State of the Trump/Russia Probe: Flipping Witnesses

I have been watching with fascination as Special Counsel Robert Mueller puts together his team to handle the Trump/Russia probe. First of all, he hired experts in fraud and Mafiosos. Then it was Michael Dreeben, who was described as the kind of guy you’d bring on to think through hard criminal questions like obstruction of justice by a sitting president. Those hires tell us a lot about where this investigation is heading.

But the latest hire by Mueller might tell us something about the state of this probe.

A veteran federal prosecutor recruited onto special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is known for a skill that may come in handy in the investigation of potential ties between Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign team: persuading witnesses to turn on friends, colleagues and superiors.

Andrew Weissmann, who headed the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal fraud section before joining Mueller’s team last month, is best known for two assignments – the investigation of now-defunct energy company Enron and organized crime cases in Brooklyn, New York – that depended heavily on gaining witness cooperation.

Securing the cooperation of people close to Trump, many of whom have been retaining their own lawyers, could be important for Mueller, who was named by the Justice Department as special counsel on May 17 and is investigating, among other issues, whether Trump himself has sought to obstruct justice. Trump has denied allegations of both collusion and obstruction.

This sounds like the investigation has gotten to the point where enough evidence has been collected on lower level targets that it’s time to start making some deals in exchange for what they have to tell us. According to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Michael Flynn might have already flipped.

If Whitehouse is right, that could be huge. A lot of people have speculated why Trump was so adamant about wanting Comey to drop the Flynn portion of the investigation. It’s not likely that was motivated by a simple desire to protect a friend. It is much more probable that the president knew that Flynn had the goods on what exactly happened between the Russians and Trump. That’s why he reached out to his former national security advisor to “stay strong,” i.e., “don’t flip.”

There are a host of other people who could could potentially be targets for possible cooperation. Two other people who are currently under instigation are Paul Manafort and Carter Page. It is clear that the prosecutors have focused on Manafort’s business ties and have been in the process of building a substantial case against him.

When it comes to Page, I was struck by one of the indicators Whitehouse identified for when a witness is cooperating with an investigation, namely, that they go silent publicly. There was a period a few weeks ago when Page was showing up on television and in the news pretty regularly. But it’s been a while since we heard from him.

All of this could signal that the investigation into these matters has gone to a whole new level. Things might quiet down for a while as these deals are struck and evidence pursued. But rather than any silence being an indication that people in the White House can breath a sigh of relief, it could be that Mueller is in the process of flipping Flynn, Manafort and Page to find out what they know and make a deal with them in exchange for their testimony.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.