Hmmm: Mueller files early response on magical mystery subpoena

Will the Supreme Court issue a ruling on Robert Mueller’s magical mystery subpoena before the ball drops in Times Square on Monday night? Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports that the government got its response submitted to the court three full days ahead of an expedited deadline, although it might not have come directly from Mueller. The seal on the case is so encompassing that it’s tough to tell the players without a scorecard … and a decoder ring:

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office appears to have responded to a foreign company’s bid to get the Supreme Court to step into a fight over a grand jury subpoena served on the firm. …

The docket entry doesn’t indicate Mueller’s office is involved in the legal fight. Indeed, there’s not even a mention in the Supreme Court’s public records that the U.S. Government or the Justice Department is involved in the case.

Friday’s filing was likely submitted by Solicitor General Noel Francisco’s office, which handles nearly all Supreme Court briefs for the U.S. government.

That creates an amusing, if not entirely interesting, picture. At one point, Francisco was an option for supervising Mueller’s operation if Rod Rosenstein quit or got dismissed; the firing of Jeff Sessions and the appointment of William Barr almost entirely mooted that necessity. Francisco has been seen as more sympathetic to Donald Trump than Rosenstein might be, although that’s mostly just speculative. Having Francisco shepherd Mueller’s defense of his subpoena in what looks like some kind of foreign-influence angle in the investigation certainly seems a little remarkable.

Unfortunately, whoever submitted the response to the challenge requested that the case remain under seal. That means we won’t get a chance to find out the identity of the subpoena target nor the reason for Mueller’s interest at least until the Supreme Court decides the matter. We won’t even know if this part of the case features any nude selfies, although that may be for the best depending on who got targeted for that picture.

So who might be Mueller’s target? Could it be a person or financial institution connected to Victor Boyarkin, a former Russian intel officer and major fixer for a Putin crony? Time Magazine’s Simon Schuster reports today on Paul Manafort’s connections to Boyarkin and the money he owed to Oleg Deripaska:

In his only interview with the media about those connections, Boyarkin told TIME this fall that he was in touch with Trump’s then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in the heat of the presidential race on behalf of the Russian oligarch. “He owed us a lot of money,” Boyarkin says. “And he was offering ways to pay it back.”

The former Russian intelligence officer says he has been approached by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Boyarkin’s response to those investigators? “I told them to go dig a ditch,” he says. Peter Carr, the spokesman for the Special Counsel’s Office, declined to comment. Through his spokesman, Manafort likewise declined to comment on his alleged connections with Boyarkin.

But those connections could be potentially important to the Special Counsel’s inquiry. They would mark some of the clearest evidence of the leverage that powerful Russians had over Trump’s campaign chairman. And they may shed light on why Manafort discussed going right back to work for pro-Russian interests in Eastern Europe after he crashed out of the Trump campaign in August 2016, according to numerous sources in the TIME investigation.

This picks up on a thread reported quite some time ago — fifteen months ago, in fact. As then, the thread never quite connects to Trump himself in this article, nor any other contacts with Russian intelligence. The Shuster story paints Manafort as a man willing to sell anything and everything in order to further his own monetary interests, but it never gets further than that. The closest it gets is a suggestion that Trump’s opposition to Montenegro’s admission to NATO paralleled that of Russia’s, but (a) that came up long after Manafort’s departure and Trump’s win in 2016, and (b) it also can be easily explained as part of Trump’s skepticism of NATO expansion in general (or NATO itself, arguably).

Perhaps Mueller has found more evidence, or evidence of evidence, involving money, communications, or both in the Deripaska connection. If not, though, the Boyarkin thread looks like a cul-de-sac, as does Manafort himself. Of course, Mueller’s interest and subpoena may be on another lead involving other people entirely. We’ll just have to wait for the nude selfie to see.