Trump's allies and lawyers see hope that Mueller's work is wrapping up

Rudy Giuliani and Rod Rosenstein are pictured. | AP

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer (left), talks with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on July 9 in the White House. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The special counsel handed off another case, giving hope to Trump’s associates that he’s done ramping up his probe.

Rod Rosenstein on Friday whipped up a media frenzy by announcing special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russian military officials for allegedly hacking Democratic National Committee computers and emails during the 2016 election — and then promptly handing off the case.

“We intend to transition responsibility for this indictment to the Justice Department’s National Security Division while we await the apprehension of the defendants,” Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, declared.

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The DNC case becomes the third matter Mueller’s team is known to have handed off, in whole or in part, to other prosecutors. A case filed in February accusing a different set of Russians of using social media to manipulate Americans in the 2016 election is now being staffed by several prosecutors outside Mueller’s office. And after probing some lobbying activities involving President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, Mueller’s office turned those issues over to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, who are now bearing down on Cohen.

Trump’s current personal lawyer and some of the president’s allies see the reallocation of Mueller’s work as an indication that his probe is beginning to wind down and perhaps even as a signal to the White House and Congress that there’s no need to do anything rash to oust the special counsel.

“I do see it as the end of the investigation,” Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, told POLITICO. “I don’t know what else there is to investigate.”

“They’re clearly passing things out,” added former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett. “They’re not ramping up to try all these things. I think we’re closer to the end than the beginning.”

Rosenstein stressed Friday that no Americans were charged in the new indictment related to hacking of Democrats. Had Mueller kept control of the DNC case, his continued involvement would have fueled speculation that Americans could be added to the hacking case later, but the hand-off suggested to some lawyers that no such charges are likely.

Among those touting Friday’s indictment as a vindication of sorts were longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone’s attorneys, who said the decision to charge the Russians but not Stone was a strong indication that his interaction with the alleged hackers was not criminal.

“We are encouraged by today’s development,” Stone lawyer Robert Buschel said in an e-mail to POLITICO. “We trust this ends the inquiry into Roger Stone….It is clear from the indictment issued today that our client…was not in any way involved with any of the alleged hacking of the 2016 election.”

Stone himself confirmed to ABC News that he was likely the unnamed “U.S. person” in the indictment who was a Trump campaign regular who corresponded with the Russian hackers.

“As I testified before the House Intelligence Committee under oath, my 24 word exchange with someone on Twitter claiming to be Guccifer 2.0 is benign based on its content, context and timing,” Stone told ABC News.

One former federal prosecutor said Mueller’s team surely would have considered indicting Stone or any other Americans who interacted with the hackers, so Friday’s indictment and the announced hand-off lower the chances that will happen.

“If you had enough evidence for indicting the Americans, you would probably put it all in together,” said Jeff Cramer of Berkeley Research Group. “However, even if there wasn’t enough related to these 12 defendants to put Stone on the hook, he could be put on the hook by other facts related to this investigation.”

While it’s unclear why the special counsel would surrender a case he was continuing to investigate, some lawyers said there are good reasons Mueller might have put off charging Stone. For one, Mueller and his team are aware that charging an American with collusion would be politically explosive and could blow up the possibility of any interview between Trump and the special counsel’s team.

“Maybe [Mueller] knows a Stone indictment would be crossing the Rubicon,” said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.

Former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi said the hand-off is clearly intended to combat criticism that Mueller is doggedly clinging to every matter that his office pursues, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the issue of potential involvement by the Trump campaign or others is being shelved.

“The handing off of today’s various pending matters is a smart decision politically to quiet the crowd,” Rossi said. “No one should be spiking the football in the end zone….The issues are not dead by any means.”

Some attorneys said that another indictment naming Americans as conspirators in the hacking is not only possible, but even more likely after Friday’s developments.

“What I see in this new indictment is a clear signal Americans are next to be indicted,” said former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman. “There is significant evidence referenced in the indictment as well as other evidence already publicly known to support the notion that the next shoe to drop will be to indict Americans for involvement in the same conspiracy.”

Asked why Mueller would wash his hands of a case that he intends to pursue, Akerman said: “These Russian defendants will never be tried in the US…The indictment of the US Trump campaign members will be a mirror of this indictment with the same object of the same conspiracy charging how the Americans interacted with the Russians charged in today’s indictment. Today’s indictment will sit on the shelf unless by some chance one the of the defendants shows up in a place where he can be extradited.”

Of course, even if the hand-off shows Mueller has wrapped up his interest in American collusion in the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, that might be bad news for the Trump team if it allows Mueller to deploy his resources even more aggressively to whether Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice and to the preparation of a report that might lead to impeachment.

Also notable – at the announcement of the social media indictment in February Rosenstein stood alone, but his wingmen on Friday visually symbolized both the hand-off and Justice Department control of Mueller’s probe. The Deputy AG was flanked by an aide who oversees Mueller, Ed O’Callaghan, and by the National security chief, John Demers.

Mueller’s team has plenty to do in the coming months. The indictment returned Friday is the ninth case the special counsel has brought. Most of those have resulted in guilty pleas. Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying, is set to be sentenced in September. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to the same charge, is also awaiting sentencing.

Also looming: two separate trials for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. One of those, set to open in Virginia in less than two weeks, is the first serious courtroom test for Mueller’s prosecutors.

And Mueller faces a series of momentous decisions directly related to Trump, including whether to subpoena him to give testimony about his role in potential obstruction of the Russia probe and how to frame a report on those issues—a report that has the potential to lead to impeachment, particularly if Democrats win the House this fall.

However, several lawyers noted that by stepping away from other matters, Mueller can “triage” and make sure the 16 prosecutors on his staff are focused on other tasks, especially with the first of Manafort’s two trials set to begin July 25 in Alexandria, Virginia.

“He’s got limited bandwidth and a trial coming up for Manafort….so there’s no sense in keeping this case,” Cramer said. “They’re keeping stuff that behooves their main investigation.”

Both the White House and Giuliani tried to accentuate the positive Friday, insisting that the new indictment is more proof of Trump’s “no collusion” mantra.

“Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”

“The indictments Rod Rosenstein announced are good news for all Americans,” Giuliani added on Twitter. “The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved. Time for Mueller to end this pursuit of the President and say President Trump is completely innocent.”

One potential sticking point for Mueller to wrap up: an interview with Trump. Giuliani said talks with Mueller about arranging an in-person meeting between the special counsel and the president have hit a lull. He said the president’s lawyers have also been given no indication the special counsel wants to force the issue with a subpoena.

Sizing up the final outcome of Mueller’s work, Giuliani predicted the special counsel was nearing a conclusion for the entire investigation. “I think they’re going to write their report this summer,” the former New York mayor added. “I think it’s virtually written.”

Asked if Mueller would want to wait until Manafort’s trials were finished before concluding his work, Giuliani replied, “That’s up to them, but I don’t think so. I never got that impression.”

But some experts said that spin may amount to wishful thinking. One noted that the more indictments that are returned and the more the Justice Department’s ordinary prosecutors are involved, the harder it becomes for Trump to wipe the whole investigation away.

“Muller could also be taking more and more steps to insulate the investigation from his own termination,” Vladeck said. “There are three-dimensional-chess level explanations and there are three-year-old checkers explanations for this and no one outside can have any confidence which it is.”

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