Robert Mueller’s report may be just days away from release, but a pair of high-profile new cases surfacing in the past 24 hours signals that the arm of his Russia investigation is long indeed.
The latest developments: charges unsealed in Virginia against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the indictment of former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig.
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Though seemingly unrelated, the two cases, legal experts say, showcase how threads from the Mueller probe could continue to yield new evidence and even more charges for months, if not years, to come — tied to everything from Russian interference in the 2016 election to the hush-money payment scheme Donald Trump’s campaign designed to help sway the last White House race, from the fundraising for Trump’s 2017 inauguration to unregistered foreign lobbyists working in the U.S.
“The Mueller report was just the first step,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from Virginia. “What these recent events show me is that Robert Mueller has created an army of acolytes and those soldiers are now embedded in the Justice Department, Eastern District of Virginia, Southern District of New York and Washington D.C. These acolytes are trained, they’re hungry and they’re determined.”
At DOJ, Attorney General William Barr has come under fire from Democrats for releasing top-line findings tied to Mueller’s work that Trump has used to claim “total EXONERATION” even though the special counsel’s report said no such thing.
But Barr earlier this week also signaled DOJ is far from finished with work spinning out of the Mueller probe, explaining to lawmakers that his lawyers are working with the special counsel’s office to scrub information from his report so it doesn’t harm “a number of cases that are still being pursued.”
In the Assange case, British police on Thursday arrested the WikiLeaks founder at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London — a move made in response to a U.S. extradition request on charges of attempting to hack into classified material on U.S. government computers in 2010. The U.S. indictment was obtained by federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., in March 2018 and does not appear to have a direct connection to WikiLeaks’ role in publishing hacked Democratic emails central to the mandate of Mueller’s investigators.
But Assange’s delivery into the hands of the British authorities and in turn over to the U.S. “will reopen the Russian collusion affair,” said Philip Lacovara, a former counsel for the Watergate prosecution team.
Noting the pressure U.S. officials exerted on their British counterparts, Lacovara said, “DOJ evidently retains considerable interest in the information that he can supply. He knows where the hacked DNC emails came from, and he knows when and how the Trump campaign learned about this treasure trove of political dirt. He also knows whether the Trump campaign coordinated the timing of the leaks for political advantage. He is also likely to know whether anyone from the Trump campaign actively solicited additional hacking.”
Former Obama DOJ spokesman Matt Miller said Mueller, who submitted his final report to Barr on March 22, didn’t need to keep his Russia probe alive “just on the unlikely hope that Julian Assange would provide him something valuable.”
Still, Miller said he does expect other U.S. prosecutors will try to question Assange on the Russian hackings that upended the 2016 American presidential election. “But they probably assume he’s not likely to be cooperative, and if he is, they can bring a case through another office,” he said.
The extradition treaty between the U.S. and the United Kingdom contains a provision intended to prevent either country from obtaining extradition on one set of charges and then charging someone with something different. However, the extraditing country can waive that aspect of the treaty, which would complicate Assange’s efforts to fight extradition on those grounds, lawyers said.
Assange’s legal team is likely to fight his extradition by citing another aspect of the treaty — a ban on forcibly transferring people to face charges on “political offenses.” The charge Assange was indicted on is conspiracy to commit hacking, but his alleged co-conspirator — former Army soldier Chelsea Manning — was convicted by a military court-martial of six Espionage Act offenses of releasing classified information during the same hacking spree.
Since espionage is a classic political offense under extradition law, legal experts expect Assange’s defense to argue that the case against him is fundamentally “political” and ineligible for extradition.
As for Craig, the former White House counsel was charged Thursday by a federal grand jury with making false statements and concealing material information about his work in private practice lobbying on behalf of the Ukrainian government.
The two-count indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. says Craig, 74, purposefully and repeatedly misled federal investigators about his need to register as a foreign lobbyist, including in 2017 when interviewed by prosecutors for the special counsel’s office.
The charges against Craig are tied to work he did preparing a report for the Ukrainian government that was intended to be used by Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who was lobbying for then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
In interviews before the indictment was made public, Craig’s lawyers disputed the notion that his work qualified as foreign lobbying while also accusing the government of launching a “misguided abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”
DOJ has been signaling for months its plan to pursue more foreign lobbying investigations under a new team led by Brandon Van Grack, a former Mueller prosecutor who worked on the special counsel’s case against Manafort that netted a 7½-year prison sentence for the globetrotting GOP consultant.
As Mueller prepares to leave the government payroll, his name will be coming up again and again in other venues, too. For starters, federal prosecutors last month said that the grand jury the special counsel used to investigate Russian collusion is “continuing robustly” even though the Russia probe is over.
Prosecutors in New York also continue to examine hush-money payments involving Trump’s 2016 campaign, which The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week included interviews last year with two close associates of the president: former White House communications director and former Trump organization spokeswoman Hope Hicks and Keith Schiller, Trump’s longtime private security director.
Roger Stone, another longtime Trump associate, remains on track to go on trial in early November for lying to Congress and intimidating another witness in the Russia probe who was in contact with Assange in 2016. The charges against Stone were brought by the special counsel and have since been handed off to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington D.C., though four of Mueller’s prosecutors remain listed on the docket.
Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI, is expected to testify later this summer in a case brought by federal prosecutors in Virginia charging one of his former business partners with failing to register as a foreign lobbyist for Turkey. Flynn’s lawyers heeded a federal judge’s suggestion last December that they postpone sentencing for their client until his cooperation with the government had concluded.
Another Mueller cooperator, Rick Gates, also is still in limbo about his fate. Attorneys for both Gates and Mueller told a federal judge in mid-March that the former Trump campaign deputy and ex-Manafort associate was still cooperating in “several ongoing investigations” and wasn’t ready to be sentenced yet.
Federal prosecutors earlier this week also filed a sentencing memo in their case against Samuel Patten, praising the 47-year old lobbyist and former Manafort associate for his service as a “valuable resource” who met or spoke by phone nine times with Mueller’s team and other government investigators as part of his cooperation agreement after pleading guilty last summer for failing to register as a foreign lobbyist.
The Patten sentencing memo held back in describing what exactly he’d helped on, explaining that the government would file that material under seal because it “includes sensitive information about other investigations and persons who have not been (and may not be) charged with a crime.” In his guilty plea, Patten admitted to paying $50,000 for a pro-Russian oligarch to attend Trump’s inauguration.
The president is likely to face repeated and awkward questions about the Mueller probe even though the investigation itself has been deemed complete. During the 2016 White House race, for example, Trump repeatedly praised WikiLeaks for revealing embarrassing correspondence from his rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. On Thursday at the White House, the president distanced himself from the group when reporters asked him about its founder facing charges from the U.S. government.
“I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing,” the president replied.
The full extent of cases with Mueller’s fingerprints on them also remains unclear. In a March 24 letter to Congress, Barr said the special counsel referred “several matters to other offices for further action” while adding that the special counsel had no more new indictments of his own or sealed prosecutions hiding in the federal court system.
In his testimony Tuesday before a House Appropriations subcommittee, Barr noted the DOJ review of the Mueller report is aimed at those other cases and ensuring information doesn’t get out that “would impinge upon either the ability of the prosecutors to prosecute the cases or the fairness to the defendants.”
Several former DOJ veterans said the still-lingering Mueller cases and their offshoots collectively show that the Russia probe is far from over — even if Barr publicly said it was last month.
“The ongoing activity appears to indicate that Mueller didn’t simply drop the mic and walk away without ensuring that mechanisms are in place to run out the tentacles of his investigation,” said Randall Samborn, a former senior Justice Department aide on the George W. Bush-era investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Samborn noted that DOJ first confirmed a criminal investigation of WikiLeaks in 2010, while Mueller was FBI director, and said that Assange’s arrest in London “illustrates the adage that ‘you can run, but you can’t hide.’”
“The arc of federal investigations and prosecutions sometimes seems to stretch endlessly and often extends beyond the tenure of individual agents and prosecutors,” Samborn said, “so it should not be surprising to see activity ripple from Mueller’s exhaustive investigation.”
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.