Judge Extends Russia-Trump Investigation Another Six Months
By Jim Owen
Rumors that the Russia-Trump investigation would end soon proved to be false last week, when a federal judge granted a six-month extension for the probe.
Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller asked for more time to conclude his work. The 18-month period established for the investigation ended on Sunday. Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., agreed to allow Mueller’s team to continue working until July, if necessary.
Many Indictments Already Filed
A grand jury that the special counsel empaneled has approved criminal charges against several close Trump associates. The suspects include former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates; campaign aide and ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn; former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen; and ex-campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
None of the charges related to allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, the issue that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein initially asked Mueller to examine. The president continues to deny there was any conspiracy with Moscow. “The Russian Collusion fabrication is the greatest Hoax in the history of American politics,” he tweeted on Dec. 29.
Flynn, Cohen, and Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. They offered to cooperate with the special counsel in exchange for shorter prison sentences. Manafort faces a long stint behind bars for a number of financial crimes he confessed to committing while working for a Russian oligarch linked to Vladimir Putin.
Mueller has filed charges against a dozen Russian operatives, as well as three Kremlin-controlled companies, for influencing voters through social media. One of the firms, Concord Management, and Catering, entered a not-guilty plea. The 12 individuals have refused to come to the United States to face charges.
Other Possible Indictments
Some observers believe that the next person the special counsel will target in the Russia-Trump investigation is Roger Stone, a long-time Trump ally who worked on the 2016 campaign. Stone has predicted that he will be indicted on charges involving his Russian connections.
There have been reports that Stone served as an intermediary between the campaign and WikiLeaks, which published emails that Russians allegedly hacked from Democratic Party officials. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also could find himself in court.
The special counsel has expanded his investigation into additional areas, including the allegation that the president obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey and tweeting anti-Mueller messages in an effort to thwart the inquiry.
Mueller also is looking into reports that Trump was negotiating construction of a building in Moscow during the campaign; and that operatives from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Republics and Israel worked with Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser) to tamper with the election.
Other federal and state prosecutors are investigating whether Trump is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution by profiting from foreign officials who stay at his hotels and resorts; possible financial crimes and tax evasion by the Trump Organization; alleged violations by the Trump Foundation, which federal officials recently shut down; “hush money” payments to two women who say they had affairs with Trump; the alleged misuse of donations to the president’s inauguration ceremony; the funding of the Trump campaign’s super PAC; the activities of alleged Russian spy Maria Butina; and Flynn’s employment as a foreign agent for the government of Turkey.
Fourteen current and former Trump officials have acknowledged having spoken with Russians during the campaign or in the presidential transition period. In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. met at Trump Tower in New York City with a Moscow-linked lawyer who promised to deliver incriminating information about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Manafort and Kushner were among others in attendance.
Possible Charges Against Trump
Though the Justice Department has a long-standing policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted, Trump’s critics point out that the rule is not a law. The president may instead face impeachment in the House, though a two-thirds vote in the Republican-led Senate would be needed to remove him from office.
The administration has indicated that Trump would reject an invitation to take part in an interview with Mueller’s team, though the president and his lawyers answered written questions in November. Trump’s lawyers are reluctant to allow him to be interrogated under oath.
Two decades ago, the House impeached President Bill Clinton because he committed perjury regarding his relationship with a White House intern. Clinton remained in office because the Senate declined to find him guilty.
Battle Over Release of Information
Trump’s lawyers, citing executive privilege, reportedly are making the case that Mueller’s final report on the Russia-Trump investigation should not be made public – or even be given to Congress.
“We will look at it and see if the president thinks there is a valid claim (of executive privilege) and if there is, do we want to make it,” said Rudy Giuliani, a member of Trump’s legal team. “We reserve the right. We don’t know if we have to, but we haven’t waived it.”
Democrats, who recently captured majority control of the House of Representatives, are demanding the eventual release of the report. According to Bloomberg News, special counsels are only required to share their findings with the attorney general.
Congress might try to force the report’s release by issuing a subpoena. Rep. Jerry Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN: “We will make sure it is public.”
The debate could end up in the Supreme Court if the Justice Department sides with Trump. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker may rule on the issue unless Congress approves a permanent replacement for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president’s nominee for the position is William Barr, who – like Whitaker – has publicly ridiculed the Mueller investigation.
Trump would not be the first president to invoke executive privilege. Most recently, in 2008, then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey issued an opinion supporting the Obama administration’s decision to not inform Congress about a federal investigation. Mukasey agreed that the details should remain secret because they would have exposed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Another time Obama tried to use executive privilege was when he was under fire for the controversial “Fast and Furious,” a sting operation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Agents charged U.S. gun dealers with selling weapons that ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. A federal judge denied Obama’s claim that executive privilege applied to the case.
Even if the Trump administration fails to win its case for executive privilege, a judge might decide to protect from public exposure portions of the report that contain classified or sensitive information. Details about law-enforcement operations also could be kept secret.
Congressional Hearings Looming
Among those eagerly awaiting Mueller’s report are Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. California Rep. Adam Schiff, the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has pledged to hold hearings related to many of the allegations. He wants to find out more about the Trump Organization’s business dealings, including its loans and foreign partners.
“One of the issues that has continued to concern me are the persistent allegations that the Trumps, when they couldn’t get money from U.S. banks, were laundering Russian money,” Schiff said. The congressman has threatened to subpoena information from financial institutions. Of particular interest is Deutsche Bank, a major Trump lender that incurred a $700 million fine in 2017 for laundering money for Russia.
Schiff is likely to compel some of the president’s top associates to appear before his committee. He may subpoena Trump Jr., Kushner, Stone, and others. The new heads of several other House panels also are planning hearings.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Nadler promised to root out the facts about “the attempt to have a massive fraud on the American people in terms of rigging an American presidential election and undermining the integrity of the election.”
Some Democratic lawmakers are calling for impeachment proceedings to begin soon. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the party’s other congressional leaders disagree, arguing that the Mueller probe and the House investigations should be completed before considering whether to remove Trump from office.
Nadler, when asked about impeachment on CNN, said: “it’s much too early to talk about that intelligently.” He continued: “That’s why it is important to protect the Mueller investigation and important to do our own inquiry. We have to get the facts. We will see where the facts lead. Maybe that will lead to impeachment. Maybe it won’t. It is much too early.”
Nadler said impeachment should not happen “unless you believe that you have such great evidence of such terrible deeds that when that evidence is laid out to the American people, you will probably get an appreciable fraction of the voters who supported the president to agree that you had to do it.” The congressman stressed that “impeachment can’t be partisan.”
Nadler acknowledged that lawmakers do not have proof of any Trump wrongdoing that would justify booting him out of office. “We have to see what the Mueller report says (and) we have to do our own investigations,” the chairman explained. “There’s a lot of smoke. How much fire has yet to be determined.”