Special counsel Robert Mueller and his prosecutors have invoked an unusual “conspiracy to defraud the government” charge to ensnare a Russian cyber network and could use the same legal strategy to go after President Trump and his associates, even if the conspiracy is not linked to a criminal act.
Although the president constantly denies any wrongdoing, Mr. Mueller’s 10-month-long investigation has become the heart of the Trump-Russian election meddling saga, dominating headlines and leaving the White House tangled in conflict and controversy as additional charges have also been filed against four of his close associates — with further indictments likely.
Last month, Mr. Mueller, a Republican and former FBI director, indicted 13 Russian nationals connected to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) Russian “troll farm,” accusing the IRA of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by spreading fake news stories through U.S. social media. The same approach was employed in securing a plea deal last month with Rick Gates, the aide for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
What has attracted attention in legal circles is the underlying legal theory behind the indictments, accusing the Russians of essentially committing a crime by preventing agencies of the U.S. government from carrying out the duties. Mr. Mueller appears to be leveraging the theory “into a powerful instrument with respect to both foreign and domestic actors,” according to a recent article on Lawfare, a national security blog by the Lawfare Institute and Brookings Institution.
Emma Kohse, Harvard International Law Journal editor-in-chief, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Lawfare blog’s top editor, argue that, based in the language of the indictments and the legal precedents behind them, the “conspiracy to defraud the government” charge provides the Mueller team with significant flexibility in trying to build a case against Mr. Trump and members of his 2016 campaign.
Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors charge in the indictment that the Russian defendants conspired to obstruct U.S. government agencies in multiple ways, including improper campaign expenditures, failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities and also deceitfully obtaining visas — in essence blocking the Federal Election Commission and the State Department, among other agencies, from doing their jobs.