Of all the characters targeted by Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election, Alex van der Zwaan, minor though he may seem, will make history. A well-moneyed former associate at Skadden Arps, the powerful New York law firm, the attorney had the gall to lie time and again to Mueller’s team during an interview with federal investigators. Van der Zwaan got caught, faced charges for it, pleaded guilty, and is now awaiting sentencing in federal court in Washington. Next month, when he goes before a judge, he’ll be the first defendant in Mueller’s sights who may land behind bars. His lawyers have asked for leniency.
But it’s not the prospect of jail time for van der Zwaan that matters. In a sentencing memorandum federal prosecutors filed late Tuesday, they even told the judge that the Department of Justice “does not take a position with respect to a particular sentence to be imposed.” Instead, Mueller’s team wanted to make it very clear to the court that van der Zwaan, for all his sophistication and legal experience, is a big liar with a thing for destroying evidence. And that no matter the warnings he received from the special counsel’s office about the legal perils of being untruthful, he nonetheless “deliberately and repeatedly lied” about matters that are critical to Mueller’s probe. All this, while his lawyer was in the interview room with him.
Lied about what matters? That van der Zwaan had had communications, in the heat of the presidential election, with Rick Gates, a longtime business partner of Paul Manafort and Donald Trump’s campaign deputy who is now facing criminal charges of his own. And that he knew that Gates, who has since pleaded guilty and is cooperating with Mueller, was “directly communicating,” also during the campaign, with a mysterious “Person A” — whom the FBI has determined “has ties to Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016,” emphasis mine.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Person A is Konstantin Kilimnik, a Manafort associate who oversaw one of his business offices in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Previous reporting had already documented the long-standing ties between Kilimnik and Manafort, including meetings the pair had during the campaign. But Tuesday night’s court filing was the first time the federal government put it on the record that the man was an active Russian spy in the run-up to 2016. (Kilimnik has denied any such links to Russian intelligence.) That is to say, Manafort was employing a person who probably had a direct line, and who knows what other secret connections, to the Kremlin. And van der Zwaan, all along, had grown far too close to the trio. Or “gone native,” as Mueller’s filing puts it.
What all of this means in the grand scheme is yet to be seen. But for what’s otherwise a routine court document filed ahead of sentencing, Mueller pulled no punches with it — embarrassing van der Zwaan and peeling the curtain back ever so slightly on the trove of evidence and incriminating conduct we’ve yet to learn about. Trump’s legal team may be in utter disarray, even as it beats the drum that there was never any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. But Mueller, slowly and methodically, continues to prove them wrong by connecting the dots, his work as unflappable as ever. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we ain’t seen nothing yet.