The recent news that Robert Mueller obtained a search warrant for the contents of Facebook accounts associated with Russian operatives trying to undermine the 2016 presidential election was a key turning point in our knowledge of his investigation that could transform the scope of the inquiry and the legal strategy of the people in the special counsel’s sights.
Before news of the Facebook search warrant broke, it appeared that Mueller was focused on several discrete areas of inquiry, such as potentially false disclosures by former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, potential tax charges and alleged obstruction of justice related to President Donald Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
These areas fit with my experience as a federal prosecutor. Because proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is such a high standard, prosecutors typically focus on narrow, easily provable crimes. Until recently, I expected that if Mueller brought charges, they would likely be stand-alone indictments against individuals who committed crimes on their own.
Until the recent news, it also appeared that none of what Mueller was investigating would result in charges against Americans for working with Russians to commit a crime, which is what I presume politicians and the media mean when they use the word “collusion.” (The term has no legal significance.)
The only known incident that could result in charges against Americans and Russians working together was the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian attorney and Donald Trump Jr., Manafort and others. However, the information we know publicly about that encounter is insufficient to establish that any crime was committed in connection to it.
My opinion changed, however, when I read the recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and CNN about the Facebook search warrant. The importance of that development cannot be overstated. It means that Mueller presented evidence to a federal magistrate judge who concluded there was good reason to believe that foreign individuals committed a crime by making a “contribution” in connection with the election and that evidence of such a crime existed on Facebook.