Your primer on Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry: Cohen pleads guilty, Manafort pardon is back, WikiLeaks connect

By Prarthana Mitra

US president Donald Trump was more involved in discussions over a potential Russian business deal during the presidential campaign than was previously known, according to his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who pled guilty Thursday to lying to Congress about the extent and duration of these discussions.

Trump’s enmeshed political and business ambitions

Cohen who had already pled guilty this year to committing campaign finance violations and financial crimes, admitted to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and congressional investigators this week, about the true duration of the negotiations and the extent of Trump’s involvement in the Moscow-based Trump Tower project. This raises the possibility that Cohen might have information about the real subject of inquiry: Trump’s role in conspiring with Russia to swing the 2016 election in Republican favour.

According to US media, the latest information shows that Trump’s business discussions occurred around the same time Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 elections were ramped up and they continued well until June 2016.

That same month, a hack into the Democratic National Committee presented the first public evidence of Moscow’s interference. This infiltration occurred three months before Russian operatives hacked the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, according to a grand jury indictment made public this year. Thousands of Podesta’s private emails were stolen and sent to WikiLeaks to distribute and consequently undermine the Democratic campaign.

It is, however, unclear, if Trump’s associates and other members of the Trump Organisation were privy to the tampering efforts.

That said, this marks the second time that Cohen, once a Trump loyalist, has endangered his presidency. The latest testimony comes three months after he admitted to siphoning campaign funds to conceal the would-be president’s sex scandals.

The spectre of a pardon haunts Mueller’s inquiry

So far, thirty-four people have faced criminal charges that stem from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This includes Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted of several counts of financial fraud in August and faces upto 10 years in prison.

Another cooperating and potentially crucial witness for Mueller, Manafort was recently accused by prosecutors of lying in breach of his plea agreement, that emboldened Trump to renew the possibility of granting him a pardon.

Mission to protect the investigation: Who’s on board?

He continues to threaten to fire Mueller, despite being thwarted by his own party. After the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another crucial figure in the Russia inquiry, the GOP has stepped up its efforts to protect Mueller from acting AG Matthew G. Whitaker, a vocal critic of the inquiry.

Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell said this week, “The president’s not going to fire Robert Mueller…Nor do I think he should.” Right now, the Senate is trying to push for a bill that preserves the special counsel’s staff and investigation from unprecedented budgetcuts and ousters.

WikiLeaks enters the fold

Speaking of the investigation which is under tight wraps, documents show that Mueller is now considering investigating if anyone connected to Trump’s presidential campaign interacted with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living in Ecuador’s embassy in London since 2012.

Mueller’s team believes a conservative author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi tipped off Trump’s campaign advisor Roger Stone months before WikiLeaks released Podesta’s emails in October 2016.

This is based on Corsi’s emails now in Mueller’s possession and reported by The Washington Post. In one email, Stone asked Corsi to try to obtain emails Assange’s organisation had on Clinton. In another, Corsi replied, ”Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps. One shortly after I’m back. 2nd in October Impact planned to be very damaging.” Corsi testified this year that this was based on speculation and his own deduction, not on advance knowledge about WikiLeak’s plans.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Donald TrumpManafortRobert MuellerRussiaWikileaks