On Tuesday, April 3, Alex van der Zwaan became the first person to receive a court sentence in the course of the Mueller investigation. But the sentencing hearing was a strangely anticlimactic affair.
There were no major issues of dispute between the defense, headed by William Schwartz, and the special counsel’s team, headed by Andrew Weissman. The stakes were comparatively low: van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to one count of 18 U.S.C. 1001 (making false statements to the FBI), faced a maximum sentence of only six months. Publicly available court documents in van der Zwaan’s case do not show any cooperation agreement with the special counsel, and neither Schwartz nor Weissman made any reference to ongoing cooperation by van der Zwaan as a mitigating factor in his sentencing.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sentenced van der Zwaan to 30 days in jail and a $20,000 fine—a relatively light sentence that, she argued, nevertheless reflected the gravity of his decision to lie and withhold evidence during a Nov. 2017 interview with Mueller’s team. Especially as an attorney with a major international firm, Jackson said, van der Zwaan should have known better.
As far as we know, van der Zwaan’s offense is confined to having lied to investigators regarding a handful of communications with Rick Gates and an unnamed Person A in Ukraine (reported in the press to have been Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnick), as well as a senior partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom—confirmed during the hearing by Weissman to have been former White House Counsel Greg Craig. The lack of any mention of cooperation by van der Zwaan during the sentencing hearing suggests that his involvement in L’Affaire Russe might not go any deeper than that.
In other words, van der Zwaan’s sentencing appears to be more of an odd tangent in the Russia investigation than a major puzzle piece. So if van der Zwaan is so unimportant, why would the special counsel’s office bother prosecuting him? Perhaps it’s a matter of principle: as we’ve seen in recent months, the FBI does not like it when people lie to them. Or perhaps it’s an effort to send a message to others caught up in the Mueller investigation that impeding the work of the special counsel’s office is serious enough to merit jail time, even when the offense in question is minor. Perhaps it’s both.
Jackson made a similar point in announcing van der Zwaan’s sentence. His defense attorney requested a punishment of only a fine, but, the judge said, she couldn’t just let van der Zwaan “pay [his] fine at the door and go … We’re not talking about a traffic ticket.” Van der Zwaan not only “put his own interests ahead of the interests of justice,” but did so in an investigation of both national and international importance into “foreign interference in the democratic processes fundamental to our freedom.” Sentencing the defendant to at least some jail time served an important purpose, she said: “It is a message that needs to be sent.”
Az Buzzfeed’s Zoe Tillman notes, Jackson’s involvement in the Mueller investigation doesn’t end with van der Zwaan: she is also presiding over Paul Manafort’s case and Manafort’s civil suit against the Justice Department. Those cases may be more dramatic. But in this one, to use Jackson’s own words: "This glass was dropped on a very thick carpet.” If we were hoping for loud noise and excitement, what we got instead from this hearing was a quiet, muffled thud.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had multiple conversations about how the real cultural impact of the Mueller investigation so far lies not in anything it’s revealed about the extent of Russian election interference, but instead in how the special counsel is uncovering cultures of corruption independent of the 2016 election. To be sure, we’ve learned a great deal about Kremlin efforts to meddle in the election and the Trump campaign’s openness to such efforts—and that’s still at the core of Mueller’s work. But the indictments of van der Zwaan, Gates, Manafort, and even Michael Flynn all have something to say about white-collar malfeasance: money laundering; tax evasion; powerful lobbying firms and law firms that work for unsavory clients, sometimes not registering as foreign agents even when they should. As the Washington Post put it, Mueller, not Trump, is draining the swamp.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that the focus of the Mueller investigation itself has shifted in any way. The special counsel’s team continues to focus on collusion, obstruction and election interference, as well as “federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters,” as an additional court filing from Mueller’s office made clear last night. Rather, I’m describing a different frame of reference through which the public can consider the investigation while it remains ongoing.
Viewed in this light, van der Zwaan’s case may still be an offshoot of the main investigation. But it sits at the center of the story Mueller is telling—whether he’s doing so intentionally or not—about “the swamp.” At Skadden, van der Zwaan worked alongside Greg Craig on a controversial report for the Ukrainian government analyzing the prosecution of the Ukrainian president’s political rival. The firm’s work on the report bound it up with a network of lobbyists including Gates and Manafort, in what the New York Times refers to as the “lucrative sideline among Washington lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations consultants” of “advising authoritarian governments overseas.”
At one point, Jackson mused that she could not yet understand why van der Zwaan took the actions he did. Perhaps he became overly friendly with Gates, she said, or perhaps it was a more involved coverup. Perhaps it was money.
Even in this recentered version of the Mueller investigation, Vladimir Putin doesn’t disappear entirely: after all, the money at issue would have come from a client state of Russia’s and from oligarchs closely linked to the Kremlin. But Russia largely went unmentioned during the hearing. The only exception came when Jackson expressed her lack of sympathy for van der Zwaan’s argument that the case had imposed hardship on him by confining him to empty days spent alone in a city far from his family. The defendant was not prevented from leaving his room, she pointed out, and went on to reference a recent novel about a fictional Russian nobleman sentenced to a life of confinement inside a hotel: Van der Zwaan “is not like the gentleman in Moscow.”