Mueller to Save Trump for Later as Prosecutor Readies Next Steps
(Bloomberg) -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller will be cautious about implicating President Donald Trump-- or even a thinly disguised “Individual-1” -- directly in criminal activity in legal filings he’s expected to issue in the next few months, according to people familiar with his investigation.
Mueller is planning to continue building out his case brick-by-brick in a set of legal filings, as he offers his most detailed narrative yet of Russia’s election interference. That will include identifying any Americans who may have conspired with Russia to affect the 2016 election and what Russians hoped to get in return, the people said. Mueller is also looking into whether the president sought to obstruct justice.
“Real-life cases, especially complex ones like this, rarely have one piece of irrefutable smoking-gun evidence,” said Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor. “Real cases are built piece-by-piece and rely on evidence from various sources and common-sense inferences.”
Mueller is likely to save any findings that touch personally on Trump for his final report, which he’ll submit to the Justice Department, the people said. That report will almost certainly be reviewed by Democrats -- who will take control of the House next month -- as they consider whether to impeach the president.
“There might well come a point when Mueller is able to pull together all of his evidence and present a compelling or even overwhelming case," Honig said. “That remains to be seen, but the indicators are present."
It’s a contrast from the approach taken by U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan, who gave Trump the impossible-to-miss “Individual-1” pseudonym this month as a co-conspirator in hush money payoffs by lawyer Michael Cohen that they say violated campaign finance laws.
Trump continues to denounce what he calls the “Russian Witch Hunt Hoax,” writing in a tweet this week, “Nothing to do with Collusion. A Democrat Scam!”
Mueller’s investigation so far has sketched broad connections between Trump, his associates and Russia.
In late November, Mueller secured a guilty plea from Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer. That plea deal revealed that Trump was involved in trying to build a Trump tower in Moscow until at least June 2016, even though he had said publicly that he had no business dealings in Russia. That could be seen as part of an obstruction of justice charge, one of the people familiar with the probe said.
Mueller’s office declined to comment for this story.
Cohen’s admission also established, for the first time, a potential financial motive for Trump to curry favor with Russia both before and after the election.
Cohen also admitted that before giving false testimony to Congress, he circulated his prepared remarks to others. Mueller is likely to reveal the identity of those people at some point.
Mueller’s investigation previously forced Trump’s lawyers to disclose that Trump dictated a false explanation for why his son, Donald Jr., and other associates met with Russians in Trump Tower in New York in June 2016.
Trump’s false statement said the meeting was about adoptions, when in fact it included a discussion about lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia. Trump Jr. took the meeting after being told the Russians could provide dirt on Trump’s opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Damaging information about Clinton, which the Russians had stolen by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, was made public by WikiLeaks soon after the Trump Tower meeting. Mueller has already documented Russia’s hacking operation. Upcoming legal filings could fill in the blanks about whether any Americans conspired with WikiLeaks to release the information.
‘Eager to Help’
“We have begun to see the broader outlines coming into focus on several fronts,” said Honig, the former prosecutor who’s now a white-collar defense attorney with Lowenstein Sandler LLP. “We now have a sense of why Trump wanted to appease Russia: He needed government approvals to build the project -- and why Russia, in turn was so eager to help him win.”
Trump’s legal problems extend beyond Mueller. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have portrayed Trump -- or, as they put it, “Individual-1, who at that point had become President” -- as complicit in the scheme to pay hush money to alleged mistresses during the campaign. They are continuing their investigation into other potential campaign finance irregularities.
They are expected to review financial transactions involving Trump’s presidential campaign and the Trump Organization, while the New York Attorney General’s office is investigating allegations that Trump misused funds from his charitable foundation for personal purposes, including to boost his campaign. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance is investigating whether Trump underreported his taxable income going back decades.
Mueller appears to be adhering to Justice Department policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted. Instead, he’s expected to write a final report identifying potentially criminal conduct by Trump, as well as any other important details that don’t rise to the level of a crime, said David Dorsen, a former federal prosecutor who served as assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s.
“I think he would certainly disclose, at least to the attorney general, all of the evidence he has,” Dorsen said. “In that capacity, he’s being more of an investigator for who he is reporting to.”
“He would probably be very careful to not omit anything for fear that he would be criticized for concealing the evidence that he developed,” Dorsen said. “What looks like a weak case to a layman might be viewed as very strong by an experienced prosecutor who can visualize how a case can play out.”
--With assistance from Greg Farrell.
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