If Robert Mueller was listening when Donald Trump declared that digging into his finances would represent “a violation” of his privacy, the special counsel appears not to have been intimidated. Last month, CNN reported that Mueller has been investigating the president’s business dealings in Russia. On Thursday, The New York Times revealed another major escalation: the special counsel has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents, including some related to Russia. Months earlier, the subpoena might have provoked an angry response from the president. But Trump, despite his past intimations about shutting down Mueller’s probe, has held back from making any public move in retaliation.
Trump’s hands appear to have been tied, in part, by Mueller’s canny timing. News of the subpoena coincided with an announcement that the White House had taken new steps to censure Moscow, leveling sanctions against five Russian entities—including a troll farm that sought to sow online discord during the election—and 19 individuals close to the Kremlin. The sanctions also followed a series of Russian acts of aggression, including ongoing cyber-attacks against critical U.S. and European industrial networks. (The report came the same day that the Trump administration joined the United Kingdom and other allies in accusing Russia of committing a nerve-agent attack against a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury earlier this month.) “The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber-activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”
More important, however, for those following the Trump-Mueller pas de deux, is where the new sanctions overlap with the Mueller probe: of the 19 Russians targeted by the White House, 13 were indicted by Mueller last month. So while critics argued that the sanctions still fell short of a fitting response—“I expect to see additional sanctions in short order against specific Russian entities responsible for undermining our democracy,” Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement—they are also, in effect, a validation of the misdeeds Mueller has uncovered thus far. By following in Mueller’s footsteps, the Trump administration has telegraphed that his findings are legitimate.
Mueller, who has often seemed to be two steps ahead of Trump and his associates, might have predicted how this would play out. The special prosecutor has so far proceeded in a manner that has insulated him as much as possible from the president’s attacks. Last week, reports suggested that Mueller was deliberately slow-walking his obstruction-of-justice investigation, proceeding instead with charges that are seen as unimpugnable—by indicting Russian operatives first, Mueller made it “a lot harder for anyone to say that [he] is on a witch hunt,” D.C.-based white-collar defense attorney William Jeffress told me earlier this year. If the Trump administration continues to rubber-stamp Mueller’s findings, the White House will find it much more difficult to push back should the special counsel eventually deliver a finding that implicates the president.
For much of the past year, Trump’s legal team has publicly and privately assured the president that the Mueller probe is nearing a conclusion. But the revelation that Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization suggests that, at a minimum, the investigation will continue for several more months. According to the Times report, the scope of the subpoena is unknown, but the company has said it is cooperating with the request. “Since July 2017, we have advised the public that the Trump Organization is fully cooperative with all investigations, including the special counsel, and is responding to their requests,” Alan Futerfas, a lawyer representing the Trump Organization, said Thursday. “This is old news and our assistance and cooperation with the various investigations remains the same today.”