Do you think Tony Podesta — the longtime Washington Democratic lobbyist, fixer, and brother of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta — colluded with Russia to allow Donald Trump to win the 2016 election?
Neither do I.
Do you think Vin Weber — the longtime Washington Republican lobbyist and former member of the House who opposed Trump and said he would not stay in the GOP if Trump won — colluded with Russia to allow Trump to win the 2016 election?
Neither do I.
No one in his or her right mind would place Podesta or Weber in a plot to help Russia put Trump in the White House. Yet both men, apparently, have fallen into the snare of the Robert Mueller special prosecutor investigation.
Podesta is reportedly in Mueller's crosshairs because Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who is a key figure in the Mueller probe, brought Podesta into his work for something called the European Center for a Modern Ukraine back in 2012. "The work for the European Center, which ended in 2014," the New York Times reported this week, "was cited in the indictment on Monday as part of a 'scheme' by Mr. Manafort and [Manafort aide and fellow indictee Rick] Gates to gain support in Washington for their longtime client, the pro-Russian leader Viktor F. Yanukovych, a former president of Ukraine, while evading disclosure requirements for foreign lobbying."
Does anyone know how Podesta's involvement, even if shady and suspect, furthered the alleged Russia-Trump conspiracy to win the White House?
Neither do I.
Now there are reports that Weber has been caught up in the same investigation as Podesta. "Investigators on Mueller's team have asked about what the lobbyists knew about the source of the funding and who was directing the work in 2012 — long before Manafort became Trump's campaign chairman in 2016," the Associated Press reported Thursday night.
Does anyone know how Weber's work in 2012 – long before he became a so-called "Never Trumper" — helped Trump get elected?
Neither do I.
"With the emphasis on the Ukrainian lobbying efforts, Mueller’s criminal probe is moving beyond investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia," the AP reported, "and is aggressively pursuing people who worked as foreign agents without registering with the Justice Department. More witnesses are expected before the grand jury in coming weeks."
Go back to May 17 of this year. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation, and then Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and then Rod Rosenstein, No. 2 at the Justice Department, appointed Mueller as special prosecutor.
Why did Rosenstein act? "To ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election," according to Rosenstein's order appointing Mueller.
And what was Mueller appointed to do? First, "to conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James B. Comey in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017," the order said — a reference to the FBI counterintelligence probe of Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
As part of that, Mueller was authorized to investigate "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump." It seems far-fetched to include Podesta and Weber in that category.
Mueller was also authorized to investigate "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." Does that include Podesta and Weber? It probably depends on your definition of the word "directly" — and your sense of basic fairness.
Mueller was also authorized to investigate "any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. 600.4(a)." That was a reference to the rules guiding special counsels, and it specifically referred to a counsel's power to "prosecute federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel's investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses." Does that include Podesta and Weber? We don't know, but it seems unlikely.
Finally, there was this in Mueller's charge: "If the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters."
Maybe that is where Podesta and Weber come in.
Whatever the case, what appears to be happening is what has happened in other Washington special prosecutor investigations (and the old independent counsel investigations). They expand. They ensnare people who might have had nothing to do with whatever the original subject of the investigation was. And they go on and on.
When Mueller was first appointed, some Republicans nearly tripped over themselves saying what a great appointment it was. "Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel," Newt Gingrich tweeted on May 17. "His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity." Other Republicans said much the same to me in conversations at the time.
Some, including Gingrich, later changed their minds. But the issue is not whether Robert Mueller is or is not a good man. The issue is the immutable law of Washington special prosecutor investigations, no matter who is running them. Of course, Mueller already appears to be venturing afield from his original assignment. That's what special prosecutors do.