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It’s not just Russia — Mueller is digging into Trump associates’ potentially corrupt foreign ties

He’s looking at Trump associates’ dealings with investors or governments in Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, and China.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

It’s now clear that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is looking into a whole lot more than just Russia.

A set of recent reports citing witnesses interviewed in Mueller’s probe all suggest that the special counsel is pursuing angles related to potentially corrupt foreign influence on a wide range of people in Trump’s orbit — with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, and China all being mentioned as subjects of his investigators’ questioning.

First, CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz, Kara Scannell, and Gloria Borger reported that Mueller was looking into Jared Kushner’s efforts to get foreign investors for his family real estate company’s projects during the transition — and that his investigators have asked witnesses about Kushner’s talks with a Chinese insurance company and with a former prime minister of Qatar.

Then NBC News’s Carol Lee, Julia Ainsley, and Robert Windrem reported that Mueller’s team has also asked about Kushner’s conversations with potential investors from Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates — with an eye toward whether these business talks “later shaped White House policies.” (The report says that Qatari officials claim to have evidence that Kushner coordinated with Gulf states to hurt Qatar but have “decided against cooperating with Mueller for now out of fear it would further strain the country’s relations with the White House.”)

Then this weekend, the New York Times’s Mark Mazzetti, David Kirkpatrick, and Maggie Haberman reported that businessman George Nader, an adviser to the UAE government who visited the White House several times last year, had become a focus of Mueller’s probe. Investigators have specifically asked “about any possible attempts by the Emiratis to buy political influence by directing money to support Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign,” the Times reports.

Finally, Axios’s Jonathan Swan got ahold of a grand jury subpoena Mueller’s team sent to a witness this February. The subpoena demands “all communications” this person sent or received involving not only Trump himself, but nine other named Trump associates since November 1, 2015. In addition to the fact that the subpoena names many people, note that it is not limited in any way to Russia-related communications.

All this paints a picture of a very wide-ranging investigation that’s digging into not just Russian interference with the 2016 campaign and Russian ties to Trump, but potentially corrupt foreign influence involving a wide circle of Trump associates.

Is all this mainly about getting more leverage for the Russia case — or is Mueller pursuing something else big?

Now, Mueller’s investigation had already gone somewhat beyond Russia collusion, with last October’s indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates on charges based on work they did for Ukrainian politicians before the 2016 campaign. But Manafort and Gates worked for the faction of Ukrainian politicians aligned with the Kremlin, so this wasn’t all that far removed from Russia. The recent reports indicate a far broader focus (though other reports make clear he’s still also looking into the central question of Russian interference).

The big mystery, though, is whether Mueller is focusing on all these other topics mainly out of a desire to strengthen a Russia-related case — or whether potential corruption related to Gulf countries and other foreign players is now a new focus in his investigation in and of itself.

The Manafort and Gates Ukraine charges, for instance, were widely believed to be pursued by Mueller’s team primarily because the special counsel wanted one or both of them to “flip” (as Gates eventually did). So perhaps these new areas of inquiry are mainly aimed at getting more leverage over Trump associates, so they’d feel pressure to cooperate and provide valuable Russia-related information.

Alternatively, Mueller could have discovered something big in his investigation unrelated to Russia — through records he’s uncovered, witnesses, or perhaps his three cooperating ex-Trump aides (Gates, Michael Flynn, and George Papadopoulos) — that seems serious and important enough to merit him devoting his resources to it.

Both seem like possibilities. Mueller has 17 prosecutors on his team, so he can look into many things at the same time. Still, he hardly has unlimited resources, and the Russian interference topic is enormously complex. But whether his team is asking these questions to get Russia-related leverage, or to look into what could be an entirely new scandal, it’s clear there’s some reason behind it. Only the special counsel’s team, however, knows what that is.

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