President Trump claimed in a tweet over the weekend that the controversial Nunes memo “totally vindicates” him, clearing him of the cloud of the Russia investigation that has hung over his administration for a year now.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, if anything, the Mueller investigation appears to have been picking up steam in the past three weeks—and homing in on a series of targets.
Last summer, I wrote an analysis exploring the “known unknowns” of the Russia investigation—unanswered but knowable questions regarding Mueller’s probe. Today, given a week that saw immense sturm und drang over Devin Nunes’ memo—a document that seems purposefully designed to obfuscate and muddy the waters around Mueller’s investigation—it seems worth asking the opposite question: What are the known knowns of the Mueller investigation, and where might it be heading?
The first thing we know is that we know it is large.
We speak about the “Mueller probe” as a single entity, but it’s important to understand that there are no fewer than five (known) separate investigations under the broad umbrella of the special counsel’s office—some threads of these investigations may overlap or intersect, some may be completely free-standing, and some potential targets may be part of multiple threads. But it’s important to understand the different “buckets” of Mueller’s probe.
As special counsel, Mueller has broad authority to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” a catch-all phrase that allows him to pursue other criminality he may stumble across in the course of the investigation. As the acting attorney general overseeing Mueller, Rod Rosenstein has the ability to grant Mueller the ability to expand his investigation as necessary and has been briefed regularly on how the work is unfolding. Yet even without being privy to those conversations, we have a good sense of the purview of his investigation.
Right now, we know it involves at least five separate investigative angles:
1. Preexisting Business Deals and Money Laundering. Business dealings and money laundering related to Trump campaign staff, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former campaign aide Rick Gates, are a major target of the inquiry. While this phase of the investigation has already led to the indictment of Gates and Manafort, it almost certainly will continue to bear further fruit. Gates appears to be heading toward a plea deal with Mueller, and there is expected to be a so-called “superseding” indictment that may add to or refine the existing charges. Such indictments are common in federal prosecutions, particularly in complicated financial cases where additional evidence may surface. Mueller’s team is believed to have amassed more than 400,000 documents in this part of the investigation alone. There have also been reports—largely advanced through intriguing reporting by Buzzfeed—about suspicious payments flagged by Citibank that passed through the accounts of the Russian embassy in the United States, including an abnormal attempted $150,000 cash withdrawal by the embassy just days after the election.
2. Russian Information Operations. When we speak in shorthand about the “hacking of the election,” we are actually talking about unique and distinct efforts, with varying degrees of coordination, by different entities associated with the Russian government. One of these is the “information operations” (bots and trolls) that swirled around the 2016 election, focused on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, possibly with the coordination or involvement of the Trump campaign’s data team, Cambridge Analytica.
Presumably these so-called active measures were conducted by or with the coordination of what’s known colloquially as the Russian troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, in St. Petersburg. The extent to which these social media efforts impacted the outcome of the election remains an open question, but according to Bloomberg these social media sites are a “red hot” focus of Mueller’s team, and he obtained search warrants to examine the records of companies like Facebook. In recent weeks, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have begun working to notify more than a million users they suspect interacted with Russian trolls and propaganda.
3. Active Cyber Intrusions. Separate from the trolls and bots on social media were a series of active operations and cyber intrusions carried out by Russian intelligence officers at the GRU and the FSB against political targets like John Podesta and the DNC. We know that Russian intelligence also penetrated Republican networks, but none of those emails or documents were made public.* This thread of the investigation may also involve unofficial or official campaign contacts with WikiLeaks or other campaign advisers, like Roger Stone, as well as the warning—via the Australian government—that former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos appeared to have foreknowledge of the hacking of Democratic emails.
Western intelligence, specifically the Dutch intelligence service AIVD, has evidently been monitoring for years the “Advanced Persistent Threats”—government-sponsored hackers who make up the Russia teams known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, which were responsible for the attacks on Democratic targets. AIVD even evidently managed to penetrate a security camera in the workspace of Cozy Bear, near Red Square in Moscow, and take screenshots of those working for the team. According to The Wall Street Journal, there are at least six Russian intelligence officers who may already be identified as personally responsible for at least some of these intrusions. Bringing criminal charges against these individuals would be consistent with the practices established over the past five years by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, which indicted—and in some cases even arrested—specific government and military hackers from nation-states like Iran, China, and Russia.
4. Russian Campaign Contacts. This corner of the investigation remains perhaps the most mysterious aspect of Mueller’s probe, as questions continue to swirl about the links and contacts among Russian nationals and officials and Trump campaign staff, including Carter Page, the subject of the FISA warrant that was the focus of the Nunes memo. Numerous campaign (and now administration) officials have lied about or failed to disclose contacts with both Russian nationals and Russian government officials, from meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to government banker Sergey Gorkov to the infamous Trump Tower meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. with Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer Natalia V. Veselnitskaya.
At least two members of the campaign—Papadopoulos and former national security adviser Michael Flynn—have already pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about these contacts. But many other Trump aides face scrutiny, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. Some of these contacts may go back years; Page himself originally surfaced in January 2015 as “Male #1” in the indictment of three Russian SVR agents, working undercover in New York City, who had tried to recruit Page, an oil and gas adviser, as an intelligence asset, only to decide that he was too scatterbrained to be a useful source.
5. Obstruction of Justice. This is the big kahuna—the question of whether President Trump obstructed justice by pressuring FBI director James Comey to “look past” the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn and whether his firing in May was in any way tied to Comey’s refusal to stop the investigation. This thread, as far as we know from public reporting, remains the only part of the investigation that stretches directly into the Oval Office. It likely focuses not only on the President and the FBI director but also on a handful of related questions about the FBI investigation of Flynn and the White House’s statements about the Trump Tower meeting. The president himself has said publicly that he fired Comey over “this Russia thing.”
There’s fresh reason to believe that this is an active criminal investigation; lost amid the news of the Nunes memo on Friday was a court ruling in a lawsuit where I and a handful of other reporters from outlets like CNN and Daily Caller are suing the Justice Department to release the “Comey memos”: The ruling held that, based on the FBI’s private testimony to the court—including evidence from Michael Dreeben, one of the leaders of the special counsel’s office—releasing the memos would compromise the investigation. “Having heard this, the Court is now fully convinced that disclosure ‘could reasonably be expected to interfere’ with that ongoing investigation,” the judge wrote in our case.
Even the most generous interpretation of the Nunes memo—which has been widely debunked by serious analysts—raises questions only around the fourth thread of this investigation, insofar as it focuses on Carter Page, the one-time foreign policy adviser who appears to be ancillary to most of the rest of the Russia probes. All of the other avenues remain unsullied by the Nunes memo.
The second thing that we know is that large parts of the investigation remain out of sight. While we’ve seen four indictments or guilty pleas, they only involve threads one (money laundering) and four (Russian campaign contacts). We haven’t seen any public moves or charges by Mueller’s team regarding the information operations, the active cyber intrusions, or the obstruction of justice investigation.
We also know there’s significant relevant evidence that’s not yet public: Both Flynn and Papadopoulos traded cooperation and information as part of their respective plea deals, and none of the information that they provided has become public yet.
We also know that, despite the relative period of quiet since Flynn’s guilty plea in December, Mueller is moving fast. While parts of the case will likely unfold and continue for years, particularly if some defendants head for trial, Mueller has in recent weeks been interviewing senior and central figures, like Comey and Sessions. He’s also begun working to interview President Trump himself. Given that standard procedure would be to interview the central figure in an investigation last—when all the evidence is gathered—it seems likely that such interest means that Mueller is confident he knows what he needs to know for the obstruction case, at least.
All of these pieces of public evidence, the “known knowns,” point to one conclusion: Bob Mueller has a busy few weeks ahead of him—and the sturm und drang of the last week will likely only intensify as more of the investigation comes into public view.
What happens if Robert Mueller gets fired? The investigation won't suddenly stop, that's for sure
Despite the hype, the Nunes memo ended up not saying much at all
Then again, the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign was always disingenuous at best
*Editor's note: This article has been revised to clarify that the current Republican National Committee was not penetrated by Russian hackers. The hackers penetrated Republican networks.