The Mueller probe: What is it and how did we get here?

Washington, DC – US Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his Trump-Russia investigation on Friday and handed over his conclusion to Attorney General William Barr. 

Mueller has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. 

Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion and called the probe a “witch-hunt”. Russia has denied interfering in the election.

Over the course of the nearly two-year investigation, Mueller has brought charges against 34 people, including several individuals who were at some point an aide or adviser to Trump, and three companies. 

Here’s a detailed look at the Mueller investigation and how we got here:  

What is the Mueller investigation?

The Special Counsel Investigation, also known as the Mueller probe, is an official investigation by the US Department of Justice conducted under special regulations that provide for inquiries outside the normal chain of command.

Robert S Mueller III was appointed as special counsel in May 2017 to oversee the government’s investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election in favour of Trump. 

Mueller had been FBI Director from 2001 to 2013 and was working in private practice as a lawyer when asked by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to oversee the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference.

Mueller assembled an investigative team of 14 prosecutors, FBI agents and other lawyers who have been working out of a separate office from the Department of Justice. The main focus of the Mueller investigation is to determine whether Trump and his 2016 campaign team coordinated with Russia to influence the American election. Trump denies that any collusion took place.

Mueller’s team has taken testimony from dozens of witnesses, subpoenaed documents, and brought charges against 34 persons in federal courts in New York, Virginia and Washington, DC. In addition, Mueller has access to classified information collected by US spy agencies and other nations.

Related issues include whether President Trump has obstructed justice by attempting to interfere with the FBI’s investigation and whether the president violated US campaign finance laws by orchestrating hush payments to two former mistresses.

How did we get here?

In June and July of 2016, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were securing their party nominations for president, thousands of hacked emails and stolen documents of the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton campaign officials were published by WikiLeaks.

The emails appeared to show top Democrat Party officers had favoured Clinton over her challenger Bernie Sanders, creating a scandal within the party and prompting the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The FBI began an investigation of the hack. 

Trump seized on the email leaks as a campaign issue and tied them back to Clinton’s controversial use of a private email server while she had been secretary of state during former President Barack Obama’s first term.

Shortly after the emails were stolen and released, Trump, speaking to reporters, said, “Russia if you are listening I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

Months later, during an October 2016 presidential debate, Clinton accused Trump of being a “puppet” for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “You won’t admit that the Russians engaged in cyber-attacks against the United States and that you encouraged cyber-attacks against the people of our country,” Clinton said.

In weeks after the 2016 election, then-President Obama ordered an intelligence community investigation into Russian hacking. Obama followed up on a report by US intelligence agencies, in the waning days of his presidency, by expelling 35 Russian operatives from the US and imposing sanctions on the Russian intelligence service GRU.

Indeed, it would later emerge that DCLeaks had been a front for Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks was working in coordination with Russian hackers, according to court information filed by the Special Counsel.

What has Trump said?

Trump has called the investigation a “hoax” and a “witch-hunt”. He has denied there was any “collusion” with Russia. Trump has urged investigators to look more closely at Hillary Clinton and accused FBI investigators of bias. 

In January, Trump issued a blistering series of tweets attacking the FBI.

“Wow, just learned in the Failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!”

Trump has said decisions about a forthcoming report would be made by the new Attorney General William Barr.

“That will be up to the new Attorney General who is a tremendous man, who really respects this country, who really respects the Justice Department. So that will be totally up to him,” Trump said.

Earlier this week, Trump again criticised the report, but said he does not mind if the public is allowed to see the report that Special Counsel Robert Mueller

“Let it come out, let people see it,” Trump said. “Let’s see whether or not it’s legit,” he said.

In October 2018, Trump tweeted about charges brought against his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”

Trump frequently expressed frustration with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions who had recused himself from involvement in the Special Counsel investigation.

“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked someone else,” Trump said in an interview with the New York Times newspaper in July 2017.

Who has been charged with crimes?

Trump Associates

Roger Stone

Roger Stone is a flamboyant US political consultant who has worked for decades on Republican political campaigns. In the summer of 2016, Stone was in touch with senior Trump campaign officials and communicated with WikiLeaks about the timing and nature of hacked email releases, according to a January 24 indictment filed by Mueller. Stone is charged with lying to Congress, obstructing the House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry and witness tampering.

Stone has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in federal court in Washington, DC.

Roger Stone leaves the Federal Courthouse on January 25, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida [Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP]

Michael Cohen

From 2007 to 2017, Michael Cohen was Trump’s personal attorney and in-house counsel to Trump’s real estate company. In August 2018, Cohen reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in New York on charges of tax evasion and orchestrating payments to two women who had affairs with Trump.

Cohen has been sentenced to three years in jail but remains free while he is cooperating with the Mueller probe. Cohen has informed investigators about Trump’s continuing discussion of building a tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign, according to court documents.

Cohen paid $130,000, at Trump’s direction, to adult film star Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, in order to secure her silence about having sex with Trump. The president has denied having sex with Clifford. Cohen orchestrated a $150,000 payment to by the owner of the tabloid National Enquirer to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to prevent her from speaking about an affair with Trump. New York prosecutors construed the payments as illegal money contributions to Trump’s 2016 political campaign.

In December 2018, in an agreement with Mueller, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.

He is expected to begin his three-year prison sentence in May. 

Michael Cohen arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee [File: Mandel Ngan/AFP]

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort was Trump’s presidential campaign chairman from March to August 2016. He is a longtime Republican political consultant and a US lobbyist for leaders of other countries including the pro-Russia former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. He has been the target of two separate prosecutions in federal courts in Washington, DC, and Virginia.

Manafort participated in the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The group discussed Russian sanctions and a potential exchange of negative information on Hillary Clinton. Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016 after his work for Yanukovych became a focus of US media attention.

The FBI searched Manafort’s home in July 2017, seizing documents and other materials. In October 2017, Manafort was arrested and charged in federal court in Washington, DC, with money laundering, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, conspiracy and making false statements. He was further charged with witness tampering in June 2018.

A subsequent plea agreement in the case has been thrown into question after the judge found Manafort had lied to the FBI and Mueller about his Russian business associate Konstantin Kilimnik. Prosecutors say Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence.

Separately, Manafort was charged in February 2018 in federal court in Virginia with tax avoidance and bank fraud. After a trial, he was convicted on eight counts of financial fraud and currently awaits sentencing. 

Manafort has been sentenced to more than seven years in prison.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse for a hearing on June 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. [Mark Wilson/AFP]

Rick Gates

Rick Gates is Manafort’s former business partner in their lobbying firm. He was charged equally with Manafort of 12 counts of conspiracy, making false statements and money laundering in the October 2017 indictment. Gates agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one conspiracy charge and one false statement charge.

In this February 23, 2018 file photo, Rick Gates leaves federal court in Washington. [Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo]

Michael Flynn

A retired US Army officer and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn formed his own national security consultancy in 2014 working for private corporations and foreign governments. He joined the Trump campaign in 2016 as a top adviser on foreign policy. Flynn campaigned for Trump while at the same time working quietly for the Turkish government.

After Obama’s expulsion of Russian diplomats at the end of 2016, Flynn spoke with Russia’s US Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on behalf of the incoming Trump administration urging a moderated response from Moscow.

After taking office, Trump named Flynn to his White House team as national security adviser. Flynn lasted 24 days, the shortest tenure ever for anyone in that post. He resigned on February 13, 2017 amid reports of his contacts with Kislyak. He later stipulated in a plea agreement with Mueller that he had lied about those contacts in an FBI interview.

Flynn has been cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. His sentencing has been postponed.

Michael Flynn reacts at a campaign event for then Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Virginia Beach, Virginia, US. [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

George Papadopoulos

Papadopoulos was a Trump campaign operative who tried to organise meetings between Trump officials and representatives of the Russian government. He believed he was advancing Trump’s agenda of improving US relations with Russia. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and cooperated with investigators. He served 14 days in prison in late 2018.

Notably, Papadopoulos had drawn FBI attention during the summer of 2016 after an Australian diplomat in London recounted to US authorities a conversation with Papadopoulos. The encounter had taken place over drinks in a bar and Papadopoulos had mentioned Russia had political dirt on Clinton.

Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos with his wife Simona Mangiante seen leaving after his sentencing hearing at US District Court in Washington, US. [File: Yuri Gripas/Reuters]


GRU intelligence agents

In July 2018, Mueller filed a detailed 29-page indictment naming 12 Russian intelligence GRU officers alleging they hacked the Democrats and Clinton computers, stole emails, and staged releases of documents using fictional personas, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks. Putin and the Russian government have denied any involvement in the alleged hacks.

In the spring and summer of 2016, according to the indictment, the Russian hackers targeted more than 300 people working for Clinton and the Democrat Party, sending spear-phishing emails to steal passwords and gain access to computers.

The hackers installed malware on the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee. They then copied emails, opposition research, and

field operation plans. They used Bitcoin to fund the operation.

The indictment indicated potential coordination between the Russian hackers and a person connected to the Trump campaign, alleging the hackers communicated with “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J Trump.” Roger Stone said at the time he believed he was the unnamed person referenced by Mueller.

The indictment further revealed that on the same day as Trump’s press conference comments July 27, 2016, urging Russia to find Clinton’s lost emails, the Russians attempted to spear-phish Clinton’s personal email accounts.

Internet Research Agency (aka The Russian Troll Farm)

On February 16, 2018, in a 37-page indictment, the Special Counsel’s office brought charges against Yevgeniy Prigozhin, three companies he controlled and 12 other Russian nationals who allegedly engaged in sophisticated cyberattacks on the US political system beginning in 2014 and continuing through the 2016 election.

Prigozhin is a Russian businessman with ties to Putin, known colloquially as `Putin’s chef.’ The operatives posed online as Americans and sought to foment discord in swing states through social media.

A view of a Business centre, believed to be the location of the new “troll farm” in St Petersburg, Russia. [Mstyslav Chernov/AP Photo]

Konstantin Kilimnik

Kilimnik is a Russian-Ukrainian translator who worked for Manafort and Gates as head of a consulting office in Kiev doing political and public relations work for Yanukovych.

Kilimnik is a former GRU officer with continuing ties to Russian intelligence and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, according to court information.

Mueller charged Kiliminik and Manafort together with witness tampering in an attempt to cover up $75 million unreported funds Manafort held in offshore accounts, some of which was used to pay for pro-Yanukovych lobbying in the US and Europe. Kilimnik, Manafort and Gates remained in contact during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to court documents.

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