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The past 24 hours in Trump investigation news, explained

Mueller tea leaves, new Cohen drama, new Manafort charges, and more.

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

There’s been a whirlwind of developments with the various investigations around President Donald Trump and his associates in the past 24 hours — and the biggest news may not relate to special counsel Robert Mueller.

Both federal and state prosecutors in New York and Democratic investigators in the House of Representatives are aggressively moving forward with various inquiries — probing whether Michael Cohen was corruptly offered a pardon, charging Paul Manafort for new real estate offenses, and grilling former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.

The news from the special counsel probe, in contrast, was along the lines of tying up loose ends. Manafort has now been sentenced — twice — and the attorney leading his prosecution will reportedly depart the special counsel’s team.

There may be more major developments from Mueller yet to come, as Washington awaits his report. But the thicket of other investigatory news makes it clear that if Mueller does wrap up soon, Trumpworld’s legal jeopardy will remain very serious indeed.

Manafort got sentenced again — and indicted again

The longest-running court saga in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe came to a close Tuesday morning, as former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort received his second sentence.

And then, by midday, Manafort was facing new charges again — in New York state.

Last year, Manafort was convicted of tax and bank fraud at trial in Virginia, and pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice in Washington, DC. None of the charges directly related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was widely speculated that Mueller charged Manafort hoping he would cooperate and provide important information, but that didn’t pan out (the special counsel accused him of lying after agreeing to cooperate).

When both sentences are combined, Manafort was given a total of seven and a half years in prison (though he has already served about nine months of that since he was jailed last year). It’s not the decades in prison that was possible, but it is a hefty sentence that will keep him behind bars for several years — unless, of course, President Trump pardons him.

So apparently in an attempt to preempt such a pardon, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. unsealed 16 charges against Manafort for mortgage fraud, conspiracy, and falsifying business records. The president cannot pardon state crimes.

But Fordham law professor Jed Shugerman has some doubts about whether the charges run afoul of New York’s double jeopardy law, he explained on Twitter. (New York has a law preventing someone from being charged in the state for crimes already brought federally.)

A top Mueller prosecutor is leaving

Andrew Weissmann in 2002, speaking about Enron.
Paul S. Howell/Getty Images

The Mueller report may not have shown up yet, but the clues that the special counsel’s work may be winding down keep piling up. NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported Thursday that Andrew Weissmann, one of the biggest-name prosecutors on the team, “will soon leave the office and the Justice Department.” And Mueller’s spokesperson then confirmed that news to Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn.

Weissmann may be little-known publicly, but he had a reputation for using aggressive tactics in prosecuting Enron executives and has therefore played an outsize role in the fears of the president and his allies. When Trump recently said in a speech that an unnamed person on Mueller’s team “has perhaps the worst reputation of any human being I’ve ever seen,” he was widely believed to be referring to Weissmann. Axios reported that Steve Bannon had “a fixation” on Weissmann.

So does this departure mean there are no more big indictments coming? Perhaps ... but not necessarily. Weissmann’s specific role on Mueller’s team has been that he led the prosecutions (plural) of Manafort. His name has in fact remained absent from court filings in Mueller’s other cases that are unrelated to Manafort. So one way to read this news is simply that Mueller is done with Manafort — and with Weissmann as well. As for the Mueller report itself, we’re still waiting.

Prosecutors asked for records on Michael Cohen pardon talks

Michael Cohen testifies to the House Oversight Committee on February 27, 2019.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Meanwhile, there was a new development in the drama over whether the president’s allies floated a preemptive pardon to Michael Cohen last year — something that could theoretically amount to obstruction of justice.

Back in April 2018, after the FBI raided Cohen’s residence and office, he authorized his then-attorney to try to explore whether he could be pardoned (Cohen now admits). Around this time, per ABC News, two New York lawyers began talking to Cohen. They said they were in touch with Trump’s new lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and to some extent discussed getting Cohen a pardon.

Then on Wednesday, CNN’s Gloria Borger and Jeremy Herb obtained emails that one of those lawyers, Robert Costello, had sent to Cohen on April 21. “I spoke with Rudy. Very Very Positive. You are ‘loved,’” the email reads. “Sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places.”

Costello added that there were “some very positive comments about” Cohen from the White House, and that “Rudy noted how that followed my chat with him last night.” This apparently refers to these tweets from President Trump — which now look like a public signal to Cohen to stay loyal.

Now, federal prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) are investigating whether these contacts broke any laws — according to the New York Times’s Ben Protess, William Rashbaum, and Maggie Haberman, SDNY sent Costello a request for any documents related to Cohen.

Why does all this matter? Well, if a pardon was floated or offered to Cohen in an effort to prevent him from “flipping” on the president, that could amount to criminal obstruction of justice. But much hinges on the details. What, specifically, was said or implied relating to a pardon? Was it more of an effort of Cohen seeking a pardon (unsuccessfully), or the president’s allies dangling one before him? And how involved were President Trump or Rudy Giuliani in these talks? (They’ve denied any wrongdoing.)

Matthew Whitaker returned to the Hill to “clarify” his testimony

Whitaker at the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker suddenly exited the Justice Department a week and a half ago, just weeks after DOJ announced he was to take on a new role there. The reason for his departure is unknown, but questions had arisen about certain aspects of Whitaker’s testimony on Capitol Hill in February — particularly about his contacts with President Trump regarding ongoing investigations.

  • In December, CNN reported that Trump had twice “lashed out at” then-acting Attorney General Whitaker about Michael Cohen — complaining about Cohen’s plea deal with Mueller, and again about SDNY prosecutors’ pursuit of the hush money investigation related to payoffs to women alleging affairs with Trump.
  • However, in his February testimony, Whitaker claimed that Trump never “asked for” any “promises or commitments” concerning an investigation.
  • But the New York Times soon reported that Trump had in fact called Whitaker to “ask” whether the US attorney for SDNY, Geoffrey Berman, who had recused himself from the hush money investigation, could be put in charge of it.

So Whitaker had agreed to return to clarify some matters — and did so on Tuesday, in a closed-door session with House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the committee’s top Republican Doug Collins (R-GA), and staffers.

But little clarity ensued.

Nadler claimed afterward that Whitaker “did not deny” that President Trump called him to “discuss the Michael Cohen case” and “personnel decisions” in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. But Collins pointed out that Whitaker didn’t confirm that, either, and there’s some dispute about what was actually said.

Nadler also says that Whitaker did make a few concrete admissions about things that happened while he was acting attorney general — that Whitaker said he “was directly involved in conversations about whether to fire one or more US attorneys,” that he was “involved in conversations” about Berman’s recusal, and that he also discussed whether SDNY “went too far in pursuing” the hush money case.

But further details about these conversations, such as who was involved and whether anything happened because of them, remained elusive. Collins, meanwhile, claimed Whitaker’s talks about firing US attorneys referred only to “normal personnel issues.”

All this matters because Nadler has launched an extensive investigation into whether the president obstructed justice. Finding out whether the president or others in the White House tried to intervene with investigations is key to that. And the hush money investigation in particular remains active and potentially dangerous to Trump.

Trump started tweeting about Lisa Page again

Since losing control of the House of Representatives, Republicans no longer have majorities on the chamber’s committees and can therefore no longer control the progress of investigations. So they’ve been trying to find other ways to make an impact on the Trump-Russia news cycles, and get out stories favorable to President Trump.

Now, when the GOP did have the majority in 2017 and 2018, they conducted various closed-door interviews as part of their effort to drum up a sort of counter-scandal, in which the true wrongdoing was at the Justice Department and FBI. House Republicans or their staffers have frequently leaked supposed bombshell bits from this testimony to sympathetic conservative journalists, and that practice has continued this year.

Recently, though, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, has gone a step further. Professing frustration at the Justice Department, he’s unilaterally released partially redacted transcripts from the committee’s interviews of two witnesses: DOJ official Bruce Ohr, released last Friday, and former FBI official Lisa Page, released Tuesday. (Page worked for then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and had an affair with her coworker Peter Strzok. They texted a lot.)

The transcripts had no bombshells — but that, of course, hasn’t stopped Trump from pretending they did. (Indeed, the main purpose of the release may have been to give the president things to tweet about.)

This Trump tweet refers to Page’s testimony that the Justice Department told FBI investigators on the Clinton email team that they didn’t think a possible “gross negligence” case should have been brought against Clinton for jeopardizing classified information because of the relevant statute’s “constitutional vagueness and its untestedness in court.” However, this was not unusual or scandalous, but rather the mainstream opinion among legal commentators back then (and now). (Julian Sanchez has a longer Twitter thread debunking this,)

This tweet refers to a discussion Page had with Strzok about whether they should join newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. “I hesitate,” Strzok texted, “because of my gut sense and concern there’s no big there there.” Strzok and Page have said this indeed referred to their assessment of the Trump-Russia collusion evidence. But of course, that’s what the Mueller investigation was for — to determine whether there was a “there there.” It certainly doesn’t mean they knew for certain there was “no crime.”

Trump also quote-tweeted a claim from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that Page “confirmed” that the “anti-Trump Insurance Policy” was “the fake Russian investigation.” This refers to yet another infamous Strzok text to Page:

I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office - that there’s no way he gets elected - but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40…

Here, too, this is nothing new — Strzok discussed it at length last year, and Page’s account is similar to his.

Their story is that there was an internal FBI debate over whether to move forward with the Trump-Russia probe even if that could jeopardize a sensitive source. Page says she suggested, why risk it, because since Trump was sure to lose the election, what would it matter if he or his team was compromised by Russia? Strzok says the “insurance policy” simply meant proceeding with the investigation just in case Trump won — not trying to stop Trump from winning.

Indeed, in reading the full two-part Page transcript — which you can do at this link — Page defies the stereotyped image Republicans have created of her and repeatedly rejected their conspiracy theories.

The FBI, she said, is an extraordinarily “conservative organization,” and “the notion that there’s a deep state conspiracy about anything is laughable.” And when asked if she was aware of anyone at the FBI applying a political bias to an investigation, Page said yes — but it was anti-Hillary Clinton bias expressed by two senior FBI officials, Sandy Kable and Randy Coleman.

“I am aware of senior FBI officials talking to subordinate FBI officials on the Hillary Clinton investigative team who unquestionably had anti-Hillary sentiment, but who also said: You have to get her — or — again, I don’t have an exact quote — but like, we’re counting on you,” Page said. (She said the two officials didn’t have a role in the investigation at the time, and that she doesn’t think it affected the probe.)

In any case, Collins swiftly moved onto the next story — he released a transcript of Strzok’s Judiciary Committee interview Thursday morning.

For more on the Mueller probe, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.

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