National Security Expert Talks Russia Investigation


Robert Mueller’s ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election has left the public on tenterhooks since it began in May of last year. The ongoing investigation has resulted in the indictment of several people who have worked extensively with President Trump, and the hazy legal precedent surrounding the prosecution of a sitting president is one of many uncertainties that surround the effort.

Garrett Graff has been covering national security and Russia’s tampering in the 2016 presidential election since before the investigation began. The former editor in chief of Politico Magazine, he now serves as the director of the Aspen Institute’s cybersecurity and technology program. Graff has also written multiple books, including an account of Robert Mueller’s tenure as FBI director.

Graff will discuss the investigation next week in a lecture entitled “Decoding Robert Mueller’s Russia Investigation.” His talk will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 4:30 p.m. in the Robert A. Jones ’59 House Conference Room and is part of the “Meet the Press” lecture series.

Last Friday, Graff spoke with The Campus by phone about his reporting, the importance of the investigation and possible next moves for Mueller and Trump. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chris Gernon (CG): How did you get interested in covering the Russia investigation?

Garrett Graff (GG): This is the biggest story in national security. I’ve been covering it on and off for the past two years, even before it morphed into the full investigation that it is today. I was covering it in the final weeks of the presidential campaign in 2016 when the Russian attacks on our presidential election were unfolding. This has been a lot of my professional time and energy over the last two years.

CG: What was Mueller hired to investigate?

GG: He was brought on in May of 2017. He was appointed by the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to lead a special counsel to investigate Russia’s attack on the presidential election. The investigation involves all of the issues transpiring out of the attack, including the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia and the role of Russian individuals during the president’s campaign.

CG: How and why was he selected to lead the investigation?

GG: He was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General. It was because he has immense respect in Washington from both Democrats and Republicans. He was the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover himself, and his term as FBI director had been extended by the US Senate by a vote of 100 to 0. There is no one in Washington who was as non-partisan and apolitical yet respected as Robert Mueller.

CG: Do you think the investigation has politicized Mueller’s image?

GG: The Republicans and the president have spent a lot of the last year and a half attacking him and impugning his integrity with all the president’s tweets about the witch hunt. However, I don’t think we’ve seen any of that political pressure affect Mueller himself.

CG: What exactly does it mean that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s ex-lawyer, are cooperating with the investigation?

GG: We don’t know exactly what that means. Manafort’s cooperation, particularly, is very much in flux. But that is a standard part of a plea agreement. When someone pleads guilty, they have to cooperate with the rest of the investigation. We have seen Mueller put some deals in place with people like Michael Rick Gates and most recently with Manafort.

CG: How does Trump benefit if he fires Sessions, his attorney general?

GG: It changes who is advising the Mueller investigation. If that person then so chooses, they could go after Mueller and fire him directly; they could tell cancel his investigation; they could cut the budget office. There are a lot of levers for that person to use to stop the investigation.

CG: Do you think the Senate needs to pass something to protect Mueller?

GG: They certainly have that option, and it’s striking that they haven’t acted on it. It has been apparent that Mueller’s job has been jeopardy for well over a year striking, and the Republicans in Congress feel no need to do anything about it whatsoever.

CG: Are there other investigations looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election?

GG: The Justice Department is made up of a variety of headquarter-level entities in Washington, like the National Security Division, which oversees cases involving foreign espionage, counterterrorism, counterintelligence. There are other pieces as well, including US Attorneys’ offices across the country. Mueller’s probe has ended up going to some of those other headquarter divisions, like the National Security Division, who is now overseeing the prosecution of the Russian GRU Military Intelligence Officers.

CG: Do you think the investigation would end if Mueller gets fired?

GG: Mueller’s investigation has gone on long enough and is complex enough and involves enough units of the Justice Department that it will be very difficult for it to be shut down entirely.

CG: Is Mueller facing any time crunch to wrap up the investigation?

GG: No. He is certainly aware of the timeline of the investigation. Frankly, this investigation has moved very quickly for a federal investigation. Mueller has a delivered an enormous number of cases in different investigations since he’s started.

CG: Do you think the investigation is in the fourth quarter?

GG: I think it is. Since I’ve been talking about this investigation, I’ve used baseball metaphors, and I feel like Mueller investigation is in its seventh inning

CG: What do you think the ninth inning results in?

GG: My honest answer is I think we have no fathomable idea.