It was probably not Stone himself, but rather his electronic devices... the true target of Friday’s F.B.I. actions was not Mr. Stone himself, but his electronic devices.
Mr. Stone’s early-morning arrest at his Florida home unsurprisingly dominated coverage, but reports also noted that federal agents were “seen carting hard drives and other evidence from Mr. Stone’s apartment in Harlem, and his recording studio in South Florida was also raided.” The F.B.I., in other words, was executing search warrants, not just arrest warrants. Even the timing and manner of Mr. Stone’s arrest — at the absolute earliest moment allowed under federal rules of criminal procedure without persuading a judge to authorize an exceptional nighttime raid — suggests a concern with preventing destruction of evidence: Otherwise it would make little sense to send a dozen agents to arrest a man in his 60s before sunrise...the document places great emphasis on Mr. Stone’s denial that he had any written communications with two associates — associates with whom he had, in fact, regularly exchanged emails and text messages. That’s precisely the sort of behavior one might focus on in seeking to convince a recalcitrant judge that an investigative target could not be trusted to turn over documents in response to a subpoena, requiring the more intrusive step of seizing Mr. Stone’s devices directly...Mr. Stone made a habit of moving sensitive conversations to encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp — meaning that, unlike ordinary emails, the messages could not be obtained directly from the service provider... The clear implication is that any truly incriminating communications would have been conducted in encrypted form — and thus could be obtained only directly from Mr. Stone’s own phones and laptops. And while Mr. Stone likely has limited value as a cooperating witness — it’s hard to put someone on the stand after charging them with lying to obstruct justice — the charges against him provide leverage in the event his cooperation is needed to unlock those devices by supplying a cryptographic passphrase.
Of course, Mr. Mueller is likely interested in his communications with Trump campaign officials, but the detailed charges filed against the Russian hackers alleged to have broken into the Democratic National Committee’s servers also show the special counsel’s keen interest in Mr. Stone’s communications with the hacker “Guccifer 2.0,” an identity said to have been used as a front for the Russian intruders. By Mr. Stone’s own admission, he had a brief exchange with “Guccifer” via private Twitter messages. On Mr. Stone’s account, Guccifer enthusiastically offered his assistance — at the same time we now know Mr. Stone was vigorously pursuing advance knowledge of what other embarrassing material stolen from Mr. Trump’s opponents might soon be released — and Mr. Stone failed to even dignify the offer with a reply. With no easy way of getting hold of “Guccifer’s” cellphone, searching Mr. Stone’s devices might be the only reliable way for the special counsel to discover whether the conversation in fact continued on a more “secure line.”
.. Yet if Mr. Mueller is indeed less interested in Mr. Stone than the potential evidence on his phones and computers, the conventional wisdom that the special counsel probe is wrapping up — and could issue a final report as soon as next month — seems awfully implausible. Digital forensics takes time, and a single device could easily hold many thousands of messages to sift through. And if this really is the first time Mr. Mueller’s office is seeing the most sensitive communications from a key figure like Mr. Stone, it’s likely they’ll come away with new leads to follow and new questions to pose to other witnesses.
We may ultimately look back on Mr. Stone’s arrest not as the beginning of the special counsel’s endgame, but the point when the investigation began to really heat up.
Congress and the public must now push for protections for the special counsel.
As ethics experts, we believe Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from the investigation. If we have ever seen an appearance of impropriety in our decades of experience, this is it: a criminal subject president appointing his own prosecutor — one who has evidently prejudged aspects of the investigation and mused about how it can be hampered.
.. Whether or not Mr. Whitaker steps aside, Mr. Trump’s audacity now demands additional safeguards. Congress must quickly put in place a plan to protect the Russia investigation before President Trump makes any further efforts to control the special counsel’s office.
.. Our proposed solution is based upon one devised by, of all people, Robert Bork when he was the acting attorney general during Watergate. Mr. Whitaker or whoever becomes the next acting attorney general must provide the same protections against interference that Mr. Bork provided to the special Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, in a 1973 Justice Department order. Mr. Jaworski received the protections as part of agreeing to replace the previous prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was fired in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre.
The Bork order contained much stronger provisions to protect the independence of the special prosecutor investigation than is now found in the Department of Justice guidelines that govern the Mueller inquiry. These enhanced protections should be demanded from any new person given responsibility to oversee the Mueller investigation:
● The attorney general, acting or permanent, will not remove the special counsel except for extraordinary improprieties.
● The special counsel shall not be subject to the day-to-day supervision of any Justice Department official. The attorney general shall not countermand or interfere with the special counsel’s decisions or actions.
Republicans said Mueller’s probe was a “witch hunt” by a margin of 81 percent to 12 percent. Another poll showed that Republicans think Mueller is setting Trump up, by a 61-17 margin. A May CBS news poll even showed that more Americans thought the probe was “politically motivated” (53 percent) than “justified” (44 percent).
We now have an investigation, for all intents and purposes, that around half of the most reliable voters regard as suspect. And a very strong majority of Republicans regard it not just as questionable, but as conspiratorial. The Nunes memo, the Strzok testimony and the Page warrant application all provide them something to latch on to, regardless of how accurately those things are being interpreted and portrayed. The messy and imperfect nature of investigations is being laid bare thanks to the fact that Republicans are in charge and thanks to the fact that we have a president who is willing to push the bounds of acceptable discourse and lodge any conspiracy theory he feels at any given point.
.. If Mueller finds anything but a smoking gun,
- Republicans will be hard-pressed to convince their base that Trump did anything wrong, much less that his offenses are worthy of impeachment or removal from office.
- If he tries to charge Trump, Republicans will justifiably point out that this isn’t how things are usually done, and it will feed their sense of persecution. And
- if Mueller exonerates or clears Trump, we’ll have a whole other side of the political debate that had been counting on him to carry out its own predetermined version of justice — a side convinced that collusion and obstruction of justice are already completely apparent, based upon publicly available evidence.
It’s not a recipe for a resolution, especially not a tidy one. In fact, it’s a recipe for the kind of destabilization that Russia and Vladimir Putin sought in the first place.
President Trump on Wednesday urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the Russia investigation “right now,” renewing public pressure on the nation’s top law enforcement official to halt a probe that has resulted in charges against his former campaign officials and more than two dozen Russians.
“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” Mr. Trump wrote in a series of Twitter posts about the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Mr. Mueller was appointed not by Mr. Sessions, but by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after the attorney general recused himself from involvement in any investigation related to the 2016 presidential race
.. Mr. Trump’s Twitter post also follows a post in June from Brad Parscale, who is overseeing the president’s re-election campaign in 2020, who wrote on social media that Mr. Sessions should be fired and the president should “end the Mueller investigation.”
Because of Mr. Sessions’ recusal, Mr. Trump would have to order Mr. Rosenstein to fire Mr. Mueller. Mr. Rosenstein has expressed his support for continuing the special counsel’s investigation.