WASHINGTON – Special counsel Robert Mueller is tapping additional Justice Department resources for help with new legal battles as his year-old investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 election continues to expand.
As Mueller pursues his probe, he’s making more use of career prosecutors from the offices of U.S. attorneys and from Justice Department headquarters, as well as FBI agents — a sign that he may be laying the groundwork to hand off parts of his investigation eventually, several current and former U.S. officials said.
Mueller and his team of 17 federal prosecutors are coping with a higher-then-expected volume of court challenges that has added complexity in recent months, but there’s no political appetite at this time to increase the size of his staff, the officials said.
According to his most recent statement of expenditures, more money is being spent on work done by permanent Department of Justice units than on Mueller’s own dedicated operation. The DOJ units spent $9 million from the investigation’s start in May 2017 through March of this year, compared with $7.7 million spent by Mueller’s team.
Mueller’s probe has come under attack from President Donald Trump and his allies who say it’s going on too long, expanding too far and costing too much. But the special counsel’s charter, issued by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, includes investigating whether Trump or associates colluded with Russia and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Investigators in New York, Pittsburgh, Alexandria, Va., and elsewhere have been tapped to supplement the work of Mueller’s team, the officials said. Mueller has already handed off one major investigation — into Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen — to the Southern District of New York.
“Whatever you got, finish it the hell up because this country is being torn apart,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., told Rosenstein during a June 28 hearing. Rosenstein said Mueller knows he must move expeditiously.
A heavy investigative load for Mueller had been anticipated from the start, the officials said. The special counsel has already issued 20 indictments and secured guilty pleas from five individuals, and some of the defendants are mounting stiffer-than-expected battles in court.
“I don’t think he’s getting in over his head,” said Solomon Wisenberg, who served as deputy independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. “These things have a tendency to balloon. Yes, it may be taxing on them. No, it’s not that unusual.”
Nor is it unusual for Mueller to turn to U.S. attorneys or to Justice Department headquarters, said Wisenberg, who’s now a partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.
Mueller is dealing with the legal battles as he considers whether to subpoena Trump for an interview and as he accelerates his investigation into potential collusion.
The first — and perhaps biggest — court case for Mueller is over his indictment of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, for an array of financial crimes. Manafort is fighting the indictment in two federal courthouses, and he expanded his case last week to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Both sides are now gearing up for a trial to begin later this month.
“It’s going to be all hands on deck when they go to the Manafort trial,” Wisenberg said.
Other court fights may have come as a surprise.
Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and three entities in February on charges of violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere with the U.S. election through the manipulation of social media.
None of the targets are in the U.S., but one of them, the Internet Research Agency, has forced Mueller into another legal fight in federal court. The two sides have been sparring most recently over how to protect sensitive investigative materials from disclosure. Mueller has enlisted prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington to handle the case.
Another surprise came last week when Andrew Miller, a former aide to Trump adviser Roger Stone, filed a sealed motion to fight one of Mueller’s grand jury subpoenas.
Mueller also plans to move eventually to sentencing for Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, both of whom pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.
“He’s a busy guy,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor.
“There’s certainly multiple fronts going on right now,” said Cramer, who’s now managing director of the international investigation firm Berkeley Research Group LLC. “Some of them are more active than others.”
Cramer doesn’t think Mueller’s in over his head but says he might be taking timing into consideration when it comes to making additional moves.
“You don’t have unlimited resources in a sense that you’ve got an unlimited cadre of prosecutors and agents,” Cramer said. “There does come a time where they can only do so much.”
Mueller has already shown that in some situations he will hand off cases, such as with the Cohen investigation. Additionally, Mueller is getting help from Rosenstein, who is fielding congressional demands for documents and testimony.
In the end, though, Mueller knew what he was signing up for.
“While there’s a lot on the plate, they’re not all going on all at once,” Cramer said. “His office is doing their job. He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”