The White House communications director Hope Hicks' input could be key to help close Mueller's obstruction-of-justice investigation into President Donald Trump.
A report from Politico this week, which found that the special counsel Robert Mueller is gearing up to interview the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, indicates that one of the many threads of the Russia investigation is probably moving into its final stages.
Hicks has long been one of President Donald Trump's most trusted advisers, and she was present during some events that are key to the special counsel's investigation.
Mueller's investigation includes multiple components. In addition to looking into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the 2016 election in Trump's favor, the special counsel is also investigating Trump on suspicion of obstruction of justice related to his decision to fire James Comey as FBI director.
As part of that investigation, ABC News reported on Sunday, Mueller has asked the Department of Justice for all emails connected to Comey's firing.
Mueller has also requested documents related to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal from the Russia investigation. Sessions announced his recusal in March after it emerged that he had failed to disclose contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador to the US, in his Senate confirmation hearing in January.
Despite his recusal, Sessions played a prominent role in Comey's firing, as did Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Hicks was also a key presence during several critical moments leading up to Comey's dismissal.
Comey was spearheading the FBI's Russia investigation when he was terminated as FBI director in May. At first, the White House said he was fired because of his handling of the bureau's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server to conduct government business as secretary of state. But Trump later told NBC's Lester Holt that "this Russia thing" had been a factor in his decision.
The biggest challenge a prosecutor faces in an obstruction-of-justice case is proving corrupt intent, which is almost always difficult to establish. But Trump's public statements bashing Comey and the investigation, as well as a draft letter he put together with his adviser Stephen Miller in early May laying out his reasons for firing Comey, could work against him.
"The best way to prove someone's intent is through their own words and actions,"Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, told Business Insider in an earlier interview. "Here, you have a letter that was written by Miller, at the direction of the president, that contains what the president's thoughts were at that time."
Hicks was with Trump the weekend he and Miller drafted the letter. She was also with Trump in the Oval Office for a meeting on May 8, the day before Trump fired Comey. During the meeting, Trump described the letter that he and Miller had composed.
Though its full contents remain unclear, The Washington Post reported that it focused on what was perhaps Trump's greatest frustration with Comey: that the FBI director did not publicly announce, when he was leading the bureau's investigation, that Trump was not personally under investigation.
Mueller's document requests to the DOJ and the fact that he is preparing to interview Hicks signal that he is close to concluding the obstruction-of-justice case he has been building against Trump.
"When you're interviewing people in a large-scale investigation like this, you generally start at the bottom and move towards the top," Mariotti said. "As you interview lower-level advisers, sometimes they give you information that makes you realize there are additional documents you need to obtain or interviews you need to conduct, before working your way up."
Adam Goldberg, who served as a White House lawyer in President Bill Clinton's administration, echoed that point.
"Any time you can get someone who is the right-hand person or who's been around the primary target of an investigation, under oath, answering detailed questions, means you've progressed very far along in the investigation," Goldberg told Politico.
Though the president's defense attorneys, like the White House lawyer Ty Cobb, have expressed confidence that the Russia investigation will conclude by as soon as the end of the calendar year, sources close to the investigation told The Washington Post on Sunday that they expected the investigation to continue deep into 2018 and possibly beyond that.
Mueller's team took over the FBI's investigation in May, when he was appointed special counsel following Comey's firing. Prosecutors have so far extracted a guilty plea from the former Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who was charged with one count of lying to federal agents about his contacts with people who claimed to be linked to the Russian government.
In October, Mueller indicted Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his associate Rick Gates on charges of money laundering and their work as foreign agents.
Hicks' testimony could be useful for other parts of the investigation as well. In addition to being privy to Trump's thoughts leading up to his decision to fire Comey, Hicks was also with the president on Air Force One when he "dictated" an initially misleading statement that his son Donald Trump Jr. issued in response to reports that he met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016.
The statement had to be amended several times after it emerged that Trump Jr. took the meeting when he was offered dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Hicks was among the advisers who believed the White House should release a truthful statement that could not be repudiated if more details surfaced later, The Post reported. They were ultimately overruled, and the special counsel is now scrutinizing Trump's response to determine what he knew about the meeting and whether he acted to conceal its purpose.
"People shouldn't think of this investigation as one big indictment that's going to come out charging everyone who's involved," Mariotti said. "There are going to be pieces of it that come out bit by bit."
But for now, he added, "it looks like the obstruction-of-justice aspect of the case is probably coming to a close."