What’s the next shoe that will drop in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation?
Mueller’s team won’t say publicly, and they don’t seem to be leaking about it either. But the people they’ve been questioning have been leaking quite a lot to reporters in recent months. And the resulting stories, considered together, suggest several intriguing possibilities for where Mueller is going.
Mueller’s investigators have recently asked about hacked and leaked emails from 2016, foreign money trails, the Trump campaign’s digital operation, President Donald Trump’s business dealings in Russia and Michael Cohen’s role in them, secret meetings in the Seychelles, and Jared Kushner’s foreign business dealings. The special counsel is even still investigating Paul Manafort, whom he’s already charged on 23 counts in two different venues.
Plus, three former Trump aides have already agreed to plea deals and are cooperating with Mueller, though we haven’t seen the fruits of that cooperation yet. We also recently learned that George Nader, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates’ crown prince, has testified to Mueller’s grand jury in return for immunity. And there’s the forthcoming report on whether President Trump obstructed justice while in office.
We don’t yet know whether any of these investigatory trails will lead to charges. It’s entirely possible that many or even most of them won’t. But it seems like a safe bet that some will. So here are the leading possibilities for where Mueller’s going next.
Robert Mueller’s investigation could go in a lot of different directions
1) The email hacking and leaks: The theft of John Podesta’s, the DNC’s, and other political figures’ (mainly Democrats’) emails is a crime that we know happened in 2016. Mueller has reportedly taken charge of the investigation of this crime. And the Daily Beast recently wrote that investigators have identified a specific Russian intelligence officer behind “Guccifer 2.0,” a leading online persona in the hacks.
So charges here seem likely — but of whom? Particular Russians involved with the hacks are one possibility. There’s Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who posted the DNC and Podesta emails. Then there are the questions of how, exactly, those emails got to Assange, and of whether anyone in Trump’s camp coordinated in the effort.
For instance, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was in contact with both Guccifer and WikiLeaks. Former campaign aide Sam Nunberg, who was recently called before Mueller’s grand jury, has said, “They want me to testify against Roger. They want me to say that Roger was going around telling people he was colluding with Julian Assange.” Stone has vociferously denied wrongdoing. But it’s safe to say we haven’t heard the last of the email matter.
2) Trump’s business dealings in Russia and other countries: In mid-March, the New York Times reported that Mueller had recently subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents “related to Russia and other topics he is investigating,” in the clearest sign yet that Trump’s business has come under Mueller’s scrutiny.
Furthermore, McClatchy reported that Mueller’s investigators “showed up unannounced” at a Trump business associate’s home in early April and questioned him or her about the company’s overseas dealings — with a particular focus on Michael Cohen’s role in those dealings. (This questioning came just days before Cohen’s residence and office were raided in a separate investigation.)
Among other things, Cohen was trying to move forward a planned Trump Tower in Moscow while Trump was running for president, and even asked Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson for help. He’s also been involved in exploring previous Trump Organization projects potential in both Georgia and Kazakhstan. (The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson, who has covered Trump’s business extensively, has predicted that investigations of its foreign practices will expose such “criminality” that it will mean the “endgame” of his presidency.)
3) Russian oligarchs’ money flowing into politics: An eyebrow-raising pair of reports from CNN and the New York Times earlier in April revealed that Mueller’s team had questioned at least two Russian oligarchs when they visited the United States — and even seized and searched one’s electronic devices. Per CNN, investigators asked “whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled cash donations directly or indirectly into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and inauguration.” We’re still lacking details on this, but the line of inquiry could well flow from Rick Gates’s cooperation, since he was involved with Trump’s inaugural fundraising.
4) The Seychelles meetings and Emirati money: Mueller’s Russia investigation took a surprising turn this year with a spate of stories suggesting it was increasingly focused on a different foreign country: the United Arab Emirates.
Investigators served George Nader, an adviser to the UAE’s crown prince (the de facto ruler of the country), with a grand jury subpoena when he landed at Dulles airport this January. Nader has since reportedly been granted immunity in return for his cooperation and testimony. According to the New York Times, Mueller’s team has “pressed witnesses for information about any possible attempts by the Emiratis to buy political influence by directing money” to support Trump.
Yet there’s a connection to Russia here too. Nader and the UAE crown prince arranged a secret meeting in Seychelles in January 2017, between private security company CEO Erik Prince and Russian fund manager Kirill Dmitriev. Reports have long suggested this meeting was a back-channel way for Trump to communicate with Putin. Prince has denied this, but Nader has reportedly testified that it was. That would raise the questions of just what was discussed there, and why Prince seemed so eager to keep it secret.
This Mueller line of inquiry seems to have kicked into high gear at the beginning of this year. That suggests it could be related to Michael Flynn’s cooperation, which began in December; Flynn was, after all, a major player in the Trump transition.
5) The Trump campaign’s digital operation: Given the well-documented Russian digital effort to boost Trump’s chances, there have long been broader questions about whether Trump’s digital operation collaborated in this effort in some way. However, when Mueller charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies with crimes related to a propaganda effort designed to interfere with the 2016 campaign, he did not allege any “witting” participation from Trump’s team.
This line of inquiry still appears to be active, though. In March, ABC News reported that Mueller had recently called in “several digital experts who worked in support of Trump’s bid” for closed-door questioning. Mueller also reportedly asked the controversial company Cambridge Analytica to turn over the emails of any of its employees who worked on Trump’s campaign.
6) The Steele dossier’s claims: The major specific claims in Christopher Steele’s infamous document — that Trump is vulnerable to sexual blackmail by the Russian government, that the Trump campaign and Russia conspired about the hacked DNC emails, that Carter Page was involved in collusion, and that Michael Cohen traveled to Prague to meet with Russians about paying hackers — still remain largely uncorroborated and heatedly denied by all parties.
But Mueller’s team has, at the very least, been asking about them. At the end of February, CNN reported that they’ve asked witnesses about “the possibility of compromising information that Russians may have or claim to have about Trump,” including about the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.
Furthermore, McClatchy recently reported that Mueller “has evidence” that Cohen did in fact travel to Prague. However, Cohen continues to vociferously deny this, and no other media outlet has yet confirmed McClatchy’s report.
7) Other potential charges against Paul Manafort: Mueller has already charged Manafort with a combined 23 counts of conspiracy, money laundering, false statements, tax fraud, bank fraud, and other charges — but he may not be done with the former Trump campaign chair yet.
In a recent court filing, Mueller’s team revealed that they had obtained a new search warrant covering five phones associated with Manafort on March 9 of this year. This warrant, they said, was related to “ongoing investigations that are not the subject of either of the current prosecutions involving Manafort.”
So Manafort is still under investigation. But for what? One obvious possibility is collusion with Russian officials to interfere with the 2016 election, which is not related to any of the charges against Manafort so far — indeed, Mueller’s team has already confirmed they were investigating Manafort for just that topic. Manafort participated in the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian-tied delegation arranged by Donald Trump Jr., and also tried to communicate with a Russian oligarch during the campaign.
Another possibility is further charges related to Manafort’s Ukraine work. Plea deals from his longtime business partner Rick Gates and a lawyer who’d worked with them, Alex van der Zwaan, bring up other topics that aren’t mentioned in the charges against Manafort so far, such as a meeting Manafort held with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and a report he helped orchestrate that alleged corrupt behavior from a leading opposition politician in Ukraine (which also may implicate the now-defunct lobbying firm the Podesta Group).
8) Jared Kushner’s business and foreign policy (and Russia): There have long been questions about whether presidential son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner has inappropriately mixed the concerns of his family real estate business with his high-level foreign policy job.
And in recent months, two reports have claimed Mueller was keenly interested in the same question. “Mueller’s investigators have been asking questions, including during interviews in January and February, about Kushner’s conversations during the transition to shore up financing for 666 Fifth Avenue,” which Kushner Companies owns, CNN reported. And per NBC News, Kushner’s talks with Qatar, Turkey, Russia, China, and the UAE have all been the subject of questioning.
Several months back, there were also reports that the FBI was keenly interested in whether Kushner sought a back channel to communicate with the Russian government during the transition. It is unclear whether Mueller is still pursuing that angle.
9) The obstruction report/Trump interview: Last but certainly not least, it’s long been known that Mueller has been investigating whether President Trump obstructed justice while in office — by discouraging an FBI investigation into Michael Flynn, by firing FBI Director James Comey, by pressuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself, by dictating a highly misleading story about Don Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting, and by floating pardons for witnesses.
Mueller’s team has reportedly suggested to Trump’s legal team that the obstruction probe is nearing an end — and that an interview with the president himself would help bring it to a close. And the Washington Post’s Robert Costa reports that Mueller’s team has suggested they aim to finish a report on the obstruction matter this summer.
If that’s accurate, it’s not entirely clear what Mueller would do with that report. It seems that it would be submitted to his boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But it’s unclear whether it would then be sent to Congress (as, depending on the findings, a prelude to potential impeachment), released publicly, or just kept secret.
Regardless, it certainly seems that something is coming.