President Donald Trump has faced a special counsel investigation for nearly two years — and while Trump’s staunchest critics have felt hopeful the probe would find and hold him responsible for crimes, others have feared the whole endeavor is massively biased and more about sheer harassment of this president than anything else.
The group is expected to wrap up its investigation soon, though that hasn’t been confirmed.
Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team have focused mostly on whether or not Trump and/or his associates colluded with Russian interests during the presidential election of 2016.
“I have been a cautious skeptic of the whole Russian collusion accusations since the beginning,” said former FBI Special Agent James Gagliano, who today works as a law-enforcement analysis for CNN. “I sensed early on there was wasn’t a ‘there’ there. I thought they were struggling with an unconventional president who says things that are off the wall and inappropriate — and yes, that could be construed as obstruction of justice.”
Gagliano told LifeZette he has “great respect” for Mueller despite his own skepticism about aspects of the probe. He also clarified he has not talked to anyone at FBI headquarters but is instead basing his speculation on his own 25 years of experience. Gagliano held numerous FBI leadership positions, including stints as a supervisory special agent, squad supervisor, supervisory senior resident agent, and a crisis management coordinator for the New York office before retiring in 2015.
“But understanding the laws and how they work, especially when it comes to obstruction of justice — you have to be able to prove intent,” Gagliano said. “In this instance, that would have been a stretch for them.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed the special counsel investigation in May 2017. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from everything related to the allegations shortly before that.
Former Federal Election Commission (FEC) member Hans von Spakovsky noted the investigation has yet to produce any evidence of collusion.
“Unless there is some hidden evidence we don’t know about yet, it seems Mueller is going to conclude there was no evidence to support what he was supposed to investigate — which was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russian officials to interfere in the election,” said Spakovsky, who now works as a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “None of the indictments his office has produced have had anything to do with that,” he also told LifeZette.
Trump drew the attention of federal investigators while he was still campaigning.
Former campaign aide Carter Page was under surveillance during the election season as part of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant. The warrant was partially based on dubious opposition research indirectly paid for by the Democratic National Committee. That opposition research and the initial inquiry later helped lead to the special counsel probe.
“I do believe there was a bit of panic at the top,” Gagliano told LifeZette. “I also believe there were some folks on the seventh floor of the FBI headquarters, the senior executive side, who were guilty of confirmation bias and group think. I don’t think there were enough outside voices or alternative voices there to say, ‘Are we really going to base this FISA application heavily on a piece of opposition research? Are we really really going to open up a case investigating the president of the United States for being an agent, witting or unwitting, of the Kremlin?'”
Gagliano said he believed there was concern when Trump decided to fire former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.
Mueller’s critics have countered that his investigation is severely biased and even possibly illegitimate. Trump himself has denounced the probe as a “witch hunt” on numerous occasions.
Some House Republicans have also accused the probe of bias when conducting an earlier congressional investigation into how federal officials handled investigations related to the 2016 election.
“Mueller has hired all of these anti-Trump partisans to run his investigation,” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, told LifeZette. “And the investigation has been run as if it is being handled by a bunch of partisans, unsurprisingly. So I can’t imagine a report is going to be imminent. I’m not convinced a report is forthcoming in the sense that the Mueller investigation is willing to shut down.”
Judicial Watch has regularly questioned the way the special counsel investigation has been conducted and even its basis to launch in the first place. Fitton said the probe never should have been undertaken, considering the shaky ground on which it was based — and that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Fitton also argued the special counsel investigation should have ended particularly when it was discovered members of the team harbored bias against the president. Former FBI Agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page were ultimately caught exchanging thousands of text messages in which they revealed a clear hatred of the president while they were in the midst of investigating him.
They were removed from the team months before the incident was revealed publicly. Strzok was eventually fired; Page left the bureau later.
“In my view, it should have ended in January or December of last year, when it was exposed that it should have never been created,” Fitton said. “The confirmation that it was a compromised investigation was the disclosure by the Justice Department that Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were anti-Trump zealots, that they were misusing their offices to push a political agenda, which was to get Trump.”
The special counsel investigation issued indictments of Russian intelligence officers and made numerous charges against former associates of the president. It’s mostly focused on the collusion allegations while handing off additional allegations to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
Gagliano noted that he’s closely followed the cases against such people as former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, political adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. While the process crimes they’ve been hit with — such as lying to federal officials — are serious, he said he’s never seen an investigation so eagerly pursue those types of violations.
“Those are crimes and violations of federal law, and people are going to be held accountable for them,” he said. “But in my 25 years, I have never seen an eagerness to pursue Title 18, of the United States Code, Section 1001 — lying to a federal agent — like I have in this investigation. The corollary to that is, why are so many people who are attached to the president, or in his orbit — why are they lying about things?”
The president might face trouble unrelated to the collusion allegations based on what is coming out from cases against his former associates, argued Gagliano. People like Michael Cohen, the disgraced former attorney for the president, are obviously untrustworthy, he said; but it isn’t rare for federal prosecutors to use people with criminal records who have flipped for cases, he said.
The special counsel team will release two reports upon completing its investigation.
Cohen allegedly helped cover up extramarital affairs — which President Trump has denied — and allegedly conducted shady business dealings on behalf of the president. Cohen has worked with federal investigators and admitted to many allegations since turning himself in on August 21.
He also recently appeared for congressional hearings, in which he testified against his former client. He’s scheduled to begin a three-year prison term in May.
Cohen drew particular attention for making so-called hush-money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The women claimed they had affairs with Trump — which the president denied. Cohen also admitted to lying to lawmakers in federal court, but insists he is telling the truth now.
Gagliano said he believes the president “is in some kind of peril” based on the allegations. But Spakovsky is more skeptical. As a former Federal Election Commission member, he said he doesn’t see the allegations as a violation of the law. He added that even if Trump did break the law, it would only a be civil violation — past presidents have paid fines for similar things.
“Michael Cohen — while he may have been guilty of tax evasion and may have been guilty of bank fraud — also pleaded guilty to two violations of federal campaign finance laws that were not actually violations,” Spakovsky said. “A criminal case requires that someone intentionally and knowingly broke the law. And if your own lawyer like Michael Cohen is telling you this isn’t illegal, if former FEC commissioners who were responsible for enforcing the law say this isn’t a violation of the law, well, there is no way you can prove that someone intentionally and knowingly violated the law.”
The Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of not indicting sitting presidents. A president instead faces impeachment proceedings if laws he allegedly violated reached the level of high crimes. Gagliano said the danger might come after Trump leaves office if any crimes are found, however.
The special counsel team will release two reports upon completing its investigation.
Attorney General William Barr will receive the full classified report — while another summary report will be available publicly. Some lawmakers have urged the attorney general to make the report as transparent as possible while others have considered legislative actions to make it public.
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