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Fast Five: Indictments Heat Up Russia Collusion Investigation

Gage Skidmore/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

President Donald Trump. New revelations from Mueller do not present a smoking gun between Trump and Russia collusion. Nevertheless, they show Mueller’s investigation is proceeding.

Back in March, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director and widely respected prosecutor, was appointed as a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. 

Since then, Mueller has steadily and, for the most part, secretly, pursued his investigation. 

This all changed Monday, Oct. 30 when Mueller publicly indicted President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, as well as publicly revealing a guilty plea by former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. 

New revelations from Mueller do not present a smoking gun between Trump and Russia collusion. Nevertheless, they show Mueller’s investigation is proceeding steadily. 

Here are the five major facts University of Arizona students need to know about the news-garnering indictments. 

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Manafort and Gates were indicted on charges of conspiracy and money laundering 

Mueller and his team indicted Manafort and Gates on 12 counts, including conspiracy against the U.S., conspiracy to launder money and unregistered agent of a foreign principal. 

The indictments claim that Manafort hid his lobbying work for Russian-linked Ukrainian political organizations and laundered millions of dollars overseas. 

In order to issue these indictments, Mueller had to have convinced Rosenstein and a grand jury there was ground to bring these charges according to David Marcus, professor in the James E. Rogers College of Law. 

Many of the charges filed against Manafort occurred before his work with the Trump campaign.

“The idea here is that Mueller can pursue charges against anyone for evidence that came out of his investigation meant to discharge the duty he was assigned,” Marcus said. 

On the other hand, Papadopolous was arrested in July and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. So far, he is cooperating with Mueller and is being recommended a reduced sentence. 

As a low to mid-level foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign, Papadopolous reportedly attempted to establish back channels between the campaign and Russian intelligence, who reported to him they had thousands of Clinton emails well before their release. 

“The indictments and the guilty plea that were unveiled contrast with each other quite interestingly,” Marcus said. 

Collusion has not been proved

These indictments do not represent a “smoking gun” proving the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

“You can tie these indictments together in a story of collusion but that is not an interpretation the documents compel,” Marcus said. 

Yet, according to Marcus, this was a show of force by the special counsel. Manafort is a high-profile political figure, and it shows Mueller has no qualms about going after high-profile individuals associated with Trump who have committed any crimes for which he uncovers evidence.  

“The Trump administration lawyers are very confident the facts will support the president,” said Toni Massaro, Regents’ Professor, Milton O. Riepe Chair in Constitutional Law and Dean Emerita.   

According to Massaro, however, the public does not know all the facts yet and should leave it to a grand jury to decide if the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

“We [the public] are not any closer than before to understanding the connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” Marcus said. 

In the end, regardless of public opinion, the ultimate gravity of the evidence regarding a Trump collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice will be determined by the U.S. House of Representatives.

“High crimes and misdemeanors [necessary for impeachment] are — as Gerald Ford famously said — ‘what the House concludes they are,’” Massaro said. 

Mueller cannot indict Trump 

“Mueller’s powers are very broad,” Marcus said.

Yet, would he would be able to indict Trump if he finds evidence of a crime, like in the case of Manafort or with evidence of collusion? 

“An indictment of a sitting president during his or her time in office may not be constitutional – though constitutional scholars have debated this,” Massaro said. 

Trump could, though, be named as an un-indicted co-conspirator, like President Richard Nixon, or prosecuted for crimes he committed while in office after he leaves office, according to Massaro. 

During the Clinton administration, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote a binding memorandum arguing that a sitting president cannot be indicted but rather only impeached by Congress. 

While Mueller cannot impeach Trump either, he could spark impeachment proceedings. 

In order to maintain Mueller’s independence, if Rosenstein denies a proposed indictment, Mueller is required by special counsel regulations to report his findings to Congress, so they can examine his finding themselves Marcus said. 

“It is conceivable if there were some appetite for impeachment, it would come from some special counsel report,” Marcus said.  

Trump cannot directly fire Mueller, but can impede him 

Trump cannot directly fire Mueller, but he could order Rosenstein to fire him. 

“There would need to be cause to fire Mueller, and the political fallout would likely be quite significant, with echoes of the “Saturday Night Massacre” of the Nixon years,” Massaro said.

There is an alternative route to impede Mueller’s investigation that does not involve firing him.

Trump could pardon Manafort, Gates and others, protecting them from criminal prosecution for federal crimes.  

“By pardoning them, Trump could eliminate any leverage that Mueller might have with them, to get them to flip and provide evidence against other people potentially under investigation,” Marcus said.

Regardless, Mueller is pushing forward with his investigation.

“Mueller is acting steadily, consistent with his charge, and with his reputation for thoroughness,” Massaro said. 

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Mueller’s indictment gives a window into his larger strategy

“Mueller’s strategy appears to be a sensible one of proceeding cautiously and incrementally, with maximum confidentiality regarding his investigation,” Massaro said.

His team kept the fact Papadopoulos was cooperating with the investigation a secret, allowing for maximum flexibility. 

Mueller appears to be pursuing a common prosecutor strategy: gain as much information from low-level actors in exchange for reduced sentences and use that information to pursue higher up members of an organization, according to Massaro. 

“When prosecutors are trying to get people to cooperate they can send signals, the signal here is if you cooperate with us, we are going to go easy on you. You will get off with a light sentence,” Marcus said. 

This dichotomy can be seen by contrasting Papadopoulos’ recommended light sentence for cooperation, with Manafort’s thorough indictment. 

“There are some people in Washington or New York who are scared right now and who are now coming forward [to] provide information he would have had trouble getting before,” Marcus said. 

More indictments are likely. 

Follow Randall Eck on Twitter

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