Three individuals who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents in the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election could spend a paltry 44 days in prison.
Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan received a 30-day sentence, and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos is serving 14 days. On Tuesday, special counsel Robert Mueller recommended that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn receive no prison time when he is sentenced this month.
It’s far from the five-year maximum penalty that lying to the FBI carries — and analysts said it provides a look into Mr. Mueller’s goals as he nears completion of his probe.
“These are people who, at the beginning of the investigation, did not have major roles, but they had information,” said Nick Akerman, a former assistant special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal. “Flynn obviously had much more information, and his deal took that into account.”
The Flynn recommendation came as part of a new court filing hinting at the former Trump figure’s cooperation on several investigations. While most of the details were redacted, the 13 pages left all sides speculating on Mr. Mueller’s endgame.
“That most of the details are redacted signals he has given far more than we or the President may know,” tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat poised to become chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
He also pointed to the “irony” of Flynn’s guilty plea, after he led the 2016 GOP convention in chants of “lock her up” aimed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Legal experts took note of Mr. Mueller’s use of charges of lying.
“Do prosecutors always prosecute everyone who lies to the FBI? No. But prosecutors with Mueller could use it as a point of leverage by offering a less serious sentence than it deserves,” said Andrew Leipold, who was a member of the team led by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr during investigations into President Bill Clinton.
And that threat may have had an impact. In a court filing for Flynn, prosecutors said his decision to plead guilty encouraged others to be “forthcoming with [the office] and cooperate.”
“It has always been a somewhat controversial crime in the sense that you can be stopped on the street and asked questions and the FBI doesn’t always tell you it’s a crime to lie to them,” Mr. Akerman said. “It has been criticized over time, and I think prosecutors should be careful to use it only when they sense it’s needed.”
Mr. Mueller has been careful not to reveal the extent of cooperation he has received, but court documents offer glimpses. And the more valuable the information, the less Mr. Mueller pushes for prison time.
For example, Flynn’s sentencing memo credits him with providing “substantial assistance” to prosecutors investigating alleged ties between the Russian government and members of the Trump administration. It also said he is cooperating on “several” different investigations. In exchange for that help, he likely will be spared prison time.
“Flynn is about as important as they come, having been national security adviser,” said Kimberly Wehle, who teaches law at the University of Baltimore. “They are handling him in a special way.”
But even Papadopoulos, who was not initially forthcoming, got a light sentence.
He coughed up information only after he was confronted with his own emails, text messages and internet search history. The Mueller team sought a six-month sentence, which is in line with sentencing guidelines.
But a federal judge said he believed Papadopoulos felt remorse for lying to the FBI at the start of the Mueller probe and sentenced him to 14 days.
“Lying to the FBI is a serious crime, but you do take into account all kinds of factors, like, did they accept responsibility,” Mr. Akerman said. “There all kinds of reasons for a sentence.”
In the van der Zwaan case, he lied to the FBI about his interactions with Rick Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik, both longtime associates of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. In August, Manafort was convicted by a federal jury on financial fraud crimes brought by the special counsel. He served 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to one count of making false statements.
Court documents indicate that van der Zwaan cooperated in providing his law firm’s laptop and recordings he made of conversations. That information was likely useful to help build the case against Manafort rather than provide any details about the Trump campaign’s alleged dealings with Russian officials.
“Van der Zwaan clearly opened some doors for them that we don’t know about,” Mr. Akerman said. “But he was someone in the beginning of the investigation who did not have a major role.”
Mr. Leipold said he is somewhat puzzled that people lie to the FBI when they have the option to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But he acknowledged the political fallout from invoking the Fifth can be devastating.
“It’s easy for me to say no one is justified in lying to the FBI, but these cases involve high-profile people who are politically savvy enough to know an invocation of the Fifth Amendment suggests they have something to hide,” he said.