Today’s guilty plea by Rick Gates might be one of the least surprising developments in the Mueller investigation: It had been clear that the former Trump campaign aide would likely seek a deal almost since the day Gates and his business partner and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort were indicted in October, and we’ve seen reports for weeks that negotiations between Mueller and Gates have been underway.
The move does, though, apply new pressure to Manafort, who will now face in court not just the bank records that originally led to his indictment but also testimony from his former close associate and accomplice in the money-laundering scheme that allegedly involved upward of $60 million. When it comes to Manafort, Gates—who was also a Trump campaign and transition official—knows where the bodies are buried.
That only became more obvious on Thursday, when the special counsel unveiled a new set of charges against Manafort and Gates, a so-called superseding indictment that added more specifics to the money-laundering and bank fraud case brought against them in October. Coupled with the Gates plea, it’s clear that Manafort’s legal problems are likely to get much worse.
Indeed, Mueller's probe is accelerating. Yesterday's new indictment—together with Tuesday’s guilty plea by Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer associated with Gates, Manafort, and Ukraine; last Friday's bombshell indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian entities; and now the Gates plea—underscores that Mueller is applying the full strength of the US government’s resources to follow every thread of the investigation. His indictments have astounded Washington with their level of specificity and detail, delivering a litany of facts that he’s confident he can prove in court beyond a reasonable doubt. His hammering of the Dutch lawyer for lying to investigators continues his consistent message that the special counsel’s office will treat seriously anyone who stands in their way.
But almost as intriguing are the threads that Mueller has left hanging, the questions that go unanswered in otherwise highly specific court documents—like the identity of “Person A” in the charges filed against van der Zwaan Tuesday, a veiled reference to someone else involved in the Gates/Manafort/Ukraine milieu who might now face legal jeopardy in the investigation.
Mueller clearly knows where this investigation is going and is methodically building it brick by brick: His first wave of charges, against Manafort, Gates, and George Papadopoulos, established that the Trump campaign had been lying about its contacts with Russians; his second wave—the guilty plea by Michael Flynn—established that those lies extended to figures inside the White House; his third wave of charges, against the Internet Research Agency, establishes that there was a criminal conspiracy to help Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton. Any Americans who knowingly participating in that conspiracy will also, presumably, be vulnerable to prosecution.
None of the rest of us knows where this investigation is heading, not even the targets of the investigation. Three times now Mueller—in the most watched investigation in history—has charged and gotten guilty pleas from people who weren’t even on our radar: Papadopoulos and Richard Pinedo, a Californian who pleaded guilty last Friday to unwittingly aiding the Russians with identity theft, as well as the Dutch lawyer who pleaded guilty earlier this week.
Last summer, I outlined 15 “known unknowns” in the Trump/Russia investigation, unanswered but knowable threads that Mueller’s team could be expected to pull on. The answers to many of those questions are still not public. Yes, we’ve received significant new information about how Dutch intelligence tipped off the US to Russia’s hacking efforts. But we’ve still not seen charges concerning active cyber intrusions—most notably, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and the stealing of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails—one of at least five related probes Mueller is leading right now.
Now, though, months of investigation—including five guilty pleas and the remaining open indictments of Paul Manafort and the 13 Russians involved in the Internet Research Agency—has provided a whole new set of “known unknowns” (a dozen of them, to be exact). Be on the lookout for some of these to become “known knowns” before long.
1. What can Paul Manafort offer Bob Mueller?
The former Trump campaign chairman is 68 years old, so even the two indictments he currently faces could result in a life sentence if he ends up heading to prison—and that’s before Gates’ testimony and any additional charges Mueller might bring. If he decides to cooperate, what can he offer Mueller, particularly on the Trump Tower meeting with Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and Russian nationals, where Manafort evidently took copious notes? And then there’s another question, one of the most intriguing since Manafort took his unpaid role as the Trump campaign chair: Why did he get involved in the campaign in the first place? He appears to have had no shortage of reasons to stay off the radar of US authorities, so why did he put himself in such a high-profile position? Now that Gates has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, who else knew about the conspiracy? Mueller has broad latitude to bring charges against anyone else who knew or abetted that conspiracy.
2. What did George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn trade?
This is perhaps the most significant open question to close watchers of the investigation. Both Papadopoulos and Flynn received plea deals in exchange for their cooperation with Mueller’s investigation; Papadopoulos’ guilty plea even included language typically reserved for a witness who has provided active cooperation, like wearing a wire to record conversations with co-conspirators. Presumably, in both cases Mueller was willing to trade because their information was central to his ongoing investigation, but we have yet to see evidence become public that appears to be linked to the cooperation of either Flynn or Papadopoulos—so when will those shoes drop and who did they help Mueller target?
3. How did George Papadopoulos know in May 2016 that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton?
We now understand that the Russia investigation began, in part, because of drunken boasting by Papadopoulos to an Australian official, in a London bar in May 2016, that the Russians had dirt on Hillary. The Australian government passed that information to US intelligence after the DNC email hack became public. So how did Papadopoulos know—and who else did he tell inside the Trump campaign if and when he did learn about the dirt?
4. What was in the Trump transition documents that so worried witnesses?
We’ve seen some legal scuffling and pearl-clutching over the fact that Mueller has obtained records, including emails, from the Trump presidential transition team. According to Axios, the White House only learned Mueller had the emails when they were used as the basis for questions to witnesses. How were the records relevant to Mueller’s investigation? There was news Monday, from CNN, that Mueller’s interest in Jared Kushner has expanded to include some of his attempts to garner business funding during the transition. This scoop is of a piece with recent reporting by The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker that has pointed to potential security and counterintelligence challenges Kushner may face. Does Kushner have a China problem, in addition to—or instead of—a Russia problem?
5. What happens to Tony Podesta and Vin Weber?
Amid the hubbub surrounding Manafort’s indictment, one of Washington’s longest-reigning power players, Tony Podesta (John Podesta’s brother), abruptly announced his retirement and, effectively, the dissolution of his firm. Rumors have run rampant since then that Podesta and another DC “superlobbyist,” former congressman Vin Weber, face legal jeopardy themselves related to their role in Manafort’s dealings with Ukraine—though they’ve both publicly denied wrongdoing. This may be largely unrelated to the core of Mueller’s probe, but the uncertainty is a sign of a creeping paralysis that is infecting parts of Washington as Mueller churns onward. In Watergate, 69 people ended up being charged and 48 pleaded guilty or were found guilty at trial. Mueller has already brought charges against 19.
6. Who is the third unnamed “traveler” in the last Friday's Mueller indictment?
According to the indictment of the 13 Russians last week, an unnamed and unindicted employee of the IRA traveled to Atlanta for four days in November 2014. The employee appears to be part of the IRA’s IT department, since he or she reported on the trip afterward and filed expenses with the IT director, Sergey P. Polozov, whose job it was to procure servers and other technical infrastructure inside the US to help mask the origins of the IRA’s activity. Mueller’s team surely knows the individual’s name—why didn’t they include it in the indictment and why wasn’t that person indicted at the same time? There are a lot of internal documents, communications, and specific directives cited in the indictment. Does Mueller have another nonpublic cooperator—and, if so, what else has he or she provided to Mueller?
7. Is it a coincidence that the IRA organized a “Down with Hillary” rally in New York for the same day that Wikileaks dumped the DNC emails?
As more evidence emerges through Mueller’s indictments, there are new timelines to trace. The Russian “specialists” at the IRA appear to have devoted significant effort to promoting a “Down with Hillary” rally in New York that was scheduled—weeks in advance—for the same day that Wikileaks dumped tens of thousands of emails stolen from the DNC. How much did the IRA know about and align with the efforts of other Russian entities, like the hacking teams Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear that targeted the DNC, the DCCC, and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta?
8. Which, if any, Americans cooperated with the Russian efforts?
This question goes to the political heart of Mueller’s inquiry. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made a rare public statement last Friday to announce the charges against the Internet Research Agency; he pointedly noted that no Americans were wittingly involved in the matter “in this indictment,” which President Trump wrongly seized upon as vindication (“Case Closed,” he tweeted), but most observers interpreted the statement as an artful way of saying that there might be cooperation alleged in a future indictment.
For instance, there were three unnamed Trump campaign staff mentioned in the indictment, officials who were approached by IRA specialists. Notably absent from the indictment’s otherwise high level of detail is whether there were replies to those overtures. The new indictment also talks about the IRA’s decision to promote Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who appeared at the same December 2015 dinner in Moscow with Vladimir Putin that Gen. Michael Flynn attended. Is there any link between her attendance and the IRA’s decision to promote her candidacy? Similarly, there are plenty of unanswered questions about the Trump campaign’s repeated contacts with Russian officials and Russian nationals—and their repeated lies about such contacts when asked about them.
9. What was the ongoing evidence of Carter Page’s cooperation with Russian agents?
The widely derided “nothingburger” of the so-called Nunes Memo did establish one intriguing piece of evidence: The 90-day FISA warrant to surveil one-time campaign adviser Page was renewed three times, by three different deputy attorneys general: Sally Yates, Dana Boente, and Rod Rosenstein. Each time, in order for it to have been renewed, there would have needed to be new evidence that Page was still involved in foreign intelligence matters. What exactly was that evidence—and who was Carter Page talking to, well into 2017?
10. How big is “Project Lakhta”?
Mueller’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency refers obliquely to the IRA as part of a “larger… interference operation” funded by the oligarch Yevgeny V. Prigozhin that was known as Project Lakhta. The indictment says, “Project Lahkta had multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.” Is this a bread crumb pointing toward future indictments or other investigative avenues? Did Project Lakhta also involve other “active measures” conducted by other entities, like perhaps some of the active cyber intrusions we saw conducted by the Russian government’s hacking teams known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear?
11. Who directed Michael Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak—and why did he lie about them?
The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency was once one of the most respected intelligence officers of his generation, but he lied to the FBI just days into his 24-day term as the White House’s national security adviser. Why? The lies focused on his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition, specifically in regard to the Obama administration’s announcement of sanctions against Russia for their election interference as well as a UN resolution about Israel. He told Mueller’s team that the conversations were directed by a senior official—KT McFarland saw her nomination to be ambassador to Singapore scuttled over the conversations—but why, if it was an appropriate, authorized conversation, did he choose to lie to the FBI about it?
12. Why did the Russian embassy need $150,000 in cash?
One of the most intriguing threads of the Mueller investigation is a series of money transfers and payments that were flagged as atypical and suspicious by the Russian Embassy’s US bank, Citibank. Buzzfeed has reported that Mueller’s team has the reports of suspicious activity and that Citibank specifically flagged an unusual $120,000 “payroll” deposit to Kislyak 10 days after Trump’s election and blocked an attempted withdrawal of $150,000 in cash just after the inauguration.
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