Ever since Deputy Attorney General Rod Rostenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller Special Counsel to investigate the Russiagate collusion allegations, there has been a huge amount of speculation about what if any information Mueller may have which he has not publicly divulged.
Mueller has however succeeded in running an exceptionally tight ship, with no leaks from his investigation to speak of.
The situation has now changed with the leak – possibly by someone in the Trump administration rather than the Mueller’s team – of the questions Mueller apparently wants to ask Donald Trump. These provide a fascinating insight into the state of his inquiry.
Here is my take on these questions:
(1) Robert Mueller is in possession of no facts which have not previously been made public.
Every single one of the questions is obviously drawn on information which has already been made public and which has been widely discussed.
The New York Times claims one exception.
What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?
Concerning which question The New York Times has this to say
This is one of the most intriguing questions on the list. It is not clear whether Mr. Mueller knows something new, but there is no publicly available information linking Mr. Manafort, the former campaign chairman, to such outreach. So his inclusion here is significant. Mr. Manafort’s longtime colleague, Rick Gates, is cooperating with Mr. Mueller.
(bold italics added)
As with so much of The New York Times’s reporting of the Russiagate scandal, I find this claim astonishing.
I have no idea whether Rick Gates has told Mueller’s investigators anything about any outreach by Paul Manafort to Russia, though I have to say that I think it extremely unlikely.
However it is simply not true that there has been “no publicly available information linking Manafort to outreach to Russia”.
On the contrary that “publicly available information” has existed since the summer of 2016, was made “publicly available” in February 2016, and has been the subject of exhaustive discussion ever since.
It is of course the Trump Dossier, in which Manafort plays a starring role as the mastermind of the supposed conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
It seems that now that the Trump Dossier is publicly discredited The New York Times – Stalinist style – treats it as if it doesn’t exist.
An interesting approach from the “paper of record”.
(2) Donald Trump continues to be Robert Mueller’s target
Recently there have been media reports that Robert Mueller’s investigators have informed Donald Trump that he is not a target of the Mueller investigation.
The highly aggressive questions Mueller wants to ask Trump however tell a very different story. The consistent theme behind them is of a Donald Trump who is very much at the centre of all sorts of nefarious activities.
Frankly they do not look like the sort of questions an investigator asks if he searching for the truth. Rather they look like cross examination by prosecuting Counsel.
In light of this Trump’s hesitation in submitting himself to an interview by Mueller in which these sort of questions are asked is fully understandable.
I suspect his lawyers are advising him against it.
(3) Obstruction of Justice has replaced collusion with Russia as the focus of the Mueller probe
When around the time of former FBI Director James Comey’s admittedly botched dismissal the issue of obstruction of justice first arose, it seemed to me so farfetched that I could not bring myself to believe that Mueller or anyone else would seriously entertain it.
As I pointed out at the time the Russiagate investigation was at that point in time still a counterespionage inquiry rather than a crime inquiry, as had recently been confirmed by no less a person than James Comey himself in his March 2017 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.
As it happens it is a moot point when exactly the Russiagate investigation did become a criminal inquiry and not just a counterespionage inquiry.
My guess is that no such formal decision was ever taken, but that Mueller himself simply decided as soon as he was appointed Special Counsel that he was conducting a criminal inquiry as well as a counterespionage inquiry.
The point is apparently being pursued by Paul Manafort’s lawyers in the case Mueller has brought against him. It will be interesting to see what comes of it.
Irrespective of this, the fact that the Russiagate investigation was apparently still a counterespionage inquiry as opposed to a criminal inquiry when Comey was sacked made it impossible for me to see how Comey’s sacking could amount to an obstruction of justice.
What I was of course at that time completely unaware of was of the discussions which had previously passed between Trump and Comey about General Flynn.
A memo Comey wrote up after one of these discussions has been seized on by Trump’s critics as evidence that he attempted to block the FBI’s investigation into whether or not General Flynn had committed an offence under the Logan Act by talking whilst a member of the Trump transition team to Russian ambassador Kislyak, and that this amounts to an obstruction of justice.
When early accounts of the contents of this memo appeared I expressed my strong doubt that its contents as they were being reported showed that there had been any obstruction of justice by Donald Trump of the investigation of General Flynn
……..since Comey’s note shows Trump neither instructing Comey nor requesting Comey to drop the investigation against Flynn, nor of Trump putting pressure on Comey to do so, but merely shows Trump expressing the “hope” Comey would do so, in any sane world no charge of obstructing justice or of perverting the course of justice brought upon it could possibly stick.
The redacted text of this and of Comey’s other memos has now been published, and the relevant sections of the memo read as follows
He [Donald Trump – AM] began by saying he “wanted to talk about Mike Flynn”. He then said that although Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his call with the Russians (a point he made at least two more times in the conversation), he had to let him go because he misled the Vice-President and, in any event, he had concerns about Flynn, and had a great guy coming in, so he had to let Flynn go…..
…..He then referred at length to the leaks relating to Mike Flynn’s call with the Russians, which he stressed was not wrong in any way (“he made lots of calls”), but that the leaks were terrible.
I tried to interject several times to agree with him about the leaks being terrible, but was unsuccessful. When he finished, I said that I agreed very much that it was terrible that his calls with foreign leaders leaked. I said they were classified and he needed to be able to speak to foreign leaders in confidence…..
He then returned to the subject of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice-President but he didn’t do anything wrong in the call. He said, “I hope you can see your way to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy”, but said no more.
(bold italics added)
The entirety of the memo in fact shows that the main subject of the conversation and Donald Trump’s major concern as of the time when the conversation took place was not General Flynn or the case against him but the systematic campaign of leaks which were undermining his administration.
The memo shows Trump putting pressure on Comey to investigate the leaks and Comey resisting doing so. Whilst Comey purported to agree with Trump that the leaks were terrible and that the leakers should be punished, he resisted Trump’s suggestion that the most effective way to go after the leakers was to go after the reporters they were leaking to.
The reason Trump brought up the subject of Flynn was because his case was a particularly egregious example of a career that had been destroyed by unauthorised and illegal leaking.
In this Trump was undoubtedly right.
Over the course of this discussion – and obviously so as to emphasise the point -Trump made the further point – which is no longer disputed by anyone – that Flynn had done nothing wrong in his conversations with Kislyak, and had done nothing to deserve having his career and reputation destroyed by illegal leaking.
The memo shows that it was in the context of these observations about the way Flynn was brought down by illegal leaking that Trump made his comments about the investigation of Flynn.
Trump’s point was that the investigation of Flynn for committing an offence under the Logan Act (initiated by former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates). coming on top of the illegal leaks which had destroyed his career, was tough on Flynn given that he had done nothing wrong.
Accordingly Trump said to Comey that he hoped Comey would be able to find a way to “letting [the case against Flynn] go”.
It was a minor aside and it is unlikely Trump gave much thought to it. Certainly it was not intended as any sort of instruction to Comey to drop the inquiry, and the entirety of the text of the memo shows that Comey never thought it was.
In fact the memo shows that Comey agreed with Trump.
The words in the memo which I have highlighted (“I agreed very much that it was terrible that his calls with foreign leaders leaked. I said they were classified and he needed to be able to speak to foreign leaders in confidence”) have attracted remarkably little attention. However they show clearly that Comey also thought that Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak was lawful.
No other explanation for his words as he himself has reported them in his memo – “he needed to be able to speak to foreign leaders in confidence” – is possible.
In other words the memo shows that not only did Trump not instruct or request Comey to drop the investigation of Flynn or put pressure on Comey to do so, but on the contrary he and Comey had what was essentially a consensual conversation in which they both agreed with each other that (1) leaks are terrible; (2) Flynn had been appallingly treated by having his career and reputation destroyed by leaks; and (3) in his conversation with Kislyak Flynn had done nothing wrong.
Given that this is so it is simply impossible to see how an obstruction of justice charge can be put together from this material.
Nonetheless the drift of Mueller’s questions to Trump suggests that this is still what Mueller is trying to do.
A disproportionate number of Mueller’s questions concern Trump’s various interactions with Comey. These include but are not limited to Trump’s interactions with Comey which concerned Flynn.
In addition Mueller wants to ask Trump questions about his thoughts about Comey and his reasons for dismissing Comey, all of which suggest an attempt to catch Trump in some sort of obstruction of justice charge in relation to the circumstances of Comey’s dismissal, about which however see above.
There is also a number of questions concerning Trump’s sometimes fraught relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the clear implication of which is that Trump’s widely known and publicly expressed anger about Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russiagate inquiry stems from anger that Sessions would no longer be able to protect Trump from it.
Even if that is so – which it probably is – I cannot see how it amounts to obstruction of justice. Anger that Sessions had recused himself from the Russiagate inquiry and would no longer be able to protect the President is surely no more than a thought crime even if it were true, which it probably is.
Last I heard thought crimes are not actionable in America. However,judging from his questions, Mueller still seems intent on pursuing this one.
(4) The collusion narrative has collapsed
By comparison with the disproportionate number of questions devoted to the obstruction of justice allegations, the questions about the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – the investigation of which was supposed to be the object of the Mueller inquiry – look threadbare.
All of them cover old ground, in which all the facts are known.
The first two questions concern the now notorious meeting in Trump Tower in June 2016 between Donald Trump Junior and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
The lack of substance to this meeting, and the extent to which it is truly a non-story, has been brilliantly explained by Ronald Kessler in The Washington Times
When it comes to President Trump and the question of collusion with Russia, there is indeed a smoking gun. But it’s not the June 2016 meeting that Donald Trump Jr., along with campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, held in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer.
The lawyer, Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, duped Don Jr. into setting up the meeting by claiming to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. In fact, the meeting was a bait and switch. It turned out the lawyer had no meaningful information to offer on Mrs. Clinton. Rather, she wanted to interest the Trump team in a Moscow initiative to allow American families to adopt Russian children.
The meeting, which lasted 20 minutes, was the sort any political campaign or media outlet would have agreed to. Like investigative reporters, political operatives want to obtain tips, even if most of the time the proffered information turns out to be of no value. In this case, nothing came of the meeting. In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign actually helped pay for a dossier of almost entirely false accusations about Mr. Trump, some of which a British former intelligence official obtained from Russian contacts.
According to journalistic standards that existed decades ago, the fact that such a meeting took place would not have even been a story. The pretext for the meeting was a hoax, and nothing resulted from it. To suggest by running a story that there was something nefarious about it was unfair. But in today’s politically charged media world, the meeting became an immediate sensation as part of a narrative — pushed by the media and Democrats — suggesting that the Trump campaign illegally colluded with Russia.
I have nothing to add to this masterful analysis save to say that the fact that Mueller is continuing to ask questions about a meeting at which exactly nothing happened is testimony to the hollowness of the whole collusion narrative the investigation of which Mueller’s inquiry is supposed to be about.
When Robert Mueller was appointed Special Counsel I welcomed his appointment.
What I had heard about Mueller suggested that he would be a safe pair of hands who would put the whole preposterous Russiagate conspiracy theory to bed.
It is with frank embarrassment that I repeat what I wrote about him at the time of his appointment
…….it is essential that with Comey gone the Russiagate investigation is put in the charge of a safe pair of hands, and of someone who will not be seen as the President’s defender, and whose eventual findings are accepted, and Mueller seems by most accounts to be the sort of person to do that…..
Mueller appears to be a good choice for the job. He was a well regarded FBI director, staying in post from 2001 – when he was appointed by George W. Bush – until his retirement in 2013, when Comey replaced him. During that period he resisted the George W. Bush administration’s attempts to introduce interrogation methods since characterised as torture as part of the so-called ‘war on terror’. As someone well known to the staff of the FBI, he looks like the obvious person to do the job, and to steady the ship, and – hopefully – to bring some sanity to this investigation.
Mueller’s job will now be to bring order to the mess Comey has created, and to bring the various investigations into Russiagate that Obama’s Justice Department initiated to a proper close. If he does his job properly – and if he is left alone to do it – it should all be over by the summer.
It has long since become clear that far from Mueller being the safe pair of hands I took him for, he is someone who sees his task as protecting the Justice Department and the FBI (which he largely built up) from someone who he obviously considers to be an angry and potentially vengeful President.
His proposed questions show that he still has the President in his sights, and that Mueller is pulling out all the stops to bring him down.
Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to Mueller’s investigation as a witch-hunt, and he is right.
The questions Mueller is seeking to ask Trump confirm as much.