National Security

The Mueller investigation: What to watch for in 2019

The next year is promising to be a pivotal one for special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which closed 2018 with the sentencing of President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen and the surprise delay of Michael Flynn’s sentencing.  

In 2019, the public could see new charges unsealed in connection with the investigation.

Three major players await sentencing.

{mosads}And drama continues to build around Mueller’s ultimate report — and what it will say about any coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow and obstruction of justice.

Here are five things to watch for as Mueller’s investigation grinds forward.

The potential for new charges

More than three dozen have been charged in connection with the investigation, and Mueller could very well bring new charges in the coming year.

The special counsel has been interviewing associates of longtime Trump ally Roger Stone in an effort to determine whether he or others in Trump’s circle had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’s plans to release Democratic emails hacked by Russia.

Mueller recently inched forward in his inquiry into Stone, as the House Intelligence Committee voted to release an official transcript of Stone’s interview to the special counsel. Legal analysts say that the move may be a signal that Mueller is preparing charges against Stone.

“In order to prove a statement that you are alleging is perjury at a trial, you have to have a certified copy of that testimony,” said Joyce Vance, a University of Alabama law professor and former federal prosecutor.

The conclusion of the Stone inquiry could bring Mueller closer to resolving a central question: Was anyone on the Trump campaign privy to WikiLeaks’s plans, and if so, how high up the campaign’s ranks did that involvement go?

Stone insists his public statements forecasting the WikiLeaks releases were based on public information.

There are also signs that others, like Cohen, could be charged for lying to Congress. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) recently said he has made “quite a few referrals” to Mueller of cases where witnesses are suspected of lying in the course of the panel’s own Russia probe.

The sentences  

Three major players could see their sentences handed down this year, proceedings that carry the prospect of courtroom drama and fresh details about the course of the investigation.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, is expected to receive prison time in February for bank and tax fraud charges he was convicted on in Virginia, before he is sentenced in Washington, D.C., for two conspiracy charges the following month. 

Manafort has been a central figure in the probe since he was indicted on charges related to lobbying on behalf of pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine in October 2017.

Manafort, a witness to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between the campaign and Moscow, briefly became a cooperating witness in September but his plea deal fell apart last month, as Mueller accused him of lying to prosecutors about his contacts with the White House.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn could also be sentenced for lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador as soon as March, following a surprise delay in his sentencing.

Richard Gates, Manafort’s former business partner and former Trump campaign aide, continues to provide information in “several ongoing investigations,” according to a joint filing from Mueller and Gates’ defense team last month. Still, Mueller could move to begin his sentencing as soon as January, which would be a fresh sign the investigation is entering the late stages.

“The normal practice, of course, is that a prosecutor will hold off a sentencing until, say, a trial of another potential target because a prosecutor wants to keep that cooperator on the straight and narrow,” said Jack Sharman, a former special counsel to Congress for the Whitewater investigation.

“When you see cooperators … all moving toward sentencing, that’s normally a pretty strong signal that the prosecutors have no real use for them anymore and that they don’t anticipate, for example, needing their testimony at trial,” Sharman added.

Mueller could bring new cooperators into the fold by unveiling new charges, leaving the duration of an investigation that has stretched on for 19 months shrouded in mystery.

“I could also see the Mueller team having a whole lot of investigative terrain to cover,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C.

The president

The pinnacle question surrounding the investigation is what it ultimately reveals about the president: Was Trump involved in any effort to collude with the Russian government? Did the president try to obstruct the Russia investigation? Is he implicated in any criminal activity?

In addition to probing activities by the campaign, Mueller is looking into Trump’s business dealings to understand links between him and Russia. The special counsel suggested in a Dec. 7 filing related to Cohen’s case that prosecutors are investigating “certain discrete Russia related matters” connected to the Trump Organization.

Trump has repeatedly denied that his campaign colluded with Moscow to interfere in the election. Meanwhile, the president has increasingly castigated the investigation as an illegal “witch hunt” in search of a crime, contributing to growing speculation he could look to shut down the probe.

Trump has provided Mueller written answers to questions about collusion but resisted an in-person interview. His attorney Rudy Giuliani recently told “Fox News Sunday” it would only happen “over my dead body.”

Mueller could decide to subpoena Trump if he views the president’s testimony as essential, a move that would almost certainly trigger a legal battle that could rise all the way to the Supreme Court. 

The ‘Mueller report’

Mueller is expected to deliver a report to the Justice Department on his investigation when it is concluded, but there is no guarantee that the public will ever see it.

The report is supposed to be confidential and it will ultimately fall to the attorney general to decide whether releasing the report would be in the “public interest,” according to Justice Department guidelines.

Some have speculated that Matthew Whitaker, the current acting attorney general and a past critic of the Mueller probe, could move to suppress the report. Trump’s nominee to serve as attorney general, William Barr, has similarly attracted attention for casting Mueller’s obstruction of justice inquiry as “fatally misconceived.”

Still, there is certain to be vast public appetite for the report and House Democrats, wielding new subpoena and oversight powers, will be intent on viewing its contents.

Any public release will need to be scrubbed of sensitive and classified material. Mueller’s report is likely to draw on grand jury material as well as intelligence intercepts, information that experts expect would be redacted.

“I think some people believe or are assuming his office is going to do a document dump a la Ken Starr,” said Sharman. “If there is a report, I would expect it to be something circumscribed, something that might have a separate appendix of those materials that would go to the attorney general.”  

The other investigations

There are other cases and investigations that have connections to the Mueller probe that will be active in the coming year. Several of them have implications for the president.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan continue to probe Cohen’s payments to two women alleging affairs with Trump before the 2016 election that authorities say amount to campaign finance violations. Cohen has accused Trump of directing the payments.

The investigation into Cohen — culminating in his three-year prison sentence — began with a referral from Mueller that resulted in an FBI raid of his office and hotel room in April. The same raid triggered a separate criminal investigation in New York into whether Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the funds it raised from donations, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Flynn is expected to testify against Bijan Kian, his former business associate and a member of the Trump transition team, who has been indicted for illegally lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government. Kian’s trial is slated to begin in federal court in Alexandria, Va., in February.

There are potentially other unknown, related investigations. Mueller revealed earlier this month that Flynn has provided government prosecutors with information related to “several ongoing investigations,” including the core Russia probe, a criminal investigation — likely the Kian case — and at least one other unknown matter. 

Tags Donald Trump Michael Cohen Mueller investigation Paul Manafort Richard Burr Robert Mueller Roger Stone William Barr
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