Slate’s Jeremy Stahl on Mueller, Kaepernick, and the Georgia election.

Following the Paper Trails of Mueller’s First Charges

Following the Paper Trails of Mueller’s First Charges

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Nov. 14 2017 8:01 AM
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Following the Paper Trails of Mueller’s First Charges

Legal reporter Jeremy Stahl on covering Robert Mueller’s indictments and Colin Kaepernick’s collusion charge.

Manafort, Mueller, and Trump
Paul Manafort, Robert Mueller, and Donald Trump.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Rolex Dela Pena/AFP/Getty Images, and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

It’s been months since Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. But on Oct. 30, we finally got some insight into the work he’s been doing—Mueller filed his first charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former business associate Rick Gates. The 12 charges range from failing to register as lobbying agents of a foreign government to laundering millions of dollars through unreported offshore accounts. There was also news about a plea deal with former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

In this S+ Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Chau Tu talks with Slate senior editor Jeremy Stahl, who’s been covering all the news as well as other stories on the law of politics and sports.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Let’s start with the indictments from what was known as Mueller Monday. What do you think is the biggest takeaway now that the dust has sort of settled?

Jeremy Stahl: The news to me is that it was called Mueller Monday. That’s big. I’m really glad that he’s got his own day of the week now in November or whatever. That’s really good to know. My biggest takeaway was that there is a lot of smoke out there in the Russian potential collusion with the Trump campaign story, and there is an incredibly dogged, incredibly smart investigator currently doing the work of sussing out where the fires are, and doing an incredibly good job of it in a way that has the potential to expose a lot of very potentially important wrongdoing.

Were you surprised by any of the news that came out from that day?

I think everybody’s big surprise was this news about George Papadopoulos, who was this low-level foreign policy adviser, what the White House describes as a volunteer staffer. And the news that he was pleading guilty to lying to investigators about the timing of his contacts with people in Russia, in terms of when he had those comments and when he was part of the Trump campaign. What a lot of people have noted on the significance of this is that in various court documents, he has been described as a—or at least in one court document—he has been described as a proactive cooperator, which some people with knowledge and background of how these FBI investigations are run, say that that can sometimes mean a person was wearing a wire.

So the potential that this guy is cooperating with the FBI—not just telling them what he knows about all of these interactions between himself and Russian figures that he says were offering help and dirt on Hillary Clinton, and then his interactions with the campaign. It appears incredibly likely that he’s talking to investigators more openly than others about this stuff and cooperating with them on this stuff, but that there is potential that he could have done more than that. And that is an insane bombshell to experience last week. And it has really broad implications for where this might go next, if it goes forward in a way that it seems possible that it will.

Do you think that acted as sort of a warning? I know that some people have written that maybe this George Papadopoulos deal acts as sort of a warning to others that it could be smart to coordinate with the Mueller investigation, right?

We’ve written some really smart pieces to that effect, and yeah, in my reporting on this, I spoke with a couple of former federal prosecutors about these indictments. And one of them, Julie O’Sullivan is a Georgetown law professor who worked early in the Whitewater case, which was the investigation that ultimately led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. And another one, Sam Buell, worked on the Enron case, which was a major financial fraud case in the 2000s. And based on my conversation with them and my reading, there are a number of potential messages that might have been sent by these indictments.

The one that you sort of suggested is the clearest one that trying to motivate people, to offer people who are not yet cooperating the potential and the promise that people who cooperate with this investigation and share what they know honestly, even if they have committed crimes, say lying to investigators, have the potential to be treated with leniency if they’re open and honest and helpful. Right?

And the flip side of that is the dual indictments that were issued on the same day of President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates on a serious of offenses related to their failure to register as foreign agents allegedly acting on behalf of this pro-Russian, Ukrainian political party and the former president of Ukraine. And the implication of all this is that those guys got hammered, that they’re facing charges that would, if they’re found guilty potentially result in many, many years in prison. And the indictments suggest the possibility of further charges to be issued in the future, either at the federal level or at the state level to all of these people.

So the premise being that, “Yeah, the hammer’s going to come down on you. We,” being Mueller’s team, “will find what’s out there, if you’ve left something out there, and we’ll act accordingly.”

What is the next step for Paul Manafort?

Paul Manafort, I believe there were some motions this week to try to soften the terms of his house arrest and his bail, but I think those failed. So he’s currently under house arrest. Manafort now is just waiting for his right to a speedy trial. And at the same time, these indictments suggest that perhaps the investigators will be pushing him on to do more in terms of potentially offering him something in exchange for what he knows, if he knows anything that might implicate other people in the campaign.

And the other big thing that was revealed on Monday was in the George Papadopoulos plea agreement essentially, was this just long paper trail of emails that he sent between himself and these officials purporting themselves to be acting on behalf a Russian ministry of foreign affairs, and then between himself and campaign officials. And these knots tying all of these people together so that they at least can’t say that they were unaware of what was going on. And they have said in the heart of the campaign, both Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort said very loudly, which now we know to be lies, that any suggestion that Russia was actively seeking to help the Trump campaign was a lie and a fabrication and a smear by the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

And we now know that both of those men received emails that informed them that that is exactly what Russia was seeking to do.

So we’ll see what happens, right?

Yes. I mean, what do you think’s going to happen? It’s an interesting time. Let’s just say it’s an interesting time.

Keeping you busy, if anything.

Yeah, busy. I won’t say concerned, but yes. It is a concerning time. All of this stuff is very serious. All of this stuff feels very, very serious and very, very important because it is, because the implications of it and what it might mean for the highest levels of our government are incredibly, incredibly important. While also, yes, keeping a lot of us who do journalism right now very busy.

To switch gears a little bit, you also have been following the news about former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. And he recently filed a grievance against the NFL and team owners. So can you describe what this grievance is and what’s going on with it?

Yes. So this is another story that, there’s some notional political implications to this one as well. Broadly speaking, it is a sports story. It is about Colin Kaepernick, this NFL quarterback who last year, he didn’t have the greatest of seasons, but he had a decent enough season. And according to many, many, many, many markers, he should be playing in the league this year. The quarterback playing the league this year, there have been a number of significant injuries. Quarterbacks have been pretty atrocious. And he’s actually a pretty good player who’s led a team to a Super Bowl and didn’t have the worst year last year, and it would be in the prime of his career. And not a single team has hired him to play this year, despite again losing quarterbacks to injuries.

And what he alleges in his grievance against the NFL and several teams is that this is related to his leading and being the first to protest racial injustice last year by sitting and then ultimately kneeling during the national anthem.

So the massive controversy over, protests over police brutality and racial injustice in the form of these national anthem sit outs was led by him. He was the first. And the NFL is currently like basically experiencing this internal battle about what to do over it. And at the center is this guy whose livelihood and career is put on hold, he says because league officials and/or teams have decided that together, and have reached either implicit or explicit agreements to keep him out of the league for what he did.

Right now the evidence and the paper trail for specific, implicit collusion is a tough one, and it’s going to be tough to prove. But there are threads out there about specific owners telling other specific owners that, “These protests are bad for business. This has to stop. We can’t let this go forward.” And I’m thinking specifically of, there’s been a lot of reporting around Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones being very vocal about wanting this to stop. And then there’s Houston Texans owner Bob McNair who got in trouble the other week for saying, purportedly in reference to players, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Which is just an awful, racist, and grotesque statement if you take it as it was initially reported. He has said it was misinterpreted, some such and apologized, but it’s a pretty clear statement.

And these other various threads that involved Donald Trump’s vocal, vocal positioning on this against the players and his conversations with NFL owners. He hosted New England Patriots’ owner in March on Air Force One. He spoke with Jerry Jones according to reporting from ESPN multiple times, the day of a big owner meeting where Jones was particularly vocal to his other owners opposing these protests. It was reported this week that Kaepernick’s legal team has, I believe it was Kaepernick’s legal team, but depositions have been sought already, and various electronic records have been sought according to reporting by ESPN’s Adam Schefter from various teams to try to find and suss out where might some of this either implicit or explicit collusion may have occurred.

And again, it’s a very interesting story and I’m rambling quite a lot, but there are big, national, interesting implications about all this. And in terms of my work on it, I’ve been able to break a story about how Colin Kaepernick’s representatives had been emailing NFL Players Association and a specific player named Malcolm Jenkins saying that he felt like he was being left out of conversations around the issue, and that they had been misrepresenting that he had been invited and included in those conversations. And they left this sort of paper trail that showed that he had not been included in a way that other people were representing that he had been included in.

ESPN is reporting that Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the league invited him to a one-on-one chat. And then yesterday, there was word that a group of players is trying to organize a similar meeting. So there’s this ongoing thing of trying to connect the NFL and teams and Kaepernick in a way that maybe he’ll be involved in these broader conversations about the social justice issues that he has lead on, while at the same time, being excluded from the field.

Things have changed since then. The players came out around that time, pitch for a meeting between players and owners that would involve Kaepernick that never happened, and that they subsequently canceled or whatever. And there’s been the subsequent reporting about these various offers. So right now, I have been on other stories, so I’m a bit unclear on what the state of play is at this precise moment on that front. But it’s an ongoing story. And there is certainly more to report. And what’s most interesting, I think, are these, the fact that reporting that is that attorneys have been aggressive in seeking records and depositions with at least three owners, and it indicates that if they get access to that material, which an arbitrator will likely determine, who knows what it will turn up?

Based on what’s going on on the surface, the potential for some very interesting information to come to light, at least to come to light to those parties is there.

You mentioned that you’re working on a few stories. Are there certain stories that you think aren’t getting enough coverage?

I’ve been working on this Georgia election story, which there’s just so much, so much going on that it’s really, really hard to focus on everything. But I feel like this Georgia story is important. I’m supposed to go on the radio in Georgia, I think tomorrow, to discuss it. But there were issues where officials in charge of the election were made aware in August of last year of a giant, enormous vulnerability in their election systems that allowed access, via Google to 6.6, 7 million voter registration, data for voter registrations and passwords for election systems for officials, reportedly, according to reporting by Politico.

And they didn’t do enough to close it until March of this year. And because that system was open for that entire time, and because we know that Russia, according to NSA documents that have since been made public by The Intercept went to these very elaborate lengths to try to get into our voter registration and our voter systems. This is a serious vulnerability. And Georgia’s being sued for this. They’re being sued to update their system essentially. And shortly after the lawsuit was filed and the secretary of state’s office was informed by a reporter about it and asked about it by a reporter and gave no comment. And one day after a FedEx copy of the lawsuit was sent to the office, all of the server that hosted this data was deleted and destroyed and wiped.

The AP has done an amazing job of following this story, and I’m sort of like following on their reporting a bit, but trying to do my own. It feels more significant than the attention that it’s getting potentially. And this, the secretary of state of Georgia, [Brian] Kemp, was planning on running for governor of Georgia, which is a very big state. And he initially issued this very strong statement blaming Kansas State University for potential negligence or worse in how it handled the election server and the deletion of the election server, because the university is where the server was maintained and stored and all this. Those are the officials that did the actual destruction of it, and he issued this terse, angry statement just blasting them when the public learned of this. He posted it on Facebook, and then last week, he deleted that Facebook post, and he said they did everything according to standard operating procedure, and that it was all fake news, and it was the fake news media making a big deal out of nothing.

And there’s other things on this that I’m trying to work on and write about now that I hope to get out in the next couple of days that might indicate more.

Do you think that any of your reporting or your reporting styles have changed since Trump has come into office?

That’s a good question. My sources, some of my sources, for example, maybe have more concerns about their privacy. I think it’s typical of a lot of reporters now to do more to safeguard sources or attempt to safeguard sources, to use technology that helps in that respect, rather than just phone and email or whatever, like to do a little bit more in terms of security measures, both for sources and for yourself. I guess I’ve taken to doing that a bit more than I did previously, and maybe I should have been doing it all along.