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17/02/2019 12:00 AM AEDT | Updated 23/03/2019 9:28 AM AEDT

What To Know About The Mueller Investigation Into Russian Election Interference

Here’s where things stand with the special counsel’s look into Trump and the Kremlin.

Photo illustration by Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images
(From left) Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, special counsel Robert Mueller and President Donald Trump.

Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is now finally over, just shy of two years after it began. The special counsel’s probe has resulted in dozens of indictments and fierce debate, which is sure to intensify in the coming days as its conclusions come to light. 

It can all be a lot to keep up with. So here’s your guide to what’s happening with the Mueller probe and what comes next.

All right, so this is all about Russian interference in the 2016 election. What have we learned about that?

A decent amount so far, but we don’t yet have the full picture. Much of the media coverage of the Mueller investigation has focused on the Americans in Trump’s orbit who have been caught up in the probe. But most of the individuals indicted in the Mueller probe are Russian nationals accused of involvement in a conspiracy to boost Trump’s 2016 candidacy by hacking the Democratic National Committee or of manipulating social media.

One reason those cases don’t get a lot of day-to-day coverage is that there’s little to no chance that any of those Russians will ever step foot in an American courtroom. Another is that they’re faceless foreign figures, as opposed to boldface-name Americans with direct connections to Trump and his campaign. But those indictments — one announced in February 2018 and one in July 2018 — are essential parts of the Mueller probe.

The first indictment accuses 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities of interfering with the 2016 election. The indictment alleges that the defendants posed as Americans and sought to “sow discord in the U.S. political system” and support the Trump campaign, as well as damage Hillary Clinton.

The second indictment alleges that 12 Russian nationals ― most of them military intelligence officers ― “conducted large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election” by hacking the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee. Using the names DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, the Russians released the stolen emails and documents to the public.

OK, other than all those Russians, who in Trump’s circle has Mueller indicted?

Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign deputy Richard Gates, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen and Trump associate Roger Stone.

There were also cases that grew out of the Mueller probe but don’t really have any direct connection to Trump. There was Richard Pinedo (a California man who sold Russians their fake online identities), London lawyer Alex van der Zwaan (who worked with Manafort) and Konstantin Kilimnik (a Russian Manafort associate charged with witness tampering alongside Manafort). Pinedo was sentenced to six months in prison in October, van der Zwaan served 30 days before being deported, and Kilimnik (a Russian citizen believed to be living in Russia) isn’t likely to appear in an American court anytime soon.

Who has the Mueller investigation found committed crimes?

The special counsel has so far secured eight convictions or guilty pleas and issued over 20 indictments. The big names to go down are Manafort, Cohen and Flynn, the lesser-known ones are Papadopoulos and Gates.

Manafort was found guilty on several bank fraud charges. Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 and admitted lying to the FBI about his communications with the Russian ambassador. Papadopoulos admitted lying to the FBI about his communications with a professor who told him about Russian “dirt” on Clinton and was sentenced to 14 days. Gates admitted to conspiracy and lying to the FBI and testified against Manafort during his trial.

Is anyone going to prison?

Papadopoulos and van der Zwaan have done their time, and Pinedo is still serving his six-month prison sentence. Cohen was sentenced in December to three years in prison for a variety of crimes, including campaign finance violations related to paying women hush money to keep quiet about alleged sexual affairs with Trump. Most others are awaiting sentencing.

What about Paul Manafort?

Manafort is set to serve a seven and a half year prison sentence for his crimes. In March 2019, he appeared at two separate sentencing hearings where judges handed down their decisions.

After he was found guilty on bank fraud charges last August, Manafort reached a plea deal in which he admitted to conspiracy to obstruct justice and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel in hopes of getting a more lenient sentence. But Mueller’s team later accused Manafort of repeatedly lying to investigators during his interviews ― committing even more crimes and breaking his plea deal. A judge ruled in February that Manafort had indeed nullified his agreement with the Mueller investigation and made intentionally false statements to the FBI.

How long did the Mueller probe go on?

Mueller was named as special counsel in May 2017. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ― who was functioning as attorney general on Russia-related matters at the time because then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from them ― named Mueller as special counsel shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The investigation finally wrapped up on Mar. 22, 2019, when Mueller delivered his report to Attorney General William Barr.

When is the Mueller report coming out?

First, there’s the question of whether the Mueller report, as it’s generally understood, will come out at all. Attorney General Barr suggested at his confirmation hearing that he believes the report would be kept confidential. But he said that the attorney general could author a separate report that would be publicly disclosed. He could also make public the principal conclusion of the report, which he will inform Congress about.

What kind of operation was Mueller running?

It was a pretty tight ship. There weren’t many leaks coming out of the Mueller investigation, which tended to provide news only through court filings. What other news emerged came from the attorneys representing defendants or targets (and sometimes from the defendants themselves).

How has Trump’s legal team responded?

By getting out ahead of the report and undermining the Mueller investigation, basically. Trump, his supporters and his legal team have already done a lot of work to shake public confidence in the Mueller investigation. By early 2018, Trump had already convinced his voters he was being persecuted by the FBI, with 74 percent of Trump supporters saying the bureau was biased against the president. Some messages by individual bureau employees, of course, helped fuel the perception that the FBI ― generally a conservative-leaning law enforcement organization ― was a hotbed of the liberal resistance. Although the bureau’s public actions ahead of the 2016 election undoubtedly hurt Clinton’s candidacy, a number of officials in FBI leadership exchanged private messages discussing their concerns about Trump before and after his election.

After the Mueller probe wraps up, is that it?

No. There have been some clear signs that Mueller’s team has been preparing for a world in which the special counsel investigation no longer exists. Cases that originated with the probe have been passed on to federal prosecutors in U.S. Attorney’s offices, and two federal prosecutors who aren’t on Mueller’s squad are a part of the case against Roger Stone. The offices are typically headed by Trump appointees, but it’s a bit more difficult for the White House to interfere with an ongoing prosecution out of U.S. Attorney’s office without setting off a bunch of alarms.

One of the biggest threats to Trump and his associates might come from prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. That’s where Trump fixer Michael Cohen was first indicted. In December, SDNY prosecutors announced they secured a nonprosecution agreement with the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., in which the company admitted it paid former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal $150,000 to suppress her story about an alleged affair with Trump, a decision that AMI said it made in direct consultation with Trump’s team. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan recently sought interviews with officials at the Trump Organization. Allen Weisselberg, who was the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, was granted immunity and has been cooperating with prosecutors since August.

So that’s how Jeff Bezos’ dick pics fit into all this?

Right. The Enquirer published Bezos’ intimate texts with his girlfriend. When Bezos — the CEO of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post — began investigating how the National Enquirer obtained those texts, AMI tried to broker a deal in which it wouldn’t publish intimate photos of Bezos if he agreed to end his investigation. There’s a question whether what he calls “extortion and blackmail” violates AMI’s nonprosecution agreement, which could be, let’s say, a complexifier.

What’s Rod Rosenstein’s role in everything?

It’s a complicated one. Rosenstein is a lifelong Republican who had gained bipartisan respect during his long career as a federal prosecutor when Trump appointed him to the critical No. 2 position at the Justice Department. A few months later, he wrote the memo that provided the legal basis for Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey ― based on the premise that Comey mistreated Clinton. Trump quickly blew up that premise by telling NBC he had “the Russia thing” in mind when he decided to fire Comey. Rosenstein reportedly told other law enforcement officials that he felt used by White House, though he has stuck by the memo in public.

Rosenstein soon appointed Mueller as special counsel and later came under attack from Republicans, who went so far as to draft articles of impeachment against him. 

Who is Matt Whitaker, and how the heck did he become Rosenstein’s boss?

Whitaker’s long stint as acting attorney general is unprecedented; the last person to serve as acting attorney general who wasn’t previously confirmed by the Senate was in the position for only six days in the 1860s, before the Department of Justice even existed. Before Whitaker, formerly one of George W. Bush’s U.S. Attorneys, came on board the Trump administration as Sessions’ chief of staff, he worked for a dark-money conservative group that targeted Democrats with ethics complaints, and he was on the board of a shady company now under FBI investigation. Whitaker made a number of comments about the Mueller investigation before he joined the DOJ, and Whitaker and Trump apparently hit it off before Trump elevated him to the position of acting attorney general, although Whitaker insisted he made no promises to Trump about how he would handle the probe.

Where does WikiLeaks fit in?

A key focus of the Mueller investigation concerns whether anyone in the Trump campaign knew that WikiLeaks had obtained Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s stolen emails and planned to publish them. The emails were sent to WikiLeaks from Russian hackers, and the emails’ release in October 2016 damaged the Clinton campaign just weeks before the election.

Some of the special counsel’s indictments have suggested that there were Trump campaign officials trying to get information about the Podesta emails and speaking with people who would act as intermediaries with WikiLeaks. The most prominent suspect for that is Trump’s longtime informal adviser Roger Stone.

So what is Roger Stone charged with, exactly?

Mueller’s team believes that Stone lied to lawmakers about his connections with WikiLeaks and indicted him in late January. FBI agents arrested Stone, and the special counsel’s office charged him on seven counts, including making false statements, obstructing official proceedings and witness tampering.

The indictment states that Stone told radio host Randy Credico to lie to a grand jury — referring to a scene in “The Godfather: Part II” in which a character pretends to have no knowledge of crimes he was connected to — and threatened Credico’s dog. Stone pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Is there anyone else implicated in the Roger Stone indictment?

There’s also Jerome Corsi, the conspiracy theorist who was in plea negotiations with Mueller’s team. Corsi is a prominent booster of the racist “birther” movement and a former Infowars bureau chief. He cooperated with the investigation until he said in November that their negotiations broke down and that he expected to be indicted.

Draft court documents from the special counsel allege that Corsi tipped off Stone that WikiLeaks planned to release material that would hurt the Clinton campaign, multiple outlets reported late last year.

Guess we should talk more about Michael Cohen

Trump’s former personal lawyer and longtime fixer was a central character in the Mueller probe this past year. After FBI raids of his office and hotel room in April 2018, Cohen became a cooperating witness for the special counsel and received three years in prison on charges including campaign finance violation and lying to Congress.

His indictment and testimony revealed the apparent inner workings of the Trump campaign and the Trump Organization’s failed plans to build a Moscow Trump Tower, including that Cohen lied to Congress about how long negotiations for the Russian real estate development lasted.

Cohen told investigators that at Trump’s direction, he paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money to keep quiet about her alleged sexual affair with Trump. He additionally admitted to helping pay off Karen McDougal to keep her alleged affair with Trump from going public. Trump has denied that he directed Cohen to make the payments.

What ended up happening with the Moscow Trump Tower?

It never got built, and the plan was abandoned in 2016. But as Cohen’s testimony and internal Trump Organization documents detail, negotiations for the project went on far longer than the president admitted and were much more intensive. Documents acquired by BuzzFeed show that Cohen and other Trump Organization officials were still trying to make the deal happen while Trump was attending campaign rallies and denying any connections to Russia.

What’s the deal with that secret Supreme Court battle?

This one is complicated. There was a secretive fight over whether the Supreme Court should get involved in a legal battle that involves a foreign-owned business ― called “Corporation” from “Country A” in court filings ― trying to avoid a subpoena that may have come from Mueller. The Supreme Court decided in January that it will leave a lower court ruling in place, which means the “Corporation” has to comply with the subpoena, but didn’t explain its decision.

All this mystery could amount to nothing ― it’s not clear whether the subpoena came from Mueller’s team ― but it has sparked a lot of legal, political and media speculation.

Does it matter that the Democrats now control the House?

It does mean that they have subpoena power, which would allow Democrats to call people to testify or to secure documents of interest related to the Mueller probe. This would also potentially help bring the Mueller investigation findings into the public eye if the White House or new attorney general attempts to suppress the report.

Is Don Jr. going to prison?

Donald Trump Jr. isn’t currently facing any charges, so at least in the short term, the answer is no. But ever since the special counsel indicted Cohen for lying to Congress, there has been an increased focus on whether Trump Jr. could face similar charges. Several other investigations, such as the House Judiciary Committee’s probe, are also likely to look at Don Jr.’s role in things.

Trump Jr. told a Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017 that he never directly or indirectly sought foreign assistance for his dad’s campaign. However, Trump Jr. did hold a meeting in 2016 with an emissary for Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates leaders, as well as an Israeli social media specialist, who reportedly all offered to help with Trump Sr.’s campaign.

There is also the possibility Trump Jr. could be involved in collusion. He held a meeting in June 2016 at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer associated with the Kremlin. Days before the meeting, an intermediary emailed Trump Jr. to let him know that a senior Russian government official was offering to provide damaging information on Clinton.

Trump Jr. responded, “If it’s what you say I love it.”