The special counsel probe of Trump campaign ties to Russia is moving much faster than expected.
Sources familiar with the investigation told Axios that Robert Mueller's team of investigators could wrap up much sooner than Ken Starr's probe of Bill Clinton, which took years.
It's not clear whether they'll release their finding ahead of the November midterm elections, but the 37-page indictment issued last week revealed some important clues about the case.
"The main (and ongoing) surprise is the strength and breadth of this investigation," said CNN contributor Garrett Graff, who wrote a book about Mueller's tenure as FBI director.
The indictment showed Mueller has reviewed evidence -- such as personal communications between Russians identified by investigators -- gathered by intelligence agencies, whose sources and methods are reflected in the court document.
"Mueller’s indictment was more conservative than expected," said former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. "He did not charge the foreign interference itself as a crime — the indictment focused on efforts by the Russians to hide their activities from the U.S. government, along with the fraud they engaged in to do so. The indictment also did not allege wrongdoing by Trump’s campaign or his associates, even though it indicates that the Russians supported Trump’s campaign."
But the indictment buys time for Mueller, who's under intense political pressure, and leaves open the possibility that Trump and his team face legal jeopardy for conspiracy.
"This careful approach makes it harder for Trump and his allies to attack Mueller’s investigation as a waste of time, a hoax, or a 'witch hunt,'" Mariotti said. "On its face, this indictment and its announcement was not aimed at Trump and reached a nonpartisan conclusion, which is why Trump initially quoted (deputy attorney general Rod) Rosenstein’s announcement in a tweet. It is now harder for Trump to claim that Rosenstein and Mueller are out of control."
Russian hacking was not addressed in the latest indictment, but sources told Axios that Mueller would likely reach a conclusion about who stole emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
"Now that [Mueller] has decided to indict one set of Russian participants, it seems likely he will indict the Russian participants in the hacking as well," said Matthew Miller, an MSNBC contributor and former Department of Justice spokesman. "The big question ... remains whether there will be any American co-conspirators."