Mueller Investigation Secures Another Guilty Plea

Feb 20, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 11:49 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story turns on an essential fact. It is a crime to lie to the FBI. That's the charge to which a lawyer is expected to plead guilty today. Special Counsel Robert Mueller secured that guilty plea as he investigates Russian interference in the 2016 election. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been covering this story. She's in our studios. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who's this lawyer?

JOHNSON: Not a household name - he's a lawyer based in London named Alex Van der Zwaan. And court documents say he lied to the FBI in November 2017. He failed to produce some emails to the special counsel team. And he lied about some communications he had with a lobbyist, Rick Gates, who himself is charged with money laundering and conspiracy.

INSKEEP: I think we're beginning to get a sense of where this would fit into the broader investigation. You're suggesting that FBI agents were talking with him because of his link to Rick Gates, who's been charged?

JOHNSON: Yes, in part. This lawyer, Alex Van der Zwaan, worked at the Skadden law firm in London. He helped prepare a report for the pro-Russian government in Ukraine about five or six years ago. And he worked on that report with Paul Manafort, who went on to become Trump's campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, Paul Manafort's right-hand man. Both of those guys are facing charges of money laundering and conspiracy, Steve.

But it's not clear yet whether this guilty plea, expected later today in federal court in D.C., is going to tell us more about Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, more about the essence of this investigation, whether the Russians interfered in the election and whether any Americans were helping them to do it.

INSKEEP: This is a question on my mind. It's perhaps a question you can't answer at this point. If this man is pleading guilty, is he simply pleading guilty or has he, in effect, been flipped? Might he have information about other people that he would be required to give up as part of that guilty plea?

JOHNSON: Not clear yet. All we have is two pages of court documents suggesting this guy is going to appear in court later today in D.C. and plead guilty to a single false statements charge. More will come this afternoon when a judge asks him what exactly the terms and scope of this deal are.

INSKEEP: How can you connect this with the Russia investigation writ large? For example, the indictment on Friday of 13 Russians.

JOHNSON: Yeah, a historic move by the special counsel. Remember, 13 Russians were indicted and three Russian businesses were indicted for running an information warfare campaign to benefit Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election. Those Russians, the allegations are, even sent operatives to the U.S. to learn how to target their resources. Now, President Trump continues to maintain on Twitter all weekend long that there was no collusion and no impact on the election results.

Other observers aren't so sure. There's still a lot we don't know, including a lot about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman Don Podesta (ph) and whether any Russians were involved in that and whether they'll face justice here.

INSKEEP: John Podesta, you're saying, there's a question about him. I want to ask one question about President Trump's response to this. He has not, so far as I know, denounced Russia at any time for interfering in the U.S. election, the last few days anyway. He has said there was no collusion, effectively that he and his campaign are innocent. He's also attacked the FBI. What are people inside the Justice Department saying about this kind of treatment by the president?

JOHNSON: They're keeping their head down and doing their job, Steve. The morale at DOJ and the FBI has not been great for over a year because of these attacks from President Trump and his allies in Congress and outside Congress. The best thing they can do, the feeling is, is do their jobs.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson reporting on an expected guilty plea from a lawyer named Alex van der Zwaan in the Russia investigation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.