What’s next for the Mueller probe? Imminent charges and indictments are possible, experts say

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Democrats demand answers about Jeff Sessions’ resignation
U.S. House and Senate Democrats are demanding answers about Jeff Sessions' resignation on Wednesday, saying they will hold hearings to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, Sessions' chief of staff Matthew Whitaker now takes over the Russia probe – Nov 7, 2018

The U.S. midterm elections have passed — and for some observers, that means “Mueller time” is on its way.

What they mean is that the 60-day grace period that the Justice Department customarily affords when it comes to issuing indictments before elections has lifted.

And that also means special counsel Robert Mueller could soon start handing out charges and indictments to some big names who’ve been wrapped up in the controversy around Russian connections to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

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Speculation about the fate of the Mueller probe ramped into overdrive after Jeff Sessions resigned as attorney general on Monday.

Trump announced that he would be replaced by Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, on an interim basis. He’s been a vocal critic of the Mueller probe.

His departure was long expected, after Trump had slammed him for recusing himself from overseeing the probe, leaving that to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who, it appears, will be relieved of his duties overseeing the investigation.

A Democrat-majority House of Representatives, however, could also mean new protections for the probe.

Robert Mueller. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The change at the top of the Justice Department nevertheless has people wondering what will happen to the Mueller investigation now, and what efforts the Democrats will likely take up to protect its independence.

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There are several theories and speculation about developments that could come imminently.

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Here are a few ideas about what’s next for the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election:

Roger Stone could be indicted

Legal experts see the walls closing in on Roger Stone, a veteran conservative political operator who served as an adviser on Trump’s presidential campaign.

Stone, who himself has predicted that he could be indicted, has admitted to exchanging messages with “Guccifer 2.0,” an apparent hacker who Mueller has alleged was acting as a front for Russian intelligence workers who had stolen emails from members of the Democratic Party and leaked them, The Guardian reported.

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Roger Stone, an associate of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, speaks to the media after answering questions from the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Sept. 26, 2017. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO via AP

A previous indictment said that Guccifer 2.0 had spoken to an unnamed individual “who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.”

Guccifer 2.0 wrote in 2016, “please tell me if i can help u anyhow… it would be a great pleasure for me.”

Stone later told the Guardian that he’s “probably” the unnamed individual mentioned in that indictment.

The Trump associate has “ample reason” to worry, Norman Eisen of the Brookings Institution and lawyers Barry Berke and Dani James wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

They noted that Mueller has issued two indictments detailing Russian interference in the 2016 election, and one of them points to Stone as a person who was in contact with people at the top of Trump’s campaign.

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READ MORE: Roger Stone presents himself as WikiLeaks insider to Steve Bannon in newly-discovered emails

Meanwhile, emails released earlier this month apparently showed Stone identifying himself as a WikiLeaks insider to Steve Bannon during the 2016 campaign, around the time that the website prepared to release hacked information that could hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances at the White House.

More recently, Mueller’s probe expanded its list of Stone associates it has questioned to nine, the latest being David Lugo, a filmmaker who interviewed the political operator for a documentary titled “Sensational,” NBC News reported.

Lugo had said that Randy Credico, an activist and comedian, told him he was the one who acted as Stone’s connection to WikiLeaks — even as Credico denied he made contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prior to the release of the hacked information.

For his part, Stone has strenuously denied he did anything wrong, telling the Post that “if the decision is based on evidence, facts and truth, no charges will be brought against me.”

Donald Trump Jr. believes he could be indicted too, unnamed sources have said

Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, has told friends that he could be indicted, Politico reported Tuesday.

And people who have worked in the West Wing have similar concerns, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman wrote Monday.

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They’re worried that Mueller could show that Trump Jr. perjured himself before investigators when he said he didn’t inform his father about a meeting he had with Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016.

That meeting was arranged after music promoter Rob Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. and said a Russian Crown prosecutor had spoken with his own father and offered to provide the campaign with damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump Jr. speaks at a campaign rally for U.S. Senate candidate Martha McSally, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, in Sun City, Ariz. AP Photo/Matt York
“[If] it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. said.

Attending the meeting were Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as well as Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who had counted the country’s FSB security service among her clientele.

Trump’s side has maintained that the meeting didn’t result in any serious dirt being dished on Clinton, but the gathering continues to form the focal point of the Russian controversy because it’s illegal for any U.S. campaign to take help from foreign governments or individuals.

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Has the Mueller probe been imperiled by the appointment of a new acting attorney general?

Not necessarily, if you ask Forbes contributor and lawyer Jacob Frenkel.

He predicted in a Wednesday op-ed that Jeff Sessions’ resignation will have “no immediate impact on the Mueller investigation.”

Frenkel said that, yes, Whitaker has been critical of the Mueller investigation, issuing tweets such as, “‘This shouldn’t be a fishing expedition. Eventually, it starts looking political’ said me.”

But he added that Mueller has already overseen 10 criminal cases in connection with his probe that have included allegations of tax fraud, bank fraud, identity fraud, obstruction of justice, false statements and money laundering.

“Such charges, regardless of whether truly within the mandate of the special counsel, are not fishing expeditions but straightforward federal criminal offenses appropriate for the jurisdiction of U.S. federal criminal prosecutions,” Frenkel wrote.

He went on to quote counsel for the president, who said Mueller is not targeting Trump in his investigation — though he is being investigated, The Washington Post reported earlier this year.

Frenkel argued that, without a target on the president’s back, “Whitaker has cover to allow the investigation to proceed.”

President Trump has repeatedly said “collusion is not a crime.” Is he right?

In a way, yes, argue Eisen, Berke, James and Noah Bookbinder, in a study on collusion laws for the Brookings Institution.

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On its own, “collusion” isn’t a crime, but this is sort of an umbrella term for various offences including: conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States, bribery of public officials and witnesses and contributions and donations by foreign nationals.

They noted that Mueller has brought 191 charges against 35 people and companies in connection with allegations that Russians and Russian entities took part in conspiracies to hack the emails and computers of Trump adversaries and released information on them as part of a disinformation campaign.

READ MORE: Mueller investigation may get more protection after Democrats take the House

The president and his campaigners could be found liable if it’s discovered that they worked with the Russians.

The authors went on to say that a conspiracy charge could be possible if it emerges that Russians and a Trump representative agreed to release or use information gleaned illegally as part of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

“In fact, there is already enough evidence of this potential ‘collusion’ crime to warrant a searching review of those events, including the fact that within hours of the Russian offer of ‘dirt’ regarding Hillary Clinton in June 2016, Mr. Trump announced a major speech promising revelations about his opponent,” they wrote.

The crimes they listed weren’t the only ones that could be invoked as part of Mueller’s probe.

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Covering up alleged instances of collusion could itself bring the possibility of other charges.

In any case, the authors said that “any suggestion that ‘collusion is not a crime’ is false.”

“While there may not yet be definitive proof that the Trump campaign or its associates engaged in criminal collusion with Russia, there are legitimate questions regarding whether the president and those close to him worked with or alongside the Russians in their efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, questions that demand answers.”

  • With files from Maham Abedi, Katie Dangerfield and the Associated Press

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