There has been intense activity over the past two weeks in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and possible collusion by members of Donald Trump’s campaign team.
Developments in the criminal prosecutions of three of Trump’s most important former advisers have enraged the president and shed new light on what Mueller has learned in the 19 months since his appointment as special counsel.
Here, the Guardian reviews the key updates in the cases of Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort – and explores what the new disclosures could mean for Trump as the inquiry continues.
Developments Mueller told a judge in New York that Cohen, Trump’s former legal fixer, had cooperated with his investigation in ways that suggested major, unknown aspects of the special counsel’s work – with Trump potentially in the crosshairs.
First, Mueller said, Cohen described a conversation he had in the early stages of the presidential campaign – November 2015 – with a Russian close to the Kremlin about “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level”.
Second, Mueller said, Cohen provided the special counsel “with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with [Trump Organization] executives during the campaign”. The core of the Mueller investigation is alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Third, Mueller said, Cohen provided “relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017–2018 time period”. Both Cohen and individuals at the White House were under serious pressure from prosecutors in that period; it’s unclear what they discussed. The existence of these contacts was not previously known.
Fourth, Mueller said, Cohen “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it”. Cohen has admitted lying to Congress about the Trump Moscow project. With whom did he “prepare” and “circulate” the lies he told?
Cohen last week pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s plans for a tower in Russia, admitting he spoke with a Kremlin official about securing Russian government support for the project. He earlier confessed to violating campaign finance laws by arranging payoffs to women who claimed to have had sexual relationships with Trump.
Further developments In a separate memo, federal prosecutors for the southern district of New York said that Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump when he violated campaign finance laws in the course of paying off two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
Cohen had previously asserted that Trump had directed his actions, but this was the first time that federal prosecutors indicated they have independent evidence to support the claim. If Trump knew the hush payments were illegal, he could be implicated in the campaign finance felonies Cohen has pleaded guilty to.
What we’ve learned Cohen has given seven interviews to Mueller’s team and is also helping New York authorities with an investigation into Trump’s charitable foundation. The state attorney general is suing Trump and his children for alleged legal violations.
What it means for Trump The president misled the public in 2016 by saying he had no business links to Russia. Cohen said he briefed Trump and his family extensively on the project. Trump, his son Donald Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner could face problems if their own answers to Mueller and Congress contradict this. Trump and his family may yet face prosecution over their foundation if Cohen has produced incriminating evidence. Separately, Trump could be a co-conspirator in a felony. Cohen already said he violated campaign finance laws under instruction from Trump, effectively accusing the president of having been a co-conspirator.
Developments Mueller told a judge in Washington that Trump’s former national security adviser and campaign aide, should receive a light sentence including no prison time. Flynn pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI. He gave false accounts of telephone calls in December 2016 with Russia’s ambassador about sanctions imposed on Moscow by Barack Obama, and a United Nations vote on Israel.
What we’ve learned Flynn has given “substantial assistance” to the Trump-Russia investigation, Mueller said in a court filing. He has given 19 interviews, handed over documents and offered first-hand accounts of “interactions between individuals in the presidential transition team and Russia” following the 2016 election. Mueller said Flynn’s help was particularly valuable “because he was one of the few people with long-term and first-hand insight” of the matters being investigated.
What it means for Trump: Flynn will have told Mueller whether Trump issued the order for him to urge Russia not to retaliate against US sanctions. Trump may have broken the law by doing so as he was not yet president. Flynn reportedly told Mueller that Kushner told him to ask Russia to vote “no” at the UN. Kushner possibly broke the law by doing so. Further details of what Flynn has disclosed about Russia, which were kept secret in this week’s filing by Mueller, may also imperil Trump.
Developments Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, lied to the special counsel in five “principle areas”, Mueller told a judge in Washington. Last week, Mueller tore up a plea deal with Manafort and told a judge he repeatedly lied to investigators even after agreeing to cooperate with the Trump-Russia inquiry.
What we’ve learned Manafort was in contact with the White House as recently as May 2018, despite his denials of such contacts, Mueller alleged. The nature of those contacts was unclear – but it is clear that Mueller has knowledge of them, and if they included a discussion of potentially criminal conduct, or methods for defending that conduct, that could be very bad for Trump.
Mueller outlined four further areas in which he said Manafort lied: about his interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former business partner in Ukraine; about Kilimnick’s participation in an alleged conspiracy to tailor the testimony of two witnesses; about a wire transfer to a firm working for Manafort; and about information pertinent to another justice department investigation, the details of which were undisclosed.
Mueller previously alleged that Kilimnik, a Russian employee of Manafort’s political consulting firm, was a former Russian intelligence operative. Manafort and Kilimnik are accused of asking business associates early this year to lie about their past lobbying work. Mueller said Rick Gates, formerly Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, continued communicating with Kilimnik in the months before the 2016 election.
What it means for Trump Whether Manafort’s ties to pro-Kremlin figures in eastern Europe are connected to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election remains the central unanswered question in the Trump-Russia investigation. Any finding by Mueller that Trump’s campaign chief was complicit in Moscow’s efforts to sway the election to Trump could be devastating for the president. Manafort’s convictions and charges on other crimes so far relate to his private business and tax affairs, and have no direct connection to Trump.