This week’s developments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election have given off more heat than light. The reactions to them have been as mixed as they have been impassioned.
Some say the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate, Richard Gates, along with the guilty plea of a former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, are ominous portents for the president.
Others argue that they are irrelevancies since the indictments were based on events and conduct that occurred years before the 2016 campaign and that the guilty plea concerned Mr. Papadopoulos’s having lied to the FBI about the nature and timing of his meetings with “foreign nationals whom he understood to have close connections with senior Russian officials” – but not any substantive coordination with the Russians.
Meanwhile, many suggest that what Mr. Mueller is doing is positioning himself to be able to pressure the indicted individuals to implicate higher-ups.
Be that as it may, it seems some mid-course correction by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller, is in order. He should clarify how far afield from the basic issue of Russian interference the special prosecutor may roam in the course of trying to prove his case. Can he pursue anything a potential witness ever did in order to soften him up to make him vulnerable and willing to testify?
This is underscored by the fact that in his order appointing the special prosecutor, Mr. Rosenstein stipulated that Mr. Mueller was authorized to investigate “any links/and or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Mr. Mueller is also “authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.”
Does this mandate include following up on the recent revelations of Democratic Party involvement in the production of the notorious Steele dossier on Mr. Trump which reportedly was prepared in concert with KGB officials? This is no small matter. In the Department of Justice press release announcing the appointment of Mr. Mueller, Mr. Rosenstein is quoted as saying that given the unique circumstances of the Russian influence investigation, “I determined that a Special Counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.”
In that regard, there is the question of what are to be deemed “federal crimes.” Nowhere in federal law is “collusion” listed as a crime. With all of the hype and discussion about pressuring witnesses to testify, it would be helpful to know what federal crimes Mr. Mueller is authorized to prosecute. To be sure, Mr. Papadopoulos’s admission of having lied to the FBI would qualify. But what else does?