Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein created the Special Counsel’s Office (SCO) on May 17, 2017 and named Bob Mueller to run it. Upon its creation, the SCO inherited the counterintelligence investigation of the Russian election interference from the FBI. That investigation had been going on since well before the election, at least as early as July 2016, and perhaps as early as April 2016, when a Trump Campaign staffer famously got drunk and bragged about Russia sharing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton with the Trump Campaign.
I’m going to sum up the documents that Mueller’s team has publicly filed, what they mean, and what they can tell us about where the investigation might head next. We’re going to go in chronological order.
On October 5, 2017, the above-referenced staffer, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. He lied about his contacts with two people he believed to be linked to the Russian government. It’s not a crime to talk to people you think may have connections to the Russian government, but it is a crime to lie to the FBI when they ask you about it.
As part of Papadopoulos’s plea bargain, he told the FBI about the many times he emailed his colleagues in the Trump Campaign about his Russian contacts. This included members of the Trump Campaign foreign policy team, Papadopoulos’s supervisor, an unnamed “senior policy advisor,” and a “high-ranking campaign official,” all of whom received a series of updates as emailed back and forth with the Russians.
Mueller-ology: By flipping Papadopoulos, the SCO showed that multiple levels of the Trump Campaign knew about the sustained contacts with Russia. Further, the campaign knew these contacts persisted after one of those Russian contacts informed Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” The smartest lawyers who I read on this stuff say the FBI is using the same tactics to in this investigation that they use to bust organized crime syndicates. Here, Mueller’s started with Papadopoulos, who flipped and explained what senior Trump Campaign officials knew about Russian contacts. Then the FBI interviewed one of those officials to see if they’ll lie. Which brings us to the next guilty plea.
On December 1, 2017, Michael Flynn, a senior Trump Campaign official who briefly served as the President’s National Security Advisor, pled guilty to lying to the FBI. Specifically, Flynn lied about his recollection of a phone call he had with the Russian Ambassador, during which he asked Russia to moderate its response to sanctions imposed by President Obama in December 2016. Flynn also admitted he lied about conversations with several other countries regarding an Egyptian resolution to the United Nations Security Council.
By getting a guilty plea out of Flynn, the SCO showed the contacts with Russia were not limited to a single foreign policy staffer. In addition to being aware of a series of others’ Russian contacts, senior Trump Campaign officials were in contact with at least one Russian official themselves.
Mueller-ology: So now we’ve moved up the ladder to someone who was actually quite deep into the Trump White House inner circle; the SCO apparently got there in one move from Papadopoulos. Flynn could be a good resource for uncovering other criminal activities in the inner circle, but it’s too early to tell just yet. As of this writing, Flynn hasn’t been sentenced, which is often a sign that the defendant is actively assisting prosecutors. Or maybe Flynn has yet to provide any useful information, but the SCO thinks he might at some date.
On February 12, 2018, Richard Pinedo pled guilty to identity theft; he provided services by which people could circumvent the security features of “large online digital payment companies,” which I assume means companies like Paypal. Remember in the section on Papadopoulos, when I said “it’s not a crime to get in touch with Russians?” Well, it is a crime to get paid to commit identity theft, whether for Russians or not. Pinedo did not work for or have any connection to the Trump campaign whatsoever. When the FBI tracked Pinedo down, I’d bet he was pretty surprised to find out he was involved in the Russian election interference investigation.
Mueller-ology: Looks like the SCO stumbled upon some random hacker while tracking down Russians.
4. Internet Research Agency
On February 16, 2018, Mueller’s team indicted three Russian companies and thirteen Russian nationals for conspiracy to defraud the United States, wire fraud, and identity theft. Ordinarily, I’d say “this case is never going to trial” because Russia doesn’t extradite people to America. However, this case might actually go to trial because one of the defendants hired an American law firm to represent them from abroad. To date, the parties have been fighting over pre-trial motions to disclose evidence, which has afforded the defense some nice opportunities to troll the SCO in front of a judge.
It’s important to note that while the companies involved are owned by people with links to Russian government officials, they’re technically not government bodies. It seems that this kind of arrangement is not uncommon in Russia, as it affords a certain amount of plausible deniability for the Russian government when they do shady things like collude with an American presidential campaign. Either way, this indictment serves to demonstrate the existence of a Russian scheme to interfere in the election by the systematic abuse of social media.
Mueller-ology: Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. We’re not demonstrating any links between Russia and the Trump Campaign here – remember that’s what Papadopoulos and Flynn were for. But we already knew there was a campaign full of people interested in talking to Russians about helping in the election, and now we know there was also a building full of Russians looking to meddle in the election. The argument against collusion now has to be “they were just two ships passing in the night.” I imagine that once Mueller’s investigation is finished, that might not pass the straight face test.
5. Van Der Zwaan
On February 20, 2018, Alex Van Der Zwaan pled guilty to lying the FBI about the extent of his contacts with Paul Manafort and Richard Gates (we’re getting to them). Van Der Zwaan is an attorney who worked at a law firm hired by the Ukrainian government to write a report in 2012; the report was meant to show a political opposition leader had been legitimately jailed, instead of jailed in the way you’d expect a former Soviet state would jail a political opposition leader.
Van Der Zwaan was not accused of malfeasance during the election (he wasn’t a member of the Trump campaign), but he did lie and withhold evidence from the FBI about his contacts with a couple of important suspects. In exchange for his eventual cooperation, Van Der Zwaan served 30 days in jail and was deported.
Mueller-ology: Yep. Lying to the FBI is still a crime. The fact that the SCO sought jail time for someone as ancillary as Van Der Zwaan was probably meant to scare future witnesses more than anything else. Likewise, because Van Der Zwaan has already gone to prison, been released from prison, and been deported to the Netherlands, we can assume he’s done providing information to the SCO’s folks.
6. Manafort and Gates
On February 22, 2018, Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were indicted on eighteen and twenty-three federal felonies (respectively) in Virginia. The two men were charged with tax evasion, assisting with tax evasion, failure to report foreign bank accounts, more tax evasion, and lots of bank fraud. Manafort and Gates were business partners running a shady political consulting firm in Eastern Europe, where they did lots of business with Russian oligarchs. They were also the Trump Campaign’s chairman and deputy chairman for a time, and Gates served as the second-highest ranking official on the Trump Presidential Transition Team. Outside of Trump’s kids, there aren’t any bigger fish in the pond.
Note that this indictment does not itself allege either man committed crimes during the 2016 Presidential campaign. In fact, as Manafort prepares to go to trial over these charges next week, the SCO has explicitly stated that no portion of the trial will mention Trump or the 2016 campaign. Rather, this is just about proving what shady businessmen these guys were.
Mueller-ology: I don’t think you can fairly say Van Der Zwaan flipped on these two, but once the FBI started pulling on the threads of Manafort’s and Gates’s business dealings, dozens of felonies just kind of came tumbling out. It seems to me that Mueller wants to flip these two before he proceeds with the final stage of the investigation, which will probably involve interviewing the President. This is the SCO leaning on Manafort as hard as they can; Trump really needs Manafort and Gates to stay strong and not flip under any circumstances.
On February 23, 2018, Richard Gates flipped. The astute reader will note that Gates lasted all of one day before pleading guilty to several conspiracies: tax evasion, failing to report foreign bank accounts, failing to register as a foreign agent, as well as lying to the FBI. Forced with the possibility of spending hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of dollars on a legal defense, Gates pled guilty.
Mueller-ology: Gates is likely an extremely useful witness to all sorts of malfeasance during the campaign. He’s probably told the FBI what he knows about that already. If Manafort really does keep his mouth shut and lives out his days in prison, Gates can probably help the SCO investigate Trump Campaign crimes. But it’s blindingly obvious that Manafort is central to the SCO’s investigation, and Gates’s prime use to Mueller at the moment is increasing the amount of pressure on Manafort. And really, nobody will be more helpful in uncovering Manafort’s white-collar crimes than Manafort’s business partner, so Gates is a nice two-fer.
8. Manafort & Kilimnik
On June 8, 2018, Manafort was indicted in the District of Columbia for an additional seven felonies, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to launder money, failure to register as a foreign agent, lying to the FBI, and obstruction of justice. A former Russian military intelligence officer named Konstantin Kilimnik has been charged for these crimes as well, even though he is a Russian national who will never see an American courtroom.
Mueller-ology: These charges are in addition to the eighteen felonies Manafort is charged with in the Virginia federal court. So Manafort has two separate trials in the coming months. The only thing worse than defending yourself against a giant federal criminal case is having to do it twice, back to back. I don’t believe Mueller cares much whether Manafort takes a plea bargain because he’s convicted or because he’s flat broke, but the SCO is going to see which happens first.
Legally, the stakes here are enormous for Manafort: if he’s convicted of even a fraction of what he’s accused of, he’s almost certain to spend the rest of his life in jail. The amount of pressure Mueller’s putting on Manafort is just breathtaking. Mueller and the FBI know a lot of things we don’t, and one of those things is “exactly why it’s so important that Paul Manafort flip on the President.”
9. The GRU
Mueller-ology: it sure seems like the prosecution of Trump campaign officials is on hold pending Manafort’s decision to cooperate. In the meantime, the SCO peeled back another layer of the Russian investigation; we knew a handful of companies and a dozen social media trolls that were out to interfere in our election. Now we know Russian military intelligence officers broke into one of the campaigns and used what they found to assist their preferred candidate. We also know there was at least one political operative (whose name rhymes with Dodger Throne) who was in contact with both the Trump campaign and these Russian spies regarding email leaks and other internal campaign records. The situation is looking less “two ships passing in the night” and more “two people sitting in a tiny rowboat singing Russian Drinking Songs.”
10. What’s Next
Theoretically, there are other Russian intelligence agencies who the investigation could target: apart from the GRU’s spies, an entirely different Russian intelligence agency broke into the DNC’s computers, and neither of them knew the other was there. But from where I’m sitting, the Russian half of the puzzle looks pretty filled in. We know there was a wide-ranging effort in both the public and private sectors of Russia to support the Trump campaign. Whether that effort involved one building of spies or two buildings of spies doesn’t strike me as particularly earth-shattering.
I’m convinced the investigation is on hold while we wait for Paul Manafort to decide what he’s going to do. The fact that he’s going to trial is a little surprising, given how grim his financial and legal situation looks. Maybe Manafort is trying to wait out the Special Counsel; Manafort might think if he can tie this thing up in court long enough, the FBI will find the information they need elsewhere, and he can just get pardoned and go back to his life. Maybe Manafort legitimately doesn’t know anything useful, or maybe he’s afraid of what happens when you make Russian spies unhappy.
Either way, we’re going to start seeing the SCO’s evidence on the American side of the puzzle next week. It should be quite educational.