Special counsel Robert Mueller is obsessed with President Trump’s network of business interests for suspected money laundering as a critical focus of his investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election last year, according to sources from the intelligence community close to the former FBI director.
One of the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the special counsel, who this year hired a staff of 16 lawyers with significant experience prosecuting such financial crimes, is focused on unraveling the Trump family’s tangled financial and real estate empire in a bid to find any connections to “dark money” investments from Russian oligarchs and organized crime figures.
Another source, close to the White House legal defense team, told The Times that subpoenas issued by Mr. Mueller’s office during recent weeks have been focused on financial records of key Trump associates. The subpoenas have come since the special prosecutor began using a District of Columbia grand jury this summer, according to the source, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The special counsel’s office overseeing Mr. Mueller’s probe declined to comment on the specific money laundering claim but suggested in an email to The Times that its probe could extend in a range of directions and may not be limited to the months leading up to the presidential election.
Peter Carr, the top spokesman for the office, pointed specifically to comments that James B. Comey made to Congress as the probe gained momentum last spring. At the time, the former FBI director said the inquiry could involve “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”
With the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., talking with congressional investigators late last week behind closed doors for more than five hours over his contacts with Russian government and private figures during the campaign, the agenda of the more buttoned-up Mueller probe has become a popular Beltway guessing game.
On Friday, news broke that Mr. Mueller’s team had approached the White House to interview four top advisers and two recently departed officials regarding what was thought to be a misleading statement crafted to divert attention from a meeting Mr. Trump Jr. held with a Russian lawyer last year.
White House communications director Hope Hicks, former press secretary Sean Spicer, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House counsel Don McGahn, senior associate counsel James Burnham, and Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who works with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — were among those Mr. Mueller’s team seeks to interview.
The roster of legal talent Mr. Mueller is assembling, legal analysts say, is a clear tell of his investigative priorities in a probe that has infuriated the president and distracted the White House from the day Mr. Trump took office.
In late July, when reports first emerged that investigators were scrutinizing a broad range of transactions involving the business dealings of Mr. Trump, his family and associates, the president said Mr. Mueller would be crossing a red line.
Legal analysts told The Times that Mr. Mueller appears to have barreled over that line. Late last month, his team began working with the IRS’s criminal investigations unit, which specializes in uncovering financial crimes such as tax evasion and money laundering. Martin Sheil, a former criminal investigations agent, told The Daily Beast online news site that the unit’s investigators are the “very best in the business of conducting financial investigations.”
“They will quickly tell you that it took an accountant to nab Al Capone, and it’s true,” Mr. Sheil said.
The focus on financial wrongdoing and money laundering may reflect a desire by Mr. Mueller, a former FBI director, to bring his special counsel probe to the fore with bona fide criminal charges, not political findings, legal analysts argue.
A June assessment by The Heritage Foundation pointed out the hurdles to bringing charges on more politically driven accusations such as that of collusion or obstruction of justice.
In May, Richard Dearlove, former director of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, told London’s Prospect magazine that past financial dealings have the best chance to haunt Mr. Trump, who has long refused to release his tax returns.
“What lingers for Trump may be what deals — on what terms — he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the West apparently would not lend to him,” Mr. Dearlove said.
Legal analysts told The Times that Mr. Trump’s refusal to make a clean break from his past business and divest his extensive private holdings complicate the probe but also give Mr. Mueller’s investigators a broader field to explore.
“We have seen generations of presidents go out of their way to show the American people they could not be bought,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington spokesman Jordan Libowitz said, noting that Republican presidents after the Watergate scandal led the charge for stronger protections and disclosure on financial conflict of interest issues.
The election last year presented a unique set of challenges in that regard from both of the major presidential candidates.
In addition to Mr. Trump’s labyrinthine business empire, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton faced questions stemming from the Clinton Foundation, run by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. The couple were repeatedly accused of using Mrs. Clinton’s position as secretary of state to help fill the nonprofit’s coffers.
Mr. Trump said the ties were so corrupt that the Clinton Foundation should be “shut down immediately.”
“In 2016, we saw the influence of money in politics to an extent that people hadn’t ever seen before — with dark money hiding in places people could not follow,” Mr. Libowitz said. “We are in a time of severe influence of money in politics.”
Three major lawsuits against Mr. Trump argue that he has violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause because of his continued ownership of businesses that receive payments from foreign governments.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is involved in one lawsuit suit. The attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland filed another, claiming their jurisdictions have been harmed. In the third lawsuit, almost 200 congressional Democrats said Mr. Trump needs the consent of Congress before accepting foreign payments to any of his businesses.
The Justice Department, on behalf of Mr. Trump, has attempted to block the case from the Washington-based watchdog. The Southern District of New York court is scheduled to hear next month whether the case should continue.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington declined to comment on whether Mr. Mueller was investigating money laundering, but the spokesman said the watchdog was closely watching all developments.
“The issues around payments, particularly around foreign payments, are incredibly serious issues,” Mr. Libowitz said. “So we would not be surprised if that shows up.”
Focus on Manafort
While the Mueller financial probe reaches as far back as a decade before Mr. Trump’s election, one clear focus is on individuals who became involved — if only briefly — with his presidential campaign.
This summer, federal agents raided the house of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a longtime Washington lobbyist. Reports in June and July said Mr. Mueller’s staff, in addition to the House and Senate panels also probing the Russia election issue, had begun working with the Treasury Department’s financial crimes enforcement network, which tracks illicit money flow, to investigate Mr. Manafort’s business dealings.
According to financial records filed last year in Cyprus, Mr. Manafort’s bank accounts showed he was $17 million in debt to pro-Russia interests before he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. Before his involvement with Mr. Trump, Mr. Manafort worked in Ukraine and invested with a Russian oligarch.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. are also reportedly investigating Manafort real estate transactions for any fraud and money laundering. Investigators are also combing over details from a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan where Donald Trump Jr., senior White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mr. Manafort met with a group of Russians with ties to Russia’s intelligence service and clients accused of money laundering who offered information on Mr. Trump’s election opponent, Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Trump’s family business, operating as the Trump Organization, is involved in more than 500 subsidiaries and entities. Just over half bear the Trump name, and another 54 include his initials, according to his 92-page Federal Election Commission financial disclosure forms released in 2015.
Trump Organization investments include developing hotels, resorts, residential towers and golf courses in various countries, as well as property management, investing, brokerage and sales and marketing. There is also several hundred thousand square feet of prime Manhattan real estate.
Reuters this year conducted a lengthy investigation of Trump Organization-related public documents, interviews and corporate records that explored the extent of international investment exposure. The analysis found that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses had bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida.
Although the Reuters review unearthed no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr. Trump or his real estate organization, the analysis did find the buyers included several politically connected investors, such as a former Moscow construction firm executive who builds military and intelligence facilities and a St. Petersburg investment bank founder.
At the time, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, Alan Garten, dismissed the story. “I can say definitively that this is an overblown story that is media-created,” Mr. Garten told Reuters.
In July, Bloomberg reported that in addition to investigators scrutinizing Russian purchases of apartments in Trump company buildings, they were also examining the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, Trump New York real estate deals with Russians and the 2008 sale of a Trump property to a Russian oligarch.
When asked to elaborate, a high-ranking Justice Department official referenced the shroud of secrecy Mr. Mueller has effectively employed to keep Washington guessing his next move.
“Only a very narrow group of people actually know what’s going on,” the source told The Times.