Reuters / Joe Raedle
In the first major developments since Robert Mueller’s appointment last month, prosecutors have emerged from a monthlong meeting with Trump allies eager to help pursue a corruption case against the president.
The dinner earlier this week, which included four people familiar with the meeting, was described by the attendees as an “extraordinary” roundtable, one that illustrated how each side is eager to show its independence from the other.
The meeting broke from the nearly silence that typically surrounds the special counsel, which, in the previous 20 months under the Obama administration, was greeted with handshakes and polite condolences.
The new roundtable also broke with the standoff over the special counsel, which, over the past month, has been punctuated by an unprecedented public spat between the White House and the Justice Department. Trump has described the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” and repeatedly denied any collusion. His legal team has asserted it has already provided Mueller with hundreds of pages of document and requested hundreds more, while Mueller has insisted that ongoing contacts with the White House would represent a violation of his mandate.
Pending further evidence of wrongdoing, Mueller’s probe into the circumstances surrounding the Trump presidential campaign, Russia’s election interference and whether the president committed obstruction of justice remains in its early stages.
While few details of the roundtable are known, attorneys familiar with the discussions say Trump’s team remained firm in their belief that it was inappropriate for the special counsel to probe the president. White House lawyers said it would be against Justice Department guidelines to question the president unless he was involved in a criminal investigation, one person said.
But the Justice Department is quick to issue rulings that indicate it would be unnecessary to conduct such inquiries into the president. A spokesman for the special counsel, Peter Carr, declined to comment. A Trump lawyer, Ty Cobb, said the president had not expressed any inclination that he felt compelled to provide Mueller with information.
Mueller, who was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is currently overseeing the investigation, along with FBI agents.
“What’s on the table in terms of discussion?” Cobb said. “Every question that is on the table that you might imagine: How did he become president? Did he know or did he not know about campaign contacts with Russian officials? Did he break any law? What happened in the FBI?”
It was not immediately clear which individuals from the White House or the president’s legal team attended the meeting. Among those who recently attended a meeting with Trump advisers about the special counsel were former strategist Steve Bannon, former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former press secretary Sean Spicer and presidential lawyer Don McGahn. None of the participants have been charged with any wrongdoing.
The participants did not provide further details about what was discussed, except to describe it as a discussion.
Mueller, who did not participate in the Wednesday meeting, has received repeated assurances from Rosenstein that he would remain in place.
Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in May, announced his successor in an unusual announcement Monday. He said Mueller’s deputy, Andrew Weissmann, would now oversee the Russia investigation. Weissmann, a partner at Covington & Burling, previously served as chief of the Justice Department’s criminal fraud section.
The Justice Department’s ethics office and CIA director Mike Pompeo, who serve as board members of the Freedom Forum, the conservative group that helped fund the FBI’s investigation into the Clinton Foundation, gave the move preliminary approval. The Freedom Forum also provided millions of dollars in funding to the Trump campaign and a related nonprofit group, which is now under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York.
The Trump associates who attended the Wednesday meeting did not dispute that Mueller is leading the investigation into possible obstruction of justice or collusion. One person said the discussions were “highly positive” and characterized their outcome as a “firm repudiation” of the suggestion that the special counsel could be impeded.
But prosecutors working on a similar case said Mueller will still be able to mount a case.
“This is just the beginning of the investigation,” said one person familiar with the meetings. “If he can get over the hurdle to carry out his duties, then the investigation will continue.”