Mueller may be close to wrapping up a significant part of the Russia investigation

 

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller is getting ready to interview Hope Hicks, the White House communications director and one of President Donald Trump's closest aides.
  • Hicks was present during several moments leading up to Trump's decision to fire FBI director James Comey.
  • Comey's firing makes up the basis of an obstruction-of-justice case Mueller is building against Trump, and experts say that if Mueller is ready to interview one of Trump's key advisers about it, the case is nearing its conclusion. 


A report from Politico this week, which found that special counsel Robert Mueller is gearing up to interview White House communications director Hope Hicks, indicates that a significant part of the Russia investigation is likely moving into its final stages. 

Hicks has long been one of President Donald Trump's most trusted advisers, and she was present during some events that are key to the special counsel's investigation. 

Mueller's probe includes multiple components. In addition to looking into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the 2016 election in his favor, the special counsel is also investigating Trump for obstruction of justice related to his decision to fire FBI director James Comey.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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Hicks was a key presence during a number of critical moments leading up to Comey's firing.

Comey was spearheading the FBI's Russia investigation when he was dismissed as FBI director in May. At first, the White House said he was fired because of his handling of the bureau's investigation into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server to conduct government business. But Trump later told NBC's Lester Holt that "this Russia thing" had been a factor in his decision. 

The biggest challenge a prosecutor faces in an obstruction-of-justice case is proving corrupt intent, which is almost always difficult to establish. But Trump's public statements bashing Comey and the investigation, as well as a draft letter he put together with adviser Stephen Miller in early May laying out his reasons for firing Comey, could change the ballgame. 

"The best way to prove someone's intent is through their own words and actions," former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told Business Insider in an earlier interview. "Here, you have a letter that was written by Miller, at the direction of the president, that contains what the president's thoughts were at that time." 

Hicks was with Trump the weekend he and Miller drafted the letter. She was also with Trump in the Oval Office for a meeting on May 8, the day before Trump fired Comey. During the meeting, Trump described the letter that he and Miller had composed. 

Though its full contents remain unclear, The Washington Post reported that it focused on what was perhaps Trump's greatest frustration with Comey: that the FBI director did not publicly announce, when he was leading the bureau's investigation, that Trump was not personally under investigation.

Mueller's obstruction-of-justice case is 'probably coming to a close'

That Mueller is getting ready to interview Hicks, who has long been in Trump's innermost circle, signals that he's nearing the end stages of the obstruction of justice investigation, Mariotti said Saturday. 

"When you're interviewing people in a large-scale investigation like this, you generally start at the bottom and move towards the top," Mariotti said. "As you interview lower-level advisers, sometimes they give you information that makes you realize there are additional documents you need to obtain or interviews you need to conduct, before working your way up."

Adam Goldberg, who served as a White House lawyer in President Bill Clinton's administration, echoed that point. 

"Anytime you can get someone who is the right-hand person or who’s been around the primary target of an investigation, under oath, answering detailed questions, means you’ve progressed very far along in the investigation," Goldberg told Politico. 

Though the president's defense attorneys, like White House lawyer Ty Cobb, have expressed confidence that the Russia probe will conclude by as soon as the end of the calendar year, sources close to the investigation told The Washington Post on Sunday that they expect the investigation to continue deep into 2018, and possibly beyond that. 

Mueller's team took over the FBI's investigation in May, when he was appointed special counsel following Comey's firing. Prosecutors have so far extracted a guilty plea from former Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who was charged with one count of lying to federal agents about his contacts with individuals who claimed to be linked to the Russian government. 

In October, Mueller indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates on charges of money laundering and their work as foreign agents 

Hicks' testimony could be useful for other parts of the investigation as well. In addition to being privy to Trump's thoughts leading up to his decision to fire Comey, Hicks was also with the president on Air Force One when he "dictated" an initially misleading statement that his son, Donald Trump Jr., issued in response to reports that he met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016.

The statement had to be amended several times after it emerged that Trump Jr. took the meeting when he was offered dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."

Hicks was among the advisers who believed the White House should release a truthful statement that could not be repudiated if more details surfaced later, the Post reported. They were ultimately overruled, and the special counsel is now scrutinizing Trump's response to determine what he knew about the meeting and whether he acted to conceal its purpose.

She was also one of the campaign officials who was notified that Trump Jr. was in contact with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. 

"People shouldn't think of this investigation as one big indictment that's going to come out charging everyone who's involved," Mariotti said. "There are going to be pieces of it that come out bit by bit."

But for now, he added, "it looks like the obstruction of justice aspect of the case is probably coming to a close."

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