I am not an expert on how the Department of Justice typically works and there’s nothing typical about having an office of special counsel investigate the president, but it seems to me that Robert Mueller has performed a cunning bit of jujitsu on Donald Trump. Mueller declined to directly investigate Michael Cohen’s role in paying off the president’s mistresses or evidence that Cohen may have committed crimes related to his taxi business. Instead, he passed off what he had learned to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. Something similar happened in the case of suspected Russian spy Maria Butina who was indicted by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Mueller didn’t initiate or execute the searches of Cohen’s or Butina’s properties, and he isn’t going to court in either of their cases.
This seems to have completely confounded Trump and his attack dog Rudy Giuliani. They want to call this all a witch hunt and that’s precisely what they are doing, but their words don’t make any sense.
For example, last week the attorneys with the Southern District of New York called Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, to appear before a grand jury. This is undoubtedly because Michael Cohen told Trump on an audio recording that Weisselberg had advised him on how to set up dummy companies in Delaware to disguise the payments to his mistresses. That tape was seized in a search, but the search had absolutely nothing to do with Mueller.
Yet, Giuliani is saying that Trump is frustrated with Mueller’s team over the subpoena of Weisselberg because they “chase down every alley, then they end up with nothing.” Giuliani says Mueller should stop grasping at straws and produce a report because “enough is enough.”
But Mueller has kept himself one step removed from the Cohen case. He’s also one step, at least, removed from the Butina case. He could get fired tomorrow and it wouldn’t disrupt either of those investigations or associated trials.
At the same time, if either Cohen or Butina want to avoid doing substantial jail time, they’ll likely have to work out some kind of deal with Mueller. I doubt the Southern District will cut Cohen a break for exposing fraud in the New York taxi industry or spilling the beans on a coverup of an adulterous affair or two or six or twelve. They’ll want to know what Michael Cohen was doing in Prague and why he denied traveling there.
Likewise, if Maria Butina wants the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia to go lightly she’ll have to help him roll up a larger spy ring and understand how the National Rifle Association spent Russian money in the 2016 campaign. No plea deal for her will come cheap.
I think Mueller must be getting a kick out of watching people argue about what Trump knew or didn’t know about payments to a Playboy Playmate when clearly that has nothing to do with what Cohen is expected to divulge. The president is attacking Mueller personally now because he’s upset about investigations, but these are investigations that Mueller is not directing. He’s working on Paul Manafort and dozens of other leads, and if Cohen and/or Butina want to come to him and make some proffers, he’ll be happy to hear them out.