What does President Donald Trump’s 2008 sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian billionaire have to do with collusion during the 2016 election?
On the surface, not a whole lot.
“You know the closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach … for $40 million, and I sold it to a Russian for $100 million,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in 2015.
Two years later, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators are taking a closer look at the lucrative sale — as well as a host of other deals involving Trump’s businesses — as they search for clues into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Moscow to influence last year’s election.
The expansion of Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s finances has raised questions about how far the special counsel can go in chasing down leads before the probe devolves into a fishing expedition beyond its intended scope.
While following the money trail can uncover critical clues in any white-collar crime investigation, Trump recently warned that any digging into his finances would be a violation of Mueller’s mandate. White-collar crime typically is nonviolent and done for financial gain.
The special counsel authority given to Mueller by the Justice Department on May 17 is relatively broad but has room for interpretation. While it explicitly authorized him to investigate “any links and/or coordination” between the Trump campaign and Moscow during the election, it also mandated Mueller to examine “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Grand jury rules
Thomas Zeno, a former federal prosecutor now with the Squire Patton Boggs law firm, said examining Trump’s business dealings does not necessarily fall outside the special counsel’s mandate.
“Just hearing the president’s investments are being looked at is not enough,” Zeno said. “We need to know why. We don’t know why because that’s what Mr. Mueller is doing behind a grand jury.”
Muller’s team operates under grand jury secrecy rules and does not comment on the investigation.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in May and supervises his investigation, said that Mueller was operating within his mandate.
“We don’t engage in fishing expeditions,” Rosenstein told Fox Sunday, using a phrase for an investigation that doesn’t stick to a stated purpose but hopes to uncover incriminating information.
Rosenstein said Mueller would have to seek his permission to investigate matters that fall outside his mandate.
Eric Jaso, a former associate independent counsel for the Whitewater investigation who is now a partner with the Spiro Harrison law firm, said Mueller’s mandate gives him “a fair amount of wiggle room” to probe matters related to the investigation.
However, there is no requirement to publicize any additional authorities given to the special counsel, Jaso said.
A spokesman for Mueller did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump's Russia ties
Trump has long de-emphasized his financial ties to Russia. In February, he told reporters, “Speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I have no deals in Russia.”
To demonstrate his limited Russian dealings, the president’s lawyers released a letter in March showing income from two Russian deals: $95 million from the 2008 sale of the Palm Beach mansion to Russian fertilizer tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev, and nearly $12 million from a partnership with oligarch Aras Agalarov to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.
But in 2008, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, told investors in Moscow, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Seva Gunitsky, a University of Toronto professor who has researched Trump’s Russian business interests, said the president’s financial connections to Russia run deeper than he has admitted. Since the 1990s, he said, Trump has done “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of business with Russian investors “if not more.”
The Florida mansion sale and the Miss Universe pageant are among an array of financial transactions Mueller’s investigators are examining, Bloomberg reported last month.
Investigators are also looking at Trump’s partnership with Russian investors in a controversial New York condo-hotel project and purchases of Trump condos by Russian investors.
As part of their investigation, Mueller’s team is delving into the finances of Trump associates, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, son-in-law Jared Kushner and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has deep financial ties to Russia and Ukraine. Last month, FBI agents raided Manafort’s home outside Washington to seize documents and other material, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.
To conduct the investigation, Mueller has assembled a high-caliber team of lawyers, including three with extensive experience in the financial fraud section of Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.
“If you want to get to the roots of collusion, to the roots of Trump’s relationship with Russia, they don’t start with Putin, and certainly don’t start with the 2016 campaign,” Gunitsky said. “They start with lots and lots of Russian oligarch money coming into Trump’s real estate businesses, into his casino businesses, since the 1990s and even earlier.”
The president’s refusal to release his tax returns makes it difficult to know the exact extent of his Russian financial interests, Gunitsky said.
Andrew Kent, a Fordham University law professor, said the expansion of Mueller’s investigation has put Trump and the special counsel on a collision course.
“If the investigation gets hot for Trump personally, for his son or son-in-law, I’d not be at all surprised if President Trump took steps to try to fire Mueller or otherwise rein in the investigation,” Kent said.
Asked if he’d thought about or considered firing Mueller, Trump told reporters Thursday, “I haven’t given it any thought. … No, I’m not dismissing anybody. I want them to get on with the task.”