The first defendant to be sentenced in the Trump-Russia investigation likely will spend little if any time in prison partly because special counsel Robert Mueller declined to charge him with obstruction of justice—even though he deleted an email that prosecutors say was critical to Mueller's investigation.

Van der Zwaan's treatment by Mueller raises many questions, including the possibility that he quietly helped prosecutors, though he does not have an agreement to cooperate with Mueller as part of his guilty plea.

Van der Zwaan also may have benefited from other factors such as being the first defendant to be sentenced and being a Dutch citizen. Foreign nationals in U.S. prisons can ask for a transfer to their home country, where authorities make their own determination about how long to imprison someone.

"If they were to have added all these charges, it could have been for naught," said former federal prosecutor R. Stephen Stigall, now a white-collar defense attorney at Ballard Spahr. With van der Zwaan's wife expecting a child in August, "the Dutch government may say, that baby is going to be one of our citizens, and we're going to protect the baby and make sure the father is home," Stigall said.

Mueller also may be trying to avoid a sentence for van der Zwaan that ends up being longer than sentences that will be imposed on other defendants who've been charged with worse crimes. If Mueller had charged van der Zwaan with obstruction and a lobbying violation as well as lying to investigators, the judge could have sentenced him to 15 years.

"It would look strange if you had a guy whose conduct was lower than Gates and Manafort getting more time than Gates or Manafort," Stigall said. "The Justice Department wants to make sure there is symmetry in sentencing and punishment."

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