Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is shrinking by two in the wake of its successful prosecution of Paul Manafort and amid signs the Russia investigation may be nearing its final stages.
Brandon Van Grack and Kyle Freeny — government lawyers with key roles in bringing the case against the former Trump campaign chairman over tax evasion, bank fraud and failure to register as a foreign agent for his lobbying work in Ukraine — are going back to their prior posts at the Justice Department, according to Mueller spokesman Peter Carr.
Story Continued Below
Van Grack has already returned to DOJ’s National Security Division, while Freeny is ending her detail in mid-October and will return to the Criminal Division’s money laundering and asset recovery session.
With the two departures, the Mueller prosecution team is now down to 13 staffers involved in the core investigation into potential Trump campaign coordination with Russia during the 2016 presidential election, Carr said.
At its peak, the team consisted of 17 lawyers — not including Mueller.
The staffing changes come amid signs that the special counsel’s work has entered a critical phase. Manafort, who pleaded guilty last month to avoid a second criminal trial, met Monday with the Mueller team as part of his cooperation agreement. Several reports are also due in quick succession from Mueller or federal prosecutors after the midterm elections as they move to sentence Manafort, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen.
Separately, Mueller’s lawyers are still negotiating with the president’s lawyers for an interview with President Donald Trump.
Sizing up the situation, former FBI Director James Comey recently said it looks like the Mueller probe is in the “fourth quarter.”
A Washington defense attorney working on the Russia investigation said the latest moves suggest an end is in sight.
“They’re downsizing,” the lawyer said. “I think they wouldn’t be letting people go unless they’re winding down, especially the way these things work.”
Barbara McQuade, a former Obama-era U.S. attorney and law professor at the University of Michigan who has closely tracked Mueller’s work, said that while the staffers could theoretically be replaced, such a move would be unlikely “because knowledge and momentum would be lost by replacing prosecutors at this stage.”
Van Grack played a role on the Mueller trial team in the Virginia bank- and tax-fraud case. He also worked on the case that led to Flynn’s guilty plea last December over lying to the FBI about conversations with Russian officials. Van Grack will continue to represent Mueller on any specific pending matters assigned to him while he was on detail, Carr said.
Freeny, meantime, is leaving “because she has concluded her work here,” Carr said.
Two other junior-level Mueller prosecutors — Ryan Dickey and Brian Richardson — left the special counsel’s team earlier this summer.