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The latest Trump-Russia investigation news, explained

Michael Flynn may be inching toward a plea bargain, and top White House aides will be interviewed soon.

US President-elect Donald Trump's adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (C) arrives at the Trump Tower in New York on November 14, 2016.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (C) arrives at the Trump Tower in New York on November 14, 2016.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a relatively quiet period for the Trump-Russia investigation since news of its first indictments dropped in late October — but a series of recent reports could give some clues about what special counsel Robert Mueller might do next.

First, reports have indicated that President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn may at least be exploring the possibility of making a deal with Mueller’s team. The question of whether Flynn flips and gives Mueller incriminating information about other Trump officials or the president himself could turn out to be tremendously important.

Second, Mueller’s investigators have already interviewed several top current and former White House aides, and they plan to interview several more in the coming weeks, including White House counsel Don McGahn, communications director Hope Hicks, and a communications aide who’s worked closely with Jared Kushner.

Third, we learned this week that Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, who had been charged with orchestrating a scheme to avoid Iran sanctions, has agreed to become a government witness as part of a plea deal. And while Zarrab’s prosecution is separate from Mueller’s probe, his name has intriguingly come up in recent reports about Flynn’s connections to the Turkish government.

Will Flynn flip?

With charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates filed — their trial is expected to begin in May 2018 — attention has turned to the other Trump associate who’s appeared to be in very serious legal jeopardy: Michael Flynn.

Flynn has reportedly been under investigative scrutiny for a plethora of matters — ranging from whether he made false statements about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition to whether he properly disclosed payments he received from Russian and Turkish interests to the broader matter of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

NBC News reported back on November 5 that, per “multiple sources familiar with the investigation,” Mueller had enough evidence to bring charges in the Flynn investigation — and that those charges could implicate Flynn’s son Michael Flynn Jr. of wrongdoing as well.

And over the ensuing days, reports suggested that the Flynns were in even more legal trouble than had previously been known. In particular, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mueller’s team was investigating whether the pair had agreed to try to remove Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen from the country in exchange for payments of millions of dollars. (Flynn’s lawyer issued a statement denying the story.)

Then last week, the New York Times reported that Flynn’s lawyers had informed President Trump’s legal team that they could no longer share information about Mueller’s case. This was interpreted as a sign that Flynn’s team was exploring making a plea deal, in which he’d provide information in return for leniency in charging or sentencing (either for himself or for his son).

The most recent development is that on Monday morning, Flynn’s attorney Robert Kelner met with Mueller’s team, according to ABC News. It’s still not entirely confirmed that they’re discussing a cooperation deal, but it appears to be a strong possibility. Whether they’ll arrive at such a deal and what it might entail remains unclear.

More White House aides will reportedly be interviewed soon

American campaign finance lawyer Donald McGahn II takes the elevator at Trump Tower January 14, 2017 in New York
Don McGahn at Trump Tower during the transition.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

But Mueller’s team isn’t only investigating what happened during the campaign. They’re also looking into whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice once in office — and they’re asking White House staffers to give sworn statements about what they might know.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller — who is very close to both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — was recently interviewed by Mueller’s team, CNN reported. Former White House aides Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer were both questioned in October.

At these sessions, aides were reportedly questioned about Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey earlier this year, and about the White House’s response to Russia-related news stories.

Now at least three other aides are reportedly next on the docket for questioning: communications director Hope Hicks, White House counsel Don McGahn, and communications aide Josh Raffel.

Hicks has been part of Trump’s inner circle since he launched his campaign and could have useful information about a host of matters, both from before the election and now. McGahn, meanwhile, will probably be asked about just what he did after he was told that Flynn had been giving false information about his contacts with Russians, as well as other matters.

But Mueller’s interest in interviewing Raffel, an aide with a much lower profile, is particularly interesting. That’s because Raffel is best known for working closely with Jared Kushner — which could suggest that Mueller is closely scrutinizing Kushner’s activities.

The curious case of Reza Zarrab

Detained Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab (C) is surrounded by journalists as he arrives at a police center in Istanbul on December 17 ,2013. Turkish police detained more than 20 people including the sons of three cabinet ministers and several high-profile businessmen on December 17 in a probe into alleged bribery and corruption, local media reported. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which boasts of being pro-business, has pledged to root out corruption, a chronic problem in Turkey.  AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE        (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Reza Zarrab, in 2013.
Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty

Finally, there’s been a major new development in a news story that’s a bit far afield from Mueller’s investigation — but that could turn out to be related to it.

This is the separate case of Reza Zarrab, an extremely wealthy 34-year-old gold trader who has dual Turkish-Iranian citizenship and close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inner circle.

Federal prosecutors indicted Zarrab in 2016 for what they alleged was his participation in a massive scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran by shipping gold to the country in exchange for oil and natural gas. Prosecutors also allege that high-ranking Turkish government officials were involved and took millions of dollars worth of bribes. Nine people were eventually indicted, but only two — Zarrab and banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla — were ever in US custody.

It’s long been clear that Erdogan really, really did not want Zarrab’s prosecution to go forward — and he’s waged what the Washington Post’s David Ignatius called an “extraordinary” campaign to try to stop it. This included public denunciations of the charges as a plot against his regime, private lobbying of Presidents Obama and Trump (and other administration officials) to try to get Zarrab released, and an unusual meeting in Turkey with Rudy Giuliani (who’d joined Zarrab’s legal team earlier this year). The obvious explanation, of course, is that Erdogan fears Zarrab could implicate his own close associates or family members.

The Turkish president’s effort to get Zarrab off the hook, it’s now clear, has failed. Zarrab has become a cooperating witness for the US government as part of a plea deal, a prosecutor confirmed in court Tuesday. He is expected to take the stand on Wednesday as the case moves forward.

What could tie this matter to Mueller’s probe, though, is a potential connection to Michael Flynn.

Flynn has already admitted that he was paid by Turkish interests while advising Trump during the presidential campaign. But recent reports have suggested that Mueller’s team is examining whether Flynn continued to act on Turkey’s behalf during the transition, when he was the national security adviser-in-waiting, and during his brief stint in the White House before his firing in February — and whether he may have been promised millions of dollars in return.

A meeting Flynn had with Turkish officials in mid-December 2016 has come under particular investigative scrutiny. That was the meeting where participants may have discussed a potential deal to deliver Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric opposed to the regime who lives in the US, into Turkish custody, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But NBC News’s Carol Lee and Julia Ainsley added the detail that Zarrab’s case may have been discussed as well. They reported that “Mueller is specifically examining whether the deal, if successful, would have led to millions of dollars in secret payments to Flynn, according to three sources familiar with the investigation.”

We don’t yet know whether Flynn did anything untoward here, or whether Zarrab would even know about it if he did. Still, Zarrab’s testimony this week will surely be closely watched — by both Erdogan’s government and the Trump administration.

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