Understanding why special counsel Robert Mueller has widened his Russia investigation beyond the 2016 presidential election may require perusing a federal judge’s opinion on June 26 in the Paul Manafort case.
After District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III dissected Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s May 2017 appointment order to Mr. Mueller, he concluded that the prosecutor is empowered to look at virtually any Russian contact no matter how “stale” it is.
What’s more, Judge Ellis said, Mr. Rosenstein’s guidelines state that Mr. Mueller is to investigate any links between the Russian government and Trump campaign associates, which is expansive.
Citing Supreme Court rulings, he said “any links” also means “indirect links” or “potential links,” giving Mr. Mueller wide latitude when deciding whether to target a Trump person.
J.D. Gordon, a Trump campaign adviser, said such an expansive definition is why so many people find themselves sitting down with the FBI.
Mr. Gordon, a retired Navy officer and former Pentagon spokesman, has gone through combative interviews with congressional committees and the Mueller prosecutors, racking up hefty legal bills.
He was summoned partly because he spoke briefly with the Russian ambassador at the Republican National Convention, where the diplomat was a guest sponsored by President Obama’s State Department.
Mr. Gordon also supervised the volunteer Trump national security advisory committee, whose members included Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both of whom came under intense Mueller scrutiny. Mr. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his meeting with a Moscow-connected professor.
In London, Mr. Papadopoulos was trying to set up a meeting between Donald Trump the candidate and Kremlin officials. But no such meeting ever happened and neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Papadopoulos has been charged in any conspiracy.
“In a politically toxic environment like today, the higher you go, the more likely the opposition will push for your investigation,” Mr. Gordon told The Washington Times. “If and when they manage to haul you before a judge, your fate is basically a roll of the dice based upon the actions of FBI leadership during the Obama administration. The Trump-Russia probes are tyrannical by definition.”
FBI agent Peter Strzok, a fierce anti-Trump player according to his own text messages, started the investigation of the Trump campaign in late July 2016. There is some evidence that the bureau deployed confidential human sources among campaign advisers (Republicans call them “spies”) before that date.
Judge Ellis issued his ruling in the case of Mr. Manafort, a Republican political consultant who served briefly as Mr. Trump’s campaign manager. Mr. Mueller brought charges of income tax evasion and money laundering stemming from millions of dollars Mr. Manafort was paid by the pro-Russia political party of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Judge Ellis has been critical of Mr. Mueller and his top Manafort prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann. He accused the Mueller team of an ulterior motive, saying they charged Mr. Manafort as a way to get their true target: Mr. Trump.
But Judge Ellis was no help to Mr. Manafort on the defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment because the purported conduct had nothing to do with the 2016 election.
The judge denied the petition and, in doing so, defined “any link” as “indirect link.”
“Nonetheless, the fact that Yanukovych was a strongly pro-Russian President warranted the investigation here. The fact that the Russian government did not make payments to defendant directly is not determinative because the text of the May 17 Appointment Order authorizes investigation of ‘any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,’” Judge Ellis wrote.
He invoked Supreme Court precedent that “the term ‘any’ has an expansive meaning, that is, ‘one or some indiscriminately of whatever kind.’”
Therefore, “the May 17 Appointment Order plainly authorizes the investigation of indirect links between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government in addition to more direct connections. In this regard, the May 17 Appointment Order authorizes the Special Counsel to investigate defendant’s ties with individuals financially and politically supported by the Russian government, even where, as here, those individuals are not themselves members of the Russian government,” the judge ruled.
Judge Ellis then used the phrase “potential links.”
“In sum, Appointment Order makes clear that the Special Counsel’s investigation into the payments defendant received from Russian-backed Ukrainian officials was authorized because the investigation involved potential links between a Trump campaign official — the defendant — and the Russian government via the Russian-backed Ukrainian President.”
That “any link” includes potential or indirect links is being played out in other ways.
For example, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, who made a fortune providing private security contractors to governments and corporations, is being investigated by Mr. Mueller over a postelection conversation he had with a Russian hedge fund manager in a Seychelles resort.
Mr. Prince, an informal adviser to the Trump campaign, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the get-together was impromptu in a hotel bar. The Washington Post reported that the meeting may have been planned.
Whichever is true, the Prince case shows how the Rosenstein mandate works: If a person met a Russian and had ties to the Trump campaign, Mr. Mueller can investigate him.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump was unique. His career was global land development, not politics. In that business, he and his company would naturally make contacts with foreign investors from Russia and many other countries.
Mr. Mueller is also examining other postelection contacts. The Post says he is scrutinizing contributions from Russian-linked billionaires to the Trump inaugural committee.
Democrats wholeheartedly support Mr. Mueller and defend the FBI’s anti-Trump tactics. But more Republicans are starting to say the investigation, nearly two years from the time the FBI opened it, should be wrapped up.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, told Mr. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, “Whatever you got, finish it the hell up.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has supported the investigation, told the Washington Examiner, “What I think about the Mueller investigation is, they ought to wrap it up. It’s gone on seemingly forever, and I don’t know how much more they think they can find out.”