Cohen Guilty Plea Latest Twist in Mueller Probe of Russian Meddling
When U.S. President Donald Trump recently provided the special counsel with written answers about his knowledge of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, his lawyers said it was time for the investigation to end.
"It's time to bring this inquiry to a conclusion," Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told reporters.
But Special Counsel Robert Mueller has given no indications that he's winding down the sprawling investigation that started more than two years ago and has cast a deep shadow over Trump's presidency.
In the latest development in the probe, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project Trump was pursuing during his presidential campaign. Trump had long denied having any business interests in Russia, but Cohen admitted that negotiations proceeded well into the campaign and that he had spoken to Trump about the deal more than three times.
The probe that Trump has called a "witch hunt" and a "hoax" started in July 2016 as an FBI counter-intelligence investigation into alleged Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee computers. It came shortly after the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of hacked Democratic emails. Investigators suspected Russian hackers with ties to Moscow had been behind the intrusion and shared the emails with WikiLeaks in an effort to damage the campaign of Trump's presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Then a second email dump followed just weeks before the November vote. In October, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails hacked from the account of John Podesta, then-Clinton's campaign chairman. Podesta blamed the Russians and claimed the Trump campaign knew about the hack. Clinton lost the U.S. presidential election, attributing her defeat in part to the damaging emails.
The FBI investigation into Russian interference was kept under wraps even as U.S. intelligence agencies publicly accused Moscow in January 2017 of meddling in the election. It wasn't until March 2017 — two months after Trump was inaugurated as president — that then-FBI director James Comey publicly disclosed that the bureau had been investigating Russian interference and allegations of collusion between Trump associates and Moscow.
By then, Comey's relationship with Trump had soured in large part over the FBI investigation. In May of last year, after Trump fired Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, bowing to Democratic pressure, appointed Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel for the Russia investigation.
Mueller was given a broad mandate to pursue two lines of inquiry: whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election and whether there were "any links and/or coordination" between Trump campaign associates and Russia. He was also authorized to pursue "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
One matter that grew out of the probe was the question of whether Trump had obstructed justice by asking Comey to "let go" of investigating Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and then firing Comey over the Russia investigation.
In June of 2017, days after Comey testified before Congress about Trump's alleged demand, Mueller expanded his investigation to examine whether the president had obstructed justice.
Along the way, as the investigation expanded, Trump grew increasingly virulent in his attack on the probe.
But that did not stop Mueller from forging ahead. In August 2017, he impaneled a grand jury, signaling he had gathered enough evidence to pursue a criminal investigation and bring indictments. Mueller's office then began summoning witnesses to testify before the grand jury.
The first indictment came in October. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates were indicted on 12 counts ranging from money laundering to acting as unregistered foreign agents in connection with their lobbying for pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians.
In the year that followed, the special counsel has indicted or obtained guilty pleas from 30 other people and three entities. Among them:
* Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI;
* Former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI;
* Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen for lying to Congress;
* 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities on charges of running a misinformation campaign during the 2016 election;
* 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic computers.
While the indictments against the Russians provide ample evidence of Russian interference, Mueller's office has not given any indication it has gathered evidence of "collusion" between Trump campaign associates and Russia. Of the five former Trump associates who have pleaded guilty thus far, none has been charged with coordinating with Moscow.
Nor has the special counsel's office disclosed that it has uncovered evidence of obstruction of justice against Trump. Trump's recent responses to Mueller's questions were limited to Russian interference and did not cover obstruction of justice.
Mueller has not closed the door to following up with fresh questions about obstruction, although Trump's lawyers have argued that as president, Trump is not obligated to answer questions about actions he took while in office.