Trump-Russia investigation: 5 biggest 2019 storylines

In 2018, President Donald Trump saw members of his campaign’s inner circle — including its former chair — plead guilty to federal crimes in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But in 2019, it’s entirely possible things could get even worse for Trump and those around him.

Rumors that Mueller will soon complete his investigation continue to swirl, meaning the world may soon know if the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Should the probe continue, though, it’s possible that Mueller could indict people even closer to Trump. The president’s longtime adviser Roger Stone, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his son Donald Trump Jr., have all come under the special counsel’s scrutiny.

If the danger for Trump or his family worsens, the president could finally do what he’s been calling for and try to shut down the special counsel investigation. If that happens, expect a political firestorm and perhaps even calls for impeachment, especially since Democrats will control the House of Representatives.

And finally, it’s possible that Trump will find himself in legal trouble for non-Russia-related crimes. Federal prosecutors unconnected to Mueller are particularly interested in how much foreign money went into his inaugural committee’s coffers. That means the president has more than just Mueller to worry about.

What follows are the key things to watch for in the Trump-Russia and other investigations in 2019. Depending on how they play out, the president — and the country — may face an even bigger legal and political crisis than in Trump’s first two years.

1) Does Mueller have anything on Trump-Russia collusion?

Thirty-three people have been indicted or pleaded guilty so far as part of Mueller’s investigation. That number includes five former advisers to Trump. We know those close to Trump, including his family members, held secret meetings with Russians during the campaign. We even know for sure that Russians tried to influence the election and had a noticeable preference for Trump over Hillary Clinton.

The crucial answer we don’t have yet is whether Trump, or anyone in his inner circle, actively colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election. That’s what Mueller was originally tasked to find out — and it’s the biggest question he has yet to publicly answer. It’s likely the reason Trump and those around him continue to say “no collusion” whenever someone brings up the Mueller probe.

But there is certainly circumstantial evidence, if you want to call it that, of close Trump-Russia ties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hands US President Donald Trump a World Cup soccer ball during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

First, Russia stole emails from Democrats and disseminated them strategically through WikiLeaks at critical moments during the 2016 campaign. Trump and his campaign, at the time, believed these emails were a big deal and cited them frequently. “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” Trump said on several occasions on the campaign trail. He even explicitly called on the Russian government to hack and release Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Second, there were extensive communications between people in Trump’s orbit and Russian government figures and others who had, or purported to have, close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some of this communication — including Michael Cohen’s January 2016 email to a top Putin aide and Ivanka Trump’s October 2015 exchange with a Russian Olympic weightlifter — was ostensibly about efforts to construct a Trump-branded building in Moscow. We now know that efforts by people in and connected to the Trump Organization to make that project happen continued well into Trump’s presidential campaign.

But some of the communications, including the various escapades of former Trump campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, involved relatively peripheral players who didn’t have strong pre-campaign ties to Trump or play significant post-campaign roles in the administration.

Third, Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting with the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank while attending the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Kentucky in May 2016. A US conservative activist named Paul Erickson, the one-time boyfriend of confessed Russian foreign agent Maria Butina, arranged the meeting.

That might have served as a step toward creating back-channel communications between Russia and the Trump campaign. Plus, Butina’s question to Trump during a 2015 conference prompted him for the first time to mention he might consider removing sanctions on Russia (though we should note that as president, he’s actually added sanctions on Russia).

And finally, Trump Jr., along with his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his campaign chair Paul Manafort, attended the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer — a meeting those Trump associates were explicitly told was part of the Russian government’s effort to support Trump’s candidacy.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

It’s of course possible, if not entirely likely, that Trump’s inner circle and Russians close to the Kremlin didn’t collude during the campaign — that there was a lot of interaction, but no real plan to work together to help get Trump into the White House.

Whether or not Mueller will finally answer that question definitively in 2019 is still unclear, but there is no other question more pressing or important to answer.

2) Will Trump try to end the Mueller investigation?

This major 2017 and 2018 question will remain as important in 2019. That’s because Mueller’s probe is drawing closer to Trump’s top aides and to Trump himself. What’s different this year is that Trump now has a big supporter and Mueller critic as his acting attorney general.

So far, five former Trump advisers have pleaded guilty or been indicted. Two of them, Trump’s short-lived and Russia-linked former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former top campaign official Rick Gates, continue to cooperate with Mueller.

We know of four specific matters that Mueller asked the president about in written questions: Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting, Roger Stone and possible WikiLeaks communications, Michael Cohen’s Trump Tower Moscow talks, and a change to the Republican platform regarding Ukraine at the 2016 GOP convention.

It’s no wonder, then, that many were concerned when Trump fired his previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions — who defended the Mueller probe’s independence — in November and replaced him with Matthew Whitaker — a man who has publicly criticized the Mueller probe.

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker addresses the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference on December 07, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker addresses the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference on December 07, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Whitaker, a former US attorney from Iowa, was the White House’s “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department, according to the New York Times. He’s also a fiscal and social conservative who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2014. He aligns with Trump when it comes to issues like crime and immigration, but Whitaker comes with the added perk of having publicly criticized Mueller.

For example, in August 2017 Whitaker wrote an op-ed for CNN in which he blasted the probe. “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing,” Whitaker wrote. “If he were to continue to investigate the [Trump family’s] financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.”

Mueller has to notify Whitaker about major investigative actions. That means the acting attorney general could severely hamstring the probe by denying some of Mueller’s asks. As far as we know, that hasn’t happened yet and there is no public indication Whitaker has moved to curb Mueller’s authority. It’s also entirely possible Trump’s permanent pick for the attorney general role, William Barr, will dutifully supervise Mueller’s investigation.

But keeping an eye on that possibility will remain a top issue as we head into 2019.

3) Will Mueller announce more big indictments?

Another big question is whether Mueller plans to indict anyone else close to the president. Three people in particular have gotten a good deal of scrutiny from investigators.

Let’s start with Trump Jr.: During his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017, he claimed he “wasn’t involved” in the Trump Organization’s efforts to build a tower in Moscow, “was not” aware that his father’s lawyer Michael Cohen directly reached out to the Kremlin about it, and suggested Cohen’s efforts to work with Russian-born developer Felix Sater on the project ended prior to 2016.

But Cohen admitted in December that the effort to get Trump Tower Moscow off the ground continued well into 2016 and happened with the Trump family’s knowledge. And according to Mueller’s court filing indicting Cohen with lying to Congress about it, Cohen apparently “briefed family members of Individual 1 [Donald Trump] within the Company about the project” in Moscow.

It’s unclear which specific “family members” the filings refer to — Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump are all family members of the president who were working at the time for the Trump Organization — but given Trump Jr.’s role as one of the top Trump Organization officials, it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t among them.

That means it’s possible Trump Jr. knowingly lied to Congress. If that’s the case, Mueller may indict the president’s son this year. Whoa.

But another son may also be in legal trouble in 2019 — a son-in-law, that is.

In December 2017, Mueller released a court document that described a “very senior” member of Trump’s presidential transition team asking Michael Flynn to persuade the Russian ambassador to the US to stop a UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlement policy.

Multiple reports confirmed that the official was Kushner. That makes perfect sense: Kushner was an extremely important figure during the transition, and reporting at the time suggested that he was involved in Trump team deliberations on the settlements issue.

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner arrives for a meeting with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence July 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. 
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner arrives for a meeting with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence July 24, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

That was just one of many times Kushner’s name has come up in connection with the Russia matter. There was the meeting he had with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition in which they reportedly discussed setting up a secret backchannel of communication. There was the Donald Trump Jr.-brokered meeting with a Russian lawyer who’d promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton during the campaign. And there are the reports that Kushner urged Trump to fire then-FBI director James Comey.

Kushner also amended his financial disclosure forms at least 39 times. Those forms are important: They are needed for Kushner to get a security clearance. Zeeshan Aleem reported for Vox that Kushner originally failed to report the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia; his meetings with Russians; his business ties with Russians; and more. On top of that, Kushner used a private email account to conduct government business.

It’s therefore safe to say Kushner — who remains a top White House adviser — could be in Mueller’s crosshairs.

And then there’s Roger Stone, the one-time Trump campaign adviser and infamous political operative. Mueller has remained interested in Stone for a while, inquiring about Stone his 2016 conference calls, his emails with former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon, and his contacts with conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.

The big issue, though, is Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks, the transparency organization that released emails from Democrats that Russians stole.

Stone has publicly claimed inside knowledge about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s plans to release damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Plus, he admitted last June that he’d also met with a Russian national who called himself “Henry Greenberg,” who he says offered him dirt on Hillary Clinton and asked him for $2 million.

In all of these cases, Stone denies that anything untoward took place. But his story often changes. So what, exactly, did he do in 2016? Was it legal? And what did Trump know about it? (Indeed, one of the leaked questions Mueller’s team is said to want to ask the president is: “What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?”)

If Mueller knows anything more about this, it’s possible we’ll learn about it this year.

4) What does Mueller do with his findings?

If Mueller ends his investigation in 2019, it’s unclear if it will become public. Even if the probe survives, no one may never get to hear most of what he ultimately finds.

Special counsel Robert Mueller.
Special counsel Robert Mueller.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

That’s because Mueller is only required by law to deliver a confidential report to the person overseeing his investigation, in this case acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. And Whitaker has no obligation to send the report to Congress or tell the public about it, which means much of what Mueller uncovers may remain a secret.

Whitaker, or whoever becomes the permanent attorney general, could choose to make some or all of the report public, but that person is only required to notify Congress if Mueller proposes some action that is “so inappropriate or unwarranted” under Justice Department rules “that it should not be pursued.”

So unless Mueller does something Whitaker finds objectionable, he can keep the report under wraps.

Mueller certainly knows this, which is why experts say he’s using his indictments to reveal part of what he’s finding. “He is telling a story through the indictments that he files in court, which are painting a vivid picture of Russian efforts to interfere in the election,” Jens David Ohlin, the vice dean of Cornell Law School, told Vox in March.

The growing narrative is that Mueller’s indictments have effectively turned into the public report. That makes sense, since Whitaker or any other Trump loyalist can’t stop court documents from entering the public domain. Being extremely detailed in any court filing allows the Mueller probe to circumvent any GOP-led efforts to stifle the final report.

Therefore 2019 may not be the year the final document comes out all at once; instead, it could be the year Mueller reveals all in America’s judicial system.

5) Why so much foreign money for Trump’s inaugural committee?

In December 2017, we learned that Trump had to deal with yet another criminal investigation: one into his inauguration. Yes, seriously.

Prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) seem interested in the inaugural committee’s spending, and into potential corruption involving favors for its donors. The criminal probe reportedly stems at least in part from material found during the FBI’s raids on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s residence and office in April 2017.

That’s especially interesting now that Rick Gates — the former Trump aide who helped run the inaugural committee and struck a plea deal with Mueller in February — is cooperating with the government.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Trump’s inaugural committee raised an astonishing $106.7 million, double the previous record set by Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural committee. But what they did with it isn’t so clear. It’s of course possible that Gates and Tom Barrack, the billionaire head of the inaugural committee, were just really good fundraisers.

But federal prosecutors seem to be looking into whether there was some foul play involved, like a quid pro quo in which a foreign government offered a lot of money in exchange for a favor. ABC News reported in May that Mueller was questioning witnesses “about millions of dollars in donations to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee” — specifically about “donors with connections to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.”

Whatever the true nature of the record fundraising haul — sketchy or innocuous — it will likely be revealed in 2019.

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