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Russia Investigation

Russia collusion inquiry faces a big 2018 – but will Trump let Mueller finish the job?

The investigation is likely to produce further indictments and perhaps an interview with the president himself, but things are not certain to run smoothly

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Russia collusion inquiry faces a big 2018 – but will Trump let Mueller finish the job?” was written by Tom McCarthy in New York, for theguardian.com on Saturday 30th December 2017 12.00 UTC

From his starting point in May through the end of 2017, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted two former top aides to Donald Trump and made plea deals with two others, including the president’s former national security adviser.

Mueller’s work is almost done, the White House says – but almost no one else thinks that.

Mueller is investigating alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign during the election. He also spearheads an older counter-intelligence investigation into Russian tampering with the election.

Twenty-eighteen is going to be a big year for Mueller, former FBI and White House officials predict. They expect further indictments and, perhaps, a face-to-face interview with the president himself. They expect the investigation of the White House to run through the summer at least, and the investigation of Russia’s election-tampering activities to last longer.

The 2020 election

The most likely price Trump would pay, if he were perceived guilty of wrongdoing, would be a 2020 re-election loss. He can’t afford to lose many supporters and expect to remain in office. Any disillusionment stemming from the Russian affair could make the difference. His average approval rating has hung in the mid-to-upper 30s. Every president to win re-election since the second world war did so with an approval rating in the 49%-50% range or better.

Congress

As long as Republicans are in charge, Trump is not likely to face impeachment proceedings or to be removed from office. A two-thirds majority in the Senate is required to remove a president from office through impeachment.

Public opinion

If public opinion swings precipitously against the president, however, his grip on power could slip. At some point, Republicans in Congress may, if their constituents will it, turn on Trump.

Criminal charges

Apart from impeachment, Trump could, perhaps, face criminal charges, which would (theoretically) play out in the court system as opposed to Congress. But it’s a matter of debate among scholars and prosecutors whether Trump, as a sitting president, may be prosecuted in this way.

Other

Robert Mueller is believed to have Trump’s tax returns, and to be looking at the Trump Organization as well as Jared Kushner’s real estate company. It’s possible that wrongdoing unrelated to the election could be uncovered and make trouble for Trump. The president, and Kushner, deny wrongdoing.

And that’s if things unfold smoothly. There is an alternative set of scenarios widely regarded as plausible, in which the president decides to fire Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, Mueller’s direct supervisor in the justice department. In such a scenario, a desperate struggle will be joined, in public and in secret, to preserve the essence of Mueller’s investigation, even as the national discourse explodes with alarm over what kind of slide the country is on and what is at the bottom.

In one scenario, said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent and senior lecturer at Yale University, Mueller uncovers evidence of criminality on the part of Trump personally, and then – what?

“If he [Mueller] gets to the point where there’s maybe enough evidence to bring charges, there’s a big question mark on what he does with that,” said Rangappa. “Because it’s not entirely clear as a matter of constitutional law whether you can indict the president. So what does he do at that point?

“It will create basically a big constitutional crisis.”

Unlike for example Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor whose labors culminated in a 222-page report to Congress outlining 11 “acts that may constitute grounds for an impeachment” of Bill Clinton, Mueller is not explicitly authorized, and may be unable, to report to Congress, experts said.

“I’m not 100% sold that he has the authority to issue a report to Congress,” said Andrew Wright, a former White House associate counsel under Barack Obama and a professor at Savannah Law School, adding: “I’m not sure he doesn’t.

“Traditionally, Department of Justice regulations don’t allow for a report like that in a criminal investigation, because the indictments speak for themselves and they speak in court. That same principle could potentially govern the special counsel’s office.”

Mueller’s clear imperative is to submit a report to Rosenstein detailing what charges he has decided to bring, what charges he has declined to bring, and why. But that scenario, in turn, assumes that Rosenstein is around to receive the report, which is not a given.

The Washington Post reported in mid-December that behind closed doors, Trump has called Rosenstein weak and ranted that the deputy attorney general is a Democrat, though he is in fact a Republican. Similarly irascible rants by Trump, in public, about the former FBI director James Comey were followed by Comey’s termination.

But for all the suspense attached to the endgame, Mueller does not appear to be more than midway through his work, analysts said.

“These are complex investigations,” said Rangappa. “I think we have many more months to go.”

Michael Flynn is the fourth Donald Trump aide to face criminal charges in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and any alleged collusion.

Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI – ‘making false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements’ about his contacts with Russia.

Flynn, as part of Trump’s transition team between the November 2016 election and the January 2017 inauguration, had secret contact with the Russian ambassador on at least two topics – shaping US and Russian policy on sanctions, and attempting to influence a UN vote about Israeli settlement-building.

Flynn is cooperating with investigators, and under the terms of his deal agreed to take polygraph lie-detector tests and appear as a witness in all relevant cases.

He admits that he discussed with another senior Trump transition official what he should say to the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

At least two members of the Trump transition team were briefed by him after his contact with Kislyak.

Flynn faces a maximum prison sentence of six months under the terms of his deal and a fine of up to ,500.

While new information reveals secret contact with the Russians, it does not shed light on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia’s interference in the US election.

A plea deal with Michael Flynn, in which the former national security adviser agreed to meet with investigators as frequently as needed to describe activity inside the Trump campaign and White House, is one month old. The revelation that Mueller had procured tens of thousands of emails from the presidential transition team is even more recent.

Major investigative activity surrounding figures close to the president, including Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner, has yet to come to fruition, while whole oceans of information that Mueller has access to – tax documents, banking information, intercepted communications, tales from cooperating witnesses – have yet to come to public light.

“We just don’t know what we don’t know,” said Wright. “But it’s hard for me to imagine that this thing concludes without interviewing the vice-president and president at some point. And to my knowledge that hasn’t happened yet. And so to me, that’s going to be a signal that they’re near the end of the White House phase.”

What is clear is that the temperature between Trump and Mueller is rising, notwithstanding assurances earlier this month by a Trump lawyer that “we have been cooperative and transparent with the special counsel’s office and will continue to be”.

“It’s pretty clear that the president has had an inside-outside game,” said Wright. “The White House lawyers are doing the classic cooperation speech. Meanwhile, the president’s allies are all on Fox News just bashing the heck out of the special counsel, really in a very coordinated smear campaign.”

The best strategy for Trump may not be, in this case, the one with the most visceral appeal, said Rangappa.

“It’s very risky for Trump to kind of go all out against Mueller,” she said. “Because if it backfires, like I said, this investigation is not going to go away.

“So the last thing Trump wants is another event added as evidence to a potential obstruction of justice charge. So he’s got to be very careful. Because I think he learned a very hard lesson from firing James Comey. That was a completely self-created debacle.”

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Ex-Trump Campaign Advisor George Papadopoulos Gets 14-Day Jail Term

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George Papadopoulos, a one-time foreign policy adviser for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was sentenced Friday to 14 days in jail for lying to federal agents investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss in Washington rejected a push from Papadopoulos for a non-jail sentence. Moss also imposed 12 months of supervised release and 200 hours of community service. Prosecutors had urged Moss to sentence Papadopoulos to up to six months in jail for lying to federal investigators. (Law.com)

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Justice Department plans to alert public to foreign operations targeting U.S. democracy

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The Justice Department plans to alert the public to foreign operations targeting U.S. democracy under a new policy designed to counter hacking and disinformation campaigns such as the one Russia undertook in 2016 to disrupt the presidential election.

The government will inform American companies, private organizations and individuals that they are being covertly attacked by foreign actors attempting to affect elections or the political process.

“Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” said Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who announced the policy at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, according to prepared remarks. “The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.”

The Obama administration struggled in 2016 to decide whether and when to disclose the existence of the Russian intervention, fearing that it would be portrayed as a partisan move. Concerns about appearing to favor the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, weighed on President Obama, who was reluctant to give then GOP-nominee Donald Trump ammunition for his accusation that the election was rigged.

“The Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election is just one tree in a growing forest,” Rosenstein said. “Focusing merely on a single election misses the point.”

He cited Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who last Friday said Russia’s actions continued. “As Director Coats made clear, “these actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,’ ” Rosenstein said.

At the Aspen Forum on Thursday, a Microsoft executive said that Russian military intelligence, known as the GRU, has targeted at least three candidates running for election this year. Tom Burt, the company’s Vice President for Customer Security and Trust, said that his team had discovered a spear-phishing campaign targeting the candidates. Spear-phishing is a technique hackers use to trick victims into clicking on malware-laced links in emails that enable access to the victims’ computers.

Twelve GRU officers were charged last week by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III with conspiracy for their role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the transfer of thousands of emails to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which published them at key moments in the campaign.

Pressure has been building on the Trump administration to commit to informing the public with lawmakers debating passage of a similar requirement, which would give it the force of law.

“It’s absolutely crucial that the intelligence community lean forward, push the envelope on sharing as much of that information as possible because one of the biggest challenges we have is on education of the public, of the electorate, on foreign, read Russian-influence operations,” said James R. Clapper Jr., former DNI, who last year at Aspen called for such transparency.

He called the move “quite significant” and said “making that a standard policy across the government is a good one.” Other agencies, he said, “will take a cue” from the Justice Department, which is part of the intelligence community and receives information from spy agencies.

The policy, which is part of a report issued on a new Cyber Digital Task Force set up by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February, also specifies that in considering whether to disclose, the department must protect intelligence sources and methods, investigations and other government operations.

“Partisan political considerations must play no role in efforts to alert victims, other affected individuals or the American public to foreign influence operations against the United States,” the policy states. A foreign influence operation will be publicly disclosed “only when the government can attribute those activities to a foreign government with high confidence,” it said.

Rosenstein noted that influence operations are not new. The Soviet Union used them against the United States throughout the 20th century, including in 1963 paying an American to distribute a book claiming that the FBI and the CIA assassinated President Kennedy.

The new task force for the first time spelled out five different types of threats covered under foreign influence operations.

Hackers can target election systems, trying to get into voter registration databases and voting machines. Foreign operatives can pursue political organizations, campaigns and public officials. They can offer to assist political organizations or campaigns, while concealing their links to foreign governments. They can seek to covertly influence public opinion and sow division through the use of social media and other outlets. And they can try to employ lobbyists, foreign media outlets and other foreign organizations to influence policy-makers and the public.

“Public attribution of foreign influence operations can help to counter and mitigate the harm caused by foreign government-sponsored disinformation,” Rosenstein said. “When people are aware of the true sponsor, they can make better-informed decisions.”

The task force works closely with the FBI, whose director, Christopher Wray, last year established a Foreign Influence Task Force to focus on the same issue. The Justice Department task force is broader, but includes as a key component foreign influence activities.

To counter foreign influence, the department will aggressively investigate and prosecute such activities, and will work with other departments, such as the Department of Homeland Security, to share information about threats and vulnerabilities with state and local election officials, political organizations and other potential victims so they can take measures to detect or prevent harm, the report said.

It also noted that DOJ supports other agencies’ actions, such as financial or diplomatic sanctions and intelligence efforts. The department also is forming strategic relationships with social media providers to help them identify malign foreign influence activity.

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This article was written by Ellen Nakashima from The Washington Post

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Rudy Giuliani admits ‘Spygate’ is Trump PR tactic against Robert Mueller

  • President’s lawyer gives meandering CNN interview
  • ‘It’s for public opinion’, he says of claims of campaign informant

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Rudy Giuliani admits ‘Spygate’ is Trump PR tactic against Robert Mueller” was written by Tom McCarthy, for The Guardian on Sunday 27th May 2018 18.03 UTC

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said on Sunday that his repeated imputations of a supposed scandal at the heart of the Robert Mueller investigation – which Donald Trump calls “Spygate” – amounted to a tactic to sway public opinion and limit the risk of the president being impeached.

“Of course we have to do it to defend the president,” Trump’s lawyer told CNN State of the Union host Dana Bash, who accused him of being part of a campaign to undermine the Mueller investigation. Trump has repeatedly called the special counsel’s work a “witch hunt”, despite its producing five guilty pleas, including by three former Trump aides, and evidence of Russian tampering in US elections.

“It is for public opinion,” Giuliani said of his public campaign of dissimulation. “Because eventually the decision here is going to be impeach or not impeach. Members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, are going to be informed a lot by their constituents. And so our jury – and it should be – is the American people.

“So Republicans largely, many independents, even some Democrats now question the legitimacy of [the Mueller investigation],” Giuliani said. “Democrats I would suggest for their own self-interest, this is not a good issue to go into the midterms.”

As Giuliani acknowledged the political nature of his public campaign against Mueller, Trump advanced that campaign on Twitter, lamenting what he said were “young and beautiful lives … devastated and destroyed” by the investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“They went back home in tatters!” Trump wrote. It was unclear who he was talking about.

Trump, Giuliani and other allies claim reports that an FBI informant monitored links between Trump aides and Russia show there was a “spy” on the Trump campaign. Senior figures in the intelligence community have rubbished such claims.

On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, the Democrat Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House intelligence committee, said: “This is part of the propaganda machine. Let’s spread a completely fallacious story and then say it needs to be investigated, and give it a life of its own.”

The Arizona senator Jeff Flake, a rare Republican critic of Trump, told NBC’s Meet the Press the “Spygate” claims were a “diversion tactic, obviously”.

He added: “There is concern that the president is laying the groundwork to [fire] Bob Mueller or [deputy attorney general Rod] Rosenstein. If that were to happen, obviously, that would cause a constitutional crisis.”

According to a CNN poll from 10 May, views of the Mueller investigation have shifted significantly among Republicans since March. The poll found that Republican approval of Mueller had declined to 17%, from 29%. Approval among Democrats had fallen slightly, from 69% to 64%. A majority of respondents from both parties disapproved of Trump’s handling of the Mueller investigation.

Giuliani is a former US attorney for the southern district of New York. In his CNN appearance, he called former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, both fierce critics of Trump, “two clowns”.

“I have no regard at all for Brennan or Clapper. I think they’re two clowns…” Giuliani said. “They’re not civil servants as far as I know.”

Robert Mueller leaves a meeting with members of the Senate judiciary committee, last June.
Robert Mueller leaves a meeting with members of the Senate judiciary committee, last June.
Photograph: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Clapper told the same show: “In the space of a week I’ve progressed from being the dumbest intelligence officer on the planet, from President Trump, to a clown. So it’s progress, I guess.”

Michael Hayden, another former director of the CIA, told ABC that Trump was “simply trying to delegitimize Mueller … and he’s willing to throw anything against the wall.

“From the outside looking in, from everything I know, everyone has handled this just about the way it should have been handled.”

Giuliani’s month-old job as a spokesman for the president has been marked by confusion, contradiction and scandal. He began by saying money used to seal a 2016 hush agreement with the porn actor Stormy Daniels had come from Trump, who had earlier flatly denied, on camera, any knowledge of the 0,000.

“We’re not changing any stories,” Trump told reporters. Trump has denied having an affair with Daniels.

Giuliani also said earlier this month Trump would have had his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pay off women in addition to Daniels “if necessary”. Giuliani told ABC he had “no knowledge” of any other payments to women.

Trump has repeatedly excused and praised Giuliani. “He started yesterday,” Trump said on 4 May. “He’ll get his facts straight. It’s actually very simple, there has been a lot of misinformation really.”

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