How to Read Bob Mueller’s Hand

The Facebook angle

Until recently, there was very little that indicated Mueller was far along in investigating the efforts of Russian operatives to undermine our election. That changed when the Wall Street Journal reported that Mueller obtained information from Facebook via search warrant. That news is extraordinarily important because it indicates he presented evidence that convinced a federal judge there was good reason to believe that foreign individuals committed a crime by making a “contribution” in connection with an election and that evidence of that crime existed on Facebook.

Before we knew of the search warrant, Mueller’s efforts to obtain information about Russian interference in the election could have been an effort to gather counterintelligence or run out every lead. Now, it looks like he has his sights on specific foreign individuals and their interference in our election.

That also opens up Trump associates to criminal liability. Someone is guilty of “aiding and abetting” when they know a crime is being committed and actively help to make it succeed. So if a Trump associate knew about the foreign contributions that Mueller’s search warrant focused on and helped that effort in a tangible way, they could be charged.

In addition, anyone who agreed to be part of the Russian effort in any way could be charged with criminal conspiracy. They wouldn’t need to be involved in the whole operation or know who else was involved. but they would have to agree to be part of some piece of it.

If Mueller brings charges against Americans who worked with Russians to undermine in the election, those could potentially be the most explosive and wide-ranging charges but also the most difficult to defend legally. I doubt jurors would have much patience for technical legal defenses, however, if there were solid evidence that the American worked with a Russian operative.

Following the money

Lastly, there have been reports Mueller has subpoenaed numerous financial records, and his decision to involve the IRS criminal investigation unit indicates he is looking at tax charges against someone. But it’s unlikely he would bring very wide-ranging tax or money laundering charges. Money laundering can be difficult to prove because it requires a prosecutor to prove an underlying crime, such as bribery or tax evasion.

Mueller’s investigation appears to be proceeding at a rapid pace, but we should not expect it to conclude this year. When it does, any charges that Mueller brings will likely be narrower and more targeted than many observers expect, although the recent Facebook search warrant could result in explosive charges involving cooperation with Russian operatives.

Regardless of what charges are ultimately brought, you can expect them to be carefully considered and limited to what Mueller can readily prove. Proving criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury is a weighty burden, and a veteran prosecutor like Mueller will not bring charges unless he is confident he can prove them.

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