The Mueller probe appears to be in the home stretch.
Some Trump aides and advisers have been making that claim for more than a year, with little basis. But the signs are mounting that it’s finally happening.
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Several came in what was an unusually busy week for Robert Mueller’s investigation into 2016 Russian election interference, with multiple clues that the special counsel’s work is finishing with a final report to the Justice Department.
On Wednesday, a federal judge handed a second prison sentence to Paul Manafort. That closed the door on Mueller’s prosecution of the former Trump campaign chairman, which will put Manafort in jail through the end of 2024 if President Donald Trump doesn’t pardon him or commute the sentence.
Meanwhile other clues emerged this week suggesting that Mueller’s probe is coming to an end. On Tuesday, the special counsel’s lawyers told a federal judge that they have all the information they need from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has been cooperating with Mueller’s team since he pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI.
Two key members of Mueller’s team are also moving on. The FBI confirmed a week ago Friday that its lead agent tasked to the special counsel’s team has been reassigned to lead the bureau’s Richmond field office. And a Mueller spokesman on Thursday issued a rare public statement confirming that one the office’s prosecutors, Andrew Weissmann, planned to finish his assignment “in the near future.”
“The signs I see are all pointing towards an investigation that is wrapping up,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who has worked with Weissmann on organized crime cases. “[We are] probably a few weeks or even a month or more away from the issuing of a final report, but certainly a fairly complete draft is already being circulated inside the Mueller team.”
Cotter said he’d be surprised if Weissmann were to leave before reviewing Mueller’s complete findings, making his departure a sign that the report — which Mueller must transmit to his Justice Department superiors — is nearly complete. “His knowledge, experience and skills are too great for Mueller not to use him as a leading author of such a report. And I do not believe he would leave if he thought major new veins of information and significant charges were still to come,” he added.
While Mueller and his Justice Department supervisors aren’t saying anything official about the conclusion of the special counsel’s work, Congress is getting ready for the big moment. The House this week in a unanimous 420-0 vote called on Attorney General William Barr to release in full the special counsel’s final report.
Even if Mueller’s investigation is all but complete, however, his prosecutions will continue for months. On Thursday, a judge set Nov. 5 as the opening date in the trial of former Trump political adviser Roger Stone on charges that he lied to Congress about efforts to contact Wikileaks during the 2016 campaign.
Here’s a recap of all the week’s major events in the Mueller probe:
Paul Manafort: The former Trump campaign chairman finally learned how long he’ll spend in federal prison — nearly 7.5 years — after U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Wednesday meted out the final portion of his sentence for a series of lobbying and obstruction crimes that were folded into Manafort’s guilty plea last fall.
Jackson agreed with U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, who sentenced Manafort earlier this month separately for his conviction in Virginia on financial fraud, that the longtime GOP operative can get credit for the nine months he’s already served at a pair of interim detention facilities since being jailed last June for witness tampering.
Manafort’s lawyers have asked that the rest of his sentence be served in Cumberland, Maryland, though that decision rests with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Federal prosecutors also have moved to begin seeking restitution from Manafort for about $24 million tied to his crimes, which involves forfeiting several of his New York properties, plus bank accounts and a life insurance policy. He also must pay a $50,000 fine.
Manafort still appears to be playing for a Trump pardon or commutation of his sentence. Outside the D.C. courthouse this week, Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing invoked a favorite presidential talking point: that Mueller had revealed no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, even though his client’s case never was about the topic. Mueller tried Manafort on charges related to his lucrative political work in Ukraine, which ended prior to the 2016 election.
But any help from Trump can’t protect Manafort from new charges he faces in New York, where the Manhattan district attorney obtained a 16-count grand jury indictment this week for residential mortgage fraud and other alleged state crimes. A presidential pardon cannot absolve a person convicted at the state level.
Roger Stone: The longtime Trump associate got an early November trial date for allegedly misleading lawmakers about his 2016 contacts with WikiLeaks, which released thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign aides. That means D.C. jurors will begin to hear his case just as the one-year countdown begins to the next presidential election.
Stone’s lawyers during a court hearing Thursday acknowledged receiving nine terabytes of material from the government in discovery, which they said stacks up “as high as the Washington Monument twice.” His lawyers also got an April 12 deadline to file any motions seeking to toss out the case, something they signaled plans to do in earlier filings which cited “selective or vindictive prosecution” and an “error in the grand jury proceeding.”
Mueller’s plans for trying Stone are unclear. Special counsel deputy Jeannie Rhee took the lead participating in Thursday’s hearing for the prosecution while the soon-to-depart Weissmann made an appearance in the courtroom, seated just inside the courtroom bar with other support staff. The government also has two assistant U.S. attorneys from D.C. who are widely seen as being ready for a hand off should the special counsel close up shop before November.
For his part, Stone blasted out a fundraising plea Thursday night featuring a picture of him, his wife and Trump. Stone said he needs money to defeat the special counsel’s charges and “be free to help the President’s re-election in 2020.”
Michael Flynn: The former Trump national security adviser continues to heed the advice of U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who in December urged Flynn to wait until he’d exhausted all cooperation demands before agreeing to be sentenced.
On Wednesday, Mueller’s prosecutors in a joint status report acknowledged Flynn could still be called to testify in the government’s upcoming trial against his former business partner, Bijan Rafiekian, on charges of failing to disclose foreign lobbying on behalf of Turkey. But the special counsel’s office also noted they view Flynn’s cooperation as “otherwise complete.”
In a separate court filing related to the Rafiekian case, defense attorneys revealed this week they’d seen FBI interview notes that suggest Flynn had helped prosecutors in several “ongoing investigations.” Government lawyers during a Friday hearing indicated some of those investigations involve Mueller’s office and some involve other prosecutors, though they didn’t delve into specifics.
Rick Gates: The former Trump campaign deputy is still cooperating with federal prosecutors in “several ongoing investigations” and isn’t ready to be sentenced yet.
That was the takeaway from a one-page joint status report filed in federal court in D.C., the fifth one of its kind since Gates pleaded guilty last February to financial fraud and lying to investigators.
It’s unclear whether Gates’s ongoing cooperation still involves the Mueller probe. But Friday’s filing suggests Gates may be helping federal prosecutors in New York who are investigating Trump’s inauguration committee, which he helped run alongside real estate developer and longtime Trump friend Tom Barrack. The committee is facing questions about the source of its donations and how it spent its record-level $107 million haul.
Another joint status report for Gates is due in court by May 14.
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.