Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein privately narrowed the focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s effort to get President Trump elected in 2016, according to a New York Times report that cites former Justice Department and FBI officials, leaving open questions around the president’s links to Russia as the country again attempts to swing an election in his favor.
Mueller, a former FBI director who served as the special counsel of a two-year probe into Russia election interference and possible obstruction of justice by the Trump campaign, confirmed during a July 2019 House judiciary committee that his report did not exonerate Trump “for the acts that he allegedly committed” and that he was not indicted because the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion states criminal charges cannot be brought against a sitting president.
The report led to indictments of several Trump associates including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and ex-fixer Michael Cohen, but according to the Times, while Rosenstein told lawmakers that Mueller would look into “any links” between Russia and the Trump campaign, he instead told the special counsel to focus on criminal misconduct regarding interference during the 2016 presidential election.
“Do your job and then shut it down,” Rosenstein allegedly told Mueller, according to a book by journalist Jeffrey Toobin, with McCabe telling the Times that limiting the focus to crimes runs counter to an investigation over national security, including potential compromised financial relationships.
While Trump and his allies have repeatedly called the Russsian investigation a hoax, a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report published on August 18 confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin directly ordered the hacking of the Democratic Party’s servers and that Trump campaign officials sought to receive advanced notice of Russia-supplied WikiLeaks releases through Roger Stone, which the report confirmed Trump was aware of despite written answers from the president to Mueller saying otherwise.
Stone was convicted of seven counts of felony deriving from the Mueller investigation, but Trump, a longtime friend, commuted Stone’s 40-month prison sentence in July, with the White House continuing to call the investigation a “Russia hoax.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence reaffirmed in early August that Russia is once again attempting to sway the presidential election in Trump’s favor, but on Saturday, all in-person briefings with Congress regarding election security were cancelled, alarming members of both parties.
“We opened this case in May 2017 because we had information that indicated a national security threat might exist, specifically a counterintelligence threat involving the president and Russia,” acting bureau director at the time Andrew McCabe told the Times. “I expected that issue and issues related to it would be fully examined by the special counsel team. If a decision was made not to investigate those issues, I am surprised and disappointed. I was not aware of that.”
In 2018, while flanked by Putin at a Helsinki summit, Trump challenged his own intelligence community over its findings of election interference by Russia. “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The Trump administration has been accused of politicizing several different agencies of the federal government, especially the Justice Department. Attorney General William Barr drew rebukes earlier this year for his unprecedented decision to drop charges against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during Mueller’s investigation. While a federal appeals court panel moved in favor of dropping the case in a split decision, the majority of members on Washington D.C.’s Court of Appeals voted to dismiss the panel’s decision and proceed with discussions over Barr’s decision.