Wednesday’s sentencing of onetime Trump fixer Michael Cohen to 36 months of prison continues a frenetic pace of revelations around the Russia probe. Nearly every single day since Thanksgiving has brought fresh developments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election.
Even as the president continues to rail about the “Witch Hunt” on Twitter, Mueller’s strategy looks like anything but. Nearly every defendant he’s targeted has pleaded guilty, meaning he’s moving against people with overwhelming evidence. Those targets have mostly, in turn, cooperated—naming more alleged crimes and suspects. Similarly, in the one instance he has been forced to go to trial, Mueller prevailed handedly, winning convictions against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in every category of charges he brought. Mueller has also assiduously handed off certain crimes to other prosecutors, be it identity theft stemming from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, foreign lobbying questions, and even referring the original Cohen case to the Southern District in New York.
Together, those facts paint the picture of a conservative prosecutor, focused on demonstrable crimes and clear cases of criminal behavior. Mueller famously sees the world in black and white, right versus wrong, and all of his investigations have Russia and Russian influence as their core focus. Thus far he’s stayed clear of anything that might appear gray.
The pace of developments shows no sign of slowing, either. Thursday apparently will see a guilty plea from alleged Russian spy Maria Butina, whose role in the 2016 election and ties to gun-rights groups like the National Rifle Association remain perplexing.
CNN’s John Berman has described it as the “12 days of Mueller.” The filings thus far, taken together, have clarified where Mueller is heading, and appear to help delineate who is likely on the special counsel’s “naughty list” this holiday season. The past two weeks of rapid-fire filings, court appearances, and news reports show several people and entities potentially in Mueller’s sights.
Here are the reasons you should be concerned if you’re:
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s original plea deal made clear that he called Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the direction of a “very senior” transition official, which media reports have identified as presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. Subsequent court filings have made clear that Flynn’s early cooperation encouraged others to cooperate as well. That likely includes at least K.T. McFarland, another national security aide, whose memory reportedly evolved after Flynn’s plea. Her revised memory likely also ratchets up the scrutiny of Kushner’s role on the campaign, where he was in the room for the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, and the transition, where he reportedly tried to create a communications backchannel with Russia and met with the head of the Russian development bank, Sergei Gorkov. Mueller has outlined in recent court filings his view that “senior government leaders should be held to the highest standards,” which sounds like an as-yet-unfired warning shot against other “senior government leaders.” Kushner, as a senior White House adviser, now fits that bill.
Donald Trump, Jr.
Michael Cohen’s plea agreement never mentions the presidential son by name, but it potentially implicates Don Jr. in at least two critical areas. First, vis-à-vis the Trump Tower Moscow deal, Cohen says he kept the Trump Organization and family members up to date on the conversations with Russia, which appears to undercut Don Jr.’s testimony to Congress that he didn’t know much about the proposed development and, besides, the deal never went very far anyway. Cohen, and thus the special counsel, appears to possess evidence that both halves of that dismissal were false. With the Cohen plea agreement 10 days ago, Mueller has made clear that he considers lying to Congress within his purview.
Second, and more intriguing, is how Cohen discusses the November 2015 approach by a Russian intermediary offering “political synergy” with the campaign. One of the most confounding puzzle pieces of the investigation remains publicist Rob Goldstone’s email initiating the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, at which Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with Russians who had promised to help the campaign. Goldstone’s email said, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” We’ve never known what “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” meant specifically, but the way Goldstone phrased it seems to imply that such help wouldn’t come as a surprise to Don Jr. The Cohen plea agreement now lays the groundwork that such help might have been quite well known inside Trumpworld, given that 2015 overture. The offer of “political synergy,” a synonym that sounds a lot like “collusion” or “conspiracy,” makes it much harder to imagine a naive acceptance of the Russian help come June 2016.
President Donald Trump
While the president tried to brush off recent developments as “peanut stuff” Tuesday night, the potential criminal liability focused on the White House seems to grow with nearly every court filing. Prosecutors have now made clear their belief that the president himself, aka “Individual-1,” directed Michael Cohen to commit campaign finance violations, a felony. Given Cohen’s general slipperiness in court, they’re almost certainly basing that allegation on precise documentary evidence, potentially even the covert recordings that Cohen liked to make. On Wednesday, SDNY reached a deal with National Enquirer publisher AMI that explicitly states that the Cohen payments were intended to prevent a story about Trump’s alleged affair with Karen McDougal from “influencing the election.”
The court filings contain growing signs, too, that Mueller could be building not just a case around conspiracy during the 2016 campaign, but also about “expansive obstruction.” A case like that could include the possible coordination of lies following Russia revelations, such as Cohen’s in front of Congress. A specific line from the special counsel’s filing in Cohen’s case also jumps out: “By publicly presenting this false narrative, the defendant deliberately shifted the timeline of what had occurred in hopes of limiting the investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.” It’s not hard to imagine that same line cut-and-pasted into a future obstruction case regarding Donald Trump’s personal handling of a false narrative put out by the White House after reports first surfaced of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. Maybe the firing of FBI director James Comey—which has seemed central to any obstruction investigation—will ultimately end up just part of a larger, longer, more coordinated attempt to mislead and misdirect attention around the Russia investigation. After all, there’s historical precedent for this: Part of the Watergate articles of impeachment charged Richard Nixon with “making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States.”
The Trump Organization
In one of my first columns on the special counsel’s investigation, I noted that the FBI focuses on taking down entire, corrupt organizations: mafia families, drug cartels, terrorism rings. That’s its DNA, and why federal investigations take so long; they work step-by-step, from the bottom up, to dismantle the whole enterprise. There are increasing signs that the Trump Organization—the family business built around the Trump brand—might be in its crosshairs. Corporate malfeasance expert Kurt Eichenwald, who literally wrote the book on Enron, points out how closely the Trump Organization appears to be implicated in Cohen’s hush money payments, and the apparently narrow circle of people who could have participated in them. Cohen’s plea deal also alleges that the Trump Organization’s business was closely tied into the Trump Tower Moscow project; BuzzFeed broke word that the company had floated the idea of offering the $50 million penthouse to Putin himself. It’s been known, too, for some time that Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg has been cooperating with investigators. Between him and Cohen—and Cohen’s voluminous seized records—a clear trail may appear for prosecutors to follow. With the Trump Foundation already under legal fire, will the president’s namesake company follow suit? And that’s all before New York’s new attorney general takes office too, promising a fulsome investigation into Trump’s world.
Jerome Corsi and Associates
The alleged criminal liability of conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi has already been laid out in the aborted plea agreement that he leaked after the deal with Mueller’s office fell apart. How far Corsi’s role may stretch to encompass WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Trump associate Roger Stone remains an open question too.
Even after Wednesday’s prison sentence, which settles the nine (nine!) felonies he has currently pleaded guilty to, there’s some reason to believe that Cohen might not be out of the woods. The Southern District of New York in its sentencing filing made clear its unhappiness that Cohen didn’t fully cooperate, providing a full and complete list of the crimes he’d participated in over the years. As they wrote, “Cohen repeatedly declined to provide full information about the scope of any additional criminal conduct in which he may have engaged or had knowledge.” Given that those federal prosecutors in Manhattan are likely continuing their reported investigation of the Trump Organization, it seems like Cohen could still face potential criminal liability as the other cases proceed.
Business partners of Michael Flynn
One of the most intriguing aspects of the sentencing memo filed by Michael Flynn’s lawyers was its reference to how Flynn met with prosecutors for over 62 hours, across 19 meetings, and “produced thousands of documents to the Department of Justice,” including “sweeping categories of documents held by his two companies, rather than fight over the breadth of subpoenas, and facilitated the production of electronic devices.” Given that the court filings reference Flynn’s business work—not the Trump campaign—and that part of Flynn’s plea agreement focused on his plotting with the Turkish government, it appears one of the undisclosed criminal investigations he has helped with involves those interactions.
The Ukrainian businessman who served as Paul Manafort’s onetime business partner—and alleged Russian intelligence asset—is all over the Manafort court filings in a way that makes clear the special counsel has a unique, focused interest in him and his role in the campaign. He’s already been implicated in Manafort’s alleged witness tampering scheme, but there’s no reason to think Mueller is done with him. Franklin Foer, who has written the most in-depth coverage of Manafort’s world, says Kilimnik’s appearance in the new documents “foreshadow[s] an ominous return.”
The Russian politician and banker has been linked in court documents to Maria Butina, the alleged spy likely to plead guilty on Thursday. Torshin appeared to “handle” Butina, building ties to the NRA; her guilty plea will likely shed additional light on Torshin’s role, particularly if she provides active cooperation with investigators.
More Great WIRED Stories
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the coauthor of Dawn of the Code War: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. He can be reached at [email protected]