Each week brings a new indictment from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller along with the same question: when will he produce evidence that the president of the United States committed treason?
Because that’s what this is really about; Some Russians somewhere may have meddled in the election. But what Mueller has to answer is whether Trump knowingly worked with a foreign adversarial government to help get himself elected in return for some quid pro quo. Mueller is tasked with proving the president, now in his 13th month in office, purposefully acts against the interests of the United States because of some debt to Russia.
Here’s what Mueller has, and does not have, so far in his case.
Manafort and Gates
Last Friday saw a 32 count indictment charging Paul Manafort and Richard Gates with a variety of money laundering, tax evasion, and wire fraud crimes, going back eight years or more, all related to the men’s work Ukraine. Manafort and Gates were indicted by Mueller on similar charges in October. There’s a lot of money involved, and the details in the indictment don’t look good for Manafort.
A day after the indictment, Gates pled guilty to the very minor charges of participating in a financial conspiracy with Manafort wholly unrealted to Trump, and lying to the FBI about the details of a 2013 meeting. An associate of Gates, Alex van der Zwaan, pled guilty earlier last week to false statements about contacts with Gates regarding Ukraine.
Manafort’s case is complex, no trial date has been set, and it will likely take a year or more to conclude once started. That Mueller filed additional charges last week against Manafort all buts screams he has no cooperation deal, that Manafort hasn’t “flipped” to tell all about his three months running the Trump campaign.
The Great Hope of course is Gates pleading guilty means he will testify against Manafort to pressure him to take a plea deal to testify against a Team Trump principal, all based on the overall assumption there is something to testify about of course. To date, nowhere in any of this is it shown there is any direct connection to Trump, the campaign, the DNC email hack, Wikileaks, the Russian government, Putin, or anything else Russiagate.
The Russian Trolls
Two weeks ago Mueller dropped a multi-part indictment against 13 Russian citizens connected with the so-called troll farm. The indictment alleges the group bought Facebook and Twitter ads, planned small rallies, and otherwise “meddled” in the U.S. election. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made clear there was no allegation in the indictment any American — including members of the Trump campaign — “was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” Rosenstein added “there is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Persons in Russia, even if some connection to the Kremlin can be shown (it hasn’t been and since Mueller will never take this case to court — his defendants all live in Russia — it is unlikely it ever will be) “meddling” have little to do with what Mueller is charged with finding out. There’s no link to Trump or anything else Russiagate. In fact, the social media campaign started years before Trump announced his candidacy, and about half its modest ad buys took place after the election was over. The troll farm itself was not much of a secret; the New York Times did a “look at this internet madness” profile on the place, which operates quite openly from an office in St. Petersburg, back in 2015.
Mueller also charged former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn with a non-material lie to the FBI (teh FBI already knew the truth from surveillence, Flynn stepped into a perjury trap set up for him. The likely sentence is a fine.) Flynn initially plead guilty, though is understood to be reconsidering and may withdraw that plea. Flynn’s lies and other accusations centers on his work as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey, a NATO ally. Prosecutions for failing to register as a foreign agent are rare, and penalties generally light. Washington has played very loose with the Foreign Agents and Registration Act for a long time, as many former members of Congress and executive branch employees make millions working for foreign governments lobbying DC.
Flynn also admitted he lied to the FBI about a conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period. The conversation, though not illegal, was surveilled by the NSA. Leaked information out of the Obama White House suggests the two men talked about outgoing President Obama’s executive order imposing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference. Flynn asked Russia for restraint in any planned retaliation. Critics claim this is a violation of the Logan Act, a law that has never been successfully prosecuted. Soon after the FBI interview in which Flynn falsely denied the conversation, Sally Yates, an Obama-era holdover serving as acting attorney general, warned the Trump White House Russia could blackmail Flynn over having lied. Ironically, many now believe Mueller is essentially blackmailing Flynn using that same lie, holding out a light sentence if Flynn tells all about Russiagate, again assuming there is anything tell and that Flynn knows it.
Another output from the Mueller team is the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, who may or may not have been a serious part of the Trump campaign; Sarah Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, explained Papadopoulos’s role as “a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time.”
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to the relatively minor crime (his likely sentence is a fine) of a non-material lie to the FBI about a meeting he had in London with a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud, another perjury trap of Mueller’s based on intelligence data. Mifsud had made a pseudo-reputation for himself jetting around the world bragging about his connections. He supposedly introduced Papadopoulos to two other people with claimed ties to the Russian government, and sought to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The professor said the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in “thousands of emails.” Much of this information is laced through the so-called Steele dossier paid for by the DNC and used by the FBI to later obtain a FISA warrant on one-time Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. No meeting took place and no emails or dirt was handed over.
The cast of characters is interesting; one might imagine their credibility testifying at an impeachment hearing. Carter Page has not been charged with anything. He has recently claimed he is near-bankrupt, doesn’t have a lawyer, and has written manifestos comparing himself to Martin Luther King, Jr. Back in 2013, when a Russian agent made a limp try at recruiting Page, he described him as too much of an “idiot” to bother with.
Papadopoulos has in the past made big but empty claims about his connections in Russia and his role in the Trump campaign. A solid characterization, as one analyst put it, is whether the “young adviser was making plans with actual Russian officials or whether he had drifted into a fog of hucksters, tricksters, and pretenders.”
You Got What?
Mueller, as best we know, currently has very little regarding Russiagate. He has what appears to be solid evidence of non-Trump related financial crimes by Paul Manafort and others. Most of that seems to have come from FISA surveillance on Manafort dating back to 2014. The FBI’s investigation at that time was dropped, likely when the U.S. decided against war in the Ukraine, and it appears Mueller went into the files and revived it now that the same information could be repurposed essentially as blackmail against Manafort testifying.
Flynn and Papadopoulos are charged with relatively minor crimes, though the potential to stack other charges against them exists. The connections to Russiagate are, however, tenuous. Flynn’s contact with the Russia ambassador can be seen as a lot of uncomplimentary things, but it does not appear to be a crime. Page and Papadopoulos would be very weak witnesses. There may be a “conspiracy to commit something” charge in there with some shady lawyering, but it seems little more.
What Mueller’s Missing
That’s what Mueller has. Here’s what he is missing.
The full force of the U.S. intelligence community has been aimed at finding evidence of Russian government interference in the 2016 election (still largely undemonstrated) for some 18 months, and the Comey/Mueller team aimed at finding evidence of Trump’s collusion with Russia for about a year.
It is reasonable to conclude they do not have intelligence that would form a smoking gun, no tape of a high-ranking Trump official cutting a deal with a Russian spy.
If such information existed, there would be no need for months of investigation. Same for the Steele dossier, and its salacious accusations. If there was proof any of it was true, we’d be hearing it read aloud during impeachment hearings.
What’s left is the battle cry of Trump opponents since election day: just you wait. The recount will show Hillary won. The Electoral College won’t select Trump. The Emoluments Clause will take Trump down. Or his tax returns. Or the 25th Amendment. Mueller will flip _____. The shoe will drop. Tick tock. And anything that looks like a weak move by Mueller is only an example we don’t yet understand of his keen judicial kung fu.
No one knows the future. But so far the booked charges against Flynn and Papadopoulos, and the guilty pleas of others, point toward minor sentences to bargain over (never mind the possibility of a presidential pardon if it came to that), assuming they have relevant information to share in the first place. Manafort says he’ll go to court an defend himself. Mueller has produced nothing that has touched Trump, nothing connecting any meddling to a deal between Trump and Putin.
The core task is not to prove some Russians, or even the Russian government, meddled in the election. A limping to the finish line conclusion to Mueller’s work just ahead of the midterm elections that Trump somehow technically obstructed justice without a finding of an underlying crime would tear the nation apart. Mueller is charged with nothing less than proving the president knowingly worked with a foreign adversarial government, receiving help in the election in return for some quid pro quo, an act that can be demonstrated so clearly to the American people as to overturn an election well-over a year after it was decided.
It is a very dangerous thing to see the glee so many display hoping Trump will be found to be a Russian agent. That pleasure in hoping the U.S. is controlled by a foreign power because it means Trump will leave office early is not healthy for us. Mueller can fix that, but so far the bar is still seemingly pretty high above him. Given the stakes - a Kremlin-controlled man in the Oval Office - you’d think every person in govt would be on this 24/7 to save the nation, not just a relatively small staff of prosecutors ever-so-slowly filing indictments that so far have little to do with their core charge.