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After a year filled with dramatic revelations from prosecutors in the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election appears to be nearing a conclusion, with potentially huge consequences for Donald Trump’s presidency in 2019.
Mueller issued major indictments this year documenting how a Russian troll factory manipulated American social media, and how Moscow’s military intelligence hacked thousands of Democratic Party emails and passed them to WikiLeaks, which made them public. But perhaps the most ominous development for the president to date was the guilty plea last month by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who admitted lying to the Senate about efforts by the Trump Organization to build a Trump Tower in Moscow — a deal that was being discussed as late as June 2016, a year after Trump declared his candidacy for president and when he was already the presumptive Republican nominee.
Cohen’s plea also contained the stunning information that he had been in direct communication with a Kremlin official about securing land and financing for the project. At a minimum, that disclosure undermines Trump’s comment during the campaign that he had “no relationship to Russia whatsoever.”
But there are still multiple questions about what other evidence Mueller possesses and what additional criminal charges he might bring. The special counsel’s prosecutors spent months wrangling with Trump’s lawyers about questioning the president about his Russian ties before agreeing to take written answers. Mueller could still demand a face-to-face interview. Legal observers warn that such a move would almost certainly result in a protracted legal battle whose outcome is uncertain.
Mueller’s investigation also faced significant hurdles in 2018. One cooperating witness, George Papadopoulos, failed to provide evidence that the Trump campaign knew in advance about the Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee computers, and served only a nominal two-week sentence. Another key witness, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, agreed to cooperate after being convicted at a trial on tax fraud and bank fraud charges. But the cooperation agreement collapsed when, Mueller charged, Manafort lied about his contacts with a former associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, with ties to Russian intelligence, as well as his own contacts with Trump administration officials.
Mueller still has one longtime Trump associate in his cross hairs: Roger Stone, who has been under intense scrutiny as a possible go-between with WikiLeaks before the site published hacked emails from the account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Recently, Mueller formally requested and received an official transcript of Stone’s 2017 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, an indication that he may soon indict the president’s longtime political advisor. But on other fronts, all signs suggest Mueller has largely completed his work. The postponement last week of sentencing for yet another Mueller cooperator, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, underscored that point. One of Mueller’s prosecutors, Brandon Lang Van Grack, told the judge that — other than providing testimony in an unrelated case against former business associates who were illegally lobbying for Turkey — Flynn had already provided “the vast majority” of his cooperation with Russia probe. That signifies that Mueller probably doesn’t have plans for him to testify against other Trump associates.
The biggest wildcard is Mueller’s report. Under the Justice Department regulation that governs his appointment as special counsel, Mueller is obligated to write such a report to the attorney general detailing the prosecution decisions he made. That report is likely to include his conclusions about whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey and took other steps to interfere in the Russia probe. But who will now receive that report — and what becomes of it then — is unclear. Justice regulations don’t require the report to be made public. The White House is likely to object to the release of at least portions of it by arguing that testimony by senior officials about conversations with the president is covered by executive privilege.
But the Democrats, who will now be in the majority in the House of Representatives, are certain to take a very different view, ensuring that the legal battles regarding Trump and Russia are far from over, even though Mueller’s work may soon be done.