Special counsel Mueller investigation enters Year Two: What comes next - and how it could end
WASHINGTON - Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election turns a year old on Thursday, May 17. In 365 days, Mueller's team has charged 19 people, as well as three companies, and secured five guilty pleas. He is showing no signs of slowing down.
The milestone might not mean much to Mueller, but it has important public significance. History has shown that the public does not have unlimited patience with independent or special counsels, and Mueller faces a particular challenge maintaining the confidence of the citizenry, given the regular attacks he faces from President Donald Trump, who has decried the probe as a "witch hunt."
Here is a status check of Mueller's probe at the one year mark, and a look at what could happen next.
--Mueller was tasked with finding out if the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin. What has he found so far?
Mueller still hasn't answered the biggest question: Did the Trump campaign coordinate with Russia to influence the 2016 election? But he has secured guilty pleas from three former Trump campaign or administration officials: national security adviser Michael Flynn, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates and campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. All are now cooperating with Mueller's probe and presumably could tell him about coordination, if there was any. In their pleas, they have often admitted to being deceitful about contacts with Russians or those acting for Russian interests. Flynn, for example, admitted lying about his interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and Papadopoulos conceded he made a false statement to FBI investigators who asked about his contacts with foreigners claiming to have high-level Russian connections.
Mueller has also indicted 13 people and three companies who were part of a Russian Internet troll operation that used online propaganda to push voters toward Trump. The Russians made contact with Trump campaign staffers in Florida, but they used fake identities. Mueller did not allege that Trump staffers were witting participants in the scheme.
- Isn't Mueller investigating a lot more than that?
Mueller's main mandate was to investigate possible coordination, but his probe has expanded. He charged Gates and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, for example, with crimes related to their business dealings and work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine long before the Trump campaign. He is looking, or has looked, at the business dealings of Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, though that case now seems largely centered in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York.
Mueller is also exploring whether the president obstructed justice on a number of fronts, especially in allegedly asking FBI Director James Comey to let go of the Flynn investigation; firing Comey shortly thereafter; and toying with firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his recusal from the Russia case. After Sessions recused himself from the case, his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, took over and appointed Mueller.
- Why is this taking so long?
Trump and his allies have long called for an end to the probe, and they were joined in recent weeks by Sessions and Vice President Mike Pence, who both said publicly they hoped the probe would conclude. But legal analysts say, compared with other special and independent counsel probes, Mueller is moving remarkably fast.
By comparison, it took nearly a year and a half for the independent counsel to bring charges in what is now known as the Whitewater scandal - which began by exploring Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement in a suspicious real estate venture - against Arkansas' governor and two others. That case stretched on for nearly eight years, drawing in multiple independent counsels and exploring a wide range of allegations about the Clintons. They were never charged, and Bill Clinton was impeached, but not convicted and removed, for obstructing justice.
"Judged by historical standards, I think that the special counsel has amassed a remarkable record of achievement in the first year of his tenure," said David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security who now runs the Culper Partners consulting firm. "It's fast and it's productive, and there's obviously more to come."
- Are Trump's attacks working?
The president has attacked the special counsel team relentlessly - decrying it as a witch hunt, claiming its members are biased against him, and asserting that he did not collude with Russia. By and large, the public still supports the probe, but legal analysts say that will not last forever. Indeed, a Monmouth University poll found that the percentage of Americans who say the probe should continue has shrunk over time, though a majority still want Mueller to keep working.
Robert Ray, who served as independent counsel toward the end of the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton presidency, said that in his experience, an independent counsel has only about 18 to 24 months "with the benefit of public sentiment to appropriately conclude the investigation." But others say while Mueller might want to move quickly, he won't let polling dictate his actions.
"My answer to that is the special counsel does not stand for election," said Jacob Frenkel, who worked in the independent counsel's office in the late 1990s. "Polling and popularity never are a driving force behind a properly conducted special investigation."
- Will Trump sit for an interview?
This remains the big unanswered question. The special counsel recently gave Trump's lawyers the topic areas investigators want to broach with Trump, in hopes of convincing him to sit down and answer questions. Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, has suggested an interview is possible, but he has also said it was possible that Mueller would have to try to subpoena the president.
Ray said that investigators seeking an interview with Trump could be a sign their investigation is coming to a head - at least regarding Trump's possible role in coordinating with Russia. And he said that, if he were Trump's lawyer, he might advise the president to meet with Mueller under tightly controlled conditions, if only to expedite the probe's conclusion.
"I think he understands that in order to make Bob Mueller go away, it's going to have to happen," Ray said. "Once that's accomplished, the president can really ratchet up the pressure to bring this thing to closure. Without that, it's really difficult to force the conclusion of the investigation."
- What will happen as the election approaches?
The Justice Department has a longstanding tradition of not taking overt steps in an investigation close to an election that might affect the outcome of that election. Because of that, those inside and outside the Justice Department expect Mueller's probe might slow, or at least make fewer public waves, as November approaches.
There will be some processes that Mueller's team can't avoid. Manafort, for example, is scheduled to go on trial in July and again in September. But legal analysts say the Justice Department typically observes the tradition religiously - and perhaps will do so even more after the criticism Comey faced last October when he revealed to Congress that the FBI was again investigating Hillary Clinton over her email practices.
Barak Cohen, a former Justice Department public integrity prosecutor now in private practice at Perkins Coie, said he even recalled a case in which investigators prematurely ended a wiretap in a case involving state legislators - potentially leaving evidence on the table - so they could bring charges well before an election.
"We were very reluctant to take any overt action shortly before an election that might affect the election," Cohen said.
- What is next, and how does this end?
Many in Washington ultimately expect Mueller to produce a report memorializing what he has found, in addition to laying out much of his work through criminal charges. Trump's fiercest critics hope Mueller's work ultimately leads to impeachment.
Legal analysts say, though, that Mueller is likely unconcerned with accomplishing a particular result - such as charging the president, or forcing his impeachment. Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director who worked under Mueller at the FBI, said Mueller's main aim was always to be thorough, and "if at the end of that investigation he's able to say, we found no evidence of collusion, kind of the core mission, I think Mueller would see it as, 'we've accomplished our mission.' "
That result might leave many disappointed, and Trump would almost certainly use it to claim he was right all along about the probe being a "witch hunt." Analysts say, though, that while Mueller is sensitive to public perception, it's almost impossible it would govern his conclusion. Because no matter what he decides, many people will be upset.
"Look, I think that whenever you conclude an investigation, you're not going to keep everybody happy with the result," Ray said. "No matter what you do, there are gonna be people on both sides who are going to be unhappy with whatever conclusion you come to."Story by Matt Zapotosky. Zapotosky covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post's national security team. He has previously worked covering the federal courthouse in Alexandria and local law enforcement in Prince George's County and Southern Maryland.