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Mueller flashes some cards in Russia probe, but hides his hand

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into    Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has operated more like a complex financial fraud investigation than a racketeering investigation or counterintelligence operation.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has operated more like a complex financial fraud investigation than a racketeering investigation or counterintelligence operation. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

A 55-page flurry of court filings shows just how deep the investigations surrounding President Trump have gone, scrutinizing secret Russian contacts, hush money meetings and a tangle of lies designed to conceal those activities.

But for all the cards special counsel Robert S. Mueller III played Friday, it’s still not clear what else he holds, or when he will put them on the table.

“The recent court filings by Mueller’s team are more revealing by what they did not include than by what they did,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice.

New Mueller filings directly implicate the president

On Saturday morning, Trump again seized on the lack of public conclusions about his conduct to declare his innocence.

Federal prosecutors filed new court papers on Dec. 7 that revealed a previously unreported contact from a Russian to Trump’s inner circle during the campaign. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

“NO COLLUSION!” he tweeted. “Time for the Witch Hunt to END!”

Mueller’s continued silence on the big question that he still must answer — whether any Trump associates conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election — does not mean Trump and those who were around him are in the clear.

“Like any skilled prosecutor, Mueller is playing out his hand very strategically, showing only those cards that he needs to reveal to take the investigation to the next step,” Mintz said.

While Mueller has repeatedly encountered lying witnesses — Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos — the court cases of those defendants keep pointing to an underlying strength of the special counsel’s investigation: the ability to get incriminating emails, documents and bank records.

In that sense, Mueller’s probe to date has operated more like a complex financial fraud investigation than a racketeering probe or a counterintelligence operation because, even when a witness lies to him, Mueller has the receipts to win convictions.

Michael Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Congress

Over three court filings submitted in two federal courts Friday in Trump-related cases, Mueller and prosecutors in New York and Washington offered tantalizing glimpses into what they have found.

Two of the filings were made in advance of Cohen’s sentencing, scheduled for Wednesday in New York. The third filing came in the case of Manafort, whom prosecutors have accused of breaking the terms of a plea deal by lying to them about key details, including his interactions with unidentified Trump administration officials as recently as this year.

In one of the filings, the Justice Department formally said Trump coordinated and directed Cohen to violate campaign finance laws. Cohen has admitted arranging hush money payments during the 2016 election for two women who had claimed to have had trysts with Trump.

The court filings describe an August 2014 meeting between Trump, Cohen and the head of a national tabloid in which they discussed buying the stories of any women who might come forward to describe sexual relationships with Trump, so the rights to those stories “could be purchased and ‘killed.’ ” The unidentified head of the tabloid, identified as “Chairman 1,” is David Pecker of the National Enquirer, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Cohen also admitted, according to the court papers, to previously undisclosed attempts to forge a political relationship with Russia during the election — though, in those instances, the efforts do not appear to have come to fruition.

In September 2015, Cohen suggested in a radio interview that Trump might meet with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. Though Cohen once said that suggestion was spontaneous and unplanned, he “admitted that this account was false and that he had in fact conferred with (Trump) about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting,” according to one filing.

Then, in November 2015, “Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level,’ ” according to a filing from Mueller’s office. The person repeatedly tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin, but Cohen “did not follow up on the invitation,” because he was working at the time on a potential real estate deal in Moscow with another intermediary with contacts in the Russian government.

Former federal prosecutor Randall D. Eliason said the filings were notable for “the increasing evidence of ties to Russia and possible coverups.” While it is impossible to say yet whether those will amount to a larger criminal conspiracy, Eliason said, they could at the very least form the basis of a politically damaging report, or produce other charges against key people in Trump’s orbit for lying to investigators.

“I think it’s entirely possible that Mueller ends up concluding that there were all these contacts with Russia that were some combination of unwise or naive or reckless or unpatriotic, but maybe not criminal, so that’s in a report, and then the crimes are the cover ups,” Eliason said. “Then you’ve got political implications. Even if the stuff wasn’t criminal, then presumably there are political implications for all the Russian ties. But who knows? Mueller is running such a tight ship, until something happens you don’t know it’s going to happen.”

Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said she was struck by federal prosecutors in New York accusing Trump of directing Cohen to pay women for their silence about their alleged affairs. Cohen has admitted the payments violated campaign finance laws.

“They’re not going to say that unless they believe it to be corroborated,” McQuade said. “That’s only a crime if you can show that President Trump knew that was unlawful, but I don’t know that it takes too many steps to get there.”

McQuade said she was also intrigued by the details Mueller revealed about Cohen’s cooperation.

Mueller’s memo, for example, said Cohen “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating” his false congressional testimony about a Trump Tower project in Moscow.

“With whom did he circulate it and, if it was false, was he working with others to coordinate their stories?” McQuade asked.

By leaving all these clues in public, Mueller is ensuring that everything he has found will one day be revealed by increasing the pressure on the attorney general or Congress to release details when the probe is complete, McQuade said.

“This does cause the public, I would hope, to demand to know the whole story at some point,” McQuade said.