WASHINGTON: Special counsel Robert Mueller is trimming more attorneys from his office, another sign his team of prosecutors is winding down parts of their investigation into potential ties between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign.
Two prosecutors detailed to the Russia investigation for the past year are returning to their duties in other parts of the Justice Department. They join two other attorneys who left the team over the summer.
The departures, confirmed by Mueller's office Tuesday, are the latest indication that the special counsel is wrapping up at least some pieces of an investigation that has shadowed Trump's presidency from the outset. But it's only a limited view into the tight-lipped Mueller's timetable or possible endgame. Critical investigative strands still remain, such as an active grand jury probe of longtime Trump associate Roger Stone and ongoing negotiations over an interview with Trump.
Mueller spokesman Peter Carr said prosecutor Brandon Van Grack has already returned to the Justice Department's national security division but will continue to be involved in cases he was assigned to. That includes the investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is scheduled to be sentenced in December.
Prosecutor Kyle Freeny will end her detail to the special counsel later this month and will return to her position in the Justice Department's money laundering section, Carr said.
Van Grack and Freeny were on the teams prosecuting Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Besides the grand jury inquiry into Stone, other elements of the Mueller investigation remain active, including inquiries into whether the president took action to obstruct the probe and the central unresolved question of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 election.
But after a series of indictments and high-profile plea deals with Trump associates in recent months, Mueller's shown signs of narrowing his focus, referring cases to other offices of the Justice Department, letting other U.S. attorneys largely take over cases he brought and allowing prosecutors to leave his team without replacement.
Prosecutors in Manhattan, for instance, secured a guilty plea in August from Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, a case referred by Mueller. The U.S. attorney's office in Washington has been assigned to the special counsel's case against 13 Russians charged in a hidden but powerful social media effort to sway American public opinion.
That same office also prosecuted W. Samuel Patten, who pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent in a case also referred by Mueller's office.
Other lawyers who left the Mueller team earlier this year include computer crimes prosecutor Ryan Dickey, who worked cases against a Russian social media troll farm and 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking Democratic groups during the campaign, and Brian Richardson.
Richardson was part of a team that prosecuted former Skadden Arps attorney Alex van der Zwaan for lying to the FBI while they were investigating Manafort and others involved in his Ukrainian work.
All told, Mueller's team has obtained six guilty pleas, including from four Trump campaign advisers, and a jury conviction. He has pending indictments against 26 others and three Russian companies.