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The Mueller investigation: the story so far | The World Weekly

NO COLLUSION!” Dozens of times in his early presidency, Donald Trump has used Twitter to reject the idea that his campaign colluded with individuals in Russia. His tweets derided the concept as an utter fabrication, a “WITCH HUNT” by the liberal establishment looking to tarnish his victory.

President Trump has, certainly, been on the defensive throughout his first year in office. He is facing the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller III into Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, as the latter examines potential links between the Trump campaign team and Russia, and wider questions of criminality after Mr. Trump took office in January 2017.

Prior to this week, Mr. Trump, on the advice of his legal team, has refrained from attacking Mr. Mueller by name, keeping instead to general criticism about the work of the special counsel.

No longer. In a series of tweets last weekend, President Trump directly attacked the inquiry. He presented the Mueller team as politically biased, made up of “13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans”. This ignored Mr. Mueller’s status as registered Republican.

According to a Washington Post investigation, 13 members of Robert Mueller’s team have previously registered as Democrats. The political affiliation of the remaining four members of the senior team was unavailable or unclear.

His tweets depicted the inquiry as a futile endeavour: “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime.”

The record so far

The special counsel has not brought any charges against Mr. Trump himself.

However, 19 people have been indicted on criminal charges, five of whom have pled guilty. Senior officials connected to Donald Trump are amongst the accused.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort faces charges including money laundering and bank fraud, partly tied to his previous work in Ukraine. He maintains his innocence against the “piled up charges”.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (2nd R) arrives for an arraignment hearing in Alexandria, Virginia on March 8, 2018.

Another notable target is President Trump’s ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn. Mr. Flynn pled guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI, and pledged to cooperate with the investigation. Mr. Flynn's plea deal revealed that he had engaged in numerous conversations with foreign officials on US policy in December 2016, such as discussing President Barack Obama's sanctions against Russia with then-Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak – all before Mr. Trump officially took over as president.

Recently declassified congressional intelligence memos revealed that the FBI began officially investigating links between Russia and the Trump campaign on July 31, 2016, after they learned of the actions of George Papadopoulos, the campaign’s ex-foreign policy adviser. In 2017 he pled guilty to charges of lying to the FBI about conversations with a Kremlin-linked professor who claimed Moscow had “thousands of emails” of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election.

“The allegations surely are serious as a matter of law, given that many are felonies punishable by years in prison,” says Diane Marie Amann, Emily & Ernest Woodruff chair in International Law at the University of Georgia School of Law.

The web of illegality extends to foreign shores. In February, Mr. Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian-based organisations with interference in American politics dating back to 2014. This ranged from spreading misinformation on social media, to organising real protests both for and against Mr. Trump - in one case a person was allegedly paid to dress as Hillary Clinton wearing a prison uniform. 

One of the organisations charged by Mr. Mueller was the Internet Research Agency. This Kremlin-linked group engaged in expansive online activity. Twitter revealed in February that 1.4 million American users had “directly engaged” with accounts linked to the group, a figure which did not include “every person that ever saw this content”.

During these operations, the indictment alleged that Russian operatives “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign”. The charges made clear, however, that the latter individuals did not “knowingly” assist any “illegal activity”.

“These digital-age information operations represent a new type of threat to America’s democratic health and resilience, and it's important to understand them fully so that we can craft an appropriate set of defences – quickly,” Joshua Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism on President Barack Obama's National Security Council, told The World Weekly.

These concerns have only been reinforced by revelations this week about Cambridge Analytica and their alleged acquisition of 50 million Facebook users’ data without their explicit consent. Multiple outlets have suggested that Robert Mueller’s team is seeking to understand the scope of this data analytics firm’s contracted work for the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

The Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $5.9 million for work in 2015 and 2016, according to campaign finance records.

‘A red line’

President Trump has implied that he has personal preferences for the limits of Robert Mueller’s inquiry. In an interview last year Mr. Trump called investigations into his businesses a “red line”.

The special counsel has seemingly ignored this informal warning, with the New York Times claiming last week that the Trump organisation had been subpoenaed for internal documents pertaining to the special counsel’s investigation.

The Trump organisation has always maintained that it is fully cooperating with the inquiry. 

A June 2016 meeting at Trump tower in New York City - perhaps the most iconic emblem of Mr. Trump’s business empire - is reportedly of particular interest for the special counsel. According to a press statement from Donald Trump Jr., he had - along with Mr. Manafort and Jared Kushner - met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer on the apparent pretext of gaining incriminating information on Hillary Clinton. He claimed that the meeting was inconsequential and they received “no meaningful information”.

This clarity was not, however, initially forthcoming. An initial statement crafted aboard Airforce One described the meeting as primarily concerning Russian adoption laws. It is not currently known whether the president - who was part of the group on the plane at the time - played a role in crafting this highly misleading first statement. 

The conduct of a president

Moving forward, the special counsel has increasingly pursued a potential face-to-face interview with Mr. Trump. Their respective lawyers have been exchanging lists of potential questions, with Mr. Trump’s legal team allegedly turning over documents to the special counsel to limit the scope of an interview.

One topic of conversation could be President Trump’s actions since taking office. The Mueller team are, according to Axios, seeking further detail about the firing of former FBI director James Comey in May 2017. Mr. Comey’s public testimony to the US Congress in June 2017 alleged that Mr. Trump asked for “loyalty” from him, and to drop the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.

There is a high burden of proof to identify any criminality in these actions. A connection has to be made between Mr. Trump’s motivations and potential impediments to the work of the special counsel investigation. “The president can fire people,” Susan Low Bloch, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Centre, told TWW. “To prove obstruction of justice you have to prove that the intent in so doing is to stop them finding the truth.”

Divining the long-term strategy of Donald Trump, seen here at the White House on March 20, 2018, has baffled many observers of US politics.

The ultimate question is how long President Trump is willing to let the inquiry continue. The White House maintains it has no plans to order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mr. Mueller.

Yet President Trump’s recent tweet escalation fed rumours of a different strategy. The Daily Beast claimed that one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, John Dowd, emailed them to stress that the investigation should “come to an end” – messaging allegedly backed by the president.

“Fire Mueller and I will vote to fire you,” tweeted Democrat Representative Jackie Speier. Democrats and Republicans in Congress were particularly vocal in sounding the alarm over Mr. Trump’s new tone. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN that it would be “the end of the Trump presidency” if Mr. Mueller was fired.

The Republican majority in Congress has veered away, however, from supporting legislative protections for Mueller’s investigation. “I don't think he'll do it, so I don't see any benefit in trying to pass a law,” Republican Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said in an interview.

Impeachment is the ultimate spectre over any hints of unconstitutional “misdemeanours” connected to a US president. As a fundamentally “political process”, says Professor Bloch, moving the process forward would require significantly “damaging” charges to persuade Republican politicians to act against their party’s president.

It was testament to the extraordinary contradictions of this presidency that Donald Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to congratulate him on his recent re-election. The subject of Russian intervention in the 2016 election, or Russia’s alleged role in the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, was not brought up.

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