(7/7/17 update) From Russia With Love…

keep-calm-and-love-russia-279

As mentioned in our previous edition from June 27th, I’ve re-arranged things here more thematically, to hopefully make it easier to follow and locate content in the areas that interest you. Things that were under “Confirmed” and “Looking Probable” are now arranged under specific headings (Congressional Hearings, Special Counsel, Michael Flynn, etc.). “Unconfirmed” is still in a category of its own at the end, since the links there are more speculative.

So that’s the basic set-up. But first, an overview of the “big picture” of where we are:

Established

  1. Russian interests systematically interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The consistent thrust of this interference was to boost Trump, and harm Clinton.
  2. This interference involved senior intelligence officials and business leaders close to Putin, and was approved of and directed by him.
  3. There is an unusual density of business & personal contacts with Russian interests among key people in Trump’s campaign and/or administration. There isn’t a similar density of contacts with other nations equally (or more) important to the U.S..
  4. The actions of several Trump confidants in connection with Russia involve things that are illegal, either in initial commission or subsequent denial. Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone certainly seem to be in this camp. Felix Sater, Jared Kushner, and Michael Cohen may well be.
  5. Despite denials and disavowals, Trump has years-worth of history of praising Putin and seeking contact with him.
  6. Despite denials and disavowals, Trump has years-worth of extensive involvement with Russian businesses and financiers, many of which are part of Putin’s inner circle, and some of whom have ties to Russian organized crime.
  7. The Russian interests working to interfere in the election actively cultivated and sought to make use of contacts with Trump-connected individuals.
  8. Trump administration officials, including the President himself, have taken multiple actions to discourage the progress of the investigation.

Open Questions

  1. Were Trump confidants aware of Russian election interference, either during the election or afterwards, and thus liable for not exposing it?
  2. Or, even worse, were any of Trump’s confidants active, knowing participants in this interference?
  3. If so, was Trump aware of it, either during or afterwards, and thus liable for not exposing it?
  4. Or, even worse, was Trump himself an active, knowing participant in these efforts?
  5. Do any of the actions that the President and his administration have taken to discourage the investigation amount to an actionable case of obstruction of justice?
  6. What else may come out as a result of this investigation now that an independent counsel has been appointed? Recall that Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal was an outgrowth of, but not in any way directly connected to, the Whitewater investigation.

And if you want to explore further based on this blog, the following sources may be of interest:

Now, on to the news. Our sections are (each item here is linked to the corresponding section below):

  1. Congressional Hearings
  2. FBI Investigation/Special Counsel
  3. Russian Campaign Interference
  4. Trump-Russia Ties (general)
  5. Michael Flynn
  6. Jared Kushner
  7. Paul Manafort
  8. Carter Page
  9. Jeff Sessions
  10. Roger Stone
  11. The Steele Dossier
  12. Unconfirmed (use with extreme caution)

New items since the previous edition are in blue text…

********************************************************************************

Congressional Hearings

  • Meanwhile, the House is not so interested in doing investigations on Russian election interference, or on Michael Flynns’s Russian contacts. However, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter on 2/15/17 that urged the Office of Government Ethics to investigate who leaked information about Flynn to the media.
  • While not willing to step down, Nunes was willing on 3/29/17 to cancel a hearing on Russia where former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was to testify. This followed the Trump administration voicing objections to him about her planned testimony. Yates briefly led the Justice Department while Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation was pending, but was fired by Trump after she refused to defend in court his initial travel ban executive order. After she was fired, it was revealed that Yates had notified the White House that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had not properly explained his contact with the Russian ambassador. The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department told Yates that her testimony would have to be seriously limited because of executive privilege, which she disputed.
  • The Senate Intelligence Committee began its hearings 3/31/17. Among the highlights from the first two days of testimony:
    • Marco Rubio’s campaign was also targeted by hackers with Russian IP addresses during the 2016 election.
    • Former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts further revealed that all the major Republican candidates were targeted.
    • Such cyber-targeting continued even after the election, including attacks against Rubio on the first day of hearings, and coordinated social media attacks against Paul Ryan over recent weeks.
    • National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and FireEye chief executive Kevin Mandia, a pair of cybersecurity experts, described how Russian agents and upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia pushed “fake news” during the election.
    • Senate Committee members of both parties also took pains to differentiate themselves from the increasingly politicized House hearings, promising an unbiased and bipartisan approach.
  • The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held hearings on Russia the week of 5/8/17. Key witnesses were former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Among the highlights:
    • Former Obama-administration national security advisor Susan Rice declined an invitation to testify to the Subcommittee on Russian hacking. Rice had initially accepted the invitation from committee chair Lindsey Graham, but then subsequently declined after being informed by Committee ranking Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse that the invitation was not issued with his knowledge, and was the only request for testimony the committee issued that was not bipartisan. Rice had earlier become the subject of allegations, which do not appear to be substantiated, that she had improperly unmasked and revealed information about surveillance of Trump-related personnel’s contacts with Russia.
    • Yates detailed how she had informed Trump administration officials that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn was susceptible to blackmail from Russia 18 days before he was fired.
    • She also testified that she warned White House counsel Don McGahn in late January that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other senior officials and that as a result, public statements by White House officials were inaccurate.
    • Clapper clarified earlier his remarks, oft-repeated by the Trump administration, that he had seen no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He sought to make clear this statement reflects the fact that he had not seen the FBI evidence, and not an authoritative opinion that the evidence itself was lacking.
    • Clapper stated that the Russians had also collected information on certain Republican Party affiliated targets but did not release any Republican related data, and only leaked information involving the Democratic Party.
    • In relation to allegations involving Rice, Clapper explained that the request from intelligence officials for unmasking of a US citizen is “legitimate” and essential to determine motives of the foreign agent being monitored, and does not constitute “improper” leaking
    • Yates and Clapper both told members of the Subcommittee that they had never leaked classified information to the news media, nor authorized anyone else to do so.
    • Following questions to Clapper about information on Trump business dealings with Russia, Sen. Graham indicated that he wants to look into President Trump’s potential business ties to Russia as part of the Senate investigation.
  • On 6/7/17 Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. There had been reporting that Trump had asked Coats and Rogers to influence the FBI to shut down its investigation. In response to repeated questioning along these lines, both men refused to answer, invoking confidentiality and security, indicating they could not answer further in open hearings but might be able to be more forthcoming in closed hearings. They indicated that even then they might need to consult with White House counsel first. This was widely understood to indicate that the allegations could not be clearly refuted, and that legal concerns are now front and center as figures involved in the investigation seek to make sure they do not commit perjury in public statements.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 6/13/17. Among the highlights of his testimony:
    • Sessions denied that he had deliberately withheld disclosures on his prior Russian contacts.
    • He indicated that his recusal from the case was because of his campaign work for Trump, not because of any sense of impropriety about his Russian contacts.
    • Sessions also denied that he had any undisclosed further meetings with Russian parties, though he allowed after further questioning that there may have been “an encounter’ but no substantive talk with Ambassador Kisylak at the Mayflower Hotel conference in April 2016.
    • He did corroborate two key areas of Comey’s testimony: that Trump had asked Sessions to leave the room during a meeting and then talked with Comey privately, and that Comey had afterwards asked him not to leave him alone with Trump again.
    • Sessions used some version of the line “I can’t recall” 21 times during his testimony.
    • In an interesting aside, Sessions indicated that he had not closely followed the news on Russian campaign interference, and could not recall it being a subject of focus or concern at any point during the transition.

FBI Investigation/Special Counsel

  • A good case can be made that Trump’s firing of Comey constitutes a case of obstruction of justice. This would be true of Session’s behavior as well, and could additionally result in him losing his license to practice law, as it would seem to violate his previous recusal of himself from anything Russia-related. Making the case would require establishing (1) “Corrupt” intent, (2) Interference with a pending judicial proceeding, (3) A material impact on that proceeding, and (4) Knowledge of that proceeding. #2 & #4 are easily demonstrable, so it would depend on #1 and #3. Obstruction of Justice was one of the impeachment charges brought against Nixon in Watergate.

Russian Campaign Interference

  • Russian media also announced that three senior officials of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, and a cyber-security contractor working with the FSB had been arrested and charged with treason on 1/28/17. Analysts believe that, given the timing, and the kinds of people involved, that this move likely has something to do with the U.S. intelligence finding on high-level Russian official participation in manipulating the U.S. election.
  • A report that was issued on 4/20/17 (by Reuters) revealed that a Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to three current and four former U.S. officials, a document prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in June recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia. A second institute document, drafted in October, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency.

Trump-Russia Ties (general)

  • A Trump associate with definite ties to Russia is now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson was instrumental in negotiating billions of dollars worth of business with Rosneft. He was even been awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin, one of the highest honors Russia gives to private citizens. Tillerson has also frequently spoken out in the past against the sanctions placed on Russia after its intervention in the Ukraine, perhaps not coincidentally because lifting those sanctions and pipeline access to the Ukraine, would make Exxon’s deal with Rosneft vastly more profitable.
  • In a pre-Superbowl interview with Bill O’Reilly on 2/5/17, President Trump responded to O’Reilly’s questioning his support for the Putin regime given that Putin is a “killer” by saying, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” This echoes statements he made in response to similar questions from Joe Scarborough in December 2015: “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.” Many, including some Republicans, questioned this latest assertion of moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Putin regime. Meanwhile, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov demanded an apology from Fox.
  • Shifts in Russian media coverage of Trump following Flynn’s resignation have led some to wonder if Russia is souring on Trump. Such media coverage is thought to usually takes its cues from Putin. This comes as Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson, and Vice President Mike pence have all made statements criticizing Russia and/or re-affirming support for NATO and Ukrainian independence.
  • One open question is what, if anything, the legal ramifications of various Trump associates’ Russia ties might be. Unseemly contact with an unsavory regime, after all, is not a crime as such. Vox has published an article that lays out the three broad categories of activity that might involve actual legal infractions: violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, failing to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and making false statements to federal investigators. All of them are felonies and carry the potential penalty of prison time. While everyone Left and Right likes to use “treason” to describe the activities of their opponent de jour (see: Clinton, Hillary, Benghazi, for all of the Right for all of 2016), the Vox piece notes that being guilty of treason would mean that someone from Trump’s team would have to have been aiding a country or group that was legally at war with the US. Russia isn’t. Per Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California Davis, “Formally, we’re at peace with Russia, so even the most outrageous assistance to Russia or benefit to Russia wouldn’t count as treason.”
  • On the eve of his 7/7/17 first official meeting with Russian President Putin at the July 2017 G20 summit, President Trump made remarks that once again seemed to cast doubt on his acceptance of Russia’s role in influencing the 2016 election: “I think it was Russia. And I think it could have been other people and other countries. It could have been a lot of people interfered. I’ve said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries, and I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere. I think it has been happening for a long time. It has been happening for many, many years.” He also took advantage of the opportunity to again attack fake news, and blame Obama for not taking stronger action against electoral influence.

Michael Flynn

Jared Kushner

Paul Manafort

  • Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort was confirmed in August 2016 to have had former Ukranian-President Viktor Yanukovych as a consulting client. Manafort’s firm received over $12 million in payments from Yanukovych’s political party between 2007 and 2012. Yanukovych has close ties to Russia, and his push for Russian ties and alleged role in Russian incursions in the Ukraine was part of the impetus for his ouster as President following popular demonstrations. The status of Manafort’s communications with Russia are under FBI investigation.
  • Some sources believe Manafort was behind the watering down of a plank to the Republican platform calling for U.S. support in arming the Ukraine. The plank had been introduced to the foreign policy sub-committee by a Texas delegate who was a Reagan-administration appointee and an observer in the Ukraine’s first free elections in 1998. It was then weakened to include only “non-lethal support” was under pressure from two pro-Trump delegates who were in cell phone communication with someone after saying they had to call to talk to “Mr. Trump.”.

Carter Page

  • It was revealed on 3/7/17 that Page also made a trip to Moscow in July 2016, which he had first cleared with then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. A few weeks before he traveled to Moscow to give a July 7 speech, Page asked J.D. Gordon, his supervisor on the campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee, for permission to make the trip, and Gordon strongly advised against it. Page then emailed Lewandowski and spokeswoman Hope Hicks asking for formal approval, and was told by Lewandowski that he could make the trip, but not as an official representative of the campaign. Lewandowski claims that he does not specifically remember the e-mail, but does not dispute the accuracy of the story.
  • On 4/3/17, it was revealed that Page also had meetings with Russian intelligence agents in 2013. Page met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged by the US government alongside two others for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government. The charges, filed in January 2015, came after federal investigators busted a Russian spy ring that was seeking information on US sanctions as well as efforts to develop alternative energy. Page is an energy consultant who has worked for, among other clients, the Russian state energy company Gazprom. Podobnyy had apparently been seeking to recruit Page, but ultimately received nothing more than publicly available documents from him.

Jeff Sessions

Roger Stone

The Steele Dossier

  • Christopher Steele, a former MI6 official posted in Russia in the 90s, produced a 35-page dossier detailing allegations of improper contacts between Trump and Russian officials. The research behind the memo originally began in September 2015 as part of opposition research by Republican opponents of Trump. Steele was hired by the firm doing the research, Fusion GPS , in June 2016 after Russian interference allegations surfaced. It was subsequently continued in the Fall with Democratic clients paying Fusion GPS for the research. The dossier is composed of multiple several page memos written between June and December 2016. Pieces of it had circulated among several news organizations, intelligence agencies, and senior officials including John McCain. An intelligence briefing on the memo was shared with President-elect Trump and President Obama in early January 2017.  Multiple sources in British intelligence describe Steele as an experienced and professional asset, whose work was usually of very high quality.
  • It is important to note that some details in the memos have been proven incorrect, most prominently a meeting between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and a Russian official in Prague. The news organizations that were in possession of the memos pre-election had not gone public with them because they could not confirm enough details to feel comfortable releasing them.
  • The Steele Dossier has been published in full by Buzzfeed. As you’ll see above, some parts of it have been shown to be incorrect. And as you’ll also see above and below, other parts of it have been verified. You can find a link to the full document and a description of some of the controversy around it in the story here. As a still-uncorroborated source, I don’t plan to get into the gory details in this venue, but the gist of the document’s allegations are as follows:
    • Russia has been cultivating ties with Trump for years.
    • Part of this cultivation involves financial incentives promised to him should he become President and lift sanctions.
    • Russian intelligence agencies also have compromising material on Trump that leaves him vulnerable to blackmail.
    • There were extensive ties and cooperation between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence.
  • In December 2016, the Russian government sold a 19.5% share of the state oil company, Rosneft. The sale was facilitated by finance companies in Qatar and Singapore, involves a Cayman Island holding-company, and the ultimate identity of the purchaser cannot be verified from public documents. The potential significance of this is that one of the allegations of the Steele memos is that Putin offered Trump associate Carter Page the brokerage fee on the sale of a 19% share of Rosneft if Trump was elected and agreed to lift sanctions on Russia.
  • Oleg Erovinkin, a former KGB official and key aide to Igor Sechin, the head of the Russian State Oil company Rosneft and prominent figure in the Steele memos, was found dead in Moscow on 12/26/16. Steele’s documents indicate one of his primary sources was a figure close to Sechin, and there is speculation that Erovinkin was that source. The death appears to be due to foul play.

Unconfirmed (use with extreme caution)

  • The blogger behind Patribotics has put forth a speculative, but at least well-cited theory based on allegations that Alfa Bank and Dimitry Firtash, a Russian agent of influence, own Cambridge Analytica, the data targeting company used by Trump’s campaign, and its parent, self-described “global election management agency” SCL. The theory further alleges that Cambridge Analytica and SCL used Facebook data illegally stolen by a Russian spy working at Cambridge to build a target database of propaganda. In the closing days of the election, the Russian state hacked into the voter rolls of the United States. Russian intelligence did this in order that they could provide this information to Alfa Bank in order to use Cambridge Analytica’s targeting to precisely target voters and tip them to Trump. Paul Manafort, who has financial ties to Alfa Bank and Firtash, was involved in this effort.
  • The alleged but not confirmed to be from real-White House staff RoguePOTUS Twitter account alleged that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Ryan-ally White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had insisted that Vice President Mike Pence sit in on Trump’s 1/28/17 informal first call with Vladimir Putin, despite Trump’s reluctance, over concerns that the Russian leader does indeed have compromising material on the President. Trump’s behavior during the call was said to increase those concerns.
  • I am extremely leery of “death lists” such as mysterious deaths associated with the JFK assassination, the Clinton “death list” etc. They tend to lump together genuine puzzlers with things that really aren’t that suspicious, have only a tangential relationship, and ignore the many not dead people also involved. But I will pass on this list of eight figures associated with the Steele dossier who have died. Some of these are not easy to directly relate to anything in particular, but others, like the deaths of Erovinkin & Oronov which are discussed in the above sections, are extremely interesting in terms of details and timing. I report, you decide.
  • WhoWhatWhy, an online news magazine founded by former Village Voice reporters and editors, has issued a 6,500 word expose alleging that the FBI cannot reveal the details of Trump’s contacts with Russia because doing so would jeopardize a long-running, ultra-sensitive operation targeting organized crime figures tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to Trump.
  • The indefatigable Patribotics blogger published research on 4/23/17 linking Hostkey.com, a hacking and spamming company owned by hacker Peter Chayanov with Russian-based servers provided to Wikileaks shortly before the DNC e-mail leak. The blog provides further evidence that Ocean Way Capital, a Florida-based shell company that hosts Hostkey.com and all its servers, is linked to Russian-Ukranian money laundering to Trump-connected shell companies.
  • It was reported on 6/28/17 that the FBI had interviewed multiple U.S.-based employees of the Russian cyber-security firm Kaspersky Lab.  No specific link to the Russian election interference investigation has been established, but senior intelligence official’s concerns about Kapersky were discussed in several Russian investigation congressional committee hearings. Kaspersky Lab paid former national security adviser Michael Flynn $11,250 in 2015 for cyber-security consulting, according to public documents, but that was not a focus of the FBI questioning, multiple sources said. 
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One thought on “(7/7/17 update) From Russia With Love…

  1. Pingback: (7/17/17 update) From Russia With Love… | Chris LaMay-West

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