The former FBI director leading the probe into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia is taking a page from the playbook federal prosecutors have used for decades in criminal investigations, from white-collar fraud to mob racketeering:
Follow the money. Start small and work up. See who will “flip” and testify against higher-ups by pursuing charges such as tax evasion, money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
While Trump’s legal team doesn’t anticipate that Mueller will violate his mandate, it’s prepared to take action if he does, Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers, said in an interview. Matters that would be out of bounds include looking at Trump’s taxes or real-estate transactions of the president or his family members, Sekulow said.
“If we felt there was an issue that developed that was outside the scope of legitimate inquiry we would, in normal course, file our objections with the special counsel," Sekulow said. “If we weren’t satisfied with the resolution we would look at going through the appropriate channels at the Department of Justice."
Sekulow also said it’s “fundamentally incorrect” to assume that Mueller is conducting a mob-style investigation when it comes to Trump and his family members, at least based on what he’s seen to date.
"People are speculating on things without a full grasp of the nature of what’s taking place," he said.
Rosenstein said on “Fox News Sunday” this month that “we don’t engage in fishing expeditions” and Mueller needs to come to him for approval to investigate any potential crimes beyond his mandate. Mueller and Rosenstein declined to comment for this story, according to their aides.
Those who have worked with Mueller said he knows how to build a case piece-by-piece.
"Mueller is no dummy," said William Mateja, a former federal prosecutor who investigated white-collar crime and served at the Justice Department when Mueller was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "You use crimes like money laundering and tax evasion to get cooperation from people who might be in the know."
Among the experienced prosecutors he’s recruited in that effort is Andrew Weissmann, who worked in the 1990s to dismantle crime families on racketeering charges. He squeezed lower-level mobsters to become cooperating witnesses, a tactic that eventually led to the conviction of Genovese crime boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante for racketeering in 1997. Later, Weissmann led the Enron Task Force that investigated and prosecute cases involving the defunct Houston energy trader.
Greg Andres, another team member, is a former deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division who took down Bonanno family boss Joseph Massino. He also prosecuted former Credit Suisse Group AG broker Eric Butler for securities fraud. Butler was convicted in 2009.
To be sure, Mueller’s team is using 21st century technology to investigate last year’s hacking into Democratic Party computers and moves to “weaponize” social media to influence voters.
But it’s also using time-tested methods, casting a wide net to find out "who are the true power players" with knowledge of what was happening in Trump’s campaign and during his transition to the White House, said Ronald Hosko, former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
"The core part of Robert Mueller’s mission is to understand whether people associated with the campaign were associated with Russians determined to influence the election results," said Hosko, who’s now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.
The investigation is examining Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial New York hotel development with Russian associates and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, Bloomberg News reported last month. Sekulow said he hasn’t seen any evidence the investigation is looking into Trump’s real-estate transactions.
Trump associates who are central figures in Mueller’s investigation include Manafort, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn, who was ousted as national security adviser, according to two U.S. officials with knowledge of the investigation. Mueller is now in talks with the White House to interview current and former administration officials, including recently departed White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, the New York Times reported.
"They’re looking at where are various people getting money from, and they’re going to try to figure out not only where did it come from, but who can they connect it to," said Mateja, now a shareholder at the law firm of Polsinelli PC. "Can they connect it to Donald Trump?"
What’s not known publicly yet is whether any of those under investigation are cooperating to help Mueller build a case, Hosko said.
Pressure to Act
Mueller’s investigation is likely to continue through next year if not longer, increasing pressure on him to announce indictments against those who committed relatively small offenses and who aren’t needed to further the investigation, according to Hosko. “The longer it drags out, the louder the complaints will get that there’s nothing that’s been proven,” he said.
The July raid on the home of Manafort, whose financial dealings and previous work for a Russian-backed party in Ukraine have come under scrutiny, was seen as an effort to get him to give up any damaging information he might have on Trump or others.
Manafort changed lawyers after the raid, announcing he would hire Miller & Chevalier, which specializes in international tax law and fraud. The move was made because Mueller’s investigation of Manafort appears to be moving beyond collusion with Russia to focus on potential tax violations, said a person familiar with the matter.
John Dowd, another Trump lawyer, called the raid a "gross abuse of the judicial process" for the sake of "shock value" — another indication that the Trump team is chafing increasingly at Mueller’s hard-charging approach.