WASHINGTON — A mystery witness fighting a secret fight over a sealed subpoena with a prosecutor who may be Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating the Trump-Russia affair, turns out to be a corporation owned by a foreign government, according to a federal appeals court ruling on Tuesday.
The three-page ruling by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit described the unnamed witness in those terms, but it did not identify it any further, nor did it confirm whether the prosecutor is the special counsel, as has been widely speculated.
During closed-door oral arguments before the panel last week, court security officers took the unusual step not only of closing the courtroom, but also of clearing the entire floor of the courthouse so that reporters could not see who the lawyers were as they went in and exited.
[Read the judgment.]
But the new details about the witness’s identity offered some tantalizing clues to a mystery that has riveted Washington journalists and legal insiders who are closely watching Mr. Mueller’s investigation, eliminating some theories about whom it may be while opening the door to new a new round of guessing.
The judgment by the panel, released on Tuesday evening, offered a glimpse into the nature of the witness and the underlying legal dispute: A prosecutor has obtained a grand-jury subpoena for information from a corporation that is owned by a foreign government about some action abroad connected with commercial activity that caused a direct effect in the United States.
After receiving the subpoena, the corporation asked Chief Judge Beryl Howell of United States District Court for the District of Columbia, who oversees grand juries in the district, to quash the subpoena for several reasons, including that the country that owns it — identified only as Country A in the ruling — has sovereign immunity and that disclosing the information would be illegal under that country’s domestic laws.
But Judge Howell ruled against the corporation — and began imposing a $5,000-a-week fine for contempt over its failure to comply with the subpoena. And after hearing arguments on Friday, the three-judge appeals court panel — Judges David S. Tatel, Thomas B. Griffith, and Stephen F. Williams — unanimously affirmed her ruling.
Among other things, the panel said in an unsigned opinion that sovereign immunity was about barring civil lawsuits, not criminal investigations. The panel also said its reading of the plain text of the foreign statute in question left it “unconvinced that Country A’s law truly prohibits the Corporation from complying with the subpoena.”
Observers have been tracking the unusual court fight over a sealed subpoena since September, but hard facts have been scarce.
Politico wrote in October that one of its reporters overheard an unidentified lawyer in the appeals court clerk’s office asking to see a sealed filing from the special counsel so his law firm could craft its response. The exchange with the man, who refused to identify himself, took place on the same day that a sealed filing was due in the mystery case.
Heightening attention, Politico Magazine also published an essay speculating that perhaps Mr. Mueller had subpoenaed President Trump and that the White House was secretly fighting it, but Mr. Trump’s lawyers have denied that was the case.
And CNN has said that its reporters twice witnessed a team of lawyers working for Mr. Mueller, including Michael Dreeben, an appellate specialist, going into a sealed courtroom to argue before Judge Howell against an unknown litigant, including on a day when she later handed down a ruling in the sealed case.
CNN reported that it spotted a car carrying Mr. Dreeben and another lawyer who works for Mr. Mueller that returned to the special counsel’s office not long after the secret hearing had wrapped up.
Follow Charlie Savage on Twitter: @charlie_savage.
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