Mueller assurance on Trump means less than it looks

Supporters of President Donald Trump are already claiming he is all but in the clear following revelations that he is...

Posted: Apr 5, 2018 10:26 AM
Updated: Apr 5, 2018 10:26 AM

Supporters of President Donald Trump are already claiming he is all but in the clear following revelations that he is not a target of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

The disclosure, which comes at a moment when Mueller's probe appears to be gathering pace and breadth, may help the White House breathe easier, but it actually falls well short of the vindication the President seeks, at least for now.

That's partly because few observers expected Mueller to make Trump a target of his criminal investigation owing to the legal uncertainty over whether a sitting president can be indicted.

CNN's Gloria Borger and Evan Perez reported Wednesday that even though the President is not the target of his inquiries, he is more than a witness in the investigation -- he's considered a "subject" of the probe.

According to the Justice Department's US Attorney manual, the "subject" of an investigation is someone whose conduct is within the scope of a grand jury investigation.

A "target" is considered to be someone on whom the prospector or the grand jury has substantial evidence to suggest a criminal offense has been committed.

In practice, Mueller could suspect Trump committed a crime or indulged in unethical behavior but needs to conduct further investigations. It is also possible that the special counsel never gets to the point that he makes such a determination.

'Meaningless'

South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, said on CNN's "New Day" on Wednesday that the terms used to describe Trump's current status in the case did not add up to much.

"As a former federal prosecutor, they are meaningless to me because one witness can take you from being a subject to a target," he said.

Of course, the fact that the President is the "subject" of a criminal probe into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in an election can be considered good news, is a commentary on the times and the grave legal and political story which has become the new normal in Washington.

The insight into where the President stands in the Mueller investigation comes as the special counsel appears to be moving ahead on multiple fronts, some of which appear to directly approach the Oval Office and the President's family. Mueller also currently seems to be piling pressure on Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager facing multiple financial charges, to agree to a plea deal. Should he do so, Manafort could potentially testify against other senior figures in Trump's orbit, such as his son Donald Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or even the President himself.

In another potentially significant development last week, Mueller's team stated in a court filing that Manafort's former business partner and campaign deputy Rick Gates, who is already cooperating, was in contact with someone who worked for a Russian intelligence agency including in September and October 2016, weeks before the presidential election.

New political opening for the White House

While the latest reports may not clarify the legal situation facing Trump much, they do offer an opening for fresh political spin on the investigation and for the White House to renew its insistence that there was no collusion between Trump and Russia.

"We have said many times before, there was no collusion between the President and Russia," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

Michael Ahrens, director of rapid response for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an email blast that the latest revelations show that "after all this time, Mueller and his entire team of lawyers have still not gathered enough evidence for Trump to become a target. That's huge news."

But in one worrying sign for Trump, The Washington Post first reported on Tuesday that Mueller was preparing a report on potential obstruction by the President, which would relate to the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Citing sources familiar with the matter, CNN's Borger and Perez established that Mueller had raised the prospect of an interim report and said the plan would be to eventually produce a narrow report focusing on obstruction. But the sources said there was no sign such a report was coming soon.

Still, confirmation that Mueller plans to report on the obstruction piece of his investigation is hardly a development that could set the President's mind at rest.

Silver lining

Some Trump supporters still see a silver lining and interpreted the latest developments as a sign that Mueller was getting towards the end of several branches of the investigation, that has been a constant cloud over the Trump presidency.

"I am feeling pretty good about it if I am in the Trump White House right now," said James Schultz, a former lawyer for the President, on CNN Tuesday.

The Post reported that Trump expressed relief when he learned how he had been categorized by Mueller's investigators.

Despite such upbeat assessments however, the latest glimpse into the Mueller probe is likely to intensify debate over Trump's repeatedly stated desire to testify, given his propensity for not always speaking the truth. Any testimony by the President could also point to new evidence that could eventually convince the special counsel to make Trump the target of the investigation.

"The easiest way to become a target is to lie to the prosecutor under oath," former federal prosecutor Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst.

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