On Friday night, CNN reported that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., has approved the first charges arising from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and the Russian government. Citing “sources briefed on the matter,” the network said that a judge had ordered the charges kept under seal, but that at least one arrest could take place as early as Monday.
Details were scant. The CNN report didn’t specify what the charges were or whom they had been brought against. But the news created an immediate furor, as other news organizations sought to follow up the story, and people on television and social media began speculating about the nature of the charges. Shortly before midnight, the Wall Street Journal confirmed CNN’s scoop, without providing any additional details.
Speaking on CNN, Michael Zeldin, a lawyer who served as a special assistant to Mueller when he was director of the F.B.I., suggested that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, might be the person charged. Zeldin imagined Mueller taking such a step to pressure Manafort to coöperate. “There is a lot of pressure on people who are under investigation to coöperate with Mueller after this indictment,” Zeldin said. Well before Mueller was appointed special counsel, the F.B.I. had been investigating Manafort’s financial ties to a pro-Russia party in the Ukraine. Mueller took over that investigation after he was appointed, in May. In July, F.B.I. agents staged a pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.
Manafort isn’t the only name being speculated about. Other commentators suggested that Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign who had his own extensive Russian ties, or Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser who was ousted from the White House over his post-election contact with Russia, might be subjects of the charges. It has been reported that the former F.B.I. director James Comey, when he was leading the Russia investigation, secured permission from a secret court operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to tap the communications of Page and Manafort. It has also been reported that Mueller’s team demanded White House documents about Flynn.
A key political question is whether these charges are related to things that happened as part of the Trump campaign, or whether they relate to alleged wrongdoings that occurred before it began or separate from it. If there are direct ties between the charges and the campaign, that will obviously have huge ramifications on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
But if the charges concern alleged actions on the part of Manafort or others that were unrelated to the 2016 campaign, the White House may well accuse Mueller of moving beyond his remit. That allegation wouldn’t be accurate—the terms of Mueller’s appointment gave him license to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly” from the Russia probe—but accuracy has never concerned Trump much.
One thing we can say for sure is that the news of the charges has moved the Mueller investigation firmly into the media spotlight, where it is likely to stay. Since Mueller’s appointment, his team of prosecutors and investigators has operated largely out of the public eye. One of the few known facts was that it had convened a grand jury in Washington. Friday night’s CNN report said that earlier in the day, “top lawyers who are helping to lead the Mueller probe, including veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, were seen entering the court room at the D.C. federal court where the grand jury meets to hear testimony in the Russia investigation.”
There was no immediate comment from the White House about the CNN story. But it was published less than twelve hours after Donald Trump tweeted, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!”
For days, the White House and conservative media organizations have been touting a Washington Post story that revealed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped to pay for the controversial Russia dossier written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. “I think this further proves if there was anyone that was colluding with the Russians to influence the election, look no further than the Clintons, look no further than the D.N.C.,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, told Fox News on Thursday. “Everything that the Clinton campaign and the D.N.C. were falsely accusing this President of doing over the past year, they were actually doing themselves.”
After CNN published its story on Friday night, some Democrats and commentators suggested that the Trump Administration may have known the Mueller indictments were coming and leaked the Steele story to create a smokescreen. “So clearly target is in crosshairs, alerted Trumpsville, right wing media & Trump engineered mass diversion &main stream media fell for it,” Neera Tanden, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who is the president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted.
Plausible as that theory sounds, it, too, is conjecture. What isn’t speculation is the fact that, five months into his investigation, Mueller has brought a first set of criminal charges. By the standards of recent special prosecutors, that is fast work, and it confirms Mueller’s reputation as someone who doesn’t like to dally. Now that he has started arresting people, there is no reason to suppose he will stop. And that is precisely the message he wants to send.
Robert Mueller Sends a Message: He’s Deadly Serious – The New Yorker