After A Day Of Legal Shock And Awe, What's Next For The Mueller Investigation?

Oct 31, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 9:49 am

Five months into his mandate, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller III unleashed a legal version of "shock and awe" on Monday with criminal charges against President Trump's former campaign chairman and a guilty plea by a foreign policy aide.

Mueller made no public comment about the charges or the next steps in an investigation that's irritating the White House and riveting the nation. But there are some clues in the court documents about where the former FBI director and his investigators may be heading.

1. The Foreign Agents Registration Act

Among the charges facing former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his right-hand man Richard Gates is failing to register as agents of a foreign government, and making false and misleading statements about that. The grand jury indictment unsealed Monday accuses the men of working on behalf of Ukraine and telling the Justice Department their activities "did not include meetings or outreach within the U.S."

Those charges are controversial, in part because violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act are rarely enforced. Kevin Downing, a lawyer for Manafort, told reporters outside the courthouse that prosecutors have used that "very novel" charge only six times since 1966, winning just one conviction.

On Capitol Hill, however, Senate Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa offered praise for that approach: "It's good to see the Justice Department taking seriously its responsibility to enforce" the law, Grassley said in a written statement.

"I've been raising concerns about lackluster enforcement of this foreign influence disclosure law for years now, regardless of administration or political party," he added. "The dirty little secret is that lots of people across the political spectrum in Washington have skirted their FARA obligations for years now with little to no accountability."

Grassley convened an oversight hearing on the issue in July, flagging work by Mercury LLC and the Podesta Group on behalf of what he calls "a front for the Ukrainian government." The firms are mentioned in the indictment as "Company A" and "Company B." A prominent Democratic lobbyist, Tony Podesta, announced he would step down from that firm Monday after the charges became public.

At least one other person with ties to the Trump campaign, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, belatedly filed a foreign agent registration with the Justice Department this year connected with his work on behalf of Turkey. He has not been charged with a crime.

2. Will Manafort fight?

Despite an onslaught of pressure from federal investigators, including an FBI raid on his residence in July, Manafort has steadfastly denied wrongdoing, and people close to Manafort say he has little of use to offer the special counsel.

Even so, the 31-page indictment suggests that federal investigators are not finished squeezing him. Authorities want to seize Manafort's properties in New York and Virginia, at a time when he's already strapped for cash. The court papers refer to business dealings with Manafort's daughter and son-in-law, who have not been publicly charged with any crimes.

And the Manafort indictment doesn't refer to contacts between Manafort and Russians with close ties to Vladimir Putin, despite media reports that he emailed with a longtime Ukrainian client in Putin's camp to offer private briefings on the election.

3. Fallout from the Papadopoulos plea

The guilty plea by George Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, detailed a series of contacts he had with people close to the Russian government in 2016. The court documents said Papadopoulos reported his conversations to a "supervisor" and "high-ranking" members of the campaign team.

Investigators said that after his secret arrest in July, Papadopoulos has been meeting with the government "on numerous occasions to provide information and answer questions."

The message: He may be offering evidence against others still under investigation. Other people inside the Trump campaign also are said to have received overtures from Russians or Russian agents at about the same time that Trump named Papadopoulos as an adviser. One of them, Carter Page, traveled to Moscow at least twice last year.

Thomas Breen and Robert Stanley, lawyers for Papadopoulos, said they had to refrain from comment on the case for now. But, they added, "We will have the opportunity to comment on George's involvement when called upon by the court at a later date. We look forward to telling all of the details of George's story at that time."

4. Will Mueller keep his job?

Congressional Democrats reacted quickly after the indictments to insist that the independence of special counsel Mueller and his team must be protected. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the rule of law is "paramount."

"The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel's work in any way," Schumer added. "If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues."

At the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was "no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to the special counsel."

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow told CNN he's had no conversations with Trump about issuing pardons for Manafort or others implicated in the Russia investigation.

But Mueller could charge more people in Trump's world and bring even more heat onto the president's camp — which might prompt Trump to revise his thinking about trying to get rid of the special counsel.

And legal experts say they don't know what might happen if Trump exercises his sweeping power to pardon people in a way that obstructs the Mueller probe.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Five months into his mandate, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller revealed his first charges yesterday. Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted along with his longtime business partner. And former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos made a guilty plea. We have still not heard from Mueller himself, so it's not yet clear where the investigation goes next. Let's bring in NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So you've been reading these court papers. Are you seeing any clues about what happens now?

JOHNSON: There are some clues. One, I think, involves the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Now, Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman and his deputy, Rick Gates, were charged with failing to register as agents of a foreign government and making false statements about that. The grand jury indictment accuses them of working on behalf of Ukraine but telling the Justice Department that they weren't doing that. Now, these charges are controversial because the FARA law is rarely enforced. And in fact, Kevin Downing, a lawyer for Manafort, said it was only used six times since 1966 with one conviction.

GREENE: One conviction in - what is it? - like, 50 years?

JOHNSON: In 50 years, yeah. So this is a bit novel and unusual. But the reaction from some people on Capitol Hill has been surprising. Republican Charles Grassley from Iowa, the chairman of the judiciary committee in the Senate, has said it's really good to see the Justice Department enforcing the law and that it's a dirty little secret that a lot of people have not been registering as foreign agents, both Democrats and Republicans, for some time.

Now, Grassley has done some oversight work on this, and he pointed out that two companies were working with Manafort and Gates. In fact, just yesterday Tony Podesta, a top Democratic lobbyist, announced he was leaving his company in the shadow of this investigation. And, you know, at least one other adviser with ties to the Trump campaign, retired General Mike Flynn, has belatedly filed a disclosure this year under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. So stay tuned on that.

GREENE: OK. So these questions about registering as a foreign agent - that's one thing. But we have Manafort, the former campaign chairman - I mean, he's pleading not guilty to these charges. But he's certainly facing a lot of pressure. Could he somehow turn into a government witness that might lead this investigation elsewhere?

JOHNSON: Paul Manafort has steadfastly denied wrongdoing. People close to him have told me he doesn't believe he has anything to give up on President Trump or anybody in the White House. That said, the pressure on him has been intense ever since that July surprise FBI raid of his residence in Virginia while he was sound asleep. And it's only getting worse. The indictment unsealed yesterday suggests the feds are not finished squeezing Paul Manafort. The authorities want to seize some real estate he owns in New York and Virginia at a time when he's already strapped for cash.

And the indictment against against Manafort doesn't refer to contacts between him and Russians with close ties to Vladimir Putin, even though a lot of media reports suggest he emailed with a longtime Ukrainian client in Putin's inner circle to offer private briefings on the election. So Mueller may know more than he put in that indictment yesterday. There may be room to add charges against Manafort moving forward.

GREENE: OK. But up until this point - I mean, yesterday the White House is still calling this investigation a witch hunt. And the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, says there is no collusion. But we have this once-foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, his guilty plea - that whole situation seems to be raising questions about possible collusion and moving in that direction. Does it not?

JOHNSON: I think it opens a new door. I think it opens a new door for the work of the special counsel and the people involved on these issues in the Trump campaign. Now, Papadopoulos hasn't told us all he knows, but the investigators have revealed in court papers that he's been talking to them since he was secretly arrested at Dulles airport in July. And he's been meeting with them and telling them things. His defense lawyers say they are not commenting on his behalf for now. But they say at some point in the future, they are going to want to talk about George Papadopoulos's involvement. They look forward to telling all the details of his story at that time.

And he may be offering evidence against others still under investigation. We just don't know exactly what he's saying, in part because prosecutors wanted to keep his guilty plea secret for some time because they called him a proactive cooperator and they suggested that to let other people under investigation or other people of interest know that he was working with the Mueller team might chill their ability to interview witnesses and subjects of this investigation since July - from July to October, when the guilty plea was unsealed.

GREENE: Well - and I got to ask you about Robert Mueller's future. I mean, there are some Republicans now who are calling for him to resign in the wake of these charges.

JOHNSON: Yeah. In fact, there's been a bill introduced in Congress - or at least some measure introduced in Congress that would starve Mueller's team of the funds it needs to continue this investigation. But for now, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says there's no intention or plan to make any changes with respect to special counsel Mueller. And a Trump lawyer told CNN that Trump has not talked about pardoning anybody involved in this investigation. That said, the pressure's on the White House now. And we'll have to watch closely to see what happens next.

GREENE: Watch closely because a lot of developments could come - we'll see where this goes.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson - Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.