Mueller Just Stepped Over Trump's Red Line
Last July, President Donald Trump warned the special counsel Robert Mueller that it would be a "violation" for him and his group of Justice Department investigators to examine the Trump family's finances. The president agreed with a New York Times reporter's question about whether doing so would amount to crossing a "red line."
Mueller apparently has decided to cross that line anyway. The Times reported on Thursday that Mueller's team has subpoenaed Trump's company, the Trump Organization, for records pertaining to a number of business deals -- including some related to Russia.
Trump and his lawyers have thrown down all sorts of gauntlets around Mueller's probe. They have argued for a tight deadline leading to its conclusion; negotiated for where, when and how the president might agree to an interview with investigators; and pointed to areas that they think are off-limits.
It would appear that Mueller, with the full force of the law and subpoena power behind him, intends to proceed as he sees fit.
Mueller has already made it clear that he wouldn’t hesitate to look at Trump's business transactions. My Bloomberg News colleagues reported last July -- just a day after Trump conversed with the Times about that red line -- that Mueller was expanding the scope of his investigation to Trump's commercial dealings.
Mueller's probe seems to be pursuing three primary questions. The first is whether Trump or his campaign worked with the Kremlin to tilt the 2016 election in Trump's favor. The second is whether Trump or his advisers obstructed justice to derail the federal investigation. The third involves the possibility of financial quid pro quos that Trump and his family members (especially his son-in-law, Jared Kushner) may have sought in exchange for public policy favors (like, for example, possibly lifting economic sanctions on Russia or shifting U.S. Ukraine policy).
The quid pro quo stuff is likely to be all about money ultimately, and that's why the Times's scoop on Thursday is significant. Mueller is venturing into the Trump Organization itself, the nexus of all of the president's business deals. He's collecting records from a company that's inseparable from the president himself. No major transactions have occurred at the Trump Organization without Trump's blessing, and his unwillingness and failure to separate himself from his company since entering the White House makes that reality even more apparent.
The president's intersection with Russian money is also a potential powder keg. The Times said that Mueller is examining a 2015 proposal by a Trump business partner, Felix Sater, to Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to orchestrate a real estate deal in Moscow. Sater claimed that he could get Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, to buy into the transaction and that doing so could help the president win the election.
Sater is, as they say in the trade, a character. And Cohen's efforts to contact the Kremlin about that deal relied on using a publicly available email address in the Kremlin's press office. That's not exactly the work of sophisticates who have contacts in the highest reaches of Russia's government.
Cohen has handled some of Trump's most sensitive matters, including payoffs to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump.
And Sater is a career criminal with organized crime ties. Trump and his children worked closely with him on the launch of the Trump SoHo Hotel and other real estate projects in the U.S. long before he set himself on course for the White House.