A long-awaited series of court filings from Robert Mueller and other prosecutors this week seemed to rattle the White House, laying out a series of public hints that the special counsel’s team is closing in on President Donald Trump and his inner circle.
The documents offer a series of tantalizing but incomplete glimpses of Mueller’s probe, including new indications of how prosecutors believe Trump’s top aides and intermediaries for the Russian government engaged in a kind of courtship as the 2016 campaign unfolded.
Trump and his closest aides responded to the latest salvos with characteristic bravado Friday.
“Totally clears the President. Thank you!” Trump declared on Twitter.
A rare official statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who almost always defers questions about Mueller’s investigation to the president’s personal legal team — claimed there was nothing of note in the memos, which detail alleged lies by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the ongoing cooperation of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, both of whom have pleaded guilty to multiple federal felonies.
“The government’s filing in Mr. Manafort’s case says absolutely nothing about the President,” Sanders said.
“Fake News coverage can’t change the reality that Mueller’s late Friday dump demonstrates yet again no evidence connected to President,” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani added Saturday on Twitter, while also claiming Cohen is “still lying.”
None of those responses, however, addressed Mueller’s accounting of how Manafort lied about his contacts with the Trump administration, the special counsel’s note in another filing that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was still assisting the investigation, or the fact that prosecutors’ memos regarding Cohen mentioned Trump — described as “Individual 1” — no fewer than 30 times.
The deluge of often-vague references to the president and the people around him suggests a couple of possibilities: either Mueller and his federal prosecutor counterparts are growing more provocative in hopes of shaking something loose in the president’s orbit, or they are sitting on explosive charges that could put Trump himself at risk.
Here are eight takeaways from a frenetic week of Mueller filings:
1. Prosecutors say Trump was linked to serious campaign finance crimes, but they don’t accuse him of illegal activity
Trump has not been charged with wrongdoing, but he has faced accusations from the start of the Mueller probe, including claims he conspired with a foreign power to win the 2016 presidential election or obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey.
Enter Stormy Daniels.
Manhattan federal prosecutors on Friday, working in tandem with Mueller’s office, detailed an elaborate scheme in which Cohen made hush money payments to the adult film actress and another woman, both of whom claimed to have had affairs with Trump, in order to silence them in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.
As Cohen offered a series of guilty pleas in court last August, he said the payments were made at Trump’s direction. On Friday, prosecutors concurred that Trump had directed the payments, which the government attorneys portrayed as a grave breach of federal election law.
That immediately raised questions among legal experts about whether Trump would be charged with illegal activity as well.
“They can’t just drop it,” former Obama Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller wrote on Twitter of the prosecutors.
But noting long-standing DOJ protocol that says a sitting president can’t be indicted, Miller said federal prosecutors are essentially left with two options: sending an impeachment referral to Congress or waiting to prosecute Trump once he’s out of office.
“Theoretically you could wait and indict in 2021 (before the statute [of limitations] runs) if he loses re-election, but that’s both an abdication of responsibility & risks losing any mechanism for accountability,” Miller wrote.
2. But there’s a potential wrinkle in any legal case against Trump over the payments
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the documents released Friday “outline serious and criminal wrongdoing” that includes felony violations of campaign finance laws directed by Trump. Former Obama acting solicitor general Neal Katyal also interpreted the filing as concluding the president “has committed a serious felony.”
Former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi told POLITICO the Cohen filing had a “subliminal message” aimed at Trump. “If it were dealing with a private citizen, he would be receiving a target letter and soon be indicted for conspiring to commit campaign law violations,” he said.
However, several other experts weren’t so sure. While ignorance of the law is usually no defense, criminal campaign finance violations require proof the defendant knew what he or she was doing was unlawful. Prosecutors were silent about Trump’s knowledge of the law, and it could be tricky to prove a businessman in his first major run for political office was as versed in campaign-finance rules as Cohen, an attorney.
“I don’t think we know yet that prosecutors have concluded Trump violated campaign finance law, given that Trump would have to know that his conduct was illegal,” former Justice Department official Eric Columbus wrote on Twitter.
3. Others at the White House could be in trouble
Veteran defense lawyers say Trump and his allies should be spooked by Mueller’s claims that Cohen and Manafort dished on their dealings with the White House. That kind of testimony could help build an obstruction of justice case against the president or others in the West Wing.
“Cohen provided relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period,” the special prosecutor’s team said.
They did not elaborate on those contacts, but they said among the topics Cohen discussed with administration officials was his plan to lie in congressional testimony about at what point during the election he abandoned attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
The filing on the collapse of the plea deal with Manafort says he denied any contacts with administration officials, but evidence shows chatter through various intermediaries into 2018. The officials with whom he interacted are not named.
“There’s undoubtedly a number of people who …read more
Read more here: Takeaways from a frenetic week of Mueller filings