The Memo: Mueller probe grinds on, with no end in sight

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s lawyers insist that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into allegations of collusions with Russia is nearing an end. But legal experts, including Department of Justice (DOJ) veterans, firmly disagree.

“There are so many avenues yet to be fully explored that it is inconceivable that this investigation is coming to a close,” said Jimmy Gurulé, a former assistant attorney general at the DOJ. 

Gurulé, now a professor at Notre Dame Law School, cited the international scope of the investigation as well as the fact that prosecutors are still interviewing witnesses. Every new interview had the potential to produce fresh leads, he noted.

No one outside Mueller’s close-knit team can say for sure where the investigation is going or how long it may last — a dynamic that fuels rampant speculation.  

The idea the probe could be coming to a conclusion emanates largely from one of the president’s personal lawyers, Ty Cobb. 

In a Washington Post story published on Sunday, Cobb said that he did not believe various recent revelations would “unduly extend the inquiry.” He also said that, overall, “the issues were narrower” in Mueller’s probe than the media has suggested.

Efforts to contact Cobb for this column were unsuccessful, but other allies of the president sounded similar themes. 

“At some point, when you don’t find any smoking guns, you have to decide there are no smoking guns to find,” said Barry Bennett, who worked as a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.  

Bennett also pushed back against the idea that the inquiry was causing serious anxiety to members of the administration. 

“I don’t think anybody is much worried at all, because nobody believes anything happened,” he said. “So far, all we’ve seen is some uneducated behavior by some bit players.” 

To skeptics, that seems too rosy an interpretation.  

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, has been indicted on charges relating to money laundering and acting as an registered foreign agent; his associate Rick Gates was indicated on similar charges.

A former Trump campaign advisor, George Papadopoulos, is cooperating with investigators as part of a plea deal over charges of misleading the FBI.

And various reports indicate that at least nine people in Trump’s orbit had contact with Russians during the campaign or the transition period — a list that includes the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. 

Yet another revelation about the Mueller probe emerged on Tuesday evening, when The Wall Street Journal reported that investigators were looking into Kushner’s “interactions with foreign leaders during the presidential transition.”  

That report came less than a week after a letter from the Senate Intelligence Committee to Kushner’s attorney suggested the president’s son-in-law appeared to have “overlooked several documents” that he should have provided as part of the congressional probe. The missing emails reportedly included what lawmakers described as a "Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite."

Kushner's attorney pushed back on the letter and accused the committee of making their request a “media event.”

Still, it was just the latest in a line of politically embarrassing missteps by Kushner. For example, he initially failed to list on security clearance forms the names of more than 100 foreign officials he had met before formally joining the administration. 

Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama, noted, “It seems like every day we are barraged with so many new pieces of information. It’s fascinating how quickly the topic that everyone was focusing on fades as the next day’s two or three more pieces of information move forward.” 

Overall, Vance added, “It doesn’t look very much like an investigation that is winding down.”

Several people close to the president have already been interviewed by Mueller’s team. They include former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former press secretary Sean Spicer and Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser.

Other senior figures are being lined up to speak with prosecutors, according to reports, including White House communications director Hope Hicks, White House counsel Donald McGahn and Josh Raffel, a spokesman for Kushner.

Some Trump allies take those interviews as an optimistic sign, saying that investigations normally start with more ephemeral people and move toward the center.  

Bennett also cited the indictments against Manafort and Gates to make the argument that the probe could be in its closing stages. “Typically, by the time you get to indictments, you are much closer to the end than to the beginning.”

But previous predictions from Cobb, the Trump lawyer, have evinced a sense of confidence that has not been borne out. In an August interview with Reuters, the attorney said he would be “embarrassed if this is still haunting the White House by Thanksgiving.”

Some Washington insiders speculate that the promises that the probe is about to end have a target audience of one: the president who — so the theory goes — might be sufficiently mollified to avoid rash action, such as attempting to fire Mueller. 

Others suggest that predictions that the end is in sight are intended to shore up Trump’s supporters against the prospect of an investigation that could stretch deep into next year, potentially affecting the landscape on which next November’s midterm elections will be fought. 

“It will continue to cast a dark cloud of suspicion over the Trump administration for the foreseeable future,” Gurulé predicted. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.