Mueller’s Russia Trump probe scrutinizes spring 2015 before decision to run

Investigators working for special prosecutor Robert Mueller are beginning to focus on the months leading up to President Donald Trump’s June 2015 decision to run for president as they probe into whether associates of the president colluded with Russian officials to influence the election, FOX Business has learned. This comes as Hope Hicks, White House communications director and longtime loyal Trump aid, resigned following nine hours of grilling by members of the House Intelligence Committee over Russia.

Mueller’s team recently asked witnesses to provide any information they have about Trump’s business dealings in Russia, with particular focus on March to June 2015, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. These people say some of the questions being asked involve any details the witnesses might have on an aborted attempt to build a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow around the time Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015.

As Fox Business was first to report on Tuesday, investigators are also inquiring about the president’s dealings with various Russian business people and what witnesses knew about Trump’s decision- making process when he officially decided during a raucous press conference at Trump Tower in New York City to run.

The exact reason for the questions and their focus on March to June 2015 remains somewhat unclear as the special prosecutor’s office reaches the one-year anniversary of its probe after racking up a number of guilty pleas from former Trump officials and associates. Despite the frenzied pace of Mueller’s investigation, the special prosecutor’s office has yet to bring charges against any Trump associate for the official focus of the inquiry: to determine if Trump and his people aided and abetted Russian agents to influence the 2016 election.

Still, people with knowledge of Mueller’s probe said they believe, based on the questions his investigators are asking, that his team is methodically investigating various links between Russian government officials or people associated with the Russian government that were established when Trump, as a real estate developer and branding magnet, was looking toward doing business in the former Soviet Union as far back as 2013.

The investigators’ questions suggest that Mueller is looking at whether Trump’s long-established ties to various prominent Russian nationals were ultimately tapped by the Trump campaign to help in the defeat of his GOP primary challengers and then in his victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, these people say.

Such direct collusion – which Trump has vehemently denied—could be a violation of federal law.

A spokesman for the special prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the matter.  In a statement to FOX Business, Trump attorney Ty Cobb said: “Out of respect for the [Office of the Special Counsel] and his process, the [White House] does not comment on witnesses or their purported testimony.  The WH remains fully cooperative with the OSC in the service of the citizenry which deserves a prompt conclusion.”

Mueller was appointed special prosecutor by Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein in May of last year after Trump fired the original investigator of the alleged campaign abuse: FBI Director James Comey.

In addition to interviewing people in the Trump orbit, Mueller has indicted a number of Trump associates and reached guilty pleas with others, such as Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, and former campaign aides George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates.

But none of those people pleaded guilty to collusion—a point Trump made time and time and again in publicly attacking the probe. For example, Mueller’s recent indictment of the 13 Russian nationals for meddling in the 2016 election made clear no member of the Trump campaign was directly involved in their efforts. Flynn and Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts in Russia, not collusion, while Gates tendered a guilty plea over charges of money laundering.

The same goes for the recent indictment of Paul Manafort on charges of money laundering when he was doing business in Ukraine with pro-Russian associates. Manafort has vowed to fight the indictment, calling the allegations an “untrue piled up charges.”

As FOX Business has reported, during interviews with witnesses, Mueller’s team appears interested in establishing a timeline that starts with Trump’s various attempts to do business in Russia and stretches through Trump’s decision to run for president. Investigators have also asked whether people around the president had ties to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that hacked into Democratic National Committee computers and published damaging emails about Clinton during the 2016 election, people familiar with the probe said. Democrats including Clinton have accused WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, of working with the Russian operatives to help Trump win the election. Assange has denied the accusation.

Another area of recent inquiry involved questions concerning payoffs to women who claim to have had affairs with Trump, these people add.