The special investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election will hit the one-year mark this Thursday, having so far produced zero evidence of collusion between Donald Trump and the Kremlin.
US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has been the constant backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidency, but the focus of his probe has wandered off into decidedly un-Russian territory.
“Russiagate,” as it’s colloquially known, has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past twelve months. Terrifying stories of Trump scheming with Putin to steal the US presidency have morphed into lurid tales of porn actresses, payoffs, and decade-old bank fraud.
In the absence of evidence pointing to a Trump-Kremlin link, Mueller is now looking to make a case – any case. After one year, what has Mueller’s Russia probe actually uncovered – and where is it heading?
Calling Mueller’s bluff
In February, Mueller indicted 13 people and three organizations as co-conspirators in a plot to “interfere with the US political system, including the 2016 presidential election,” by way of engaging in “information warfare” through social media. The indictment, which is scant in incriminating details, heavy on innuendo, and entirely absent of any Kremlin links to Trump’s campaign, does not even allege that the purported scheme influenced the outcome of the election.
Notably, not a single defendant in the indictment was charged with attempting to hack or manipulate US voting systems.
However, it was widely assumed that no one named in the 37-page indictment would even bother to respond to the accusations, as the Russian defendants resided a very safe distance from US legal jurisdiction.
“[Mueller] has indicted these Russians knowing that he will never actually have to bother to prosecute them. Which is why he indicted them for peculiar, almost not-named crimes, very low-level things,” conservative radio host Dave Perkins told RT after the indictment was announced.
But Mueller was caught off guard last month, when lawyers representing one of the accused firms, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, made numerous discovery requests aimed at nonpublic details about the government’s case and underlying Russia investigation. Far from being ready to rumble, Mueller’s team requested in early May that the first court hearing be delayed – a request which was unceremoniously rejected by the presiding judge.
In a court filing on Monday, lawyers for Concord said Mueller had wrongfully accused the company of a “make-believe crime,” in a political effort by the special counsel to “justify his own existence” by indicting “a Russian-any Russian.”
“What has happened is Mueller is setting himself up, having tossed red meat to the base on the left: here is your Russians, here is your conspiracy, see, they have tried to affect the outcome of the election. And then he can fade back into the hedge,” Perkins noted back in February.
According to Politico, it’s possible that Mueller now faces some potentially embarrassing disclosures if he wants to avoid an “embarrassing dismissal” of his indictment.
A less Russian Russia inquiry
On the Russian collusion front, Mueller’s investigation quickly led nowhere. However, the dead-end inquiry was kept alive by drastically expanding its scope. Mueller claims that he is authorized to look into any wrongdoing uncovered during the course of the investigation. As a result, the “Russia” aspect of Mueller’s probe has all but disappeared, with investigators recently focusing on payments made by pharmaceutical giant Novartis and telecommunications conglomerate AT&T to Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
In fairness, this isn’t the first time that a probe into alleged presidential misconduct has changed direction. Recall how the independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton began as a probe into a questionable real estate deal, but soon morphed into perjury charges related to Clinton’s sexual relations with a White House intern.
As CNN noted in its own bittersweet recap of the Russia probe as it approaches its one-year anniversary: “The special counsel’s team has brought charges against 22 people and companies, notched five guilty pleas and seen one person sentenced.” However, CNN continues, none of these charges are related to “potential collusion between the Russian government and Trump associates.”
Indeed, the inconvenient moment of truth for Mueller’s Russia collusion case came last December, when Mueller uncovered that Trump’s then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied about a conversation he had had with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. While the nation’s newspapers ran titillating headlines like “Michael Flynn Pleads Guilty to Lying to the FBI and Will Cooperate With Russia Inquiry,” the circumstances surrounding the guilty plea revealed that Mueller was actually grasping at straws: Flynn had indeed met with Kislyak – to request that Moscow refrain from retaliating against sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration in December 2016.
Flynn had also asked the Russian envoy for Moscow’s help in blocking or delaying a vote on Israel’s settlements in the West Bank at the UN Security Council – a request he made on behalf on Israeli officials who had lobbied Trump’s transition team. In other words: While Flynn may now be “cooperating” with the Russia inquiry, his own guilty plea has nothing to do with allegations of collusion with Russia.
Ironically, one of the conversations that Flynn lied about was at the behest of the Israeli – not Russian – government: An unseemly fact that western media has eagerly glossed over.
Flynn’s plea was supposed to be the final (some might argue only) nail in Trump’s coffin. In reality, Mueller bagging Flynn for lying about asking the Russians to go easy on Israel – at the request of Tel Aviv – demonstrated just how flimsy the Russian collusion narrative truly was.
Mueller’s other big break came in the form of an indictment against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is slated to stand trial in July on charges of bank fraud dating back to 2005. The decade-old crime is completely unrelated to allegations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia during the 2016 election – a glaring fact that was not overlooked by the judge presiding over the case.
“I don’t see how this indictment has anything to do with anything the special prosecutor is authorized to investigate,” US District Judge T. S. Ellis III said on May 4 at a hearing on a motion by Manafort to dismiss the case.
“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” Ellis told four prosecutors working for Mueller during the hearing. “You really care about what information he might give you about Mr. Trump and what might lead to his impeachment or prosecution.”
Addressing the government’s lawyers, Ellis concluded: “This indictment didn’t arise from your [Russia] investigation.”
The hearing ended without a ruling, with Ellis giving the special counsel’s office two weeks to deliver an unredacted version of a Justice Department memo authorizing Mueller’s probe.
What comes next?
Mueller’s last remaining hope is to build a new case showing that Trump obstructed justice by firing then-FBI director James Comey, or by nailing him for making false statements to the investigators. Trump’s lawyers are currently in a standoff with Mueller’s team over whether the president will cooperate with a voluntary interview.
Rudy Giuliani, one of the recent additions to Trump’s legal team, put the chances of such an interview at “50/50.” While the length of Mueller’s investigation is far from unprecedented – for example, a Congressional investigation into the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi took 28 months – it’s hard to whitewash the fact that after 12 months, and dozens (likely hundreds) of Daily Beast bombshells, there has yet to be a single, solid link connecting the Russian government to Donald J. Trump.
The good news is that the prosecutors and FBI agents working around-the-clock on this case are well-fed. During lunch hour, they enjoy an eclectic offering from a “Mexican food truck, nearby pizza shop or the roving popcorn truck.” That’s an actual quote from an actual CNN article about the current status of Mueller’s probe. Anyway: Happy first birthday?