A top prosecutor in the investigation into alleged collusion between US President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia has given a cryptic clue to a central theory.
He indicated the probe was looking at how Russian interference in the election to advance Mr Trump’s interests coincided with his advisers engaging in talks about ending sanctions over the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
“This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on and what we think is the motive here,” said prosecutor Andrew Weissmann in a hearing transcript seen by the New York Times.
“This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”
The hearing related to whether former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort violated his plea agreement by holding back details of his contact with Russian associate Konstantin Kilimnik.
But more important is the revelation Special Counsel Robert Mueller is focusing on discussions about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea — and easing US-led economic sanctions.
According to the transcripts, Manafort and Mr Kilimnik repeatedly spoke about Ukraine between August 2016 and into 2018, well after Manafort had been charged by Mr Mueller over his Russia links.
Prosecutors say Manafort misled them about the discussions, the Times reported.
The big question is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin received any indication Mr Trump would give him what he wanted — and whether the inquiry can prove it.
When Mr Trump took office, there were suggestions the White House might be preparing to drop the sanctions.
But Manafort’s lawyers said the suspicions were “nonsense” and “sanctions were going to continue against Russia” no matter what.
Mr Weissmann told the judge the question of whether any American, wittingly or unwittingly, engaged with Russians who were meddling in the presidential election went to “the core” of the investigation.
Mr Trump has repeatedly attacked the probe as a “rigged witch hunt”, insisting no evidence of collusion has been found.
Mr Mueller is expected to deliver his report imminently, although it is not known if all the details will be revealed to the public.
The President is facing a string of other investigations by Democrats. He has also been implicated in an alleged crime by New York prosecutors who allege he directed his lawyer Michael Cohen to make illegal hush-money payments to two women who said they had affairs with him.
Mr Trump says Cohen lied to get a lighter sentence.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved Mr Trump’s pick William Barr for the Attorney-General nomination, amid concerns about how transparent he will be over the results of the probe.
The AG will oversee the remainder of Mr Mueller’s investigation.
It has caused concerns after Mr Trump fired former attorney-general Jeff Sessions, who had infuriated the President by recusing himself from the Russia probe.
While there is no smoking gun when it comes to the question of Russian collusion, the evidence has shown numerous Trump associates maintained contacts with operatives from the country during the 2016 campaign and transition period, and several lied about the communication.
There is also evidence that some people in Mr Trump’s circle were discussing a possible email dump from WikiLeaks before it occurred. The hacked material was deeply damaging to his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
US intelligence agencies and Mr Mueller have said Russia was the source of the emails released by WikiLeaks.
Another unresolved question Mr Mueller is pursuing is Mr Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey after the bureau opened an investigation into the President and Russia.