President Trump and legal scholars say the first prosecution from U.S. Attorney John Durham’s review of the Russian collusion probe has set the stage for more dramatic revelations, though the guilty plea in the first case didn’t add much to what was already known about the Obama administration’s Justice Department.
Former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith is set to plead guilty next week to making false statements, admitting in early 2017 he altered an email to say former Trump campaign aide Carter Page was not a source for the CIA, when, in fact, he was.
The false assertion was used by the Justice Department to obtain the third Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant for Mr. Page, keeping the FBI’s Russia probe alive.
Ensnaring Clinesmith on false statements charge may be nabbing low-hanging fruit. But veteran prosecutors say it is an important tool for federal investigators to compel key witnesses to tell the truth and flip or face consequences.
“This is how you work your way up the ladder,” said Andrew Leipold, a law professor at the University of Illinois and a former member of the team assembled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to investigate President Clinton.
“It’s a time-honored practice that to get to the big fish that pulled the trigger, you work your way up,” he said.
The president’s allies had hoped Mr. Durham would net bigger fish, in particular ex-FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Deputy Andrew McCabe or disgraced anti-Trump FBI agent Peter Strozk. As of yet, there is no public evidence that any of the three are targets of Mr. Durham.
Mr. Trump on Friday said he expects more to come.
“So that’s just the beginning, I imagine. Because what happened should never happen again,” he told reporters in the White House briefing room. “Terrible thing. The fact is they spied on my campaign and got caught.”
The FBI operation codenamed Crossfire Hurricane searched for links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. It ultimately morphed into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that dogged Mr. Trump for nearly two years.
Lodging false statement charges in hopes of gaining cooperation also was a favorite tactic of Mr. Mueller’s team. He brought false statements charges against six Trump campaign associates.
Some of the associates, including former fixer Micheal Cohen, ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn and Trump campaign aide Rick Gates agreed to cooperate in the sprawling investigation.
Ultimately, Mr. Mueller could not find any evidence directly linking the Trump campaign to Russian election interference.
Solomon Wisenberg, a Washington attorney, who also served on Mr. Starr’s team said there will be more action in the Durham probe, but it may not arise from Clinesmith.
Without a conspiracy case to build, false statement charges can often lead investigators down dead ends.
“Assuming that Comey and McCabe committed crimes or acted inappropriately, I really don’t think Clinesmith is going to get you there,” he said. “He’s not a buddy of Jim Comey. If there is a ‘there’ there, it is not going to come from somebody like Clinesmith.”
Most of the revelations laid out in Clinesmith’s five-page indictment were made public last year when Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report uncovering at least 17 errors and omissions in the Page warrant applications.
Mr. Horowitz had recommended Cinesmith for criminal prosecution.
The Justice Department had sought to prosecute Mr. McCabe for lying to investigators about his role in leaking information to the press about a probe into the Clinton Foundation. Earlier this year, the Justice Department abandoned that effort.
Mr. Wisenberg compared the indictment of Mr. Clinesmith to the case Mr. Mueller brought against ex-Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos.
Like Mr. Clinesmith, Papadopoulos also pleaded guilty to false statement charges, but he had little new information to share with Mueller prosecutors. He ultimately served a 14-day jail sentence for his crime.
More will be revealed about the early days of the Russian collusion probe, Mr. Wisenberg predicts but cautions it may not come from criminal charges. He said Mr. Durham could tell what he knows through a report.
“I have a sense there is more to see, but not every abuse of authority is a crime,” he said. “I want to know the full truth of what happened with the Carter Page FISA.
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.