Analysis: Calm Down, Mueller's New 'Russia Collusion' Memo Isn't a Bombshell

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Posted: Apr 03, 2018 3:55 PM
Analysis: Calm Down, Mueller's New 'Russia Collusion' Memo Isn't a Bombshell

Did Robert Mueller just release a memo that strongly suggests he's got the goods on former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort -- not just for his various alleged financial crimes, but in connection with colluding with Russia during the 2016 election?  There was a boomlet of coverage and breathless hype to that effect on social media this morning, following the publication of un-redacted portions of Mueller's new filing.  At first blush, it appeared to some as though this document might have been the one anti-Trumpists have been waiting for:


Does this mean that the Special Counsel's office has evidence corroborating that Manafort "committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to their effort to interfere in the 2016 election”?  It's conceivable that Mueller possesses such proof, but hasn't acted publicly on it yet, even as he's turned the screws on Manafort.  But no, that's not what the memo says, and the reason why is sitting right in CNN's lede:

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told special counsel Robert Mueller in a classified August 2, 2017, memo that he should investigate allegations that President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was "colluding with Russian government officials" to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, prosecutors in the Russia probe revealed late Monday night. Mueller was also empowered by Rosenstein to investigate Manafort's payments from Ukrainian politicians, a cornerstone of the Trump adviser's decades-long lobbying career that has resulted in several financial criminal charges so far.

"Should investigate."  The piece of the missive that generated all of today's tongue-wagging came from Rosenstein's memo that simply approved some specifics of what Mueller and company were authorized to probe vis-a-vis Manafort.  It was about the scope, not the results, of the investigation.  And note the date it was sent: August of 2017, or eight months ago -- still in the early days of the inquiry.  Rosenstein pulled the trigger on hiring Mueller in late Spring of last year.  So if the memo excerpted above isn't the smoking gun that some wish it were, what is it?  And why are we just seeing it now?  Politico reports:

Some Trump allies have suggested that by pursuing charges of money laundering, tax fraud and unregistered foreign lobbying against Manafort, Mueller is straying from his core mission of probing alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the 2016 election...However, Mueller's team submitted a previously undisclosed memo to a federal court in Washington showing that a few months after Mueller was appointed last May, Rosenstein gave him explicit authority to target Manafort over the financial aspects of his lobbying work for the Ukrainian government — in addition to allegations he was linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election...The new disclosures about the Justice Department's internal handling of the Manafort investigation came in response to a motion Manafort's lawyers filed last month in U.S. District Court in Washington asking to have the criminal charges pending against him there thrown out on the grounds that Mueller's appointment was defective and that he exceeded his authority in going after Manafort.

Initial lefty giddiness was misplaced. The explanation here is really very simple: Manafort's legal team wanted to get the charges against their guy tossed out on the grounds that Mueller had overstepped his investigative charge. In response, Mueller produced a document that expicitly negates that argument.  End of story.  To the extent that this heavily-blacked-out memorandum offers any significant window into the inner workings of his probe, I'd say that we now officially know that in at least some cases, Mueller has permission to turn over rocks that pertain to potential crimes that aren't necessarily directly linked to Russia's 2016 electoral interference (which remains the heart of the investigation).  If that's true on other fronts, some figures within Team Trump may be jittery.  

We're also now aware that Rosenstein -- a Trump appointee -- didn't just hire Mueller and give him carte blanche power to do whatever he wants with limited supervision.  Another key line from the Politico piece: "Prosecutors also said Rosenstein — who has sometimes been the focus of Trump's ire — gave a specific go-ahead for Manafort's indictment and Mueller's other critical moves in the probe."  It looks like Rosenstein is keeping pretty close tabs on Mueller and has managed the trajectory of the investigation.  In other words, it's not a runaway train.  Based on what we're seeing, the probe is being run thoroughly and by the book -- with appropriate oversight.  I'll leave you with some of the latest blasts in the war of words between the White House and the Kremlin, apropos of my piece from last week (about the missing 'quo' in the alleged "collusion" quid pro quo with Russia):