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Just How Far Can Robert Mueller's Investigation Reach?

Trump asserts that the Special Counsel can't investigate Trump's family's finances and businesses. Is he wrong?
Just How Far Can Robert Mueller's Investigation Reach?
Can these hands reach aaaalll the way into Trump's financial records? Image from: The Nation

In his latest speed-date with the not-failing New York Times, Donald Trump apparently asserted that Special Counsel Robert Mueller could not generally investigate Trump's family's "finances":

Asked if Mr. Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Mr. Trump said, “I would say yes.” He would not say what he would do about it. “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”

The paragraph's a little unclear: it might mean (1) Trump believes Mueller can't investigate Trump's family finances at all or (2) Trump believes Mueller can't investigate Trump's family finances beyond any ties their finances have to Russia. It's also not clear what "family's finances" might mean. Business entities? Loans to and/or investments in Trump businesses and/or family members by the Russian government, businesses, or individuals? Other?

However you read this passage in the Times story, the scope of Mueller's authority (his jurisdiction) can only be ascertained by an examination of Mueller's mandate.

The entire order appointing Mueller can be found here. The key language of the order is succinct:

The Special Counsel is authorized to conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James 8. Corney in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017, including: (i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and (ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and (iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).

To pack everything into one location, here is what 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a) says:

§ 600.4 Jurisdiction.

(a) Original jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of a Special Counsel shall be established by the Attorney General. The Special Counsel will be provided with a specific factual statement of the matter to be investigated. The jurisdiction of a Special Counsel shall also include the authority to investigate and prosecute federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel's investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses; and to conduct appeals arising out of the matter being investigated and/or prosecuted.


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In sum, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein - who is no favorite of Mr. Trump - has essentially authorized Mr. Mueller to investigate

  • "links and/or coordination" between the Russian government and "individuals associated with" the Trump campaign;
  • "matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation," of any links/coordination; and
  • "federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel's investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses..."

So...Trump family finances...in bounds or out of bounds for Mueller? In several ways, it's easy to conclude that they are in bounds, at least to the extent they are entwined with "links and/or coordination" between the Russian government and Trump campaign.

As to the "links and/or coordination" clause itself - the family finances would be in bounds, if, for example, Trump or family members were offered cash gifts, loans, business opportunities in Russia, and/or investments from the Russian government as inducements to allow the government to coordinate with the Trump campaign to affect the election. Other examples: if Trump family businesses' employees were used as go-betweens to communicate/coordinate with the Russian government; or if Trump facilities (hotels, clubs, or condos) were used for meetings between "individuals associated with the" Trump campaign and the Russian government to coordinate their activities.

As to 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a), suppose that money from Trump "family finances" is used to bribe witnesses to commit perjury, or to bribe Trump campaign employees or associates to destroy evidence, or to pay people to otherwise interfere with Mueller's investigation. Again, probably in bounds. Or, suppose that witnesses are offered employment with the Trump businesses (or continued employment or promotion) in exchange for perjury or other interference. Or suppose that Russian government money is laundered through Trump properties and then used to pay employees or others to interfere with the investigation.

The only real ambiguity is in the scope of the second clause: "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation..." Generally speaking, this is an omnibus clause: it serves to save the lawyers who drafted the order from having to enumerate, laboriously, every conceivable avenue Mueller's investigation might explore. And, even within that clause, the only real question will arise as to what "directly" means, and what the absence of "or indirectly" might mean.

At least one commentator thinks the order appointing Mueller is sturdy enough to carry him wherever he wants to go.

The scope of the Special Counsel order appears, therefore, to be broad enough to reach Trump "family finances" to the extent they played any role in any "links and/or coordination" or played or play any role in interference with the investigation. It seems likely that Trump's his "family finances" are in bounds enough for scrutiny by Mueller and, perhaps, exposure to the public via the Special Counsel's investigation.

This might be one reason why the discussion around the White House about pardons has suddenly gotten louder.

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