Could there be tapes after all?
Two stories that popped overnight suggest that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is aggressively pursuing Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump's campaign.
• CNN reports that "U.S. investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election": "The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump. Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation . . .
"A secret order authorized by the court that handles the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) began after Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation that began in 2014," per Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Pamela Brown. "It centered on work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine's former ruling party . . . The surveillance was discontinued at some point last year for lack of evidence . . . The FBI then restarted the surveillance after obtaining a new FISA warrant that extended at least into early this year. . . . Sources say the second warrant was part of the FBI's efforts to investigate ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives. Such warrants require the approval of top Justice Department and FBI officials, and the FBI must provide the court with information showing suspicion that the subject of the warrant may be acting as an agent of a foreign power."
• The CNN story, parts of which were subsequently confirmed by CBS News, raises a host of fresh questions. Among them:
• Was Trump himself picked up on any of the surveillance? CNN says that's "unclear." But it's been widely reported that Manafort and Trump continued to talk after the inauguration and after it was reported that Manafort was under FBI investigation.
• When exactly did the second FISA warrant start? The reporters couldn't figure that out.
• What did FBI agents find when, as part of the FISA warrant, they conducted a search of a storage facility belonging to Manafort earlier this year?
The New York Times reports on its front page Tuesday morning that, after agents raided his home with a no-knock search warrant this summer, Mueller's prosecutors told Manafort that they planned to indict him. The story says the feds decided to pick the lock on Manafort's front door in Alexandria, Virginia, because they feared he might try to destroy evidence: "They took binders stuffed with documents and copied his computer files, looking for evidence that Mr. Manafort . . . set up secret offshore bank accounts. They even photographed the expensive suits in his closet."
Sharon LaFraniere, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman include these detail in a larger piece on Mueller's "shock and awe" tactics: "Mr. Mueller has obtained a flurry of subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify before a grand jury, lawyers and witnesses say, sometimes before his prosecutors have taken the customary first step of interviewing them. One witness was called before the grand jury less than a month after his name surfaced in news accounts. The special counsel even took the unusual step of obtaining a subpoena for one of Mr. Manafort's former lawyers, claiming an exception to the rule that shields attorney-client discussions from scrutiny."
As points of comparison, The Times notes, Ken Starr and Patrick Fitzgerald never executed search warrants during their politically charged investigations in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Mueller's team has shown far more deference to current White House officials than associates of Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn: "At least three witnesses have recently been subpoenaed to testify about Mr. Manafort: Jason Maloni, a spokesman who appeared before the grand jury for more than two hours on Friday, and the heads of two consulting firms – Mercury Public Affairs and the Podesta Group – who worked with Mr. Manafort on behalf of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the pro-Russia former president of Ukraine. Mr. Mueller's team also took the unusual step of issuing a subpoena to Melissa Laurenza, a specialist in lobbying law who formerly represented Mr. Manafort . . . Conversations between lawyers and their clients are normally considered bound by attorney-client privilege, but there are exceptions when lawyers prepare public documents that are filed on behalf of their client."
Neither Manafort nor Mueller commented for either the CNN or NYT stories. Manafort has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Flynn, for his part, tweeted Monday for the first time since December in order to promote his legal defense fund.