(Bloomberg) -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller ended his probe without indicting one of its most politically sensitive subjects: Donald Trump Jr.
A key episode in Mueller’s 22-month probe into Russian election meddling was a secret meeting that the president’s eldest son took at Trump Tower in Manhattan in 2016 with a Russian lawyer connected to the Kremlin on the promise of being given dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Now, one of the inquiry’s most intriguing unanswered questions is why Trump Jr. remained largely untouched by Mueller despite his participation in the meeting and questions about whether he tried to cover it up.
Also left unscathed was Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. He, too, was at the Trump Tower meeting and had other contacts, including a conversation with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition about setting up a secret communications channel through the Russian embassy.
Mueller has delivered his final report to Attorney General William Barr, who’s deciding how much of the findings to release to Congress and the public and said he may be able to outline its “principal conclusions” as soon as this weekend. It’s not clear, however, whether the report or Barr’s summaries will deal directly with President Donald Trump or members of his family.
There’s been no public indication that Mueller’s team interviewed Trump Jr. Legal experts said that it’s common for prosecutors to avoid questioning potential targets for indictments. But questions will be raised about Mueller’s approach if it turns out that he neither questioned the president’s relatives nor made them a target of his investigation.
Mueller may not have found enough evidence to justify making Trump Jr. a target or indicting him, said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor. However, Mueller still could have found wrongdoing that he spelled out in his report.
“Just because there’s not enough evidence for a criminal case doesn’t mean there wasn’t wrongdoing,” Cramer said in a phone interview. “No criminal case doesn’t mean no conspiracy.”
It’s also possible that Mueller requested an interview with Trump Jr. and was denied, Cramer said. There’d be no point in subpoenaing him to come before a grand jury if he was going to invoke his constitutional right to refuse to testify.
“There’s no law that says you have to be interviewed,” Cramer said. “You don’t put a suspect or anybody before the grand jury for theater.”
Mueller didn’t issue any final indictments before turning in his report, and no sealed indictments are pending, according to U.S. officials.
However, he could have handed off unrelated charges -- such as lying to Congress -- or made a criminal referral related to Trump Jr. and others to a U.S. attorney’s office, Cramer said.
Trump Jr., who has denied any wrongdoing, may still face legal risks. Several U.S. attorneys will be taking over aspects of Mueller’s probe and could still issue their own indictments at some point.
As a former FBI director and veteran prosecutor, Mueller knew well that indicting the president’s eldest son would have been a politically explosive step that would have reverberated through Washington and beyond. For the president, it would have sparked difficult questions about whether to try to intervene in the judicial process or pardon his son ahead of the 2020 re-election campaign.
Even so, Trump Jr. appeared to be very much at the center of Mueller’s inquiry. The special counsel’s team interviewed several participants in the Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
‘I Love It’
It was arranged by a Russian pop star whose family had grown close to the Trump clan. His publicist, Rob Goldstone, reached out to Trump Jr. promising to provide dirt on Clinton if he’d meet, and that it was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. responded. In addition to Trump Jr. and Kushner, the meeting was attended by Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman.
Mueller later prosecuted Manafort on charges of tax and bank fraud, witness-tampering and money laundering. He was sentenced to a total of 7 1/2 years in jail.
While most of those crimes don’t relate directly to collusion with Russians in the 2016 presidential campaign, Manafort was charged with lying to investigators about whether he shared polling data with a suspected Russian intelligence operative.
Trump Jr. initially said the primary topic of the meeting was U.S. adoptions of Russian children, a response his father helped to craft. He has since said that nothing came of the meeting.
Veselnitskaya said in an interview with Bloomberg News that Trump Jr. told her a 2012 sanctions law related to human rights violations would be re-examined if his father was elected. Russia had responded to the sanctions by barring Americans from adopting Russian children. She said he also asked for written evidence for a suggestion that the Clinton campaign had benefited from improper funds. She said she didn’t have any.
The president has said that his son -- the eldest of five Trump children -- is innocent of any crimes and that his decision to attend a meeting with information of potential interest to his campaign was nothing out of the ordinary.
Appearing before the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors in December 2017, Trump Jr. said he discussed the meeting with his father after it became public, but he declined to disclose details of that conversation. He was described as being otherwise forthcoming with lawmakers in an interview that lasted almost eight hours.
Separately, Trump Jr. has acknowledged exchanging several private Twitter messages with WikiLeaks in September 2016, weeks before the organization published hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, which would generate headlines that haunted the Democrat’s campaign through Election Day. In the messages, he mostly answered contacts from WikiLeaks politely or not at all, though he didn’t reject communications with the website founded by Julian Assange.
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, was indicted by Mueller on charges of lying to Congress about his communications with WikiLeaks. Stone, who has maintained he’s innocent, is scheduled to go to trial in September.
Still, it’s unclear what crime Trump Jr. could be accused of committing. Meeting with a Russian lawyer, even one with links to the Kremlin, isn’t illegal, and issuing a misleading statement to the press about it wouldn’t be either.
Lawmakers have suggested Trump Jr. may have lied to Congress, which is a crime. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff has said he would like Mueller to review Trump Jr.’s testimony to his committee to see if there’s evidence of false statements without specifying what those may be. The Senate Intelligence Committee, where Trump also testified, has referred a number of cases to Mueller to investigate witnesses for perjury without naming names.
Trump Jr., 41, is executive vice president of the Trump Organization. But he has spent much of the last two years as a rising star in conservative circles, cultivating his own political brand. While Trump’s other adult children have mostly avoided their father’s combative style, he’s taken it to a new level, spreading conspiracy theories and far-right political memes to his 3.3 million Twitter followers.
His appeal lies in what many Republicans say is a new face of the party -- a young businessman who’s as comfortable on a hunting trip as working a high-end Manhattan fund-raiser. He’s often accompanied to campaign events by his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host.
His status in conservative circles is likely to rise even higher now that he’s appeared to escape from Mueller’s probe unscathed. He offered no comment on Mueller on Friday, but he did tweet a photo showing him fishing with his kids.
--With assistance from Chris Strohm and Shannon Pettypiece.
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