Mueller wraps up 2018 with 5 guilty pleas plus indictments of 25...

Mueller wraps up 2018 with 5 guilty pleas plus indictments of 25 Russians

Since Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed in May 2017, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the investigation as a "witch hunt." (White House photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON — As 2017 closed, Trump’s attorneys were reportedly telling the president that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was expected to wrap up by January 2018.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the probe into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government has not just continued, but brought fresh legal trouble to the president and many of his current and former allies.

Here are some of the year’s most significant developments.

Mueller indicts 25 Russians

In February the Special Counsel’s Office announced that a federal grand jury returned an indictment against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities accused of interfering with U.S. elections and political processes.

The 37-page indictment charged each of the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the United States.

In addition, three defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants were charged with aggravated identity theft.

The charges represented the first brought forward by Mueller’s team over attempts to sway the 2016 election toward Trump, but they would not be the last.

In July the Department of Justice announced that a grand jury had returned with indictments brought down by Mueller’s office against 12 Russian military intelligence officials. The Russians were accused of participating in a hacking campaign against the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 20 state election boards and a software company that verifies voter registry information.

Mueller’s net widens

2018 was a busy year for Mueller.

In addition to the indictments of the 25 Russians, his team secured guilty pleas from:

  • Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort
  • Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates
  • Dutch attorney Alex Van Der Zwaan
  • Richard Pinedo, a California man who sold stolen bank account numbers to Russian operatives
  • Michael Cohen, Trump’s former longtime personal attorney.

Others who had struck plea deals in the previous year saw their cases proceed. Foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos served two weeks in prison and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn netting a favorable write-up from the special counsel over assistance he provided investigators. Flynn appeared in court on Dec. 18 for sentencing but after it appeared that the chastising judge might not spare him jail time for lying to the FBI as expected, Flynn opted to take the judge up on his offer to postpone the sentencing and continue cooperating with Mueller. 

More names swirled behind the scenes, with Trump confidante Roger Stone and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi both publicly predicting that they’ll soon be under indictment.

Trump answers Mueller’s questions

One of the major questions facing the White House was whether or not Trump would sit down with the special counsel’s office for an interview.

During an impromptu Q&A with reporters in late January, Trump said he was not just willing to meet with Mueller, but was “looking forward to it.”

The then-lead attorney on Trump’s personal legal team, Ty Cobb, quickly backtracked the following day. The lawyer noted that Trump was willing to meet with Mueller, but that the president will ultimately “be guided by the advice of his personal counsel.”

In May, Trump revisited the proposal, reiterating that he would love to meet with Mueller, but that he would have to be assured that he would be treated fairly, since, in the president’s words, “everybody sees it now and it’s a pure witch hunt.”

The day after November’s midterm elections, Trump revealed that he would be answering Mueller’s questions  but not face-to-face.

Instead, the president said he was drafting his own responses to a series of queries posed by the special counsel.

The final answers were ultimately turned in on Nov. 20.

Mueller keeps his job

Trump took his first public swipe against Mueller in March.

The attack raised concerns across Washington that a detente between the White House and the Special Counsel’s Office may have come to a close, potentially putting Mueller on the chopping block.

Cobb told reporters days later that Trump was not considering removing Mueller.

In the aftermath of the Cohen raid the following month, Trump appeared less than certain, simply stating “we’ll see what happens” when a reporter asked him him about the possibility.

Trump was asked the question again during a press conference that month.

The president replied coyly, noting that while there had been rumors for months that he would fire Mueller, the former FBI director remained special counsel.

While fears died down, they reemerged following the midterm elections.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped down at the president’s request on Nov. 7, the day after the elections.

Sessions had previously recused himself from matters related to the 2016 election, including the Mueller probe, therefore granting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein the sole authority to dismiss the special counsel.

Trump named Matt Whitaker, a critic of the investigation, as acting attorney general. The White House noted that Whitaker would now oversee the probe.

However, as 2018 draws to a close, Mueller appears to have survived.

Departing Attorney General Jess Sessions waves goodbye to his staff as he leaves the Department of Justice on Nov. 7. Matt Whitaker, right, Sessions’ chief of staff who now serves as acting attorney general, escorted Sessions out. (Department of Justice/Twitter)
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