What Mueller’s Investigation Really Means

Benjamin Simpson '21

On October 30th, Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his first indictments, targeting Paul Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates. Manafort, who was Donald Trump’s campaign manager until he resigned on August 19th of 2016, was charged with conspiracy against the United States, tax fraud, and money laundering. Manafort allegedly had close ties with Ukraine, laundering millions of dollars tax free. He failed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which would have been a red flag for the Trump campaign when they hired him. Manafort and Gates pled not guilty, and are currently under house arrest ahead of their scheduled trial in May of 2018.

The significance of this event is in the eye of the beholder. Manafort’s attorney told the Associated Press, “There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government,” and the alleged activities “ended in 2014.” Shortly after the indictments were publicized, President Trump tweeted, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus????? [sic]” During a November 11th summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in: “An alleged link between U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Russia is being fabricated by Trump’s opponents.”

American media outlets had their own perspective on this development. On October 30th, the New York Times claimed, “The idea that Mr. Manafort’s indictment vindicates Mr. Trump ignores how complex criminal investigations typically proceed, and the attendant peril Mr. Trump now faces. In our half century of collective experience prosecuting and defending criminal cases, we have watched repeatedly as prosecutors charged lower-level individuals with readily provable offenses that are distinct from the core conduct and targets that are the primary focus of the prosecutor’s investigation.” Some believe that Manafort is being pressured to make a deal with the special counsel, revealing information on rumored Trump-Russia collusion in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.

A different outlook was published by Andrew McCarthy of the National Review, a prominent conservative news magazine. “The Paul Manafort indictment is much ado about nothing . . . except as a vehicle to squeeze Manafort, which is special counsel Robert Mueller’s objective . . . It appears to reaffirm former FBI director James Comey’s multiple assurances that Trump is not a suspect.” As of mid-November, Mueller’s six-month-old investigation has not produced allegations that would suggest Trump-Russia collusion. The Washington Post reported on November 19th that the President’s lawyers are optimistic the investigation will “wrap up by the end of the year.”

The Manafort indictment may have broader implications for the future of the Mueller investigation. The Washington Post editorialized, “It is beyond dispute that the Russian government sought to help the Trump campaign and that some campaign officials were open to overtures from Russia. The question is how far that cooperation went and who on the campaign was aware of it.” Communication between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is a widely recognized fact, but it is legal for foreign countries to have meetings with presidential campaign members. Even if a campaign official, like Donald Trump Jr., asked Russians for information on Secretary Clinton, it may not be a criminal offense.

To prove collusion, there must be evidence of information trading hands between the two parties. As The Economist summarized, “Even the most dramatic revelations might not involve criminality . . . One plausible scenario is that Mr. Mueller finds that Russia’s government did indeed attack America, and that Mr. Trump is more beholden to Russian interests than he admits, but does not find evidence of collusion that justifies prosecutions.” So far, what has been reported about links between Trump and Russia does not appear to match the constitutional standard of impeachment: “high crimes and misdemeanors.” However, Mueller’s investigation is being conducted with great discretion, so it is still possible that an impeachable offense will come to light sometime in the future.