How Many Prongs in Mueller’s Investigation of Trump-Russia?

Tridents have 3 prongs.

Dinner forks have 4 prongs.

How many prongs does Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump-Russia have?

A google search asking this questions yields lots of interesting links, but very few articles attempting to answer this extremely important question. The most recent one I could find was a WashPo article from mid-June: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/06/15/3-prongs-of-the-russia-investigation-explained/?utm_term=.d001ab2ea9fd

Since a lot has been learned since June, I decided to take a shot at answering this question afresh. While I have no formal background on this topic, I’ve been deeply worried about the Trump-Russia connection since the summer of 2016 (see for instance https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-and-putins-relationship/500852/ )

The following consists of analysis of what is already publicly known along with some informed speculation. To be clear, I claim no non-public sources of information.

First, let me define my terms. I consider something to be a separate “prong” of the investigation if it meets the following criteria:

— It is self-contained. Any investigations, indictments, or convictions are intrinsic to what’s in that prong.

— It matters. It either involves significant wrongdoing resulting in indictments and convictions, and/or it provides important motivation or otherwise connects to another prong that eventually results in other indictments and convictions.

By this definition, Watergate had 2 main prongs:

— The burglary at the Watergate office complex committed by Nixon’s operatives, certainly with Nixon’s knowledge and perhaps at his directive.

— The cover-up of that crime committed by several members of Nixon’s White House, starting with Nixon himself.

While there were other prongs (e.g. the break-in to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office), the above 2 prongs were the dominant sources of indictments, convictions, and ultimately the downfall and resignation of Richard Nixon.

Often, it’s hard to fully understand what the main prongs are of an investigation while it’s playing out. Instead, information comes out in strands. Over time, the strands start to tie together, making it clearer which prongs are separate and which seemingly separate strands eventually tie into the same prong. This is where we are today with Mueller’s investigation of Trump-Russia.


The Trump-Russia Strands

How many strands are there to the Trump-Russia investigation?

Here are 5 strands that we know are under investigation as of today:

Manafort/Gates: The investigation and indictment of Manafort and Gates for myriad financial and other crimes related to actions they hid and lied about in support of Russia and Russian-controlled political groups;

Papadopolous: The indictment and guilty plea of George Papadopolous for lying to investigators about his contacts with Russia;

Flynn: The investigation and impending indictment of Mike Flynn for myriad crimes related to actions he hid and lied about in support of Russia and Russian-controlled political groups (and other countries such as Turkey);

Comey: The firing of James Comey while he was attempting to investigate the Trump-Russia connection; and

Russian Hacking into politically relevant troves of documents (DNC, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager), the release of those documents, and other types of interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.

In addition to these 5 strands that are already known to be under investigation, there are several other broad topics that are almost certainly being investigated by Mueller and his staff:

Trump Campaign Involvement with Russian Hacking: Did the Trump Campaign know about the Russian hacking before it was public? And, if so, did they do anything to aid, abet, and/or directly benefit from Russia’s efforts?

Illicit Trump Financial Ties to Russia: Does Donald Trump and/or do his companies have extensive financial ties to Russia that (a) involve him in money laundering or other financial impropriety, and/or (b) make him beholden to Russia or otherwise compromise his ability to faithfully serve as U.S. President?

Trump Blackmailed by Russia in Non-Financial Ways: Does Russia posses material (“Kompromat”) that they are using to blackmail him directly, and/or that Trump is worried they will use to discredit, embarrass, or otherwise damage him?

Cover-up: Has Donald Trump and/or other senior members of his family and/or administration engaged in obstruction of justice or other illegal cover-up activities associated with any of the above areas?

Making Sense of What We Know So Far

The 5 strands known to be under investigation, and the 4 other topics very likely under investigation surely don’t represent 9 separate “prongs” of the investigation. But whether and how these strands are intertwined with each other remains murky, at least based on information that’s public today.

Nonetheless it’s useful to try to see how these separate strands could tie together into fundamental prongs. This is helpful for many reasons, including (a) helping the public understand the broader narrative of what’s being investigated and where the plot is likely going, and (b) guiding investigative journalists and others as they look under rocks to help move the investigation forward.

In June the Washington Post’s Callum Borchers grouped the investigation into 3 prongs: Russian Meddling & Trump Campaign Collusion, Obstruction of Justice (i.e. a Cover Up), and Financial Crimes.

Based on what we know today, it’s clear to me that there are at least 4 prongs, and probably 5. I would update Borchers’ 3 strands to the following 5:

Russian Meddling & Trump Campaign Collusion

Obstruction of Justice

Financial Crimes Unrelated to the Trump Campaign or President Trump

Financial Crimes Directly related to the Trump Campaign and/or President Trump

President Trump Betraying his Oath of Office by Exhibiting Fealty to Russia over Fealty to the U.S.

The last 2 are important additional prongs through which to view the Mueller investigation. Regarding financial crimes, it appears that there certainly have been financial crimes committed by Manafort, Price, and perhaps Flynn that do not directly implicate President Trump or the campaign. It’s important and appropriate that Mueller pursue these vigorously.

The question that remains is whether there were also financial crimes that implicate the Trump campaign or Presidency, and/or Trump himself. There are outlines of places to look for these links and certainly many credible rumors and pieces of evidence that need to be investigated. But at this point, nothing public has yet come out that points to an indictable crime.

Regarding Trump potentially betraying his Oath of Office, it’s important to view that as a potential crime/charge separate from financial crimes. For instance, if Trump is actually being blackmailed by Russian Kompromat, he may be violating his oath for reasons other than direct financial gain. [Note that while some may call this Treason, I am avoiding that term because it has a very specific meaning in our constitution that’s narrower than how the term is commonly used.] The most powerful public evidence pointing to this crime is Trump’s often lavish praise of Putin coupled with Trump’s bizarrely consistent refusal to criticize Putin for anything.

It’s too soon to say where Mueller’s investigation will lead and where it will end up. But it’s already clear even at this early date that the likely outcome will be the revelation of a series of crimes that surpass Watergate in seriousness and risk to the fundamental integrity of our country and system of government.

The 3 indictments that have happened so far are clearly just the tip of the iceberg — expect dozens more to come in the weeks and months ahead. And, if President Trump is directly linked to any one of the 4 prongs involving his presidency, the only possible just outcome will be his removal from office.

We must all stay lucid and vigilant to ensure that the investigation moves forward apace and without interference.