Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election is entering a new phase, with a newly cooperating star witness and hints that he may be pursuing a more serious case against President Donald Trump.
Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to FBI agents, becoming the fourth associate of the president ensnared by Mueller’s probe. More significantly, he also is providing details to Mueller about the Trump campaign’s approach to Flynn’s controversial meeting with a Russian envoy during the presidential transition.
While Trump and his lawyers say Flynn doesn’t have any information or evidence damaging to the president, prosecutions are wildly unpredictable and the deal Flynn cut with Mueller is "clearly significant," said Jack Sharman, who served as special counsel to a congressional probe of President Bill Clinton in 1995.
“This is a highly experienced, highly aggressive and professional group of prosecutors who are going to be able to build a case or cases against individuals without regard to where those individuals reside within or outside of the White House,” Sharman said. "The question will be what is the exposure or significance of those to the president."
Flynn pleaded guilty to a relatively minor offense to avoid being charged with more serious crimes, and Mueller’s team now controls the terms of the cooperation agreement, Sharman said.
'PIG IN A POKE'
Mueller’s team of more than two dozen prosecutors and FBI agents "wouldn’t have bought a pig in a poke," Sharman said in a phone interview.
"They would know pretty much what he’s likely to testify about already,” he said.
Trump went on the offensive over the weekend by attacking the FBI, Mueller’s team and defending some of Flynn’s actions on Twitter. In particular, Trump hailed the news that one of Mueller’s aides had been removed from his job over the summer for some anti-Trump text messages.
On Monday, as he left the White House for a trip to Utah, Trump restated his sympathy for Flynn and his assertion that prosecutors should have pursued action against his general election rival Hillary Clinton.
“I feel badly for General Flynn,” Trump told reporters. “Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI -- nothing happened to her,” he said. “Flynn lied and they destroyed his life.”
Mueller’s team has been interviewing White House aides in recent weeks, including former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former spokesman Sean Spicer and National Security Council chief of staff Keith Kellogg, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The president’s triumphal tweeting spree may have inadvertently opened up yet another thread in an investigation that already had multiple strands.
'NOTHING TO HIDE'
"I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies." He added, "It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"
The tweet appeared to contradict earlier remarks from Trump that said Flynn was fired only because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his meeting with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, told ABC News that he was responsible for the tweet, but it still raised doubts about whether Trump’s account was shifting. It also revived questions about possible obstruction of justice, which first surfaced after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who told Congress that the president had said he hoped Comey could let go of the FBI’s investigation of Flynn.
"Obstruction of justice in the Oval Office unfolding before our eyes in real time - as Trump seemingly admits to covering up Flynn’s lies to FBI about Russian contacts," tweeted Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Saturday.
Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” added, “What we’re beginning to see is the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice.”
Mueller digs in on expanding Russia probe as Trump attacks FBI
Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C., said the tweet could be potentially damaging. "It was a very serious admission to suggest that Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI in February before he fired Flynn. Dowd’s apology for the ‘sloppy’ tweet will obviously negate some of that damage but it will likely be raised by investigators."
More broadly, Mueller’s exact path to more significant charges remains unclear, but there are some tantalizing clues. Flynn’s statement to the court as part of his plea deal refers to a "very senior" transition figure as having directed him to reach out to Russia and other countries. That figure is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Even so, the charges contained earlier in indictments obtained by Mueller against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and political consultant Rick Gates "are comfortably removed from the Trump campaign and Trump White House," Turley said.
"Thus far, the focus has been on collateral crimes or false statements. That is not a clear foundation for a prosecution based on some form of criminal conspiracy with Russia," he added.
In the days following Flynn’s plea, Trump mounted a broader attack on the FBI and the Justice Department. In particular, he seized on a revelation that Mueller removed a lead FBI agent from his team in July because the agent had sent disparaging texts about Trump.
On Sunday, he tweeted, "Report: ‘ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE’ Now it all starts to make sense!"
Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, confirmed in an email that the agent, Peter Strzok, was removed immediately when Mueller learned of the allegations.
It isn’t unusual for those under investigation to try to discredit the prosecution, Sharman said. But it’s usually done by the lawyers. In this case, Trump is launching the attacks himself, and his tweets could come back to haunt him, Sharman said.
“The risk it raises is when you have a client making statements, those statements can turn out to be inaccurate or even false," Sharman said. "If they are, then he’s brought additional trouble on himself. That’s why most lawyers counsel their clients to minimize the public statements they’re making.”
Trump’s attacks fit into a larger effort by some Republicans to cast doubt on the investigators.
House Republicans are drafting a contempt of Congress resolution against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, claiming they are stonewalling in producing material related to the Russia-Trump probes and other matters.
Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and other committee Republicans, after considering such action for several weeks, decided to move after the report of Strzok’s removal.
In his statement Saturday, Nunes pointed to the reports that Strzok was removed after allegedly having exchanged anti-Trump and pro-Hillary Clinton text messages with his mistress, who was an FBI lawyer working for Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
“By hiding from Congress, and from the American people, documented political bias by a key FBI head investigator for both the Russia collusion probe and the Clinton email investigation, the FBI and DOJ engaged in a willful attempt to thwart Congress’ constitutional oversight responsibility,” he said.
Strzok has been cleared by the Justice Department to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in response to its request, according to department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores.
TRUMP JR., WRAY, ROSENSTEIN
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., is scheduled for a closed-door meeting on Wednesday with the House Intelligence Committee. Wray is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 7, and Rosenstein is set to testify before that panel on Dec. 13.
Nunes, in the statement, said the committee will move on a resolution by the end of the month unless its demands are “fully met” by the close of business Dec. 4.
Nunes has faced criticism of his own handling of classified material, reportedly obtained from White House officials, that he said showed officials of former President Barack Obama’s administration “unmasked” the identities of people close to Trump who were mentioned in legal surveillance of foreign individuals. He was forced to step back from running the panel’s Russia probe, but remains involved in committee business.