Three days after the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian nationals on charges related to meddling in the 2016 election, and mere hours after President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the DOJ accused a Russian national, Mariia Butina, of illegally trying to influence America politics. An unidentified American was named as working with Butina, who previously had tried to set up meetings between Trump and Putin. One of the groups she attempted to gain access to appears to be the National Rifle Association. (Prosecutors believe Butina was working for an official in the Russian government.)
To talk about what this means, as well as the fallout from the Trump–Putin press conference, I spoke by phone with Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and now a CNN legal analyst. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why these charges were not made by Robert Mueller’s office, what people aren’t paying enough attention to about last week’s indictments, and whether the special counsel should consider subpoenaing the translator in the Trump–Putin meeting.
Isaac Chotiner: What’s your biggest takeaway from the charges filed Monday?
Renato Mariotti: What we saw was significant evidence laid out in the affidavit that the Russian government was interested in developing a secret back channel with the Republican Party, and this woman was using the NRA as a means of gaining access to the highest levels of the Republican Party.
Was there anything that particularly stood out to you?
Sure. [There is] one paragraph about her being involved in securing a very private line of communication between the Kremlin and the GOP through the NRA. That’s pretty explosive. It is very interesting that once Trump is elected, she suddenly adds, to a National Prayer Breakfast organizer, that she had “important information for you to further this new relationship.” What is the information that she is conveying to this person? What’s interesting and missing from here is what, if anything, the Americans are saying about their contacts with her. You certainly can understand now why the NRA has criminal counsel. You have to imagine that the National Prayer Breakfast folks have their own counsel as well. This could be the beginning of an investigation that could ensnare Americans.
Could you sense from the indictment any connections between this and the special counsel’s investigation?
Just to be clear, she was charged, but it is a criminal complaint and not an indictment.
What I would say is that Mueller is charged with investigating links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and any attempts to cooperate or engage in illegal activity. What it looks like here is that someone who was clearly a Kremlin operative was trying to gain access to the Republican Party. But to be fair it started before Trump was the nominee, well before, in 2015, but it continued throughout his candidacy. There seem to be some obvious connections.
One thing we don’t know is why it was brought by the Justice Department and not the special counsel. One thing we can potentially speculate is that the special counsel has limited resources: They have already been handing off cases that they brought to other Justice Department prosecutors and attorneys. It’s not entirely surprising that although this appears to have some connection to Mueller’s investigation, it was brought by other attorneys within the Justice Department.
But you think it was given to them, or the other attorneys initiated it, or it’s hard to tell?
It’s hard to tell. But there can be no serious question that there is more to this than what is laid out in the complaint. Whenever there is a national security case, the government has to think very carefully about what information they want to reveal that won’t burn sources and methods. So you have to think that there is potentially more evidence out there.
There were some theories about why Mueller would give the case of the 12 Russians indicted to another DOJ division.
For one thing, he has already hired a core of staff to investigate, but once you are done investigating, you obviously have to move forward and handle the cases in court, and that can be very time-consuming. His staff has already been really taxed heavily in some of the litigation that has already taken place, like the [Paul] Manafort litigations. He is faced with two choices: Hire additional staff to take on these new cases, or farm them out, and given there is scrutiny of his budget and who he is hiring, it may make sense for him to utilize other Justice Department attorneys and prosecutors while keeping his core group together.
There was speculation that it would protect the cases in some way if Trump moved to end the special counsel investigation.
I have heard that speculation. I think that even if he was fired, the investigations would continue. They exist independently of Robert Mueller, the man, and his office. Ultimately it would take an official at the Justice Department closing those investigations, and that requires them in writing to say why they are doing that. You could imagine a partisan person trying to do that, although they would be taking on liability for themselves.
If it was simple to shut down the investigation, it would have happened already.
I think that’s right. My take is that if Trump fired the special counsel and somebody new took over the investigation—whether another special counsel or someone at the Justice Department—that person would shut it all down in a very ham-handed way, which is what it would take, and you would have people complaining and resigning and would make him look like he was guilty. Or that person would continue on as Mueller did, and basically all the time he spent building up negative feeling about Mueller, he would have to do with this new guy or woman. At a certain point it would look bizarre. You keep having new prosecutors, and Trump keeps having problems with each one.
And you might have a new obstruction charge.
We are now a few days out from the special counsel’s indictments on Friday. Any new takeaways?
Before I get to the sort of thing you are probably thinking of, what has been underappreciated and under-covered, in my opinion, is the reaction of some Republicans, which is to call for the investigation to be shut down. That is a very odd reaction to a successful investigation which just indicted many Russian operatives attacking our country. And it really makes you wonder. You could imagine the indictment beginning a phase of Mueller’s investigation in which he charges Americans for working with the Russians. But if the investigation is derailed in some way, if [Rod] Rosenstein is impeached, etc., you could imagine this is the beginning of the end.
Regarding the indictment itself, what didn’t get enough coverage was the stealing of voter data from a U.S. server, as well as the congressional candidate piece of the indictment. Those pieces of the indictment really give a sense of, in the first example, Americans being harmed by Russians, and where there is literally a theft of data and an attempt to manipulate that data. That has not generated enough bipartisan outrage. Secondly, you have a congressional candidate trying to get an advantage in a race by seeking help from a hacker. It seems exactly like the sort of thing that Mueller was supposed to be looking for, and you would think there would be more speculation as to who that person is.
You suggested on Twitter that Mueller could consider subpoenaing the translator at the Trump–Putin summit. Were you serious, and if so, what do you think about the idea?
First of all, it would generate an argument by the White House that it was covered by executive privilege. The argument would be made by the president’s team that a president has to be able to engage in diplomacy. If he has to worry about him or his translator getting subpoenaed, it would prevent him from doing his job. It’s unprecedented, so who knows? On the other hand, you could imagine that Mueller certainly would be very interested in what happened during the conversation. I think it’s the sort of risky, aggressive move that I wouldn’t see someone like Mueller making. The only way I could see that happening is if Mueller had such explosive evidence that, as a political matter, it would endanger Trump’s presidency in any event.
Did you see the indictments being issued before the Trump–Putin meeting as a risky move or just a coincidence?
I think it is likely a coincidence. I don’t know Bob Mueller personally—I met him one time but have never had a conversation with the man. But by all accounts, and certainly based on his friends and associates whom I do know, he is a law enforcement man through and through, and people I do know well who are cut from the same cloth tend not to think about political consequences and sending messages the way a lot of private citizens do.
That’s what is so interesting about [James] Comey. He seemed so cognizant of that, which got him in trouble.
Correct. Comey in many ways is a tragic figure because you have a man who wanted desperately to avoid making the FBI seem political, and by making active efforts to do so, he created the very situation that he feared would happen, which is that the FBI is now being demonized as a political organization. I think the lesson to be drawn there if you are a federal prosecutor is that less is more. And I suspect that that would be Bob Mueller’s approach anyway. And what we have seen thus far is that they are careful, cautious, and not in the public eye.
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