Why Trump Should Be Afraid With Robert Mueller on the Case

Indictment and impeachment are on the table as the special counsel moves into high gear

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, now special counsel for the Trump-Russia investigation. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

By now, it's clear: Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into Russiagate and related matters, is a determined, relentless inquisitor whose investigation could lead to criminal charges against a wide range of Donald Trump's staff, associates, former campaign officials and members of his immediate family. And, when its work is complete, it isn't out of the question that Mueller's team could deliver a report triggering Trump's impeachment.

Since his appointment on May 17th, Mueller, a notoriously press-shy former FBI director, has been operating behind the scenes to put together a formidable army of prosecutors, Justice Department officials and investigators. Already, Mueller's team includes 16 attorneys, along with more than 20 staff members, and it's likely more will be added as the investigation moves forward. The work of the special counsel, which began in a nondescript, temporary facility in southwest Washington, D.C., recently moved to another, secure suite of offices to more easily handle top-secret and highly classified intelligence reports that will play a crucial role in informing Mueller's mission.

Trump, of course, is lashing out at Mueller, the congressional panels, his own attorney general and Department of Justice, the FBI and the media over what he called, in a tweet, "the single greatest witch hunt in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people." He's warned that any move by Mueller to investigate his or his family's business dealings might be a red line that could lead him to fire Mueller. He's toyed with ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from Russiagate because of his own set of questionable meetings with Russian officials in 2016, since by firing Sessions he might be able to appoint a replacement who could order the firing of Mueller. And he's reportedly considered using the power of presidential pardons to prevent Mueller from prosecuting any members of his team – including, remarkably, seeking to pardon himself. None of this, according to numerous experts, sounds like the way someone who's innocent of any wrongdoing would act.

From the start, Mueller had a broad mandate – and it isn't limited to the question of Russia. The statement appointing Mueller authorized him to investigate "any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Trump," along with "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation," plus "any other matters within the scope" of the law. That statement also gave Mueller the job of looking into efforts by Trump or others to impede or block the inquiry.

What that means, and what's scariest for the White House, is that Mueller isn't limited just to the question of collusion between Trump and Moscow. Mueller might suspect that the ties between the Trump organization and the allied financial and real estate empire run by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to Russian banks and various Putin-linked oligarchs, even going back years, might help explain Trump's ties to Russia – making that fair game for the special counsel's office. In addition, should any evidence of other crimes emerge while looking into the Trump-Kushner businesses – such as financial misdeeds, involvement in money-laundering or improper real estate deals, for instance – well, that too could lead to indictments.

And then there's the question of obstruction of justice. Even if Mueller can't prove collusion with Russia and doesn't find any financial or real estate wrongdoing, he can still nail the president if he determines Trump tried illegally to obstruct the investigations that are underway – not only by the special counsel, but by the FBI itself, the Department of Justice and the several congressional committees that are looking into Russiagate.

Though Mueller's office is mostly independent of the Department of Justice and the White House, Mueller still operates under the oversight of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who controls the special counsel's budget and who, under certain circumstances, can overrule his decisions. On the other hand, the department's regulations covering the work of a special counsel say explicitly that the counsel isn't "subject to the day-to-day supervision of any official in the department," and it adds that Rosenstein must give "great weight" to decisions taken by Mueller. If Rosenstein acts to block something that Mueller is doing, he'd be required to explain why he's doing so to Congress. Rosenstein has stated publicly, and in testimony before Congress, that he intends to give Mueller wide latitude to carry out the investigation and not to interfere with it except under extraordinary circumstances.

Theoretically, Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, could fire him. However, he told Congress he would only fire Mueller for "good cause," adding, "I am required to put that cause in writing. If there were good cause I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn't matter to me what anybody says."

By "anybody," he means President Trump.

By all accounts, the team Mueller has built is remarkably high-powered. Mueller's expert on Russia is Elizabeth Prelogar, a former Fulbright Scholar in Russia who is fluent in Russian, who came to Mueller from the office of the U.S. solicitor general. James Quarles, a former partner with Mueller at the law firm WilmerHale, happens to be a former prosecutor with the Watergate task force. Michael Dreeben, another of Mueller's lawyers, is the Justice Department's top criminal law expert. And the prosecutor who might worry the White House the most is Andrew Goldstein, who worked under former U.S Attorney Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York. Earlier this year, Trump fired Bharara – after first promising him he could stay on – and it's considered likely that Goldstein, like Bharara, is familiar with the world of New York real estate that the Trump-Kushner empire is tangled up in.

Yet another Mueller specialist is Andrew Weissman, experienced in the art of "flipping" witnesses – that is, persuading people to turn against associates in exchange for lenient treatment or to escape prosecution altogether.

And last week, Mueller added to the team Greg Andres, a fraud specialist who's especially knowledgeable in the area of foreign bribery.

Aside from reporting the bare bones of his operation, Mueller hasn't said anything or released any information about what he's doing. He's held no press conferences. Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel's office, tells Rolling Stone, "We do not have a website, nor have we issued any press releases."

So, what we know about Mueller's work so far comes by inference – by the actions taken by those who might be caught up in the inquiry, or from leaks (though it isn't clear if the leaks about Mueller are coming from his office or, more likely, from elsewhere in the government). Both Trump and Sessions, along with many Republican members of Congress, have repeatedly raised the issue of leaks, and they've promised to prosecute those doing the leaking. Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Rosenstein said the Department of Justice would go after leakers, even if they were members of Congress or White House staffers.

There's no deadline for Mueller to complete his work, and there's no way to tell how long it might take.

The biggest news so far is last week's report, initially by the Wall Street Journal, that Mueller has empowered a grand jury. According to the Journal, Mueller asked Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for authority to empanel the grand jury. An earlier grand jury, part of an investigation that pre-dated Mueller's appointment, had been created by Justice Department prosecutors looking into cases involving General Flynn and Paul Manafort, and subpoenas had already been issued by a court in Alexandria, Virginia, in regard to those investigations. But the Mueller investigation has absorbed the Flynn and Manafort cases, bringing them under the umbrella of its own, larger investigation. Among the first set of subpoenas issued by the grand jury was a request for documents involving Flynn. But that's just the start.

"This is yet a further sign that there is a long-term, large-scale series of prosecutions being contemplated and being pursued by the special counsel," Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, told the Journal, about the creation of the grand jury in Washington. "If there was already a grand jury in Alexandria looking at Flynn, there would be no need to reinvent the wheel for the same guy. This suggests that the investigation is bigger and wider than Flynn, perhaps substantially so."

One sign of exactly how much bigger Mueller's inquiry might be came in a recent CNN report:

"Sources described an investigation that has widened to focus on possible financial crimes, some unconnected to the 2016 elections, alongside the ongoing scrutiny of possible illegal coordination with Russian spy agencies and alleged attempts by President Donald Trump and others to obstruct the FBI investigation. Even investigative leads that have nothing to do with Russia but involve Trump associates are being referred to the special counsel to encourage subjects of the investigation to cooperate, according to two law enforcement sources."

In an important sign that Mueller considers the question of obstruction of justice a key part of his focus, he has also requested interviews with three top U.S. intelligence officials. They include Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Rogers, the NSA director, both reportedly asked by Trump to support him on Russiagate. Mueller also wants to talk to Richard Ledgett, a former deputy director at the NSA.

Another critical area that has come under Mueller's spotlight is the now famous meeting, held in June 2016, at which a group of Russians met with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Manafort, offering to provide dirt on Hillary Clinton that came from the Russian government. Whether or not that meeting will become the smoking gun of the inquiry into collusion isn't clear, but Mueller has reportedly issued grand jury subpoenas in connection with the Trump Tower meeting – presumably seeking testimony and documents from some or all of the participants. And, according to The Guardian, Mueller has specifically asked the White House to preserve documents concerning that meeting.

And Mueller's team has reportedly requested that members of Trump's presidential transition team preserve all documents and records related to the Russia investigation. Among the individuals specifically named in the request from Mueller, according to The New York Times, are not only Flynn and Manafort, but Carter Page, a former foreign policy aide on Trump's campaign in 2016, and Roger Stone, the mercurial and talkative Trump ally who's admitted that he was in contact with the alleged Russian hacking team Guccifer 2.0 at the height of the controversy last summer. A memo from the transition team's general counsel warned that staffers "have a duty to preserve any physical and electronic records that may be related in any way to the subject matter of the pending investigations," The Times reported.

Flynn, who served just over three weeks as Trump's national security adviser, may be a particularly vulnerable target in Russiagate, not only because of his own ties to Russia but his connections to possibly unrelated wrongdoing involving his former company, the Flynn Intel Group. In the first known instance in which Mueller has sought actual documents, Mueller's investigators have asked the White House to hand over material related to Flynn, and they're reportedly poring over records involving Flynn and interviewing witnesses. It's not impossible that Flynn might be asked to "flip" as a witness himself.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday this weekend, Rosenstein pushed back against the charge that Mueller's investigation is overly broad. "It's not a fishing expedition," he said, noting that Mueller is operating precisely under the terms of the order that Rosenstein issued last May in naming him to the post. Asked whether Mueller can look into potential crimes involving "any matters that arose or may arise" from the inquiry, Rosenstein replied, "If he finds evidence of a crime that's within the scope of what Director Mueller and I have agreed is the appropriate scope of the investigation, then he can." Asked whether Mueller might be authorized to cross Trump's "red line," Rosenstein said the order naming Mueller "doesn't detail specifically who may be the subject of the investigation, because we don't reveal that publicly."

Appearing on the same program, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, warned the president that getting rid of Mueller, if that's his intent, wouldn't be a smart move: "President Trump needs to realize, if he fires Robert Mueller, there's some significant chance that eventually Mueller will be the lead witness in his impeachment hearing."

Watch below: Everything we know about the members of Trump's campaign who had contact with the Russian government.