Early this morning the viscerally anti-Trump news media especially in Europe filled with headlines following the ‘revelation’ that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has used a Grand Jury to issue subpoenas in the Russiagate inquiry.
No European state has anything similar to a Grand Jury – Britain did away with the device long ago – and Europeans in my experience have no understanding of it. That led to a rush of assumptions that Mueller was on the verge of bringing charges against someone.
It should be said clearly that that is completely wrong, and that such a conclusion is unwarranted.
Firstly, it seems that the report in the Wall Street Journal which triggered the story that Mueller had actually empanelled a Grand Jury are wrong. This has been confirmed by the New York Times
A grand jury based in Alexandria, Va., began issuing subpoenas in the Flynn case months ago. Mr. Mueller took over the investigation in May and assembled a team of prosecutors in an office in downtown Washington. Mr. Mueller has not impaneled a special grand jury, the lawyers involved in the case said, and has decided instead to use one of several grand juries that regularly sit in Washington.
It is in fact standard practice in certain states of the US for investigating prosecutors to use Grand Juries to issue subpoenas, thereby avoiding the complexities of applying to a court for warrants which might require the person under investigation to attend and have his say.
That is all that Mueller appears to have done, and it is in fact something which is regularly done in investigations of this sort. Indeed it was obviously something which it was envisaged Mueller would do when his inquiry was first set up.
What seems to have happened is that someone learnt of the fact that Mueller had used a Grand Jury to issue subpoenas as part of his investigation and jumped to conclusions from that fact which are unwarranted.
As to the subpoenas that Mueller has issued through the Grand Jury, the New York Times helpfully provides information about what they are
At least some of the subpoenas were for documents related to the business dealings of Michael T. Flynn, the retired general who briefly served as President Trump’s national security adviser. Mr. Flynn is under investigation for foreign lobbying work, as well as for conversations he had during the transition with Sergey I. Kislyak, who was Russia’s ambassador to the United States……
Brandon Van Grack, a former Alexandria prosecutor now working for Mr. Mueller, signed the subpoenas and has been leading the investigation into Mr. Flynn. Those who described the subpoenas did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.
It seems that there may also be subpoenas issued in connection with the now famous June 2016 meeting between Donald Tump Junior and the Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya, though the wording of the New York Times article does not actually confirm this.
What makes the New York Times article especially interesting is that its sources almost certainly are lawyers working for Mueller himself. Since Mueller’s inquiry is not in a position to comment publicly about the conduct of the investigation, someone within the inquiry – quite possibly Mueller himself – appears to have authorised a leak of what was actually happening to the New York Times in order to correct the wrong stories about Mueller empanelling a Grand Jury which had been circulating in the previous hours.
If so then this is a proper use of a leak to correct an error and stands in stark contrast to the wholly wrong and malicious use of anonymous leaks which has been going on throughout the Russiagate saga for months.
This brings us to the subject of Mueller’s conduct of the inquiry to date. There has been massive speculation about this but few actual facts because Mueller and his team in contrast to everyone else involved in the Russiagate affair have up to now acted with impressive and commendable discipline, and have kept their conduct of the investigation private.
The latest flurry of stories about the Grand Jury have however cast some light on the question of what lines of investigation Mueller is following and it is now possible to come to some tentative conclusions.
Firstly, it is clear from the New York Times story that Mueller is looking into General Flynn’s dealings with ambassador Kislyak and the payments General Flynn received from Russia and for carrying out lobbying work for the Turkish government.
The British news agency Reuters has in addition provided some additional information
One source briefed on the matter said Mueller was investigating whether, either at the meeting or afterward (NB: this refers to the meeting between Donald Trump Junior and Natalya Veselnitskaya – AM), anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians to start releasing material they had been collecting on the Clinton campaign since March 2016.
Another source familiar with the inquiry said that while the president himself was not now under investigation, Mueller’s investigation was seeking to determine whether he knew of the June 9 meeting in advance or was briefed on it afterward.
Reuters earlier reported that Mueller’s team was examining money-laundering accusations against Manafort and hoped to push him to cooperate with their probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. It is not known if the grand jury is investigating those potential charges.
(bold italics added)
The words I have highlighted all but confirm that previous reports that President Trump is under investigation for obstruction of justice in connection with the tangled story of his interactions and subsequent sacking of former FBI Director James Comey are indeed either wrong – as the President’s lawyers say – or else that this investigation, if it ever took place, has now been wound up.
Since that there was no obstruction of justice either by Trump or by anyone else either of these possibilities could be true.
Needless to say the numerous reports of the Grand Jury story which have appeared in the media have largely failed to report Reuters’ confirmation that President Trump himself is not under investigation in the Russiagate inquiry – as he has not in fact been at any time during the Russiagate investigations since they started – highly important though that fact is.
What we therefore have is an inquiry that centres on three issues
(1) General Flynn’s interactions with ambassador Kislyak and his financial dealings with RT;
(2) the meeting between Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Junior; and
(3) the money-laundering allegations against Paul Manafort.
Since virtually everything there is to know about General Flynn’s various dealings with Kislyak and the Russians is already known, and literally everything there is to know about the Veselnitskaya-Donald Trump Junior meeting is so also known, my guess is that the focus of Mueller’s investigation are the money-laundering allegations against Paul Manafort.
The allegations against Paul Manafort originate with Ukrainian sources and are heatedly denied by him. From what I have seen of them they do not look at all convincing. Mueller nonetheless appears to be looking into them to see whether there might be some substance to them and if so whether they might have given the Russians some handle over Manafort so as to create a scenario where he and the Trump campaign might have colluded with the Russians during the election.
That is a valid form of inquiry even if the answer is almost certainly no.
I would add that even if the money-laundering allegations against Manafort are true that does not prove collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians of which there is no evidence.
As to General Flynn’s activities, there is no evidence that his interactions with Kislyak or the Russians resulted in any collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. It is however possible that Flynn may have committed technical offences in connection with the Logan Act and for misreporting payments he received from RT and from the Turkish government. However not only do these provide no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but they are at worst procedural offences, which if Flynn has committed I think Trump should pardon him for.
Having said this, these offences or possible offences are at least crimes – even if only technical or procedural crimes – that Mueller can look into, and given that he is required to conduct an inquiry he is right to look into them.
As for the meeting between Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Junior, I have already discussed this exhaustively.
Not only was no offence committed during this meeting but on the evidence that is already known we can already answer Mueller’s question – whether during or after that meeting “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians to start releasing material they had been collecting on the Clinton campaign” – in the negative.
Nonetheless, again in light of the allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians which have been made, Mueller is right to ask the question and to get a formal answer to it.
Possibly Mueller’s team is pursuing other lines of enquiry we know nothing about, but it is likely these are the main ones.
Notably absent is any reference to the Trump Dossier, once referred to as the ‘frame narrative’ supposedly being followed by the investigation. It seems that this phoney dossier is now so discredited that Mueller wisely is no longer bothering with it.
There is also no evidence of any further interest in Carter Page, all of whose dealings with the Russians have long since been thoroughly investigated, and which have turned out to have been wholly innocent.
There are some suggestions that over and above these Russiagate related lines of enquiry Mueller may also be engaging in some elaborate fishing expedition by trawling through Donald Trump’s and Paul Manafort’s financial and business affairs to find some evidence of wrongdoing there which is unrelated to the claims of collusion with Russia during the election campaign.
Such a fishing expedition would be deeply unethical, though unfortunately there is past history of Special Counsel behaving in exactly that way. There is no evidence however that Mueller is, and personally I don’t think he is.
If this reconstruction of the current state of Mueller’s investigation is accurate – as I believe it is – then he is carrying out a proper enquiry focusing on those actions about which it is legitimate to ask questions.
Probably by now – in some deep inner core of his psyche, denied even by himself to himself – Mueller knows his inquiry is a fool’s errand which will lead nowhere. However he is not to blame for that, the blame for it resting wholly with those who against all fact and reason have insisted on an enquiry being set up in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing that would warrant it.
As a professional investigator Mueller has to go through what ‘evidence’ there is so that when his report is eventually published there are no loose ends proponents of the Russiagate conspiracy can hang onto. He is therefore right to look at the evidence of Flynn’s and Manafort’s dealings with the Russians, and at what happened during and following the meeting between Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Junior, and no one should make any assumptions of findings of possible wrongdoing because of this.
It does however seem that Mueller’s inquiry is limited to the question of the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Apparently Mueller is not looking into the question of whether the Russians did indeed hack the computers of John Podesta and the DNC. Almost certainly this is because this is outside the remit of his inquiry, which will have been decided not by Mueller but by the Justice Department.
This is very unfortunate because there are certainly lots of questions about this alleged hack which could be asked. However it seems that Mueller is required to accept the conclusions of the January ODNI report, which said there was a hack by the Russians, and is not authorised to go behind it. If or rather when Mueller finally reports that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it might be possible to revisit this issue. Realistically it will not happen before then.
Lastly, the media continues to hum with speculation that Trump is looking for some way to sack Mueller.
I have seen no evidence of this, and Trump’s lawyers strongly deny it.
If Trump does have any ideas of sacking Mueller he should put them aside. Not only would sacking Mueller precipitate a political storm which Trump might not survive, but on the evidence of how Mueller is conducting his inquiry Trump has no reason or cause to sack him.
All the evidence points to Mueller conducting his inquiry properly in a way which will eventually vindicate Trump and his campaign, and which will leave the Democrats and the supporters of the Russiagate conspiracy looking foolish and vindictive, and frankly paranoid.
If only for that reason Trump should let Mueller get on with it.