneled a grand jury in Washington, DC, as part of his investigation. The grand jury has the power to subpoena documents, require witnesses to testify under oath, and issue indictments for targets of criminal charges if probable cause is found.
The Washington grand jury is separate from an earlier Virginia grand jury investigating Michael Flynn; the Flynn case has been absorbed into Mueller's overall investigation.
The grand jury has issued subpoenas to those involved in the Trump campaign–Russian meeting held on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower, which was also the location of Trump's presidential campaign headquarters.
NBC News reported on August 25, 2017, that "in recent days" the grand jury subpoenaed witness testimony from the executives of six public relations firms, who worked with Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on lobbying efforts in Ukraine.
On January 16, 2018, The New York Times reported that Steve Bannon was subpoenaed by Mueller to testify before the standing grand jury in Washington, DC. Reuters and CNN reported the next day that Bannon had struck a deal with Mueller's team to be interviewed by prosecutors instead of testifying before the grand jury. On February 15, 2018, multiple sources reported that those interviews had taken place over multiple days that week.
Upon his appointment as special counsel, Mueller resigned his position at the Washington office of law firm WilmerHale, along with two colleagues, Aaron Zebley and James L. Quarles III. On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts announced they had declared Mueller ethically able to function as special counsel.
Politico proposed that the "ideal team" would likely have six to eight prosecutors, along with administrative assistants and experts in areas such as money laundering or interpreting tax returns. Mueller had hired 17 lawyers by February 2018, and had a total staff of over three dozen, including investigators and other non-attorneys by August 2017. He also has an active role in managing the inquiry.
Mueller has also added unidentified agents of the IRS Criminal Investigations Division to his team. "This unit—known as CI—is one of the federal government's most tight-knit, specialized, and secretive investigative entities. Its 2,500 agents focus exclusively on financial crime, including tax evasion and money laundering. A former colleague of Mueller's said he always liked working with IRS' special agents, especially when he was a U.S. Attorney."
Though Trump and others have criticized the fact that many members of Mueller's team have had some affiliation with the Democratic Party, federal regulations prohibit Mueller from considering political affiliation in hiring decisions. Republican members of the House of Representatives have accused the investigation of being manned by personnel with an "anti-Trump" bias who "let Clinton off easy last year", in reference to the FBI's investigation of Hilary Clinton's email server.
As of March 31, 2018, the total cost of the investigation has been $16.7 million. $4.4 million of that was used for staff pay and benefits at the Special Counsel's Office. The attorneys have taken significant cuts in pay to work on the investigation, with their normal salaries "ranging from just under $1 million (for Zebley) to about $4.1 million (for Quarles)". Their salaries "range from $105,782 to $187,000".
Members of President Trump's legal team include:
Former members include:
Prominent lawyers and law firms that have declined offers to join Trump's legal team:
In an article describing the "unique circumstance" of Rudy Giuliani's unpaid leave of absence from Greenberg Traurig while representing Trump, possibly because of "potential conflicts", Christine Simmons referred to how some other law firms may have turned down representing Trump in the Russia case due to "public relations headaches or business and recruitment concerns". Trump has called such views a "Fake News narrative", but, according to Ryan Lovelace, "many Washington defense attorneys aren't so sure".
A number of prominent lawyers and law firms are known to have declined offers to join Trump's legal team, including Robert S. Bennett of Hogan Lovells, Paul Clement and Mark Filip, both with Kirkland & Ellis, Robert Giuffra Jr. of Sullivan & Cromwell, Theodore B. Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. of Williams & Connolly. Other firms with attorneys who have declined to represent Trump include Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Steptoe & Johnson, and Winston & Strawn. Former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova and his wife Victoria Toensing were also briefly slated to join Trump's legal team, but withdrew their services from Trump in March 2018, citing conflicts of interest.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, serving as Acting Attorney General due to the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, authorized Mueller to investigate and prosecute "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump," as well as "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and any other matters within the scope of 28 CFR 600.4 – Jurisdiction.
In July 2016, the FBI began looking into Russian interference, as well as the question of whether members of the Trump campaign might have coordinated or cooperated with Russia's activities. Those investigations became part of the Special Counsel's portfolio.
U.S. intelligence agencies in January 2017 concluded "with high confidence" that the Russian government interfered in the election by hacking into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks, as well as by disseminating fake news promoted on social media, and by penetrating, or trying to penetrate, the election systems and databases of multiple U.S. states. NBC News reported on March 1, 2018, that Mueller was assembling a case for criminal charges against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking. Those charges were brought on July 13, 2018.
Russia's influence on U.S. voters through social media is a primary focus of the Mueller investigation. Mueller used a search warrant to obtain detailed information about Russian ad purchases on Facebook. According to a former federal prosecutor, the warrant means that a judge was convinced that foreigners had illegally contributed to influencing a US election via Facebook ads.
In a February 13, 2018, testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the heads of the top six American intelligence agencies unanimously reaffirmed Russian interference. Three sources familiar with Trump's thinking told CNN he remains unconvinced that Russia interfered because it suggests he didn't win the election solely on his own merits.
As early as spring 2015, US intelligence agencies started overhearing conversations in which Russian government officials, some within the Kremlin, discussed associates of Trump, then a presidential candidate.
The New York Times reported on February 14, 2017, that phone records and communications intercepts showed that Trump associates—including members of the Trump campaign—had "repeated contacts" with senior Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 campaign. Paul Manafort was the only Trump associate who was specifically identified as participating in these communications. In addition, some senior Trump associates, including Kushner, Trump Jr., Sessions, Flynn and Manafort, had direct contacts with Russian officials during 2016. Michael Flynn was forced to resign as National Security Advisor on February 13, 2017, after it was revealed that on December 29, 2016, the day that Obama announced sanctions against Russia, Flynn had discussed the sanctions with Russian ambassador Kislyak. Flynn had earlier acknowledged speaking to Kislyak but denied discussing the sanctions. Also in December 2016, Flynn and presidential advisor Jared Kushner met with Kislyak hoping to set up a direct, secure line of communication with Russian officials that American intelligence agencies would be unaware of. Jared Kushner also met with Sergei Gorkov, the head of the Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank (VEB), which has been subject to U.S. economic sanctions since July 2014. Flynn and Kushner failed to report these meetings on their security clearance forms.
The Trump Organization pursued a luxury hotel and condominium project in Moscow—dubbed the Trump World Tower Moscow—during the early months of the Trump presidential campaign. This project was facilitated by Michael Cohen, then an attorney for the Trump Organization and since January 2017 Trump's personal attorney. Trump signed a nonbinding "letter of intent" dated October 13, 2015, to proceed with the project. The letter, also signed by Russian investor Andrei Rozov, was forwarded to Cohen by Russian-American real estate developer Felix Sater, who had worked with The Trump Organization on prior deals, including Trump SoHo and Trump International Hotel & Residence. Sater has also been involved in criminal activities involving organized crime and has served as an informant to the FBI relating to those activities. He boasted to Cohen about his connections to Vladimir Putin, saying in an email to Cohen on November 13, 2015, "Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this. I will manage this process." He also asserted that he had secured financing for the project through the Russian state-owned VTB Bank, which was under sanctions by the United States government. Cohen emailed Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016 to request assistance in advancing the project and later stated he didn't recall receiving a response. The deal was abandoned that month. Buzzfeed reported on March 12, 2018, that Mueller's investigators had questioned Sater and on April 13, 2018, reported that a former Russian spy had helped secure financing for the project. In 2010 Sater was provided business cards describing himself as "Senior Advisor to Donald Trump" with an email address at TrumpOrg.com. In a 2013 sworn affidavit, Trump said "If [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like," and in 2015 he stated "Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I'm not that familiar with him."
The Trump team issued multiple denials of any contacts between Trump associates and Russia, but many of those denials turned out to be false. On December 4, 2017, prosecutors filed that Paul Manafort worked on an op-ed with a Russian intelligence official while out on bail, in a court filing requesting that the judge revoke Manafort's bond agreement.
The New York Times reported on March 28, 2018, that former Trump campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates in October/September 2016 frequently communicated with a man the FBI believes is a former agent of GRU, Russia's largest foreign intelligence agency, and who had maintained active links with Russian intelligence during these communications. This disclosure came in a court sentencing document for Alex van der Zwaan submitted by Robert Mueller. Identified in the document as "Person A," The Times reported that the man matched the description of Konstantin Kilimnik who for years was Paul Manafort's "right-hand man" in Ukraine. Gates reportedly told an associate that he knew "Person A" was a former GRU agent, although Manafort told associates he was not aware of such a connection.
Reuters reported on March 29, 2018, that the special counsel is examining an event at the 2016 Republican National Convention at which Jeff Sessions had conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Investigators are also looking into how and why language deemed hostile to Russia was removed from the Republican party's platform document during the convention. Mueller's office is also inquiring whether Sessions had private conversations with Kislyak at a Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. Some have noted that Kislyak was a familiar presence in Washington social circles, routinely meeting with members of Congress and making appearances at various conferences.
The Steele dossier asserted that Trump attorney Michael Cohen in August 2016 had a clandestine meeting with Kremlin representatives in Prague. Cohen has stated he has never been to Prague, inviting investigators to examine his passport. McClatchy reported on April 13, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have evidence that in August or early September 2016 Cohen traveled to Prague by way of Germany. Such a trip would not have required a passport as Germany and the Czech Republic are in the Schengen Area which has abolished passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders. On April 14, 2018, Cohen again denied he had ever been to Prague.
Mueller is looking into the meeting on June 9, 2016, in Trump Tower in New York City between three senior members of Trump's presidential campaign—Kushner, Manafort, and Donald Trump Jr.—and at least five other people, including Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist and former Soviet army officer who met senior Trump campaign aides, Ike Kaveladze, British publicist Rob Goldstone, and translator Anatoli Samochornov. Goldstone had suggested the meeting to Trump Jr., and it was arranged in a series of emails later made public. In one email exchange of June 3, 2016, Goldstone wrote Trump Jr. that Aras Agalarov "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father," adding that it was "very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump" that he could send to Donald Trump's assistant Rhona Graff. Trump Jr. responded minutes later "Thanks Rob I appreciate that" and "if it's what you say I love it." Trump Jr. initially told the press that the meeting was held to discuss adoptions of Russian children by Americans, but after contrary media reports he added that he agreed to the meeting with the understanding that he would receive information damaging to Hillary Clinton. Mueller's team is investigating the emails and the meeting, and whether President Trump later tried to hide the meeting's purpose. On July 18, 2017, Kaveladze's attorney said that Mueller's investigators were seeking information about the Russian meeting in June 2016 from his client, and on July 21, Mueller asked the White House to preserve all documents related to the Russian meeting. It has been reported that Manafort had made notes during the Russian meeting.
CNN reported on March 23, 2017, that the FBI was examining "human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings" indicating that Trump associates may have coordinated with "suspected Russian operatives" to release information damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
By August 3, 2017, Mueller had impaneled a grand jury in the District of Columbia that issued subpoenas concerning the meeting. The Financial Times reported on August 31 that Akhmetshin had given sworn testimony to Mueller's grand jury.
CNN reported on September 19, 2017, that Manafort had been a target of a FISA wiretap both before and after the 2016 election, extending into early 2017. Some of the intercepted communications caused concerns among investigators that Manafort had solicited assistance from Russians for the campaign, although the evidence was reportedly inconclusive. The wiretaps began sometime after Manafort became a subject of an FBI investigation into his business practices in 2014. The Mueller investigation was provided details of these intercepts.
Mueller is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Republican activist Peter W. Smith, who stated that he tried to obtain Hillary Clinton's emails from Russian hackers, and that he was acting on behalf of Michael Flynn and other senior Trump campaign members. Trump campaign officials have denied that Smith was working with them. In fall 2017, Mueller's team interviewed former Government Communications Headquarters cybersecurity researcher Matt Tait, who had been approached by Smith to verify the authenticity of emails allegedly hacked from Clinton's private email server. Tait reportedly told House Intelligence Committee investigators in October 2017 that he believed Smith had ties to members of Trump's inner circle—including Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway—and may have been helping build opposition research for the Trump campaign. Smith committed suicide in May 2017, several days after talking to The Wall Street Journal about his alleged efforts. Aged 81 and reportedly in failing health, he left a carefully prepared file of documents, including a statement police called a suicide note. An attorney for Smith's estate said in October 2017 that some of Smith's documents had been turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In December 2017, it was reported that the Mueller investigation was examining whether the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, who worked together on the digital arm of Trump's campaign, provided assistance to Russian trolls attempting to influence voters. Yahoo News reported that Mueller's team is examining whether the joint RNC–Trump campaign data operation—which was directed on Trump's side by Brad Parscale and managed by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner—was related to the activities of Russian trolls and bots aimed at influencing the American electorate. Also that month, the Democratic ranking members of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees asked their respective Republican chairmen to subpoena two of the data firms hired by Trump's campaign for documents related to Russia's election interference, including the firm headed by Parscale. On February 27, 2018, Trump selected Parscale to serve as campaign manager on his 2020 reelection campaign. NBC News reported on February 28, 2018, that Mueller's investigators are asking witnesses pointed questions about whether Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release. This is the first reported indication that Mueller's investigation is specifically examining whether Trump was personally involved in collusive activities. Mueller's investigators have also asked about the relationship between Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and why Trump took policy positions favorable to Russia. Stone, a longtime Republican "dirty trickster" and Trump confidant has repeatedly discussed his backchannel communications with Assange and claimed knowledge of forthcoming leaks from Wikileaks. He also exchanged Twitter private messages with Guccifer 2.0, which American intelligence has connected to two Russian intelligence groups that cybersecurity analysts have concluded hacked Democratic National Committee emails. Reuters reported on May 16, 2018, that Mueller's office had the prior week subpoenaed Stone's social media strategist, Jason Sullivan, to testify before a grand jury on May 18 and to provide documents, objects and electronically stored information. Reuters reported the next day that John Kakanis, Stone's driver, accountant and operative, had also been subpoenaed. Investigators have also focused on Trump's public comments in July 2016 asking Russia to find emails that were deleted from Hillary Clinton's private email server. At a news conference on July 27, 2016, days after WikiLeaks began publishing the Democratic National Committee emails, Trump said, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." The July 13, 2018 indictment of 12 Russian GRU agents described: "...on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign."
After a "testy March 5 meeting, Mueller's team agreed to provide the president's lawyers with more specific information about the subjects that prosecutors wished to discuss with the president." Then Jay Sekulow "compiled a list of 49 questions that the team believed the president would be asked.... The New York Times first reported the existence of the list."
On April 30, 2018, The New York Times published a list of interview questions for Trump that the Mueller investigation had provided to the president's attorneys. The list was provided to The Times by an individual outside Trump's legal team. Among the questions was, "What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?" Before this disclosure, there had been no publicly available information indicating any such outreach. The Times noted that the questions were not quoted verbatim and in some cases were condensed.
The New York Times reported on May 15, 2018, that Trump campaign policy aide and later White House Deputy Cabinet Secretary John Mashburn testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2018 that he recalled receiving an email from George Papadopoulos in the first half of 2016 indicating that the Russian government had damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Before this report, there had been no publicly available information indicating that Papadopoulos had informed anyone on the Trump campaign about such matters. Despite an extensive search for the purported email by various investigators, it has not been located. A court document Mueller's office filed in association with Papadopoulos's guilty plea included verbatim quotes from various emails Papadopoulos had sent or received, but the Mashburn email was not referenced in that document.
Early in Trump's presidency, senior White House officials reportedly asked intelligence officials if they could intervene with the FBI to stop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Flynn. In March, Trump reportedly discussed the FBI's Russia investigation with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and asked if they could intervene with Comey to limit or stop it. When he was asked at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the report, Coats said he would not discuss conversations he had with the president but "I have never felt pressured to intervene in the Russia investigation in any way." Before being appointed Director of National Intelligence by Trump, Coats had been an elected Republican politician since 1981, serving in both the House and Senate.
In February 2017, it was reported that White House officials had asked the FBI to issue a statement that there had been no contact between Trump associates and Russian intelligence sources during the 2016 campaign.
The FBI did not make the requested statement, and observers noted that the request violated established procedures about contact between the White House and the FBI regarding pending investigations. After Comey revealed in March that the FBI was investigating the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Trump phoned Coats and Director of National Security Admiral Michael S. Rogers and asked them to publicly state there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and the Russians. Both Coats and Rogers believed that the request was inappropriate, though not illegal, and did not make the requested statement. The two exchanged notes about the incident, and Rogers made a contemporary memo to document the request. The White House effort to push back publicly on the Russia probe reportedly also included requests to senior lawmakers with access to classified intelligence about Russia, including Senator Richard Burr and Representative Devin Nunes, the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees, respectively.
In May 2017 it was reported that Comey took contemporaneous notes immediately after an Oval Office conversation with Trump on February 14, 2017, in which Trump is described as attempting to persuade Comey to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn. The memo notes that Trump said, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." Comey made no commitments to Trump on the subject. The White House denied the version of events in the memo, but an FBI agent's contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, Comey gave a detailed report on the February 14 conversation, including Trump's suggestion that he should "let go" the Flynn investigation. Comey said he "took it as a direction… I took it as, this is what he wants me to do." He added that it was "a very disturbing thing, very concerning", and that he discussed the incident with other FBI leaders. Comey created similar memos about all nine conversations he had with the president. Mueller's office has the Comey memos, but on February 2, 2018, a federal judge denied multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to make the documents public, at least for now.
The FBI launched an investigation of Trump for obstruction of justice a few days after the May 9 firing of Comey. The special prosecutor's office took over the obstruction of justice investigation and has reportedly interviewed Director of National Intelligence Coats, Director of the National Security Agency Rogers, and Deputy Director of the NSA Richard Ledgett. ABC News reported in June that Mueller was gathering preliminary information about possible obstruction of justice, but a full-scale investigation had not been launched. On June 16, Trump tweeted: "I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt." However, Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow said Trump's tweet was referring to the June 14 Washington Post report that he was under investigation for obstruction of justice, and that Trump has not actually been notified of any investigation.
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported on September 20, 2017, that Mueller's office had requested information from the White House regarding an Oval Office meeting President Trump had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on May 10, 2017, during which Trump reportedly said that firing Comey had relieved "great pressure" on him.
On January 23, 2018, The Washington Post reported that Robert Mueller sought to question President Donald Trump about the Flynn and Comey departures.
The Washington Post also reported on January 23, 2018, that Mueller's office is interested in a May 2017 Oval Office conversation between Trump and Andrew McCabe, days after McCabe had automatically become acting director of the FBI when Trump dismissed Comey, allegedly for not pledging loyalty to the president. During this conversation, Trump reportedly asked McCabe for whom he had voted in the 2016 presidential election. McCabe, a lifelong Republican, replied that he had not voted in that election. On January 24, 2018, Trump denied—or did not remember—asking McCabe about his vote. Like Comey, McCabe also took contemporaneous notes of his conversations with Trump, which are reportedly now in the possession of Mueller's office.
The New York Times reported on January 23, 2018, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned the preceding week by Mueller's investigators. Trump previously expressed frustration that Sessions had recused himself from the investigation and not prevented a Special Counsel from being appointed, stating that he would not have appointed Sessions had he known that would happen. Multiple episodes have been reported in which Trump has threatened to dismiss Sessions, or Sessions has tendered his resignation. The Washington Post reported on February 28, 2018, that the Mueller investigation has been examining a period of time during the summer of 2017 when Trump seemed determined to drive Sessions from his job, to determine "whether those efforts were part of a months-long pattern of attempted obstruction of justice." Sessions' departure would allow Trump to appoint another attorney general who is not restrained by recusal. The New York Times reported on May 29, 2018, that the Mueller investigation is examining a previously unreported March 2017 episode when Trump attempted to persuade Sessions to reverse his recusal, suggesting that the investigation into possible obstruction of justice was broader than previously understood. The questions Mueller's office had previously provided Trump's attorneys for an interview with the president included, "What efforts did you make to try to get [Sessions] to change his mind [about recusal]?"
USA Today and The New York Times reported on January 31, 2018, that Mueller's office is expected to question Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for President Trump's legal team, about his reported concerns that the president and his longtime aide Hope Hicks might have sought to obstruct justice. Corallo reportedly plans to tell investigators that Hicks told President Trump on a conference call that the Trump Jr. emails regarding his meeting with Russians "will never get out." Hicks' attorney denied the allegation. Mueller's investigators reportedly interviewed Hicks in early December 2017. Corallo had resigned from the Trump team in July 2017, reportedly because he became concerned that the president had obstructed justice.
Bloomberg News reported on March 12, 2018, that the obstruction of justice aspect of the investigation is near completion and that Mueller may set it aside to conclude other aspects, such as collusion and hacking.
The New York Times reported on March 28, 2018, that in 2017, as the Mueller investigation was building its cases against Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, former Trump attorney John M. Dowd broached the idea of presidential pardons of the men with their attorneys. The Times reported this might have indicated concerns by Trump's legal team about what the men might reveal to investigators if they agreed to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for leniency. Although legal opinions vary as to whether this discussion alone would constitute obstruction of justice, prosecutors might present it as part of a pattern of activity that points to a conspiracy to thwart the investigation. CBS News reported on March 28, 2018, that Manafort is declining a plea deal and proceeding to trial because he is expecting a pardon from Trump, citing "legal sources with knowledge of his strategy."
In a January 2018 letter to Mueller, Trump's attorneys asserted that Trump cannot unlawfully obstruct justice because the Constitution grants him full authority over all federal investigations and he can "if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon."
The Special Counsel investigation has expanded to include Trump's and his associates' financial ties to Russia. The FBI is reviewing the financial records of Trump himself, The Trump Organization, Trump's family members, and his campaign staff, including Trump's real estate activities, which had been under federal scrutiny before the campaign. According to CNN, financial crimes may be easier for investigators to prove than any crimes stemming directly from collusion with Russia. Campaign staff whose finances are under investigation include Manafort, Flynn, Carter Page, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. At a New York real estate conference in September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. stated: "And in terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." McClatchy reported on April 6, 2018, that Mueller's investigators that week arrived unannounced at the home of an unnamed business associate of the Trump Organization who had worked on foreign deals for the company in recent years. The investigators had warrants for electronic records and to compel sworn testimony, and were reported to be particularly interested in transactions involving Trump's attorney Michael Cohen.
Transactions under investigation include Russian purchases of Trump apartments, a SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, transactions with the Bank of Cyprus, real estate financing organized by Kushner, and Trump's sale of a Florida mansion for $30 million over its appraised value to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. The special counsel team has contacted Deutsche Bank, which is the main banking institution doing business with The Trump Organization. The Wall Street Journal reported on December 6, 2017, that Deutsche Bank received a subpoena from Mueller's office earlier that fall concerning people or entities affiliated with President Trump. The original Journal story incorrectly reported that Trump's records had been subpoenaed, which The New York Times reported on April 10, 2018, prompted Trump to tell his advisers "in no uncertain terms" that the Mueller investigation must be shut down, before Mueller's office advised his attorneys the report was inaccurate.
Kushner Properties—from which Jared Kushner resigned as CEO in early 2017 to serve as a senior advisor in the Trump White House—purchased the office tower located at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2007, just before Manhattan real estate prices fell in the Great Recession. The property has since experienced financial difficulties that the company has been attempting to resolve with new financing, without success, before the property's $1.2 billion mortgage comes due in February 2019. This effort has reportedly been complicated by Trump's election, which has caused potential lenders to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest. The matter has raised the interest of investigators who are looking at Kushner's December 2016 meeting with Sergei Gorkov, who said in a statement issued by his bank that he met with Kushner in his capacity as the then-chief executive of Kushner Properties, while Kushner assured Congress in a July 24, 2017, statement that the meeting did not involve "any discussion about my companies, business transactions, real estate projects, loans, banking arrangements or any private business of any kind.” CNN reported on February 20, 2018, that Mueller's investigation has expanded beyond Kushner's contacts with Russia and now includes his efforts to secure financing for Kushner Properties from other foreign investors during the presidential transition.
Mueller took over an existing money laundering investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Manafort. On October 30, 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Manafort and his associate Rick Gates on charges including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, being an unregistered agent of foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, and false statements. Manafort's financial activities are also being investigated by the Senate and House intelligence committees, the New York Attorney General, and the Manhattan District Attorney.
The Special Counsel will be able to access Trump's tax returns, which has "especially disturbed" Trump according to The Washington Post. Trump's refusal to release his tax returns, as presidential candidates normally do, has been politically controversial since his presidential campaign.
The Special Counsel is also investigating whether the Central Bank of Russia's deputy governor, Aleksandr Torshin, illegally funneled money through the National Rifle Association to benefit Trump's campaign. On May 16, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report stating it had obtained "a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign" through Torshin and his assistant Maria Butina, and that "The Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump’s campaign." The NRA reported spending $30 million to support the Trump campaign—triple what they devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors. Torshin, a lifetime NRA member, reportedly sought to broker a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin in May 2016, but was rebuffed by Kushner. Torshin claims to have met with Trump at a Nashville NRA event in April 2015; he tweeted about the encounter in August, saying that Trump is "a proponent of traditional family values". Torshin spoke with Donald Trump Jr. during a gala event at the NRA's national gathering in Kentucky in May 2016, which Trump Jr.'s attorney Alan Futerfas characterized as "all gun-related small talk." Spanish authorities have implicated Torshin in money laundering and have described him as a "godfather" in Taganskaya, a major Russian criminal organization.
CNN reported on April 4, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have been examining whether Russian oligarchs directly or indirectly provided illegal cash donations to the Trump campaign and inauguration. At least one oligarch was detained and his electronic devices searched as he arrived at a New York area airport on his private jet; subsequent reporting by The New York Times appeared to identify the man as Viktor Vekselberg. Another oligarch was also detained on a recent trip to the United States, but it is unclear if he was searched. Investigators reportedly have also asked a third oligarch who has not traveled to the United States to voluntarily provide documents and an interview. CNN reported that investigators are examining whether oligarchs invested in American companies or think tanks having political action committees connected to the campaign, as well as money funneled through American straw donors to the Trump campaign and inaugural fund.
The New York Times reported on April 9, 2018, that the Mueller investigation is examining a $150,000 donation Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian billionaire, made in September 2015 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange for a 20-minute appearance Trump made via video link to a conference in Kiev. This transaction came to light in documents the Trump Organization provided to investigators pursuant to a subpoena earlier in 2018. The donation, the largest the Foundation received in 2015 other than from Trump himself, was solicited by his attorney, Michael Cohen. The Times reported that the subpoena had demanded "documents, emails and other communications about several Russians, including some whose names have not been publicly tied to Mr. Trump."
On April 9, 2018, based on a referral to United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from the special counsel, the FBI raided the New York City office, residence, hotel suite, and safe-deposit boxes of Michael Cohen, seizing records related to several topics. The FBI seized Cohen's computers, phones, and personal financial records, including tax returns, as part of the no-knock raid on his office in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. CNN cited unnamed sources saying the search warrant was "very broad in terms of items sought" and that it included bank records.
The warrant was personally approved by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and carried out by the public corruption unit of the SDNY. Geoffrey Berman, the interim head of the SDNY, was recused from the matter; a Trump appointee, he had worked as a volunteer attorney on the Trump campaign. Further, due to the sensitive nature of the raid and the attorney–client privilege, a special "taint" team is required to review the documents to carefully separate out privileged and protected documents that may have been seized in the raid to ensure those inadmissible documents are not passed on to investigators. Legal blogger and former federal prosecutor Ken White of Popehat published a New York Times op-ed giving some background on the DOJ procedures required to approve such a raid, saying the search "suggests that the prosecutors believe they can convince a judge that communications between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen fall under the crime-fraud exception" of attorney-client privilege. It called the raid "highly dangerous" for both Cohen and Trump. White posted further analysis on Popehat, citing section 9-13.320 [sic] [recte 9-13.420] of the United States Attorneys' Manual, which sets the guidelines and regulations for searches of attorney premises.
In August 2017, Mueller's team issued grand jury subpoenas to officials in six firms, including lobbying firm Podesta Group and Mercury LLC with regard to activities on behalf of a public-relations campaign for a pro-Russian Ukrainian organization called European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The public relations effort was headed by Paul Manafort, and took place from 2012 to 2014. Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, is head of the Podesta Group. John Podesta is not employed by the company. Mercury LLC is headed by Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman. Mueller is investigating whether the firms violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The Podesta Group announced in November 2017 that it would be permanently closing, with many of its employees moving to Cogent Strategies, a new firm founded by Podesta Group CEO Kimberley Fritts.
From the beginning of his presidency Trump has requested assurances that that he is not personally under investigation. FBI Director Comey told him so privately on three occasions but refused to make a public comment to that effect. In his letter dismissing Comey, Trump thanked Comey for "informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation." Comey later confirmed that this was true.
In March 2018, Mueller's office reportedly informed Trump's attorneys that the president is not a "criminal target" but remains a "subject" of the continuing investigation. Trump's advisers were reported to be split in their interpretation of this, with some believing it was an indication that his legal exposure was low, while others expressed concern that Mueller was inducing him to agree to a personal interview, which his attorneys have discouraged him from doing for fear he might perjure himself and thus change his status from subject to target. The Post reported that Mueller also advised the attorneys that he is "preparing a report about the president's actions while in office and potential obstruction of justice." The Post referenced Justice Department guidelines, which explain:
A "target" is a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant.
A "subject" of an investigation is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury's investigation.
Trump told reporters on January 24, 2018, that he was "looking forward" to testifying under oath to the Mueller investigation, perhaps in "two or three weeks," but added that it was "subject to my lawyers and all of that."The Wall Street Journal reported on February 25, 2018, that Trump's lawyers are considering ways for him to testify, provided the questions he faces are limited in scope and do not test his recollections in ways that amount to a potential perjury trap. Among options they are considering are providing written answers to Mueller's questions and having the president give limited face-to-face testimony. The Washington Post reported on March 19, 2018, that Trump's attorneys provided Mueller's office "written descriptions that chronicle key moments under investigation in hopes of curtailing the scope of a presidential interview.". In May 2018, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Politico that Mueller's team has rejected the proposal of providing a written testimony instead of an oral interview.
CNN reported on February 27, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have recently been asking witnesses about Trump's activities in Russia before the campaign, including the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow; unsuccessful discussions to build a Trump Tower Moscow; and the possibility of compromising information that Russians may have or claim to have about Trump.
The Intercept reported on March 2, 2018, that Jared Kushner and his father Charles Kushner made a proposal to Qatar's finance minister, Ali Sharif Al Emadi, in April 2017 to secure investment into 666 5th Avenue asset in his family's company's portfolio, when his request was not fulfilled, a group of Middle Eastern countries, with Jared Kushner's backing, initiated a diplomatic assault that culminated in a blockade of Qatar. Kushner specifically undermined the efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring an end to the standoff.
The New York Times reported on March 3, 2018, that the Mueller investigation had been examining possible efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to buy political influence by directing money to the Trump campaign. Investigators have recently interviewed Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, and other witnesses, about this matter. Nader was reportedly a frequent White House visitor during 2017 and investigators have inquired about any policymaking role he may have had. The Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits foreign nationals from contributing to American elections. The New York Times reported on March 6, 2018, that Nader is cooperating with the Mueller investigation and had testified before a grand jury during the preceding week. Investigators have examined a meeting around January 11, 2017, in the Seychelles that was convened by the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (known as "MBZ"), which Nader attended. Also present at that meeting were Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of state-owned Russian Direct Investment Fund, who is close to Vladimir Putin; and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a major Trump donor and an informal advisor to the Trump transition. UAE officials reportedly believed that Prince was representing the Trump transition and Dmitriev was representing Putin.
An aircraft owned by Andrei Skoch—a Russian billionaire subject to American sanctions—arrived in the Seychelles a day before Prince himself did. The Washington Post had reported on April 3, 2017, that American, European and Arab officials said the Seychelles meeting was "part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump." Prince denied in November 30, 2017, House Intelligence Committee testimony that he had represented the Trump transition or that the meeting involved any back-channel. The Washington Post reported on March 7, 2018, that Mueller has gathered evidence that contradicts Prince, and ABC News reported on April 6, 2018, that Nader had met with Prince at a Manhattan hotel days before the Seychelles meeting and later provided him with biographical information about Dmitriev. CNN reported on March 6, 2018, that Nader had been detained and questioned by the FBI at Dulles International Airport as he returned from a trip abroad on January 17, 2018.
Agents with search warrants copied the contents of his electronic devices and served him with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury on January 19. CNN also reported that Nader had attended a December 2016 meeting in New York attended by MBZ; UAE ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba; and at least three Trump senior associates: Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner." The Wall Street Journal reported on April 2, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have inquired about the work done by a private consulting company, Wikistrat, on behalf of the UAE. One of the firm's co-founders, Joel Zamel, has reportedly been asked about his work with certain clients and his business relationship with George Nader. The Journal reported that, like Nader, Zamel had tried to forge a relationship with the new Trump administration.
The New York Times reported on April 4, 2018, that Nader has a history of dealings with Russia dating back to at least 2012, when he brokered a $4.2 billion arms deal between Russia and Iraq, and attended an invitation-only conference in Moscow organized by close associates of Vladimir Putin. Nader has reportedly traveled frequently to Russia on behalf of the UAE, accompanying MBZ on many of those trips, and has had his photo taken with Putin. Nader has reportedly received at least partial immunity for his cooperation with the Mueller investigation. The Times also reported that Joel Zamel had been stopped at Reagan International Airport in February 2018, had his electronic devices briefly seized, and later testified before the Mueller grand jury about his relationship with Nader. The New York Times reported on May 19, 2018, that Trump Jr. met with Nader, Prince and Zamel in Trump Tower on August 3, 2016. Nader reportedly told Trump Jr. the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were eager to help his father win the election, and Zamel pitched a social media manipulation campaign. Trump Jr. reportedly responded favorably and Nader subsequently had frequent meetings with Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner. The Times reported that Prince had arranged the August 2016 meeting; Prince had stated in his November 30, 2017, testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that he had no formal communications or contact, nor any unofficial role, with the Trump campaign.
Axios reported on March 4, 2018, that it has seen a grand jury subpoena that Mueller's office sent to a witness in February 2018. Axios did not name the witness. The subpoena reportedly demands all communications, from November 1, 2015, to date, that the witness sent or received "regarding" Trump; Carter Page; Corey Lewandowski; Hope Hicks; Keith Schiller; Michael Cohen; Paul Manafort; Rick Gates; Roger Stone; and Steve Bannon. A subsequent report by NBC News stated that the subpoena also encompasses "work papers, telephone logs, and other documents." On March 5, 2018, the witness was identified as Sam Nunberg, who served as a communications consultant on the Trump campaign until August 2, 2015, and later as an informal adviser. Nunberg stated that he had been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury on March 9, 2018, but he would refuse to appear or provide any of the subpoenaed documents. After multiple defiant television appearances on March 5, 2018, Nunberg indicated the next day that he plans to comply with the subpoena.
The New Yorker reported on March 5, 2018, that Christopher Steele spoke with Mueller's investigators in September 2017. The magazine asserts that Steele discussed another document he had authored in November 2016—after the Steele dossier—that describes discussions "a senior Russian official" had heard inside the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: that the Kremlin had asked Trump "through unspecified channels" to not appoint Mitt Romney as Secretary of State. As a presidential candidate in 2012, Romney described Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe." After publicly considering Romney as Secretary of State, Trump ultimately selected Rex Tillerson, who has a long history of business dealings in Russia and was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin in 2013.
The Washington Post reported on March 6, 2018, that Mueller's office has requested documents and interviewed witnesses regarding activities of Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime personal lawyer. Investigators are reported to be interested in at least two episodes relating to Russian interests, including the proposed construction of Trump Tower Moscow and "a Russia-friendly peace proposal for Ukraine that was delivered to Cohen by an Ukrainian lawmaker one week after Trump took office."
The New York Times reported on March 7, 2018, that the Mueller investigation is aware of conversations Trump had with two witnesses regarding their testimony with investigators. In one conversation, Trump asked White House counsel Don McGahn to issue a statement denying a story The Times published in January 2018. That story reported that McGahn told investigators Trump had ordered him to direct the Justice Department to dismiss Mueller. McGahn never issued the statement and reportedly told Trump that the president had, in fact, told him to have Mueller dismissed. Trump also asked his former chief of staff Reince Priebus how his interview with investigators had gone and whether they were "nice." The Times reported that although "legal experts" thought the conversations probably did not constitute witness tampering, witnesses and attorneys who became aware of the conversations reported them to Mueller.
The New York Times reported on March 15, 2018, that the Mueller investigation had subpoenaed documents from The Trump Organization, including all documents related to Russia. Although the full scope of the subpoena was not clear, it was the first known time investigators demanded documents from Trump's businesses. The Los Angeles Times reported the same day that the special counsel's office had also subpoenaed the Trump campaign for documents.
NBC News reported on March 30, 2018, that Ted Malloch, a professor and author who worked with the Trump campaign, had been detained and questioned by the FBI two days earlier as he arrived at Boston Logan Airport after a flight from London. He was served with a subpoena to appear for questioning by Mueller's investigators on April 13, and presented with a warrant to have his phone seized and searched. Malloch told NBC in an email that FBI agents asked him a variety of questions, including about Roger Stone, author Jerome Corsi, and WikiLeaks. CNN reported that Malloch has written a forthcoming book alleging a "deep state" within the United States government fabricated the Steele dossier to destroy Trump.
Michael Caputo, a former communications adviser for the Trump campaign, was interviewed by Mueller's investigators on May 2, 2018. Caputo was recruited to the Trump campaign by Paul Manafort and had previously worked with Russian politicians. A long-time associate of Roger Stone, Caputo stated after his interview, "It's clear they are still really focused on Russia collusion. They know more about the Trump campaign than anyone who ever worked there."
CNN reported on May 5, 2018, that Mueller's investigators had interviewed Trump's close friend and inaugural committee chairman Tom Barrack in December 2017, asking him primarily about his relationship with Manafort and Gates, although The Associated Press reported the interview was broader and included campaign finance matters.
On May 9, 2018, CNBC reported that Mueller's office had contacted telecommunications giant AT&T regarding payments totalling at least $200,000, but possibly as high as $600,000, made to a company founded by Michael Cohen in order to gain "insights" into the incoming Trump administration. An AT&T spokesperson said that they had provided all the information requested by the Special Counsel in November and December 2017.
Glenn Simpson, a co-founder of Fusion GPS, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22, 2017, that the FBI told Christopher Steele—and then Steele told Simpson—that the FBI had "a human source from inside the Trump organization" (and, more specifically, "an internal Trump campaign source"). Simpson did not indicate when Steele received this information or when he conveyed it to Simpson. The Washington Post reported on May 8, 2018, that a longtime FBI and CIA informant had provided information about connections between Russia and the Trump campaign to FBI investigators early in their investigation. This sparked speculation the FBI had planted a "mole" inside the Trump campaign, although it was not clear that the individual Simpson described is the same individual described by The Post. The Washington Post reported on May 9, 2018, that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes subpoenaed the Justice Department to provide him with all documents regarding the longtime informant; The Post quoted the subpoena as demanding "all documents referring or related to the individual referenced in Chairman Nunes' April 24, 2018, classified letter to Attorney General Sessions," although Nunes denied he had referred to any specific individual. The Justice Department resisted on the grounds that revealing the information could endanger the life of a longtime top-secret informant for the FBI and CIA, and the Trump White House—with the president's agreement—sided with the Justice Department. The New York Times reported on May 16, 2018, that at least one government informant had met several times with Trump campaign aides Carter Page and George Papadopolous. The next day, Trump tweeted "Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI “SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT.”"
The Washington Post noted on January 9, 2018, that the source Simpson referenced may not have necessarily been an informant willingly or directly, or during the campaign, but rather may have become an informant as a result of later becoming implicated in wrongdoing. Natasha Bertrand, then with Business Insider, reported on January 3, 2018, that a source told her Simpson had been referring to George Papadopolous, who had first been interviewed by the FBI seven days after Trump's inauguration and whose cooperation with the FBI—to "provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant"—began with his arrest on July 27, 2017, and was not publicly known until his indictment in October 2017. Sara Carter, a frequent guest on Sean Hannity's Fox News program, confirmed Bertrand's reporting on January 9, 2018, stating "according to people close to Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS he misspoke. That it isn't true at all. That what [Simpson] was referring to was Papadopoulos actually in London." The New York Times reported on May 18, 2018, the FBI sent an informant to meet with George Papadopolous in late-summer 2016, and to meet repeatedly with Carter Page over ensuing months, after the FBI had acquired evidence the two men had suspicious contacts with Russians. The Washington Post reported the same day the informant first approached Page at a symposium in Britain in July 2016, and in September 2016 invited Papadopolous to London to work on a research paper. Late that summer, the informant also met with Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis in Northern Virginia. The informant was identified as an American academic who teaches in Britain, but both The Times and The Post declined to publish his name. NBC News identified him as Stefan Halper.
The Washington Post reported on June 28, 2018, that the Mueller investigation, as well as British investigators, are examining relationships between the Brexit movement, Russia and the Trump campaign. The Post reported Mueller's investigators had specifically asked two individuals, including former Trump communications official Michael Caputo, about relationships between Trump associates and Brexit leader Nigel Farage.
The Wall Street Journal reported on December 15, 2017, that Mueller's office had requested and received employee emails from Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that worked for the Trump campaign, earlier that year. The Washington Post reported on March 20, 2018, that Christopher Wylie, an employee of Cambridge Analytica until late 2014, said that former Trump campaign CEO and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon oversaw a 2014 effort at the company (which he co-founded) to gather Facebook data on millions of Americans and test the effectiveness of anti-establishment messages such as "drain the swamp" and "deep state," which became major Trump themes after Bannon joined the campaign in August 2016. Views of Russian President Vladimir Putin were also tested. The Associated Press reported on March 22, 2018, that the special counsel is examining the connections between the company, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, particularly how voter data may have been used in battleground states.
Several news agencies reported on April 4, 2018, that the private data of 87 million Facebook users had been misused, without their consent, by Cambridge Analytica to influence voters and help Trump win the 2016 election. The New York Times reported on May 15, 2018, that the Justice Department and FBI were investigating Cambridge Analytica, although it was unclear if Mueller's office was involved in the investigation.
Through July 2018, the Special Counsel has publicly initiated criminal proceedings against 32 people—five U.S. nationals, 26 Russian nationals, and one Dutch national—and three Russian organizations. The Special Counsel has used two different federal grand juries to issue indictments: one located in the District of Columbia (D.D.C.) and another located in the Eastern District of Virginia (E.D. Va.).
|Accused||Date first charged||Charge(s)||Case status||Jurisdiction||Ind.|
|George Papadopoulos||October 3, 2017||1 count: false statements||Pleaded guilty on October 5, 2017||D.D.C.|||
|Rick Gates||October 27, 2017[A]||2 counts: conspiracy against the United States and false statements||Pleaded guilty on February 23, 2018||D.D.C.|||
|February 22, 2018||18 counts: filing false tax returns (×5), failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts (×4), bank fraud conspiracy (×5), and bank fraud (×4)||Charges dismissed without prejudice on February 27, 2018||E.D. Va.|||
|Paul Manafort||October 27, 2017[B]||7 counts: conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, false statements, obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice.||Pleaded not guilty on June 15, 2018||D.D.C.|||
|February 22, 2018||23 counts: assisting in the preparation of false tax returns (×5), subscribing to false tax returns (×5), filing a false amended return, failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts (×3), bank fraud conspiracy (×5), and bank fraud (×4)||Pleaded not guilty on March 8, 2018
Trial to begin on July 25, 2018
|Michael Flynn||November 30, 2017||1 count: false statements||Pleaded guilty on December 1, 2017||D.D.C.|||
|Richard Pinedo||February 2, 2018||1 count: identity fraud||Pleaded guilty on February 2, 2018||D.D.C.|||
|Alex van der Zwaan||February 16, 2018||1 count: false statements||Sentenced to 30 days in prison and a $20,000 fine on April 3, 2018||D.D.C.|||
|Dzheykhun Aslanov||February 16, 2018||8 counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft (×6)||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Anna Bogacheva||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Maria Bovda||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Robert Bovda||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Mikhail Burchik||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Mikhail Bystrov||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Concord Catering||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Concord Management and Consulting LLC||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Pleaded not guilty on May 9, 2018||D.D.C.|||
|Internet Research Agency LLC||February 16, 2018||8 counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft (×6)||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Irina Kaverzina||February 16, 2018||7 counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, and aggravated identity theft (×6)||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Aleksandra Krylova||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Vadim Podkopaev||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Sergey Polozov||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Yevgeny Prigozhin||February 16, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Gleb Vasilchenko||February 16, 2018||8 counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, aggravated identity theft (×6)||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Vladimir Venkov||February 16, 2018||7 counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, and aggravated identity theft (×6)||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Konstantin Kilimnik||June 8, 2018||2 counts: obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Viktor Netyksho||July 13, 2018||10 counts: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, aggravated identity theft (×8), and conspiracy to launder money||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Boris Antonov||July 13, 2018||10 counts: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, aggravated identity theft (×8), and conspiracy to launder money||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Dmitriy Badin||July 13, 2018||10 counts: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, aggravated identity theft (×8), and conspiracy to launder money||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Ivan Yermakov||July 13, 2018||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Aleksey Lukashev||July 13, 2018||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Sergey Morgachev||July 13, 2018||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Nikolay Kozachek||July 13, 2018||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Pavel Yershov||July 13, 2018||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Artem Malyshev||July 13, 2018||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Aleksandr Osadchuk||July 13, 2018||11 counts: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States (×2), aggravated identity theft (×8), and conspiracy to launder money||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Aleksey Potemkin||July 13, 2018||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
|Anatoliy Kovalev||July 13, 2018||1 count: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|||
On October 30, 2017, it was revealed that Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty earlier in the month to making a false statement to FBI investigators, a felony. The guilty plea was part of a plea bargain in which he agreed to cooperate with the government and "provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant." Papadopoulos is scheduled to be sentenced on September 7, 2018.
On December 30, 2017, The New York Times reported that Papadopoulos had in May 2016 disclosed to the Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Alexander Downer in Kensington Wine Rooms, a London wine bar, that the Russians possessed a large trove of stolen Hillary Clinton emails that could potentially damage her presidential campaign. Australia officials initially did not convey this information to the American counterparts but did so after WikiLeaks and DCLeaks released stolen Democratic National Committee emails in June/July 2016, which American intelligence has concluded with "high confidence" originated from Russian hackers. The hacking, and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign apparently had inside information about it, were driving factors that led the FBI in July 2016 to open an investigation into Russia's attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump's associates conspired. The Nunes memo confirmed that the Papadopolous matter triggered the investigation—and not the Steele dossier, which some Republicans had alleged to have been the trigger.
Papadopoulos was recruited to the Trump campaign in early March 2016. In a court document filed as part of Papadopoulos's guilty plea, prosecutors asserted that later in March he met Joseph Mifsud, a London-based academic with contacts in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Italy. Mifsud showed little interest in Papadopoulos until Mifsud learned Papadopoulos was a member of the Trump campaign. Several days later, Papadopoulos met in London with Mifsud and Olga Polonskaya, a Russian national whom Papadopoulos initially but falsely believed was Vladimir Putin's niece. Papadopoulos then emailed his Trump campaign supervisor Sam Clovis about his meetings, which he said included the Russian Ambassador, and which had been about a "meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump." Clovis was non-committal but replied "Great work." In subsequent days Papadopoulos worked with Mifsud and Polonskaya to arrange contacts between the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Trump campaign. In late April 2016 Papadopoulos emailed a unnamed Trump campaign "Senior Policy Advisor," stating "The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr. Trump to meet him when he is ready." At about the same time, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that the Russian government had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails," which Papadopoulos then shared with Alexander Downer in a London bar days later. Mifsud dropped from sight after his name appeared in published reports in October 2017 and has not been heard from through May 2018. Stephan Roh, a German national who is a close associate of Mifsud, asserts he was detained, questioned and surveilled by FBI agents after he arrived on a flight to New York in 2017. The BBC reported on March 21, 2018, that Roh and another man named Ivan Timofeev were also involved in Papadopoulos's efforts to contact Russian officials.
At Mueller's direction, FBI agents raided Manafort's home on July 26, 2017. The predawn raid used a federal search warrant, authorizing agents to look for tax documents and foreign banking records. A wide range of documents and other items were seized. Before the raid, Manafort had voluntarily provided some documents to congressional investigators, including the notes he took during the meeting with Veselnitskaya.
On October 27, 2017, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted by a federal grand jury as part of Mueller's investigation. The twelve-count indictment charged them with conspiracy against the United States, making false statements, money laundering, and failing to register as foreign agents for Ukraine as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Manafort was charged with four counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts while Gates was charged with three. The charges arise from Manafort‘s consulting work for a pro-Russian government in Ukraine and are unrelated to the Trump campaign.
On October 30, 2017, Manafort and Gates surrendered to the FBI, and a judge placed them both under house arrest and required them to provide unsecured bonds. On December 4, 2017, prosecutors asked the judge to revoke Manafort's bond agreement, charging that Manafort violated the terms of his bail by working on an op-ed piece with Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate with ties to Russian intelligence.
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued an order on December 22, 2017, demanding that Gates explain why his comments in a brief, videotaped address to the fundraiser held in an Arlington Holiday Inn on December 19, did not amount to a violation of the gag order she issued in the case. Of particular concern to Jackson is Gates' involvement with the Washington-area lobbyist who organized the event, Jack Burkman.
On January 16, 2018, Judge Jackson denied the government's proposal for a May 14 trial, indicating that the criminal trial appears likely to start in September or October. Gates was released from home confinement, but not Manafort. A letter from Manafort's physician had asked that he be permitted to attend a gym for health reasons, but Jackson said, "While he's subject to home confinement, he's not confined to his couch, and I believe he has plenty of opportunity to exercise."
On February 1, 2018, three of Gates' attorneys filed a motion to withdraw their representation of Gates. Walter Mack, one of the attorneys, said in court the previous month that Mueller's prosecutors had warned him of more impending charges against Gates. Gates has reportedly added Tom Green, a prominent white-collar attorney, to his defense team, signaling a possible change to his legal approach; and attorneys from Green's firm were seen entering the building where Mueller works. On the hearing of the motion on February 8 before Judge Jackson, the attorneys cited 'irreconcilable differences' with their client. Gates' new attorney has not filed a formal appearance in the case, which is the typical procedure when changing counsel. The outcome of the hearing is still subject to a gag order.
On February 15, 2018, CNN reported that Gates was finalizing a plea deal with Mueller's office, indicating he was poised to cooperate in the investigation. He had already undergone his "Queen for a Day" interview, in which Gates answered any and all questions from Mueller's team, including about his own case and other potential criminal activity he witnessed or participated in.
On February 22, 2018, both Manafort and Gates were further charged with additional crimes, involving a tax avoidance scheme and bank fraud, in Virginia. The charges were filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, rather than in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, as the tax fraud overt actions had occurred in Virginia and not in the District, forcing Mueller to bring the charges in Virginia, because one of the defendants did not agree to waive the issue of venue jurisdiction. The new indictment alleges that Manafort, with assistance from Gates, laundered over $30 million through offshore bank accounts between approximately 2006 and 2015. Manafort allegedly used funds in these offshore accounts to purchase real estate in the United States, in addition to personal goods and services.
On February 23, 2018, Gates pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to investigators and engaging in a conspiracy to defraud the United States. Gates said he had previously intended to challenge the charges against him, but recently decided to plead guilty. He admitted that he had lied to investigators in February 2018, while he was under indictment and negotiating with prosecutors. Gates faces a possible prison sentence of nearly six years, but he agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation for a possible sentence reduction, possibly only probation, depending on the level of cooperation he provides to the government. Through a spokesman, Manafort expressed disappointment in Gates' decision to plead guilty and said he has no similar plans. "I continue to maintain my innocence," he said. On February 27, the special counsel moved to dismiss without prejudice 22 tax and bank fraud charges against Gates as part of their plea agreement.
On February 28, 2018, Manafort entered a not guilty plea in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Judge Jackson subsequently set a trial date of September 17, 2018, and reprimanded Manafort and his attorney for violating her gag order by issuing a statement the previous week after former co-defendant Gates pleaded guilty. On March 8, 2018, Manafort also pleaded not guilty to bank fraud and tax charges in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. Judge T. S. Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia set his trial on those charges to begin on July 10, 2018. On March 28, 2018, Manafort declined a plea deal. On June 26, 2018, after harshly criticizing the scope of the Mueller investigation the preceding month, Ellis issued an opinion stating that the Mueller investigation had acted within its authority, clearing the way for Manafort's trial to proceed.
In response to Manafort's court motions that charges against him be dismissed because Mueller exceeded his investigative authority, Mueller's office on April 2, 2018, released in a court filing a partially-redacted memorandum of August 2, 2017, in which Rod Rosenstein specifically authorized Mueller to investigate whether Manafort "committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for president of the United States, in violation of United States law," as well as whether he "committed a crime or crimes arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych." In a court hearing on April 19, 2018, the Justice Department for the first time specifically noted the Mueller investigation's interest in whether Manafort provided a backchannel between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, adding that following the money trail of Manafort's consulting business was a natural necessity of investigating such a backchannel. Manafort's suit claiming that the Mueller investigation exceeded its investigative authority was dismissed on April 27, 2018.
On June 4, 2018, Mueller accused Manafort of witness tampering by contacting witnesses by phone and encrypted messaging "in an effort to secure materially false testimony," asking a federal judge to revise or revoke the release agreement that had kept Manafort out of jail pending trial. On June 8, 2018, the Mueller grand jury added additional charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice against Manafort and his longtime associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom Manafort had contacted to assist in influencing witnesses. On June 15, 2018, Manafort's bail was revoked, and he was jailed pending trial.
As part of the investigation, Mueller assumed control of a Virginia-based grand jury criminal probe into the relationship between Flynn and Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin. Flynn Intel Group, an intelligence consultancy, was paid $530,000 by Alptekin's company Inovo BV to produce a documentary and conduct research on Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish cleric who lives in the United States. The special prosecutor is investigating whether the money came from the Turkish government, and whether Flynn kicked funds back to a middleman to conceal the payment's original source. Investigators are also looking at Flynn's finances more generally, including possible payments from Russian companies and from the Japanese government. White House documents relating to Flynn have been requested as evidence. The lead person within Mueller's team for this investigation is Brandon Van Grack. Flynn's son, Michael G. Flynn, is also a subject of the investigation. Michael G. Flynn worked closely with his father's lobbying company, the Flynn Intel Group, and accompanied his father on his 2015 visit to Moscow.
On November 5, 2017, NBC News reported that Mueller had enough evidence for charges against Flynn and his son. NBC News reported on November 22, 2017, that former Flynn business partner Bijan Kian is a subject of the Mueller investigation. In late November 2017, Flynn's defense team stopped sharing information with Trump's team of lawyers, which was interpreted as a sign that Flynn was cooperating and negotiating a plea bargain with the special counsel team. On December 1, 2017, Michael Flynn agreed to a plea bargain with Mueller. He appeared in federal court to plead guilty to a single felony count of "willfully and knowingly" making "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements" to the FBI and to confirm his intention to cooperate with Mueller's investigation, including "participating in covert law enforcement activities." As part of Flynn's plea bargain, his son Michael G. Flynn is not expected to be charged. On January 31, 2018, the Mueller team advised a federal court that they will not be ready to request sentencing of Flynn until at least May 1, 2018; and on that day, the special counsel requested an extension to June 29, 2018. On that date, Mueller requested another extension, to August 24, 2018.
On February 16, 2018, Mueller's office unsealed an indictment which revealed that Richard Pinedo, of Santa Paula, California, accepted a plea agreement on February 2, in which he pleaded guilty to identity fraud, and using the identity of other persons for "unlawful activity", both felonies. Pinedo also agreed to cooperate with the investigation, but faces up to fifteen years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000. Pinedo had operated Auction Essistance, a web-based business that brokered bank account numbers, enabling people who had been barred from websites like eBay and PayPal to return to those websites under a different identity.
On February 16, 2018, Mueller charged attorney Alex van der Zwaan with one count of making false statements to the FBI with respect to van der Zwaan's communications with Gates and another individual identified as "Person A", believed to be Konstantin Kilimnik, in addition to deleting email sought by investigators. Van der Zwaan is the son-in-law of German Khan, who owns Russia's Alfa-Bank along with Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, the three of whom are named in the Trump–Russia dossier.
Van der Zwaan pleaded guilty on February 20, 2018; the guilty plea did not include an agreement to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. On March 27, 2018, Mueller's office asked a judge to consider jail time for van der Zwaan. His sentencing hearing was held on April 3, 2018, and he was sentenced to 30 days in prison followed by two months of supervised release, and fined $20,000. Judge Amy Berman Jackson stated that van der Zwaan, whose pregnant wife is due to give birth in August, can have his passport back after his 30-day sentence, at which point he can self-deport back to Europe if Immigrations and Customs Enforcement allows. His sentence could have been as long as five years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
In June, after van der Zwaan was released from prison, he was deported from the United States.
On February 16, 2018, special counsel Robert Mueller's team announced it had filed an indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations. The indictment alleges that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, funneled significant funds to Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked company headquartered in Saint Petersburg and described as a "troll factory", for the purposes of carrying out a secret operation to influence the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election while obstructing the enforcement of federal elections laws. The indictment alleges that members of the conspiracy traveled to the United States to conduct research; created social media accounts impersonating Americans; opened financial accounts with the stolen identities of Americans; bought advertisements on social media platforms; organized and financed political rallies; and posted and promoted material favorable to Donald Trump, Jill Stein, and Bernie Sanders, while disparaging candidates like Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The indictment cites one case in which the defendants and their co-conspirators paid a U.S. person to build a cage on a flatbed truck and paid another U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform for a pro-Trump political rally in Florida. Reporters have since contacted some of those "unwitting" Americans. The man who built the cage says he often spoke on the phone with the group that paid him for it, and he never suspected he was dealing with Russians until the FBI contacted him months later.
The indictment's allegations that Russians were actively interfering in the 2016 election process refute President Trump's repeated assertions that Russian interference was a "hoax" devised by Democrats or perpetrated by others, such as China.
A long-time associate of Paul Manafort, Kilimnik was charged on June 8, 2018, on two counts, both relating to obstruction of justice. A Russian national, he is believed to be in Moscow, where he may have ties to Russian intelligence.
On July 13, 2018, Rod Rosenstein, the United States Deputy Attorney General, announced indictments of twelve Russian GRU officers for their efforts in the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak, through the establishment of false identities as DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, as well as charges of money laundering using bitcoin. The indictment also alleged that an unnamed congressional candidate requested and received stolen documents about his/her opponent from Guccifer 2.0, and that the Russians were in contact with a "friendly reporter". Combined with the findings of the intelligence community in January 2017, and endorsed by the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2018, the indictments appeared to decisively debunk a number of alternate theories by Trump and his allies about who perpetrated the hacks, and came three days before Trump was to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin for a summit in Helsinki, Finland. After the indictments were announced, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters stated "Today's charges include...no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result." However, that the emails were stolen by hacking has never been in dispute, except for a debunked smear campaign promoted by numerous Trump allies that the emails were stolen and released by DNC employee Seth Rich, who supposedly was later "assassinated" in retribution.
Mueller's appointment to oversee the investigation immediately garnered widespread support from Democrats and from some Republicans in Congress. Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY) said, "Former Director Mueller is exactly the right kind of individual for this job. I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead." Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–CA) stated, "Bob was a fine U.S. attorney, a great FBI director and there's no better person who could be asked to perform this function." She added, "He is respected, he is talented and he has the knowledge and ability to do the right thing." Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R–UT) tweeted that "Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted." Much Republican support in Congress was lukewarm: Rep. Peter T. King (R–NY) said "It's fine. I just don't think there is any need for it." Republican former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich tweeted that Mueller is a "superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity," but less than a month later he tweeted "Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair."
Former United States Attorney Preet Bharara wrote of the team that "Bob Mueller is recruiting the smartest and most seasoned professionals who have a long track record of independence and excellence". Former special prosecutor Ken Starr, who had investigated Bill Clinton during the Clinton administration, said that the team was "a great, great team of complete professionals". Attorney George T. Conway III, husband of Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, wrote an article defending the constitutionality of the Mueller Investigation.
Some conservatives, including political commentators Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, stated that Mueller should be dismissed and the investigation closed. Christopher Ruddy, the founder of the right-leaning Newsmax, and a friend of Trump, stated that the president has considered firing Mueller.
On June 23, 2017, Trump stated that members of Mueller's team were "all Hillary Clinton supporters, some of them worked for Hillary Clinton." PolitiFact rated Trump's claim "Mostly False", noting that only three had made campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton and one had defended the Clinton Foundation in court. One member of the team had made contributions to Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Republican Senator George Allen. In an interview with The New York Times published on July 19, 2017, Trump stated that he would have not appointed Sessions as Attorney General had he known that he was going to recuse himself from the investigation. Furthermore, Trump confirmed that he would view it as a violation if Mueller investigated his and his family's finances, unrelated to Russia.
On July 21, 2017, the Washington Post reported that Trump asked his advisors about his power to pardon those under investigation. Trump and his legal team discussed the possibility of Trump pardoning aides, family members, and himself. No president has ever pardoned himself, so there is no case law on whether it would be legal. Trump attorneys also reportedly created a list of Mueller's potential conflicts of interest. Trump lawyer John Dowd said the story was "nonsense".
On August 3, 2017, at a campaign-style rally in West Virginia, Trump continued to deny any Russian involvement in his campaign or win: "The Russia story is a total fabrication. It's just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics, that's all it is." This occurred on the same day as the announcement that another grand jury had been impaneled.
On August 12, 2017, The New York Times published an interview of Republican Senator Richard Burr, the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which he said he was hopeful that the investigation would be complete by the end of the year.
Sean Hannity, a strong supporter of Trump, has been a vocal and persistent critic of the Mueller investigation on his Fox News television show, Hannity, and syndicated radio program, The Sean Hannity Show. He has called the investigation a "witch hunt" and described Mueller as "corrupt, abusively biased and political." Hannity has asserted that the investigation arose from an elaborate, corrupt scheme involving Hillary Clinton; the Steele dossier, which he asserts is completely false although parts of it have been reported as verified; former Justice Department officials James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, and others; and a wiretap on former Trump aide Carter Page that Hannity asserts was obtained by misrepresentations to the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, characterizing the wiretap as an abuse of power that is "far bigger than Watergate" and "the weaponizing of those powerful tools of intelligence and the shredding of our Fourth Amendment, constitutional rights."
Jeanine Pirro, a former Westchester County district attorney and currently host of a weekly Fox News program Justice with Judge Jeanine, has been friends with President Trump for decades. On her program, Pirro described Mueller, FBI Director Christopher Wray (a Trump appointee), former FBI Director James Comey and other current/former FBI officials as a "criminal cabal," saying "There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice—it needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in cuffs.”
Tucker Carlson, host of the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight, said on March 2, 2018, "We've been hearing about Russia non-stop, literally non-stop, for more than a year. Almost no information has come out to justify the obsession, none has come out to justify the claim that there was collusion, and most Americans are no longer interested, if they ever were."
Throughout 2017 and 2018, Trump and his allies in Congress and the media have promulgated a series of narratives to assert that the FBI, Justice Department and Mueller investigation have been engaged in an elaborate, corrupt conspiracy against Trump. Among other things, Trump has characterized the Mueller investigation as a "rigged Russia witch hunt," while prominent Trump supporter Sean Hannity has described it as "the biggest corruption scandal in American history." On May 29, 2018, Trump went so far as to assert that the Mueller investigation intended to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections, an accusation Hannity reinforced on his Fox News show that night, saying Mueller "wants to derail many pro-Trump Republicans in the midterms." In a two-minute monologue that same day, Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith flatly debunked that assertion and a number of other Trump narratives, saying "you laugh at them because there's almost nothing else you can do."
Amid concerns that Trump might attempt to halt the investigation by having Mueller dismissed, some members of Congress have supported a bipartisan bill designed to protect Mueller. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on April 17, 2018, that such a bill was not necessary and he would not allow it to come to the Senate floor for a vote. Nevertheless, the chairman of the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley announced on April 19, 2018, that his committee would vote on the measure the following week.
Trump reportedly asked White House Counsel Donald McGahn in April 2017 to call acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente—who was supervising the Russia probe at the time, before Mueller's appointment—and get him to persuade Comey to announce that Trump was not personally under investigation. McGahn made the call but failed to convince Boente that Comey should make the statement.
In June 2017, Trump reportedly tried to fire Mueller, according to several independent accounts published in January 2018. The reports said that Trump told McGahn to fire Mueller; that McGahn refused, saying that to do so would have a catastrophic effect on Trump's presidency; and that Trump then backed off. The New York Times reported that McGahn said he would resign rather than carry out the order, while CNN said McGahn did not directly threaten to resign, and Fox News said Trump was persuaded not to carry out the action by McGahn and other aides. The New York Times report said that Trump cited three conflicts of interest on Mueller's part to justify the dismissal: a years-old dispute over fees at Trump National Golf Club; the fact that Mueller had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and the fact that Mueller had been interviewed to return as FBI Director the day before he was appointed special counsel. According to CNN, another reason Trump wanted to fire Mueller was Trump's perception that Mueller was close friends with Comey, although others have described them as professional acquaintances from having simultaneously worked in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush presidency. In August 2017, Trump said he had never thought about firing Mueller, and by December 2017 he had denied it twice more; in that time period his lawyers and advisers also issued five similar denials. By January 2018, Trump and his surrogates had denied that he had considered firing Mueller a total of eight times. Trump dismissed the January 2018 The New York Times story as "fake news". McGahn was interviewed by Mueller's investigators on November 30, 2017.
Also in June 2017, Trump reportedly instructed his aides to start a campaign for his administration and his Republican allies to discr potential witnesses in the investigation, including FBI officials Andrew McCabe, Jim Rybicki, and James Baker. The three men had been identified by Comey as his confidants. The instruction was reported in January 2018 by Foreign Policy. Trump's lead attorney John Dowd disputed the accuracy of the report.
In early December 2017 Trump sought to fire Mueller, according to an April 2018 report in The New York Times, but stopped after learning the news reports he based his decision on were incorrect.
On December 16, 2017, Kory Langhofer, a lawyer for Trump for America, sent a letter to Congress alleging that Mueller's team had unlawfully acquired, via the GSA, tens of thousands of emails sent and received by thirteen senior members of the Trump transition team. The communications derived from the official governmental presidential transition team domain, "ptt.gov". On the following day, GSA Deputy Counsel Lenny Loewentritt stated that Trump's transition team had been explicitly advised at the time of the transition that all material passing through government equipment would be subject to monitoring and auditing, and would not be held back from law enforcement officers. A spokesman for Mueller's investigation, Peter Carr, also rejected Langhofer's claims, stating that the Trump transition emails were acquired appropriately through the criminal investigation process.
In January 2018, CNN reported that Trump was unhappy with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation. Trump reportedly talked about wanting to fire Rosenstein and proposed firing him, before being persuaded otherwise by his advisers.
On March 17, 2018, Trump's personal attorney, John Dowd, urged Rod Rosenstein to follow the "courageous example" of Sessions in dismissing Andrew McCabe and "bring an end" to the Mueller investigation. Dowd originally told the Daily Beast that he was speaking on behalf of the president, but later told CNN he was speaking only for himself. A source told CNN that Trump had not authorized the statement, but two sources told The New York Times that Dowd was speaking at Trump's urging. Beginning that same day, Trump appeared to abandon his attorneys' advice to avoid directly criticizing the Mueller investigation, tweeting that the "Mueller probe should never have been started" and that it was a "WITCH HUNT!" He also claimed that "there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State." The next day, he questioned how "fair" it was that "the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans". Trump did not note that Mueller himself is a Republican, as is the man who appointed him, Rod Rosenstein—who was appointed by Trump. This was the first time he had criticized Mueller by name, alarming many prominent Republicans, who cautioned Trump not to criticize Mueller or give any appearance that he was contemplating having Mueller dismissed; they warned of dire repercussions if he did. Presidential lawyer Ty Cobb later stated that the president "is not considering or discussing" firing Mueller.
During the week of March 19, 2018, Trump hired the law firm diGenova & Toensing, headed by Joseph diGenova and his wife and law partner Victoria Toensing. Both are longtime Republican activists, having appeared on Fox News on numerous occasions to criticize Democrats, most notably Bill and Hillary Clinton. In recent weeks diGenova has advanced the narrative that a "deep state" conspiracy is attempting to subvert Trump. In January 2018, diGenova said on Fox News, "There was a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn't win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime. Make no mistake about it: A group of FBI and DOJ people were trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime." Fox News reported that Toensing had recently represented Trump associates Mark Corallo, Sam Clovis, and Erik Prince, and that Corallo, Clovis, and Trump signed waivers of any potential conflicts of interest. The White House announced later that week that diGenova and Toensing would not be hired as part of the special counsel legal team, but might assist Trump in other legal matters. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow cited conflicts of interest, while two sources told The New York Times that Trump hadn't established personal rapport with diGenova and Toensing.
In April 2018, following an FBI raid on the office and home of Trump's private attorney Michael Cohen, Trump for the first time spoke openly about firing Mueller, saying that "many people" had advised him to do so and "We'll see what happens." Under Department of Justice regulations, that authority can only be exercised by Rosenstein, the DOJ official in charge of the special counsel investigation, but White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump believes he has the power to do it directly, although he is not currently acting to do so. Trump also said that the "witch hunt" that began "right after I won the nomination" is "an attack on our country in a true sense. It's an attack on what we all stand for." In May 2018, Trump tweeted that the special counsel probe, led by "13 Angry Democrats", was investigating him on "obstruction for a made up, phony crime". He declared that there was no obstruction, only him "fighting back".
Following the May 2018 disclosure that FBI informant Stefan Halper had spoken with Trump campaign aides Carter Page, George Papadopolous and Sam Clovis, Trump and his allies advanced a narrative that the FBI had embedded a spy inside the Trump campaign—which Trump dubbed #SpyGate. This prompted the Justice Department to provide a May 24 special classified briefing regarding Halper and related topics, attended by—among others—Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Republican-controlled House Oversight Committee. On May 29, 2018, Gowdy—a former federal prosecutor—told Fox News, "I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump...President Trump himself in the Comey memos said if anyone connected with my campaign was working with Russia, I want you to investigate it, and it sounds to me like that is exactly what the FBI did. I think when the President finds out what happened, he is going to be not just fine, he is going to be glad that we have an FBI that took seriously what they heard. He was never the target. Russia was the target." Andrew Napolitano, a Trump friend and senior judicial analyst for Fox News, said much the same thing on Fox
News that same day: "The allegations from Mayor Giuliani over the weekend, which would lead us to believe that the Trump people think the FBI had an undercover agent who inveigled his way into Trump's campaign and was there as a spy on the campaign, seem to be baseless—there is no evidence for that whatsoever...But the other allegation about this professor, whose name we're not supposed to mention, talking to people on the periphery of the campaign, that is standard operating procedure in intelligence gathering and in criminal Investigations." The New York Times reported on July 12, 2018, that the White House had ordered that classified information about Halper be given to all members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, beyond the tight access that had previously been granted to the Gang of Eight. The directors of national intelligence and the FBI both opposed the move. House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, a staunch Trump ally, had requested the expanded access for weeks, while Democrats asserted it was an effort by Republicans to gain information they could use to undermine the Mueller investigation.
In June 2018, Trump falsely claims that a report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz "totally exonerates" him and that "the Mueller investigation has been totally discred", despite the report having nothing to do with the special counsel investigation, the Trump campaign or Russia. The report was instead focused on the FBI's 2016 investigation of the Hillary Clinton email controversy.
On July 26, 2017, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz introduced a congressional resolution calling for a special counsel investigation into the handling of the Hillary Clinton email controversy by James Comey, undue interference of Attorney General Loretta Lynch in that investigation, and the acquisition of Uranium One by the Russian state corporation Rosatom during Mueller's time as FBI director. Gaetz stated that he did not trust Mueller to lead the investigation because of his alleged involvement in approval of the Uranium One deal and his allegedly close relationship with Comey, a probable person of interest in the proposed investigation. The resolution was referred to two House committees where it has remained as of February 21, 2018.
On August 24, 2017, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) added a rider to the proposed fiscal 2018 spending bill package that would block funding from being used "for the investigation under that order of matters occurring before June 2015" (the month Trump announced he was running for president) immediately and terminated funding for the special counsel investigation 180 days after passage of the bill. Rep. DeSantis said that the DOJ order of May 17, 2017, "didn't identify a crime to be investigated and practically invites a fishing expion." House Republican leaders did not allow the amendment to proceed to the floor for a vote.
On November 3, 2017, Gaetz introduced another resolution demanding Mueller's resignation as special counsel due to conflicts of interest, this resolution was co-sponsored by U.S. Representative from Arizona Andy Biggs and U.S. Representative from Texas Louie Gohmert; Arizona Representative Trent Franks co-sponsored the resolution on November 8, 2017. The resolution was referred to the House Judiciary Committee where it has remained as of February 21, 2018. As a "sense of the House" resolution, its approval would not be legally binding upon Mueller.
On February 2, 2018, the House Intelligence Committee with Trump's authorization released a memo written by committee chair Devin Nunes and staff. The Nunes memo, based on classified information, alleged that the FBI and Department of Justice "may have relied on politically motivated or questionable sources" in October 2016 in seeking authorization for a wiretap on Carter Page, a former adviser to Trump's campaign. Before the memo's release, Trump told associates that it would discr the investigation, and after its release, Trump claimed in a tweet that the memo "totally vindicates" him. On February 24, 2018, the House Intelligence Committee with Trump's authorization released a redacted version of a memo from Adam Schiff, ranking Democratic member of the committee, as a response to the Nunes memo. The response contended the wiretaps were properly obtained and were warranted because Page had been assessed by intelligence agencies as "an agent of the Russian government," adding that "Our extensive review of the initial FISA application and three subsequent renewals failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement and instead revealed that both the FBI and DOJ made extensive showings to justify all four requests."
The New York Times reported on March 28, 2018, that the Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz would investigate accusations of wrongdoing surrounding the surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, "amid a stream of attacks in recent months from the White House and Republican lawmakers seeking to undermine the special counsel's investigation." The announcement fell short of the demands of several Republican politicians and prominent Trump supporters such as Sean Hannity for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate. CNN reported on March 29, 2018, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had appointed John W. Huber, the United States Attorney for the District of Utah, to investigate this and other matters. In a letter to three Republican Congressional committee chairmen, Sessions said he would rely on Huber's findings to decide if a special counsel needed to be appointed. Huber had been investigating the matter for a time, but his involvement had not previously been disclosed. CNN reported that Huber is investigating "a cluster of Republican-driven accusations against the FBI," which includes allegations that the FBI acted inappropriately in two matters involving Hillary Clinton, including her emails and the sale of Uranium One to a Russian-owned company.
A May 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that 81% of U.S. voters supported the special prosecutor's investigation. A June 2017 Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll asked U.S. adults whether the special counsel investigation could be fair and impartial: 26% were "extremely confident" or "very confident"; 36% were "moderately confident" and 36% were "not very confident" or "not at all confident." The poll indicated that 68% of Americans were at least "moderately concerned" about inappropriate connections between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
A poll published in November 2017 by ABC News and The Washington Post found that 58% of Americans approved of Mueller's handling of his investigation, while 28% disapproved. It also indicated that half of Americans believed that President Trump was not co-operating with the investigation. A Quinnipiac poll published on November 15, 2017, suggested that 60% of Americans believed that Mueller's investigation was proceeding fairly, with 27% believing that it was not. The poll also found that 47% of respondents said that President Trump ought to be impeached if he were to dismiss Mueller.
A December poll by Associated Press–NORC indicated that four out of ten Americans believed that Trump had committed a crime in connection with Russia, with an additional three out of ten beyond that believing that he had acted unethically. It found that 62% of Democrats and 5% of Republicans believe that Trump acted illegally. It found that 68% of Americans believed that Trump was obstructing the investigation. 57% of respondents said that they were "extremely confident" or "moderately confident" that Mueller's investigation is fair.
In another December poll from The Hill, 54% of respondents believe Mueller has a conflict of interest due to his relationship with James Comey. The poll also found 36% agreed Trump and his allies are getting harsher treatment from the special counsel than Clinton and her allies did during the FBI investigation into her handling of classified material." The same poll found that 60 percent of voters say that "a comment to the FBI director that he should consider letting Flynn off the hook" is not enough to constitute obstruction of justice.
A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on February 26, 2018, showed that a 58% majority of registered voters say they have a lot or some trust in Mueller's investigation, while a 57% majority say they have little or no trust in Trump's denials. Further, 75% say they take the charges filed by Mueller seriously; most of them say they take them "very" seriously. That represents some shift in views over the past year. In a USA Today/Suffolk Poll in March 2017, 63% called it very or somewhat serious.
A CBS poll released in May 2018 found that a majority of Americans, 53%, believe the investigation is politically motivated, although most agreed it should continue. Republicans believe that Congress should take steps to end the investigation, while most independents and nearly all Democrats feel the investigation should be allowed to continue.
I've talked with Director Mueller about this," Rosenstein said. "He's going to make the appropriate decisions, and if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation then, as Director Mueller and I discussed, if there's a need from me to recuse, I will.
Many lawyers and top law firms want to represent me in the Russia case...don’t believe the Fake News narrative that it is hard to find a lawyer who wants to take this on. Fame & fortune will NEVER be turned down by a lawyer, though some are conflicted....
According to sources familiar with the process ... [a]n assessment of evidence and circumstances will be completed before a final decision is made to launch an investigation of the president of the United States regarding potential obstruction of justice.
SEKULOW: The president is not and has not been under investigation.
DICKERSON: How do you know?
SEKULOW: Because we've received no notice of investigation. There has been no notification from the special counsel's office that the president is under investigation.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia, is expanding his probe to assume control of a grand jury investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, three sources told Reuters [...] Federal prosecutors in Virginia are investigating a deal between Flynn and Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin as part of a grand jury criminal probe, according to a subpoena seen by Reuters.
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