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It was yet another Washington Post blockbuster: Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has told Donald Trump's lawyers he is not currently a criminal target of his intensifying investigation into the Russia scandal. But behind that headline lurked something else altogether. The president is in greater legal peril than ever.
Say what? How to reconcile the these seemingly polar opposites?
Here's how: While Mueller did tell Trump's lawyers (now in the singular with the departure of John Dowd) last month that the president was not currently a target, he still is a subject, a person whose conduct falls within the scope of a grand jury investigation.
While Trump must have been elated to hear he wasn't a target, when you break down what else the April 3 WaPo story states Mueller had to say, a different and considerably darker picture emerges that should scare the bejesus out of the president and his sycophancy:
It is the first clear evidence that the president's own conduct is being investigated.
That investigation is twofold: Obstruction of justice and collusion-interference.
Mueller is preparing a report on obstruction but needs to first interview the president.
The president is a subject of the collusion-interference investigation but not (yet) a target.
It is wishful thinking that the president will not be a criminal target in the future.
This is because Mueller will continue the collusion-interference aspect of the investigation.
And what of the obstruction report?
Actually, in the course of negotiations with Trump's lawyers/lawyer over an interview with the president, Mueller's team has indicated that he is considering writing reports on the team's findings in stages with the first report focused on the obstruction issue and possibly due out in June or July.
That in and of itself may be bad -- no, make that terrible -- news for Trump.
This is because the special prosecutor appears to believe he has an obligation to issue a report and that doesn't happen when someone is exonerated, case in point being . . . you guessed it . . . when then-FBI Director James Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton in the great State Department email server flap. And remember that there is no aspect of what we do know about the Russia scandal more incriminating for Trump than his repeated efforts to shut down the investigation, including firing Comey.
Under the regulations governing appointment of the special counsel, Mueller would provide a confidential report explaining his conclusions to the attorney general -- or, in this case, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein since AG Jeff Sessions kept lying about his contacts with Russians during the Trump campaign, and to the president's everlasting anger, recused his sorry-assed self.
Rosenstein would then decide whether to make the report public, but in any event must provide the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate judiciary committees with an explanation about any decision to conclude the investigation, or at least the obstruction phase of it, whether in the form of a memo about the report or the report itself, which might lay out the case for impeachment.
Under those special counsel regulations, whether or how Rosenstein releases the report would be based on a determination of whether that would be "in the public interest," a much-battered concept as it regards Trump's congressional allies.
Given the behavior of those Capitol Hill allies when it comes to oversight and their proclivity for launching counter-investigations against Mueller, Clinton and the other usual Democratic suspects on flimsy or nonexistent grounds, they could sit on the report or block a vote to release it. Which would then set up other possibilities: Democrats could campaign against that decision in the midterm elections. Or the report might be leaked.
Are we having fun yet?
Mueller's statement last month that Trump was not then a criminal target may also have to do with the question as to whether a sitting president can be indicted (a criminal process) as opposed to impeached (a political process).
Justice Department legal opinions issued in 1973 and 2000 say a sitting president cannot be indicted criminally while in office, nor do I believe the savvy Mueller would waylay his own investigation by trying to break new legal ground by calling for an indictment, an action that would grind on endlessly and then some through the courts.
Finally, there is the collusion-interference aspect of the investigation.
We have long passed the point where there is any question about whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The evidence is overwhelming, while evidence that members of the Trump campaign team like Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Roger Stone colluded grows by the day.
That aspect of Mueller's investigation hinges, to an extent, on how the obstruction aspect plays out, including how big a fool Trump makes of himself when and if he submits to an interview. But the big hinge is whether any campaign team members or Trump willingly coordinated their actions with Russia.
Complicating or clarifying matters -- which depends on whether you believe Trump is as pure as the driven snow or a dirty, rotten scoundrel -- it now appears that the Justice Department views collusion as a criminal activity.
That conclusion is peeking out between the lines in a court document released earlier this week in which Mueller lays out counter-arguments against Manafort's suit charging that the special counsel overstepped his mandate in charging Trump's former campaign manager with a slew of financial law violations, including money laundering.
In response to this claim, Mueller states that he asked Rosenstein for specific authorization as to the areas he wanted to investigate. Rosenstein spelled out the scope of Mueller's jurisdiction in a memorandum, and it includes
Allegations that Paul Manafort: Committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law [and] Committed a crime or crimes arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government . . .If collusion is a crime, what crime is it?
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says Mueller's own actions in indicting those 13 Russians and three Russian entities for using social media to help Trump win provide a big clue. It's called conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Interestingly, most of the rest of Rosenstein's memo is redacted. Mueller clearly has the go-ahead to investigate other individuals for collusion. He is not yet revealing their identities, but one wonders if they include President Donald Trump.
A final thought: Mueller's seeming lack of independence has been viewed as a vulnerability to be exploited by the White House and his other foes. But it turns out to be a strength because he has sought and received Rosenstein's permission regarding the scope of his investigation and Rosenstein -- a Trump appointee who in Sessions' absence is the ranking Justice Department official on the matter -- has repeatedly and publicly affirmed his confidence in and approval of the special counsel.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related events.