We have long been at a loss to understand why the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, assigned to pursue whether there was any collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign, has, for two years, persisted in indicting only individuals who were charged with personal economic crimes before the campaign or for lying to investigators – a felony – after the election.
To be sure, prosecutors often reach for “low hanging fruit,” that is, flip someone of lesser involvement in order to get evidence against someone higher up in a suspected scheme. But that process ordinarily involves charging the lower level person with at least some involvement with the supposed crime itself to establish that a crime was committed at all. And here, no one has been charged with participating in any collusion. Hence our continuing skepticism about the Mueller investigation. So we found intriguing a report in Sunday’s New York Times that could end up explaining the unusual length and sparse results both now and at the end of the probe, if that should be the final result.
According to the Times:
Comments by one of Mueller’s lead prosecutors, disclosed in a transcript of a closed-door hearing, suggest that the special counsel continues to pursue [the]…theory…that starting while Russia was taking steps to bolster Mr. Trump’s candidacy, people in his orbit were discussing deals to end a dispute over Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and possibly give Moscow relief from economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.
The Times went on to say,
The theory was offered almost as an aside by the prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, during a discussion of contacts between Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and a longtime Russian associate, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, whom investigators have linked to Russian intelligence.
A closer look at the transcript…shows that the prosecutors have been keenly focused on discussions the two men had about a plan to end the conflict that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Persuading the United States to ease or end the American-led sanctions imposed to punish Moscow for its aggression has been a primary goal of Russian foreign policy.
So, if the special counsel were interested in a Manafort/Kilimnik connection, it makes sense that peripheral people like Gen. Michael Flynn and George Papadopolus would be thoroughly investigated and that their post-election misstatements about when certain meetings took place could be material to a charge of collusion. This, of course, does not prove that Manafort and Kilimnik illegally “colluded” – that there was any talk of a quid pro quo between the two. We don’t know, but there might have been. Indeed, though The Times refers to all of this as but a “theory,” it is one that Mueller properly had to follow.
But while we pray that Mueller has throughout followed his best lights, we still have gnawing questions. Why has it taken as long as it has to test the prosecutor’s “theory” about what happened? Why hasn’t anyone yet been linked to a crime of conspiring with the Russians to help them in return for helping the Trump campaign, or vice versa? Is there anyone other than Manafort and Kilimnik with knowledge of what went on? Wouldn’t they have already been identified?
Of course, the Weissmann comment could also just be a cynical plant and the prelude to an admission by the special prosecutor that he has found nothing of substance and now seeks only to excuse his failure by underscoring leads he claims he had to pursue and eliminate these many months. We hope not.
All indications are that Mueller will soon, finally, clue all of us in. And the unseemly rush of members of the House of Representatives to mount investigations of President Trump strongly suggests that, at least they believe, that Mueller is not expected to come up with anything of significance.