NBC News: Mueller's Russia Probe Now Focused on 18-Day Stretch...After Trump Was Inaugurated

Posted: Dec 11, 2017 4:30 PM
NBC News: Mueller's Russia Probe Now Focused on 18-Day Stretch...After Trump Was Inaugurated

A bulletin from NBC News today reports that special counsel Robert Mueller has keyed in on an 18-day period in early 2017 as central to his investigation.  Mueller's team is said to be probing details surrounding then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's characterizations of his conversations with the Russian Ambassador during the presidential transition (not during the campaign, we'll emphasize), about which he lied to the FBI and Vice President Pence; the latter offense was the public reason offered for why Flynn was fired a few weeks later.  It's the time frame surrounding Flynn's FBI interview, and issue of why he lied -- plus who knew about those lies, and when -- that have reportedly attracted Mueller's heightened attention.  Details:

Special counsel Robert Mueller is trying to piece together what happened inside the White House over a critical 18-day period that began when senior officials were told that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was susceptible to blackmail by Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.  The questions about what happened between Jan. 26 and Flynn's firing on Feb. 13 appear to relate to possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, say two people familiar with Mueller's investigation into Russia's election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.  Multiple sources say that during interviews, Mueller's investigators have asked witnesses, including White House Counsel Don McGahn and others who have worked in the West Wing, to go through each day that Flynn remained as national security adviser and describe in detail what they knew was happening inside the White House as it related to Flynn. Some of those interviewed by Mueller's team believe the goal is in part to determine if there was a deliberate effort by President Trump or top officials in the West Wing to cover up the information about Flynn that Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general, conveyed to McGahn on Jan. 26.

The information that Yates -- an Obama holdover later fired for insubordination on another subject -- relayed to the White House counsel was that Flynn had deceived other senior administration members about the nature of a conversation he'd conducted with the Russian ambassador in between Trump's election and inauguration.  Flynn falsely claimed that he hadn't discussed US sanctions with Amb. Kislyak, but the Justice Department knew better, due to intercepts.  "Yates said Flynn was susceptible to blackmail by the Russians because he had lied about the contents of a phone call with Kislyak," NBC reminds us.  We now know that Flynn didn't limit his lying on this subject to people like the Vice President; he also gave false statements to the FBI, a crime with which he's been charged and to which he's pleaded guilty.  That outcome is generally regarded as a relative slap on the wrist, considering the more serious nature of other crimes Flynn appears to have committed, and is understood to represent Flynn's incentive to fully cooperate with Mueller's wider investigation.  Back to the NBC story, which outlines what the special counsel team seems to be after:

The obstruction of justice question could hinge on when Trump knew about the content of Flynn's conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. during the transition, which were at the crux of Yates's warning, and when the president learned Flynn had lied about those conversations to the FBI, according to two people familiar with the Mueller probe.  Flynn pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to the FBI on Jan. 24, an interview that took place the day after he was sworn in as national security adviser...Mueller is trying to determine why Flynn remained in his post for 18 days after Trump learned of Yates' warning, according to two people familiar with the probe. He appears to be interested in whether Trump directed him to lie to senior officials, including Pence, or the FBI, and if so why, the sources said. If Trump knew his national security adviser lied to the FBI in the early days of his administration it would raise serious questions about why Flynn was not fired until Feb. 13, and whether Trump was attempting to obstruct justice when FBI Director James Comey says the president pressured him to drop his investigation into Flynn. Trump fired Comey on May 9.

It's a little hard to follow the plot on all of this, but it looks like Mueller really wants to know why Flynn was fired weeks after his lies were brought to Team Trump's attention. Might he have been ordered to falsely deny his sanctions talk with Kislyak by someone (the president?), and if so, why? Mueller is a pro and I'm sure there's a method to all of this, but I couldn't help but make this observation on Twitter after reading the NBC piece:

One of the reasons I've been strongly supportive of the Russia probe is that I take seriously the united assessment of relevant US intelligence agencies affirming that Moscow actively sought to interfere in our 2016 presidential election.  That sort of subterfuge, undertaken to undermine America's faith in our institutions, is an unacceptable and hostile act, and every American shares an interest in knowing the full truth about what happened -- and ensuring that it doesn't happen again in the future.  If the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin during the election, which has been categorically denied over and over again, that's a massive scandal.  But aside from an infamous summer 2016 meeting at Trump Tower (circumstances surrounding which were quite suspicious in other ways) at which top campaign officials at least appeared highly interested in accepting damaging information against Hillary Clinton from a Russian-linked source (which didn't pan out), no evidence of inappropriate collaboration has ever surfaced.  Which brings me to these questions:

If top Trump officials told Flynn to lie about his Kislyak conversation in order to cover up the payoff of a secret quid pro quo established during the election, it would make sense for Mueller to work backwards from that lie and its fallout.  Maybe the total lack of public evidence of that theoretical conspiracy is attributable to Mueller and others keeping an extremely tight lid on what they've discovered.  Or maybe, in light of the deluge of Russia-related leaks plastered all of the news during the past year, the total lack of public evidence of that theoretical conspiracy is attributable to...the total lack of a conspiracy.  Perhaps Flynn was just worried about Logan Act charges (which were unlikely, given zero prosecutions under the law since its passage in the late 1700's) stemming from improper efforts to influence US foreign policy by someone who was still a private citizen at the time (a private citizen, I might add, who knew he was deeply compromised on this general front already).  And perhaps Trump was simply hesitant to fire a loyal member of his team over what he thought was a relatively small internal lie.  That would be a far less dramatic explanation than a panicky Trump fretting that the truth about Flynn's sanctions talk with Kislyak could unravel a major collusion plot that would bring down his entire administration.    

It should be noted that previous special counsel investigations have expanded far beyond their initial charge (Kenneth Starr, Whitewater, and Bill Clinton's lies about sexual conduct is a prime example), so it's conceivable that Mueller's work will end up in a very different place from where it started.  But I think the American people are expecting a thorough accounting of what the Russians did, and did not do, vis-a-vis our election last year.  That's the whole point of the probe.  If significant figures in Trump's orbit were involved in those underhanded efforts, we need to know about it, and justice must be served.  But if Mueller's work strays from the core realm of Russia's 2016 influence, it will look a lot less like a vital, fact-finding national security endeavor, and more like an anti-Trump fishing expedition.  Ed Morrissey is probably right that the biggest concern for the White House is that Flynn is giving Mueller damaging information about why, and at whose behest, he lied about the Kislyak call, and that Mueller may be in the process of chasing down corroborating evidence of Flynn's claims.  

But thus far, all we have are indictments unrelated to Trump (which doesn't let him off the hook for non-criminal horrible judgment and disastrous vetting of guys like Paul Manafort), ham-fisted lies (the motives behind which remain unclear for now), and a president asking the head of the FBI to lay off his buddy (then firing the FBI chief who didn't comply with that request, although there were also other big factors at play).  I haven't the slightest clue where this will all end up, but I agree with Byron York that Mueller must be permitted to complete his job:

Short of impeaching President Trump, does anything excite Democrats, the Resistance, and NeverTrumpers like the prospect of the president firing special counsel Robert Mueller? Firing Mueller would, of course, be the quickest way for Trump to get impeached, which might explain a certain air of anticipation in discussions of whether — some prefer to say when -- Trump will sack the prosecutor leading the Trump-Russia investigation...But there is another way to look at the recent wave of Mueller criticism: It's all politics. The overriding purpose of the anti-Mueller Trump defenses is not to goad the president into firing Mueller, which would be a disastrous act that could spell an early end to Trump's presidency. Instead, the overriding purpose is to discredit the Mueller investigation in the expectation that the probe will ultimately lead to articles of impeachment filed against the president in the House of Representatives...Put low popularity and an unfriendly press together, and it seems unlikely Trump could set off any wave of public disapproval of Mueller the way Clinton did with Starr. Instead, if there were an impeachment trial, Trump would have to focus on raising doubt about the prosecutor's tactics among the 34 Republican senators he needs to vote to keep him in office. That's what the attacks on Mueller are about.

Firing Mueller would be an insane disaster, as York says.  But Mueller and his team are not above criticism, and their critics have discovered some new ammo lately.  I'll leave you with this column from the Wall Street Journal's Kimberly Strassel, who traces the partisanship of some of Mueller's top lawyers:

Like York, Strassel stops well short of recommending that Mueller be sacked, a move she understatedly rejects as "counterproductive."  Instead, she advocates another solution to prevent Mueller from totally stonewalling Congress (significant developments were hidden from lawmakers), and ensuring that FBI and DOJ officials aren't entirely exempt from scrutiny or accountability on the Russia matter: "Mr. Sessions (or maybe even Mr. Trump) is within rights to create a short-term position for an official whose only job is to ensure Justice Department and FBI compliance with congressional oversight. This person needs to be a straight shooter and versed in law enforcement, but with no history at or substantial ties to the Justice Department or FBI."  Read the whole thing.