Lawyers for President Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. insist they aren’t worried about special counsel Robert Mueller.
But half a dozen people in contact with the White House and other Trump officials say a deep anxiety has started to set in that Mueller is about to pounce after his self-imposed quiet period, and that any number of Trump’s allies and family members may soon be staring down the barrel of an indictment.
Then there are the president’s own tweets, which have turned back to attacking Mueller after a near two-month break. Thursday morning, Trump launched an oddly detailed condemnation of the special counsel and his team: “They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want,” adding that the investigators “don’t…care how many lives the[sic] ruin.”
The presidential taunts, launched during a week where Trump has been sequestered with his lawyers to discuss how to respond in writing to a series of Mueller’s questions, have only added to the intrigue that something big is about to happen.
Mueller obsessives, political junkies and Washington insiders have been scrutinizing the president’s every mannerism, such as snapping at a CNN reporter for posing a “stupid question” about whether he wanted the new acting attorney general to stymie the Russia investigation.
“You can see it in Trump’s body language all week long. There’s something troubling him. It’s not just a couple staff screw ups with Melania,” said a senior Republican official in touch with the White House. “It led me to believe the walls are closing in and they’ve been notified by counsel of some actions about to happen. Folks are preparing for the worst.”
Adding to the unease is a spate of anonymously sourced media reports suggesting Mueller’s self-imposed quiet period that started about two months before 2018 Election Day is about to transition into a Category 5 hurricane.
Mueller, as has been his custom throughout the investigation, hasn’t said a word himself about what’s next for his probe into the Trump 2016 campaign and whether it conspired with Russian hackers to win the White House. Instead, the special counsel has let his legal filings do the talking. On Wednesday, Mueller stirred the speculation pot yet again, delivering a one-page motion to a federal judge in Washington, D.C., confirming that former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates “continues to cooperate with respect to several ongoing investigations” and still isn’t ready to be sentenced. Gates pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy against the U.S. and making a false statement in a federal investigation.
In and around Trump world, the pressure is tangible.
Jerome Corsi, a conspiracy theorist and ally of longtime Trump associate Roger Stone said during a live-streamed video broadcast on Monday that he expects to be indicted by Mueller for perjury.
For his part, Stone told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May that he was “prepared” for the possibility of an indictment. In the months since then, the self-proclaimed dirty trickster has beefed up his personal legal team and even designated friends to be his spokesmen just in case a judge slaps a gag order on him.
Also on indictment watch: Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, who has told his friends in recent weeks that he believes he could be facing charges from Mueller, according to one of those people.
Lawyers for the president and Trump Jr. insist they aren’t worried about Mueller.
“I have no reason to be concerned about that. I can’t imagine what they’d indict him for,” Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s personal attorneys, said in a recent interview when asked about Donald Trump Jr.
Alan Futerfas, who represents Trump Jr., referred POLITICO to a statement he gave earlier this month to Vanity Fair, denying his client had been expressing any concerns about Mueller.
“Don never said any such thing, and there is absolutely no truth to these rumors,” Futerfas said.
But others in contact with the White House say they are picking up a very different sentiment — paranoia that Mueller is far from finished and that there may indeed be more indictments either about to be filed or that have already been entered in federal court under seal.
At 18 months and counting, the special counsel has already netted guilty pleas from the president’s former national security adviser, 2016 campaign chairman and the Trump campaign deputy. The special counsel, whose original mandate charges with him investigating both Trump-Russia connections and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” also has no deadline to finish his work.
Trump’s allies and former aides interviewed since the midterms said they aren’t sure just what to think about the current state of the Mueller probe. Several sources sought to put some distance between the president and Stone even though the two men share a deep connection going back more than three decades. They also downplayed the seriousness of the crimes at the center of any potential indictments.
“They’re all going to be for the same reason — they lied,” said former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett. “I don’t think perjury charges are necessarily earth-shattering. Those are just personal errors.”
Former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that while Stone, Corsi and Trump Jr. speaking up about potential indictments may represent their own legitimate concerns, he nonetheless dismissed the suggestion that the anxiety is any more widespread.
“I actually think that it’s a big media creation,” he said. “The only people who ever ask me about this are other reporters.”
But Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor and National Review columnist whom the president has cited on Twitter with respect to the Mueller probe, said that Trump and his allies shouldn’t feel they are free from legal jeopardy just yet.
“Anybody who’s asked to testify or provide information to a prosecutor who’s not told he’s in the clear has stuff to worry about,” he said.
Also fanning the flames of apprehension is the intense media attention that’s returned to the Mueller probe after it took a brief backseat behind the 2018 midterm campaign, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation fight and a series of pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and media outlets.
Television journalists on Monday morning captured footage of former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen and his criminal defense attorney as they arrived at Union Station in Washington, fueling speculation he was in town for a meeting with the Mueller prosecutors.
And every day, CNN has a rotating cast of reporters camped outside Mueller’s office, where they’ve been chronicling the special counsel’s early morning arrival and keeping count of at least nine visits over four weeks from Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman whose cooperation with Mueller was part of his guilty pleading.
At the D.C. federal courthouse where Mueller’s grand jury meets, journalists routinely prowl the hallways and the building’s perimeter on the lookout for the special counsel’s prosecutors or witnesses who aren’t afforded the luxury of secret escorts through a secure backdoor entrance. A reporter from one of the major television networks said last week he was on stakeout patrol because he heard a competitor was already there.
The feeding frenzy is everywhere. John R. Schindler, a columnist for the Observer and former National Security Agency analyst, wrote last week that Mueller was holding “dozens of sealed indictments” involving people associated with Trump, his campaign and the administration. He cited an unnamed intelligence community official who has worked with Mueller as his source.
While Schindler buried that detail in the final paragraph of his op-ed, it nonetheless got noticed. The Daily Mail published a story the next day that led with the column’s most jarring detail. In Washington, Brett Kappel, a Democratic campaign finance lawyer, used the Observer column as inspiration to spend the weekend sorting through the federal court’s online criminal docket to make a list of all the sealed cases in the District of Columbia circuit that could be Mueller related.
He counted 336 criminal cases filed since the start of this year — 53 of them are still sealed.
While there’s no guarantee that any of the mystery cases are Mueller-related, several are chronologically listed right around some of Mueller’s earliest moves in 2018, including charges filed against a California man who later pleaded guilty to unwittingly helping the Russians interfere with the presidential election, a Dutch attorney who has since gone to prison for lying to Mueller’s investigators and the case against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities accused of sabotaging the 2016 campaign on Trump’s behalf.
Kappel also found 11 cases sealed during just the first two weeks of May and another dozen that were lodged between Labor Day and Election Day when Mueller was staying under the radar.
In an interview, Kappel acknowledged that many of the cases he found could have absolutely nothing to do with Mueller. But he added that the D.C. docket has what “seems like a disproportionately high number” of criminal indictments that could be kept under wraps because Mueller doesn’t want to tip off potential targets or disrupt the rest of his investigation.
Indictment watch seems to kick into high gear every few days now. On Tuesday, CBS’s “This Morning” cited “sources with knowledge” of the Mueller probe to report new charges could be coming “as soon as today.” Multiple media reports followed that story with their own articles that repeated what CBS said. On Twitter, #indictmentpalooza has become a thing.
Others on the outside, meantime, are left just trying to read the tea leaves.
“We think it’s about to be indictment-thirty up in here,” Evan Hurst of Wonkette wrote on Tuesday. “We’d put bets on it but it’s entirely possible we’re wrong. But if we’re right, then the rest of this week is going to be NUTFUCKINGCRAZY.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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