July 18, 2018


The Latest Russia Twist: Criminal Charges Against Mariia Butina (Victoria Clark, Mikhaila Fogel, Matthew Kahn, Quinta Jurecic, Benjamin Wittes, July 16, 2018,  Lawfare)

Trump is not the only one that the criminal complaint should humiliate. Only a few months ago Rep. Adam Schiff--the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee--complained publicly that the committee majority was releasing its report without even interviewing the individuals involved in this bizarre episode. The majority report "ignores significant outstanding questions about individuals who sought to set up this backchannel," wrote Schiff and the Democratic members of the committee, "including why Torshin and Butina were interested in connecting the Trump campaign to Putin, what they sought to get out of that connection, why they enlisted the support of NRA colleagues, and whether others in the campaign were communicating with Russia through the NRA." The Justice Department action Monday--even as the president was busy, in McCain's words, "abas[ing] himself ... before a tyrant"--rather vindicates Schiff's curiosity.

Before turning to the details of the allegations, a few antecedent points:

First, this was not an action by Mueller but by the Justice Department's National Security Division (NSD) and the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. Precisely why that is so is not entirely clear from the documents. The activity described in the criminal complaint and the accompanying affidavit certainly covers the period of the 2016 election campaign. It certainly includes allegations of Russian "meddling" or "interference" in the U.S. political system. Mueller would almost certainly have been within his rights had he considered this matter within his jurisdiction under a grant of authority that includes "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump" and "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." Whether Mueller passed the matter off to the NSD, or whether it originated there, the fact that this investigation is being handled outside of the special counsel's office shows the discipline Mueller is exercising in not taking on matters that aren't strictly related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. He passed the Michael Cohen investigation off to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. And this one--though more obviously linked to the matter of Russian electoral interference--ended up, by one means or another, not in his shop but in the NSD and with the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

These decisions reflect discipline and modesty on Mueller's part; he is not building an investigative empire the way Kenneth Starr did, to Starr's own great cost. And they have a very happy collateral effect: They significantly reduce the potential consequences of a Mueller firing. If Trump were to fire Rod Rosenstein or Mueller or both in a fit of pique tomorrow, the Michael Cohen investigation would continue. This prosecution would continue. The Russian hacking indictment has been passed to the NSD.

There is no investigative Fort Knox here that the president can easily disrupt. He cannot fire his way to impunity any longer--if he ever could.

Posted by at July 18, 2018 4:20 AM