The Latest on Mueller's Russia Investigation

There were two big stories published last night on Special Counsel Bob Mueller's investigation into possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, both centered around former Trump-Pence campaign chair and longtime Donald Trump associate Paul Manafort.

1. Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, and Pamela Brown at CNN: [Content Note: Video may autoplay at link] U.S. Government Wiretapped Former Trump Campaign Chair.
US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election, sources tell CNN, an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official now at the center of the Russia meddling probe.

...Special counsel Robert Mueller's team, which is leading the investigation into Russia's involvement in the election, has been provided details of these communications.

A secret order authorized by the court that handles the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) began after Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation that began in 2014. It centered on work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine's former ruling party, the sources told CNN.

The surveillance was discontinued at some point last year for lack of evidence, according to one of the sources.

The FBI then restarted the surveillance after obtaining a new FISA warrant that extended at least into early this year.

Sources say the second warrant was part of the FBI's efforts to investigate ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives. Such warrants require the approval of top Justice Department and FBI officials, and the FBI must provide the court with information showing suspicion that the subject of the warrant may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.
There is much more at the link. It's likely that Trump was caught on some of these recordings, though there is not even a hint here that he was captured on tape discussing foreign collusion with Manafort. (There's not even a hint that Manafort himself was captured discussing collusion.) At this point, we have no idea at all what was discovered via the wiretaps, if anything.

Also: This is a very bad leak. As Susan Hennessey, Shannon Togawa Mercer, and Benjamin Wittes note at Lawfare, the sourcing for this piece is vague, even in an era of anonymous sources, and the disclosure of a FISA wiretap is more serious than a run-of-the-mill leak:
The story discloses FISA wiretaps against a named U.S. person. Whatever Paul Manafort may have done, he is a citizen of this country, and this is an egregious civil liberties violation. It's also a significant compromise of national security information. Simply put, FISA information should never leak. When it does, it erodes the systems through which the government protects national security—and it rightly erodes public confidence that the systems designed to protect civil liberties work as intended.

Political leaking of wiretapping information is the stuff of the Hoover era. It has no legitimate place in our politics.
I absolutely agree. As you may recall, I have been deeply concerned about the potential erosion of checks and balances in pursuit of accountability for disolyal Trump and his undemocratic cronies, and this is a perfect example of what I fear: Throwing away the rights and privacy of a central figure of this investigation in order to — what, exactly? Make sure things like our rights and privacy aren't thrown away by this administration?

It's likely that the leak came from a member of Congress, given the limited number of people who have access to information about FISA warrants. Either it was a Democrat who wanted to reassure their base that things are happening, or a Republican who wanted to inform their base about what they perceive as government overreach. Either way, leaking this information is bad, and CNN's decision to publish it because SCOOPS! is bad.

Mueller should and must be allowed to complete his investigation without leaks that fundamentally undermine the very democratic norms we're ostensibly tasking him with protecting.

2. Sharon LaFraniere, Matt Apuzzo, and Adam Goldman at the New York Times: With a Picked Lock and a Threatened Indictment, Mueller's Inquiry Sets a Tone.
Paul J. Manafort was in bed early one morning in July when federal agents bearing a search warrant picked the lock on his front door and raided his Virginia home. They took binders stuffed with documents and copied his computer files, looking for evidence that Mr. Manafort, [Donald] Trump's former campaign chairman, set up secret offshore bank accounts. They even photographed the expensive suits in his closet.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, then followed the house search with a warning: His prosecutors told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him, said two people close to the investigation.

The moves against Mr. Manafort are just a glimpse of the aggressive tactics used by Mr. Mueller and his team of prosecutors in the four months since taking over the Justice Department's investigation into Russia's attempts to disrupt last year's election, according to lawyers, witnesses and American officials who have described the approach. Dispensing with the plodding pace typical of many white-collar investigations, Mr. Mueller's team has used what some describe as shock-and-awe tactics to intimidate witnesses and potential targets of the inquiry.

..."They are setting a tone. It's important early on to strike terror in the hearts of people in Washington, or else you will be rolled," said Solomon L. Wisenberg, who was deputy independent counsel in the investigation that led to the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999. "You want people saying to themselves, 'Man, I had better tell these guys the truth.'"
All of the blah-blah about Mueller's "shock-and-awe tactics" is so much fluff. The only real information of any consequence here (if true, per anonymous sources) is that Mueller has informed Manafort that he will be indicted, possibly as no more than a scare tactic.

Hennessey, Togawa Mercer, and Wittes at Lawfare again:
The significance of this is that it means that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has reached a critical stage—the point at which he may soon start making allegations in public. Those allegations may involve conduct unrelated to L'Affaire Russe—that is, alleged bad behavior by Manafort and maybe others that does not involve the Trump campaign—but which may nonetheless serve to pressure Manafort to cooperate on matters more central. Or they may involve conduct that involves his behavior with respect to the campaign itself. Note that if Manafort cooperates, we may not see anything public for a long time to come. Delay, that is, may be a sign of success. But in the absence of cooperation, the fireworks may be about to begin.
I wouldn't hold my breath for fireworks, in any case. As I've said before, this is evidence that Mueller's investigation is proceeding. Which is a good thing. But unless and until something else happens, that's all it is. Continue to maintain measured expectations.

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