Tuesday 22 October 2019

Mueller Unlikely to trouble White House - but the lawyers are still gunning for Trump

The US special counsel may have found insufficient evidence to bring charges over Russian collusion - but Donald Trump's legal troubles don't end there

LONG ROAD: US special counsel Robert Mueller. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
LONG ROAD: US special counsel Robert Mueller. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nick Allen

Donald Trump was huddling with his closest aides and lawyers at Mar-a-Lago this weekend as he braced for the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, which has hung like a sword of Damocles over his presidency.

As Trump took to the golf course, Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer, compared the wait to "having a baby" or preparing for a jury to return. He added: "If the report is good, I'll hand out cigars."

'The president was said by aides to be relieved the report had finally been completed.' Photo: Reuters
'The president was said by aides to be relieved the report had finally been completed.' Photo: Reuters

Last Friday, after 675 days, Mueller finished his exhaustive investigation into whether there was collusion between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

He delivered his report, in hard copy form, to Bill Barr, the attorney general, late on Friday, waiting until after the stock market had closed to avoid having an impact on it.

Barr said he would try to pass on the "principal conclusions" to Congress, and the public, this weekend. That was expected to include basic information on whether collusion was found, and if Trump had obstructed justice.

While he waited, Trump remained uncharacteristically silent on Twitter.

During a short speech at a weekend fundraising event at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida retreat, he also did not mention the report. Trump has not been given an advance copy.

The only finding immediately made public was that Mueller was not recommending any criminal charges in addition to those already brought.

That meant the president's son Donald Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner - both of whom attended a controversial meeting with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the campaign - would not be charged. Kushner had been interviewed at least twice by Mueller's team.

It is the policy of the US justice department that it cannot charge a sitting president with a crime. Therefore, it was still unclear whether the report would contain suggestions of criminal activity by the president.

However, supporters of the president were increasingly confident it would exonerate him, based partly on the fact that Trump was never interviewed by Mueller, answering questions only in writing.

Joe diGenova, a former legal adviser to Trump, added: "This is a grand slam for Trump. If Barr says he can brief Congress by this weekend, that means he has nothing."

Democrats demanded that the full report be published because it went "to the integrity of our democracy itself - whether foreign powers corruptly interfered in our elections, and whether unlawful means were used to hinder that investigation". They also threatened to subpoena Barr, and Mueller, to give evidence to Congress if the full report was not released. Such a move would be vigorously contested by the White House.

Barr was in his office early yesterday to read the report, described by one of his officials as "comprehensive". Mueller brought charges against 34 people, including Trump's former campaign chairman, his former national security adviser and his former personal lawyer.

Trump has repeatedly called it a "witch hunt". The president was said by aides to be relieved the report had finally been completed.

"This marks the end of the Russia investigation. We await a disclosure of the facts. We are confident there is no finding of collusion, that he did nothing wrong," added Giuliani.

However, even though Mueller has wrapped up his investigation into collusion between Trump and the Kremlin in the 2016 election, the US president still has to contend with state and federal investigators in New York.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are pursuing at least two known criminal inquiries involving Trump or people in his orbit - one involving his inaugural committee, and another focused on the hush-money scandal that led his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to plead guilty last year to campaign finance violations.

Trump also faces inquiries from New York's attorney general, Letitia James, who recently opened a civil inquiry into Cohen's claims that Trump exaggerated his wealth when seeking loans for real estate projects and a failed bid to buy the NFL's Buffalo Bills. Meanwhile, a state regulatory entity is looking into whether Trump gave false information to insurance companies.

Cohen told Congress in testimony last month that he is in "constant contact" with prosecutors involving ongoing investigations.

Trump has dismissed the New York investigations as being politically motivated.

"These investigations could pose a danger to everybody in Trump's inner circle," said Patrick J Cotter, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. "They are very real and very significant. If you're Trump, this has got to feel, in some ways, like an even greater threat than the Russia probe."

The US attorney's office in Manhattan declined to comment on the New York probes but has told a federal judge it is still investigating campaign-finance violations committed when Cohen helped orchestrate six-figure payments to a porn actress, Stormy Daniels, and a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, to keep them quiet during the campaign about alleged affairs with Trump. Cohen says Trump ordered the payments and later reimbursed him for his efforts. So far, nobody besides Cohen has been charged.

Trump says the payments to Daniels and McDougal were a private matter unrelated to his election campaign.

Political observers have continued to speculate that Cohen, who is scheduled to report to prison in May, might secretly be providing investigators with additional information.

"If you've got Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, as a tour guide, that means you could go anywhere," former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said recently.

Cohen stoked speculation when he told Congress that he was aware of other "wrongdoing" involving Trump but couldn't talk about it because it was "part of the investigation being looked at by the Southern District of New York".

Among other things, he suggested prosecutors were investigating communications he had with either Trump or one of his representatives in spring 2018 in the months after the FBI raided his home and office. At the time, Cohen was looking for information about whether Trump might consider giving him a pardon.

The president has denied breaking any laws and dismissed Cohen as a liar. He also derided the state investigations in New York as a "witch hunt".

Letitia James, New York's attorney general, also has a pending lawsuit alleging that Trump and his family illegally ran the Trump Foundation as an extension of his businesses and presidential campaign. And she has called for a "full examination" of a New York Times report accusing Trump's family of benefitting from "dubious tax schemes" in the 1990s.

The Trump Foundation has agreed to dissolve itself. However, its lawyers have argued that the lawsuit is flimsy and politically motivated.

Experts have said the president is unlikely to be criminally prosecuted over the tax matters, which are past the statute of limitations, but state officials could pursue Trump for millions of dollars in civil fines.



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