Curt Johnson / Flickr What Donald Trump revealed with Mueller...
Curt Johnson / Flickr

On Tuesday, the Washington Post revealed some direct communication between Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Donald Trump’s legal team.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III informed President Trump’s attorneys last month that he is continuing to investigate the president but does not consider him a criminal target at this point, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

Trump has stated for months that he is not the subject of investigation. He can no longer make that claim. But of course, Trump and his legion of surrogates will simply shift the statement to “not a target” and act as if what Mueller said in some way confirms Trump’s statements. It doesn’t. And Trump should not take anything from this statement except this: Be afraid.

For Trump to be a “criminal target” would mean that Mueller’s team was moving forward on plans to indict Trump. That’s not in the works. And, no matter what evidence is produced, it’s unlikely that Trump will ever be a criminal target. Because the guidelines for the Department of Justice state that investigators should not indict a sitting president. Instead, any prosecutor should prepare a statement documenting evidence of criminal wrongdoing to be presented to the House of Representatives. The House can then determine if the statement constitutes sufficient evidence to begin impeachment proceedings. And that’s exactly what Mueller is doing.

The special counsel also told Trump’s lawyers that he is preparing a report about the president’s actions while in office and potential obstruction of justice, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations.

The information over the last two weeks has made it extremely clear: Mueller is very carefully crossing every “T” and dotting every “I.” Because Donald Trump is at the heart of his investigation.

Information revealed concerning Mueller’s investigation last week showed that the core focus of the investigation remains just where it was at the outset—on collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and on the related obstruction and cover-up. That was nowhere more clear than in connection to Mueller’s deal with deputy campaign manager Rick Gates.

They told him they didn’t need his cooperation against Manafort, according to a person familiar with the investigation, and instead wanted to hear what he knew about contact between the Trump campaign and Russians.

It was also none too subtly pressed by Mueller’s team when they released a memo between Mueller and Rod Rosenstein in connection with a reply to Paul Manafort’s request for dismissal of charges.

First three pages memo
Just the area in the red box relates to Manafort

The letter was released ostensibly to show that Rosenstein had specifically extended to Mueller authority to investigate Paul Manafort’s actions in the Ukraine as well as his connections to Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign. But what that letter also forcefully demonstrated was that Mueller has turned up sufficient evidence to seek specific authority to look into many things other than just Manafort’s action. The inclusion of this letter is similar to the highly detailed information that was attached to the indictment of George Papadopoulos, in which Mueller was clearly sending a message that he had knowledge about connections that those on the inside might have thought had escaped detection.

Contrast those documents with the small amount of information attached to the current indictment against Rick Gates or Michael Flynn—instances where Mueller is still holding parts of his hand close to his vest. We have essentially no knowledge of what Flynn has told Mueller on any subject, though we know his deal includes cooperating with the investigation. And we don’t know what Gates told Mueller concerning collusion with Russia, just that this was the purpose of his deal.

Mueller also sent a clear signal this week that he was not done indicting people for making false statements. In the sentencing of Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan, Mueller made a forceful statement in favor of including jail time in the sentencing, and not just letting van der Zwaan go with a fine or probation. That wasn’t done because Mueller is concerned about the sentences for Gates, Papadopoulos, or Flynn—the special counsel has already made a deal with them. In seeing that van der Zwaan spent at least a few days dressed in orange, Mueller was sending a signal to those members of Trump’s campaign and transition staff that he still expects to confront over their lies.

There is nothing—nothing—about the events of the last few weeks that should give Trump any comfort. What Mueller has told him, both directly and indirectly, is that he remains at the center of the investigation, and the investigation continues to be deeply connected to what Trump knew, and how he used that information.

Mueller reiterated the need to interview Trump — both to understand whether he had any corrupt intent to thwart the Russia investigation and to complete this portion of his probe, the people said.

Donald Trump may not currently be the target of a criminal investigation. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t the subject of the investigation or that Mueller isn’t looking into criminal activity. Because he is.
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