White House

Special counsel probe could reach into Trump’s business empire

In this June 19, 2013, file photo, former FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was named special counsel by the Justice Department on Wednesday to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
In this June 19, 2013, file photo, former FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was named special counsel by the Justice Department on Wednesday to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. AP

The appointment of a special counsel empowered to probe ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign now brings the developer’s business empire into investigators’ cross hairs.

It’s an entirely new ballgame for the Trump Organization, which until the surprise appointment Wednesday had been somewhat removed from the political turmoil engulfing the president.

“The gloves are off. I don’t think I’d call it carte blanche, but it’s pretty close,” said Roscoe C. Howard, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001 to serve as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

Did Trump, his family or campaign officials meet with Russian officials or people tied to Russia at Mar-a-Lago, the South Florida resort that the president has taken to calling his southern White House? What about Trump Tower in New York, where son-in-law Jared Kushner secretly met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December?

Those questions are fair game now.

The investigation by a special counsel must follow facts and a line of inquiry consistent with the defined mandate. But there is a lot of running room for an investigator who by design has been freed from having to worry about angering the occupant of the White House.

Legal threats to Trump’s business empire and presidency were largely diffuse before former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named by the Justice Department as special counsel.

Almost everything now falls into the broad authority given to Mueller under Order No. 3915-2017. He was authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated” with the Trump campaign and “any matter that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

That means almost anything counts if it has come out of the look into potential collusion between Russia, Russians and the 2016 presidential elections.

“It is a very broad order,” said Donald C. Smaltz, one of the few who can say been there, done that.

Smaltz was appointed in 1994 to be an independent counsel, similar to what today is a special counsel, and he led an investigation into then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

“I feel more confident with a special counsel here that you are going to have a more focused investigation than you might have otherwise,” he said.

Any look at Trump’s business dealings with Russians would likely include his trophy properties in South Florida, which include the Trump National Doral golf club.

Mueller’s investigators may ask whether either Mar-a-Lago, the historic getaway for the wealthy in Palm Beach, or Trump National, an 800-acre resort roughly 12 miles west of downtown Miami, was used to host meetings between Trump associates and Russian operatives.

McClatchy reported last month that foreign leaders have used Mar-a-Lago to conduct under-the-radar meetings with Trump since his election. In April, two former Colombian presidents secretly met Trump there to discuss the peace process in their home country. The meeting was not on the president’s schedule or disclosed to reporters.

Wealthy Russians could have sought access to Trump by seeking membership at Mar-a-Lago. The exclusive club doubled its membership fee to $200,000 after Trump’s election.

A look into Russian dealings could include Trump’s sale of his Palm Beach mansion to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev in July 2008 for $95 million. That price was viewed by real estate experts as wildly inflated, leading to speculation that perhaps it was a backdoor investment in other Trump businesses, something the president has vehemently denied.

Before the financial crisis, Trump also licensed his name to six condo towers north of Miami Beach that attracted substantial Russian investment. The area of Sunny Isles has come to be known sarcastically as Moscow on the Beach because of so many Russian buyers.

A Reuters review of property records in March found Russians had invested nearly $100 million in Trump-branded Florida properties.

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. famously said at a real estate conference in 2008, according to multiple news outlets.

None of that means collusion to influence an election. But any look by Mueller into Russians who might have had the ear of Trump or his associates could certainly touch on his real estate holdings.

Late Friday, The Washington Post reported that a current White House official is a “significant person of interest” for reasons of possible collusion and financial crimes. That suggested the investigation is reaching the upper echelons of the Trump administration.

Mueller won’t have any additional powers that are lacked by the FBI or the Justice Department, which gave him his mission.

“These special counsels have the same authority. . . . It is no more or less,” said Joseph diGenova, who was appointed an independent counsel in 1992, a post similar to what Mueller today occupies. “What matters is how it is wielded. In the case of Mueller it will be wielded wisely.”

Arguably the biggest difference is that the very existence of a special counsel moves the investigation to a more serious level. Where a witness might have had room to maneuver if Congress called them to appear, they have less so if Mueller and his team want to talk.

“Dealing with congressional investigations, lawyers have many more opportunities to prevent things from happening, because these committees have very little enforcement power,” said diGenova. “You can claim privileges (to the special counsel) but you can’t resist in the way that you can in a congressional investigation.”

The special counsel also dampens the impact of the political theater that invariably accompanies congressional probes.

“There is a lot of smoke out there, and a lot of it is political vapors,” cautioned Smaltz.

It’s been widely reported that the FBI had some Trump campaign members under surveillance last summer, getting the OK from a secret court.

But another form of taping might now be in Mueller’s view too. Days after firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump tweeted out a veiled threat May 12 that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ ” of their private conservations. It seemed to warn that Trump had recorded evidence.

The tweet and fallout from it most surely will prompt a request from the special counsel to Trump for tapes.

“He’s the guy who put it out there, and my guess is they’ll do it through a subpoena from a grand jury,” said Howard, who served as U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2004.

If Trump routinely recorded private conversations, Mueller could also demand the recordings of son-in-law Kushner, who held private talks in December at Trump Tower with Russian Ambassador Kislyak and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser who was fired Feb. 14 for being untruthful about meetings with Kislyak.

Another person potentially in the line of inquiry is Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael D. Cohen, who in February forwarded to Flynn for Trump a would-be peace plan for Russia and its neighbor Ukraine.

The plan didn’t come from diplomats but rather Russian émigré and ex-con Felix Sater, who had worked for the Trump Organization as a senior adviser, and pro-Moscow Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko.

As farfetched as it seemed, Cohen confirmed to The New York Times that he had taken their proposal to Flynn about a week before Flynn’s firing.

Cohen was involved in Trump projects in the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia, and during the campaign he was one of Trump’s staunchest defenders on television.

The advantage of now having a special counsel is it mutes any criticism that the outcome of the probe is a politically motivated conclusion.

“The key thing for a law enforcement investigation is not only to do it the right way, but to be perceived it’s done the right way,” said Matt Axelrod, a former senior Justice Department lawyer. “That’s the advantage of appointing Bob Mueller because of his well-deserved reputation for integrity and credibility.”

Added Dan Richman, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a law professor at Columbia University in New York: “He will ensure that all strands of this sprawling investigation go forward with the resources needed.”

McClatchy special correspondent Peter Stone contributed to this article.

Nehamas reports for the Miami Herald.

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