Hoo-boy, it’s been a while! We last saw each other in August, and I *think* a bit has happened since then.
Well, no excuse for the length of the time-out, but I did take advantage of the break to do some streamlining. The sections on our major dramatis personae (Cohen, Flynn, Kushner, Manafort/Gates, Page, Sessions, Stone, & Trump Jr.) have been changed to have a general intro for each, a timeline summary of their major Russia-investigation links, and a more narrative summary of what’s happened with them. I think this will significantly boost navigability and comprehensibility. I plan to do the same with the other sections next, and then eventually to turn this into a proper site devoted just to this, with separate pages and links between them.
Until then, our partially renovated blog has many developments to mention, some of them major:
- Cohen cooperated, was sentenced, and has publicly revealed that Trump’s business talks with Russia went later, and there were even earlier Russian coordination attempts with the campaign than previously known.
- Flynn is moving on to sentencing, and, per a heavily redacted sentencing memo, seems to have provided valuable assistance on several matters .
- Manafort was found guilty, cooperated to avoid a second trial, and then turns out to have been lying and helping Trump’s team while cooperating.
- Marria Butina has plead guilty of acting as a Russian agent and working to influence the NRA and the Republican party, and is now a cooperating witness.
- Stone continues to be surrounded by a swirl of subpoenaed associates, and eventual indictment of some sort involving his communications with Russian hackers and Wikileaks seems inevitable.
- A fellow named Trump has handed in written answers on collusion to Mueller, and along the way fired his lead attorney over anger about how much he cooperated with Mueller, and Attorney General for allowing the investigation at all.
- Oh yes, and Democrats gained 40 House seats in the 2018 midterms, and are likely to launch or restart multiple investigations when they gain the committee chairs in the now-flipped House in 2019.
All of this testifies to the scope of what we still haven’t seen publicly, and how big the revelations of the next phase of the investigation may be. There’s more on all of this below, but before we get further in to the latest, an overview of where we are so far:
- Russian interests used social media and hacking to systematically interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election beginning as far back as 2014. By spring 2016, the major thrust of this interference was to boost Trump, and harm Clinton.
- This interference involved senior intelligence officials and business leaders close to Putin, and was approved of and directed by him.
- Russians working to interfere in the election hacked and illegally distributed information from the DNC and Clinton campaign, worked to build connections with top Republicans through the NRA, and, posing as U.S. actors, had extensive ongoing contact with up to 100 unwitting state and local Trump campaign workers and Republican activists.
- The specific targeting of some of this manipulation indicates access to sophisticated election data analytics.
- 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..
- The actions of several Trump campaign figures and confidants in connection with Russia involve things that are illegal, either in initial commission or subsequent denial. Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and Richard Gates have already plead guilty and are cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, Paul Manafort was found guilty in one trial and then became a cooperating witness to avoid a second, and Jared Kushner, Carter Page, Erik Prince, Felix Sater, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, and Donald Trump Jr. all have taken known actions that could leave them legally liable.
- Despite denials and disavowals, Trump has years-worth of history of praising Putin and seeking contact with him.
- Despite denials and disavowals, Trump has years-worth of extensive involvement with Russian businesses and financiers, many of whom are part of Putin’s inner circle, and some of whom have ties to Russian organized crime.
- The Russian interests working to interfere in the election actively cultivated and sought to make use of contacts with Trump-connected individuals and organizations.
- Despite prior denials and disavowals, people involved with the Trump campaign were aware of Russian interest in helping the campaign at least as early as December 2015, and multiple senior campaign officials were aware that the Russian government was seeking to harm Clinton’s candidacy and help Trump’s at least as early as March, 2016.
- In at least three cases, the ongoing correspondence of George Papadopoulos with Russian representatives and Trump campaign officials from March 2016 forward, Michael Caputo arranging Roger Stone’s May 2016 meeting with a Russian party offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and the arrangement of the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager with Russian representatives, some Trump campaign officials reacted positively to the potential offer of information from Russian sources.
- Trump administration officials, including the President himself, have taken multiple actions to discourage the progress of the investigation.
- How much did Trump confidants come to know about Russian election interference after first becoming aware of it in March 2016?
- Were any of them aware of it before that date?
- Were any of Trump’s confidants active, knowing participants in this interference?
- Did Trump share his senior campaign officials’ awareness of Russian election interference, either during the campaign or afterwards, and is thus liable for not exposing it?
- Or, even worse, was Trump himself an active, knowing participant in these efforts?
- Do the actions that the President and his administration have taken to discourage the investigation amount to an actionable case of obstruction of justice?
- Given that the Russian election manipulation seems to have been based at least in part on sophisticated data analytics, how (and from whom) did they get this information?
- What else may come out as a result of this investigation now that a special counsel is investigating the finances of Trump and his associates? Recall that Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal was an outgrowth of, but not in any way directly connected to, the Whitewater investigation.
It’s also instructive to read the indictments and Court Filings from Robert Mueller’s investigation, as they are the most concrete and detailed (and surprisingly readable!) source of information of verified criminal charges that have come out of the investigation:
- George Papadopoulos, 10/5/17
- Paul Manafort & Richard Gates, 10/27/17
- Michael Flynn, 12/1/17
- Paul Manafort (additional charges), 2/16/18
- 13 Russian Nationals and three companies including Internet Research Agency, 2/16/18
- Richard Pinedo, 2/16/18
- Alex van der Zwaan, 2/16/18
- Paul Manafort (superseding charges), 2/16/18
- Alex van der Zwaan (guilty plea), 2/20/18
- Paul Manafort & Richard Gates (additional charges), 2/22/18
- Richard Gates (guilty plea), 2/23/18
- Alex van der Zwann (sentencing filing), 3/27/18
- Paul Manafort (denial of request to review warrants), 4/6/18
- Paul Manafort (memorandum in opposition of request to dismiss evidence), 4/23/18
- Paul Manafort & Konstantin Kilimnik (superseding charges for Manafort, new obstruction charges for Manafort & Kilimnik), 6/8/18
- Concord Consulting & Management, LLC (request of denial for motion by co-defendant in the 2/16/18 Internet research Agency indictment to review evidence in the case), 6/12/18
- Paul Manafort (exhibit documenting unregistered lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych), 6/12/18
- Paul Manafort (second exhibit documenting unregistered lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych), 6/12/18
- Paul Manafort (government’s response to defendant’s motions to dismiss material related to the campaign from the bank fraud trial), 7/6/18
- 12 Russian Nationals acting as agents of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (“GRU”), 7/13/18
- Paul Manafort (government’s exhibit list of pieces of evidence for the Virginia Federal trial), 7/18/18
- George Papadopoulos (Special Counsel sentencing request memo), 8/17/18
- Samuel Patten (criminal information filed as part of plea agreement), 8/31/18
- Samuel Patten (statement of the offense filed as part of plea agreement), 8/31/18
- George Papadopoulos (defendant’s sentencing memo requesting leniency), 8/31/18
- Paul Manafort (superseding charges for the DC Federal trial, filed as part of plea bargain agreement), 9/14/18
- Paul Manafort (status update ending the cooperation agreement due to deceit on Manfort’s part), 11/26/18
- Jerome Corsi (draft statement of the offense for a plea agreement Corsi subsequently withdrew from), 11/26/18
- Michael Cohen (plea deal), 11/29/18
- Michael Cohen (signed acceptance of guilt to specific charges). 11/29/18
- Michael Flynn (sentencing memo and addendum), 12/4/18
- Michael Cohen (sentencing memo), 12/7/18
- Paul Manafort (sentencing memo laying out outline of Manfort’s deceptions), 12/7/18
- Michael Flynn (Flynn’s sentencing memo on his own behalf), 12/11/18
- Michael Flynn (government’s objection to Flynn’s argument about FBI questioning is his sentencing memo), 12/14/18
In addition to Mueller’s filings, these Other Primary Source Documents provide a wealth of information:
- Social Media ads purchased by the Internet Research Agency (Spring 2015-Summer 2017)
- Tweets from Twitter handles associated with the Internet Research Agency (February 2012-May 2018)
- Another database for searching the Facebook Internet Research ads by topic, and links to other ads (Spring 2015-Summer 2017)
- E-mails between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone arranging the Trump Tower meeting (June 2016)
- The Steele Dossier (July-December 2016)
- FISA warrant for Carter Page (October 2016, subsequent filings through June 2017)
- Director of National Intelligence report on Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections (January 2017)
- FBI memo on interview with Michael Flynn (January 2017)
- Former FBI Director James Comey’s memos on meetings with Trump (January-March 2017)
- Fusion GPS testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee (August 2017)
- Russiagate: The Depth of Collusion, report by the Center for American Progress (August 2017)
- Amended Complaint of lawsuit filed against Roger Stone & the Trump Campaign by Roy Cockrum, Scott Comer, & Eric Schoenberg (September 2017)
- Carter Page testimony to the House Intelligence Committee (November 2017)
- President Trump’s legal team’s memo to Mueller’s team (January 2018)
- Filing for the DNC’s Lawsuit against Russia, Wikileaks & the Trump Campaign (April 2018)
- The House Intelligence Committee Report on its Russia investigation, also including January 2018 memo and counter-memo concerning possible FISA abuses (April 2018)
- Minority Views of the House Intelligence Committee– Democratic member’s response to the main report above (April 2018)
Senate Intelligence Committee Initial Findings on Russian Targeting of Election Infrastructure During the 2016 Election (May 2018)
- Senate Judiciary Committee Materials from inquiry into Circumstances Surrounding Trump Tower Meeting (released May 2018, materials cover hearings from August 2017-March 2018)
- Preliminary Findings About Trump Campaign’s Effort to Obtain Incriminating Information on Secretary Clinton from Russia at Trump Tower Meeting– Ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat Diane Feinstein’s critique of Committee’s work (May 2018)
- A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election by the Office of the Inspector General (June 2018)
- White House Access for Sale: Michael Cohen, Novartis and the bid to sell access to the Trump administration– report by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee (July 2018)
- Justice Department indictment against Maria Butina on working with Russian intelligence to infiltrate U.S. political organizations (July 2018)
- Government’s Memorandum in Support of Pretrial Detention for Butina (July 2018)
- Federal Judge Beryl Howell’s rejection of Andrew Miller’s challenge to Robert Mueller’s right to subpoena him (August 2018)
- Michael Cohen plea deal with New York Federal Prosecutors (August 2018)
- Department of Justice complaint against Elena Khusyaynova for conspiring to influence the 2018 midterms (September 2018)
- Defense motion to dismiss the Cockrum lawsuit against the Trump campaign (October 2018)
- Court transcript of Michael Cohen change of plea to guilty on several charges in SDNY (November 2018)
- SDNY sentencing memo for Michael Cohen (December 2018)
- Transcript of James Comey’s testimony to the House Oversight and Judiciairy Committees (December 2018)
- Mariia Butina guilty plea (December 2018)
- The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency, report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee (December 2018)
- The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018, report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee (December 2018)
Much of what I post here is more topical coverage of the latest news, but mixed in among those stories are occasional Long-form Stories (2,000 words+) that take a deeper dive into specific subjects. So that these don’t get lost in the shuffle, and because they’re an excellent place to get a wider and deeper understanding of the overall story, I’m collecting them here:
- Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia? (Slate, 10/31/16)
- Everything You need to know About Steve Bannon, Breitbart, & Russia (Daily Kos, 11/18/16)
- The timeline of Trump’s ties with Russia lines up with allegations of conspiracy and misconduct (Business Insider, 2/11/17)
- 80 times Trump talked about Putin (CNN, 3/1/17)
- Why FBI Can’t Tell All On Trump, Russia (Who.What.Why. 3/27/17)
- How Ex-Spy Christopher Steele Compiled His Explosive Trump-Russia Dossier (Vanity Fair, 3/30/17)
- Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America (Time Magazine, 5/18/17)
- Top-Secret NSA Report Details Russian Hacking Effort Days Before 2016 Election (The Intercept, 6/5/17)
- What Is Collusion? Is It Even a Crime? (Politico, 7/12/17)
- Trump’s Russian Laundromat (The New Republic, 7/13/17)
- How Donald Trump Jr.’s Emails Have Cranked Up the Heat on His Family (Time Magazine, 7/13/17)
- “Set aside Putin and follow the money”: a Russia expert’s theory of the Trump scandal (Vox, 7/18/17)
- Why Robert Mueller Has Trump Soho In His Sights (Vanity Fair, 8/13/17)
- Lobbyist at Trump Campaign Meeting Has a Web of Russian Connections (New York Times, 8/21/17)
- Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider Than Previously Known, Draw Little Scrutiny (New York Times, 9/1/17)
- The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election (New York Times, 9/7/17)
- The Fake News Machine: Inside a Town Gearing Up for 2020 (CNN, 9/12/17)
- RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War (New York Times, 9/13/17)
- Trump in Moscow: what happened at Miss Universe in 2013 (The Guardian, 9/18/17)
- Cambridge Analytica, the shady data firm that might be a key Trump-Russia link, explained (Vox, 10/22/17)
- Cracking The Code: He Solved The DNC Hack. Now He’s Telling His Story For The First Time. (Buzzfeed, 11/8/17)
- How Trump walked into Putin’s Web (The Guardian, 11/15/17)
- The Hidden History of Trump’s First Trip to Moscow (Politico, 11/19/17)
- Exclusive: What Trump Really Told Kislyak After Comey Was Canned (Vanity Fair, 11/22/17)
- As he investigates Trump’s aides, Robert Mueller’s record shows surprising flaws (Los Angeles Times, 11/24/17)
- Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked (Washington Post, 12/14/17)
- How Putin’s oligarchs funneled millions into GOP campaigns (Dallas Morning News, 12/15/17)
- Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options (Washington Post, 12/25/17)
- Fusion GPS Founder Hauled From the Shadows for the Russia Election Investigation (New York Times, 1/8/18)
- Miss Universe in Moscow: How Trump’s beauty contest spawned a business deal with Russians and a bond with Putin (Yahoo News, excerpt from Michael Isikoff’s forthcoming book “Russian Roulette: the inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump”, 3/8/18)
- ‘Stand Down’: How The Obama Team Blew The Response To Russian Meddling (Mother Jones, excerpt from Michael Isikoff’s forthcoming book “Russian Roulette: the inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump”, 3/9/18)
- Christopher Steele, the Man Behind The Trump Dossier (The New Yorker, 3/12/18)
- Inside the Decade-Long Russian Campaign to Infiltrate the NRA and Help Elect Trump (Rolling Stone, 4/2/18)
- The Very Strange Case of Two Russian Gun Lovers, the NRA, and Donald Trump (Mother Jones, 5/1/18)
- Code Name Crossfire Hurricane: The Secret Origins of the Trump Investigation (New York Times, 5/16/18)
- The Crazy True Story of Trump Moscow (Buzzfeed, 5/17/18)
- Why Trump’s inauguration money is a major part of Mueller’s Russia investigation (Vox, 6/5/18)
- What if Trump Has Been a Russian Asset since 1987? (New York Magazine, 7/8/18)
- The Trump-Russia Facts Lead To Only One Reasonable Conclusion (Huffpost, 8/16/18)
- White House Counsel, Don McGahn, Has Cooperated Extensively in Mueller Inquiry (New York Times, 8/18/18)
- How Rudy Giuliani Turned Into Trump’s Clown (New Yorker, 9/10/18)
- The Money Trail: The Trump Tower Meeting (Buzzfeed, 9/12/18)
- The Plot to Subvert an Election: Unraveling the Russia Story So Far (New York Times, 9/20/18)
- How Russia Helped Swing the Election For Trump (New Yorker, 10/1/18)
- Was There a Connection Between the Trump Campaign and a Russian Bank? (New Yorker, 10/15/18)
And who doesn’t like a good graphical presentation? I know I do! The following Timelines and interactive graphics are a fun way to sort out who’s who and when they did what:
- An overview of the investigations currently underway (Washington Post)
- Interactive Graphic of Trump team’s Russia connections (Washington post)
- Parallel timeline of responses to Russian election interference by the Democratic campaign, Republican campaign, and Obama administration (Washington post)
- Multi-year timeline of Trump-Russia investigation (Mother Jones)
- Timeline of Trump-Russia ties from 1979 to today (Bill Moyers)
- Giant timeline of everything Russia, Trump and the investigations (PBS Newshour)
- Complete timeline of Trump-Russia affairs dating back to the 80s (Thomas Wood, first published in Political Wire, now a three-part 400+ page Google Doc!)
- 2016 Active Measures excellent overviews of what’s known, how it all fits together, and list of other resources (including this blog!)
Now, on to the latest news. I’ve highlighted which sections have new material in the list below, so you know what to check out, and moved the data tags for the sections to the end of each section. When you click on the list, you’re taken right to the end of that section, and all you have to do is scroll up to see the latest news:
- Congressional Hearings (other than specific people/topics below)
- FBI Investigation/Special Counsel (other than specific people/topics below)
- Russian Campaign Interference
- Trump-Russia Ties (pre-inauguration)
- Trump-Russia Ties (post-inauguration)
- Michael Cohen
- Michael Flynn
- Jared Kushner
- Paul Manafort/Richard Gates
- Carter Page
- Jeff Sessions
- Roger Stone
- Donald Trump Jr. (including Trump Tower meeting)
- The Steele Dossier
- Unconfirmed (use with extreme caution)
- FBI Director James Comey met with the Senate Intelligence Committee on 2/17/17 to brief them on the FBI investigation into Russian election interference and possible Trump campaign ties to Russia. Both Democratic and Republican senators afterwards said they were reassured on the investigation. The Intelligence Committee subsequently sent formal requests on 2/20/17 to more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals, asking them to preserve all materials related to the Russia investigation. Besides the Intelligence Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and Foreign Relations Committee have also been holding hearings, though Intelligence is now taking the lead. Some Senators are satisfied with this, but others, including John McCain, have urged the creation of a bipartisan select committee or independent commission, which would be less under control of a single party.
- Meanwhile, the House is not so interested in doing investigations on Russian election interference, or on Michael Flynn’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.
- The first Congressional hearings on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible Trump ties to Russia, conducted by the House Intelligence Committee, opened on Monday 3/20/17 with testimony from FBI director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. Among the highlights:
- Comey disclosed not only that the bureau is investigating Russian meddling in the campaign but that it is also looking at what relationship the Trump campaign might have had to that meddling.
- Comey further disclosed that certain figures connected to the Trump campaign have been under investigation since July 2016. This news came as a surprise to several key Trump supporters. Citing the need to protect the ongoing investigation, Comey declined to identify the specific figures in question, though it is widely believed Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone are among them.
- There is no evidence Russian actions interfered in the 2016 vote totals themselves.
- Following the testimony, Republican co-chair of the committee Devin Nunes (R-CA) revealed on 3/22/17 that he had received information indicating that U.S. intelligence agencies, in the course of investigating foreign targets, had collected surveillance involving members of the Trump transition team. When he received this information, apparently at a White House meeting from an unidentified source, Nunes did not share it with fellow committee members or even mention it to them, and instead made a public announcement about it. This has raised questions about his impartiality in chairing the investigation, and led to renewed calls for an independent counsel and/or Nunes to recuse himself. A March 24th poll by Quinnipiac University indicates that 2/3 of Americans support having an independent special prosecutor. 65% agreed that the Russian investigation is important. Nunes, meanwhile, made it clear that he has no intention of stepping down.
- 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.
- Subsequent reporting revealed that Nunes went to a secure National Security Council facility on the grounds of the White House and reviewed intelligence reports, with the assistance of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, national security lawyer at the White House Counsel’s Office. Ellis is a former Nunes staffer, and Donald Trump had recently personally overruled H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, to keep Cohen-Watnick in his position. The following morning, without informing any other members of the House Intelligence Committee about what he had learned, Nunes went back to the White House and briefed the President on those reports. He held press conferences, one at the Capitol and one outside the West Wing, before and after his meeting with Trump. In the controversy following these revelations, Nunes recused himself from further leadership of the House Intelligence Committee hearings on 4/6/17. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) will temporarily take over the committee’s investigation.
- The documents Nunes referenced involved Obama NSA director Susan Rice requesting the “unmasking” of the identities of US individuals’ involved in intelligence surveillance aimed at Russian targets. Some of these individuals apparently included members of Trump’s transition team. This led to Trump and some Republican officials alleging that Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking”. In fact, the practice in general is not unusual or illegal. CNN reported on 4/12/17 that, after a review of the specific intelligence reports obtained by Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal.
- It was reported by the New Yorker on 4/18/17 that the White House sought information to support President Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that former President Obama had tapped his phone. “The White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled,’ ” an intelligence source told Ryan Lizza, the author of the story, after reportedly “talking to people in the intelligence community.” Lizza’s story also casts doubt on claims that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice targeted members of Trump’s transition team caught up in foreign surveillance. “There’s absolutely nothing there,” one source told Lizza. “Trump names remain masked in the documents, and Rice would not have been able to know in all cases that she was asking the NSA to unmask the names of Trump officials.”
- 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.
- Connected to the Senate hearings, it was revealed by NBC on 3/31/17 that officials in the Obama administration compiled a list of classified documents related to the probe into Russian interference in the presidential election and gave it to senior members on the Senate Intelligence Committee in January. Sources indicate this was done “to share it with those on the Hill who could lawfully see the documents” and make it “harder to bury” the documents.
- 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.
- Congressional hearings on Russia continued as well. Some of the highlights from the second half of May include:
- On 5/22/17 former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn invoked the Fifth Amendement in order to not cooperate with Congressional subpoenas. This exposes him to potential charges of contempt of Congress.
- Former CIA Director John Brennan testified before the House Intelligence Committee on 5/23/17. Brennan stated that he was aware of intelligence and information that revealed contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign, and was concerned that Russia was actively trying to exploit these contacts as part of its manipulation efforts.
- Brennan also revealed that he spoke to Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB, in August 2016 and warned him against further interference.
- Representative Devin Nunes appeared to violate his previous recusal from the House Intelligence Committee investigation on 6/1/17 by issuing multiple subpoenas on 6/1/17 related to Obama administration “unmasking” of Trump-reated figures involved in intelligence gathering on Russian targets. Nunes’ actions earned widespread criticism from House colleagues and outside ethics experts.
- 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.
- Former FBI-Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 6/8/17. Highlights of his testimony, and its aftermath include:
- Comey stated that there was absolutely no doubt that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election.
- He confirmed previous public reporting of numerous encounters initiated by Trump in which Trump encouraged him to drop the Flynn investigation, asked for loyalty, and confirmation that he was not personally under investigation.
- Comey started to document these as he felt the communications were improper, endangered the integrity of the FBI investigation, and did not trust Trump to be honest about what was said later.
- He told the committee that it was Trump’s tweet about the possible existence of tapes that spurred him to leak contents of his memos documenting interactions with the President to the press.
- Comey contradicted a February New York times story about U.S’ Intelligence Agencies concerns about extensive contacts between Trump-related parties and Russian intelligence officials saying it was, “in the main, not factual”. Predictably, Right-leaning media outlets cited a single New York Times article being contradicted as a complete refutation of all mainstream media Russia-related reporting.
- Comey also revealed that former Obama Attorney General Lynch ordered him to refer to the investigation into Hillary’s e-mail server as the “e-mail matter” and not as an investigation, and he felt a need to accelerate the investigation following Lynch’s airport tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton.
- Comey declined to publicly answer several questions, including the status of investigations into the Steele Documents, Jared Kushner’s activity regarding a “back channel” with Russia, if the FBI had indications of contact between Trump officials and Russian intelligence, and whether he thinks the President colluded with Russia. Such refusals are not in and of themselves indications of wrongdoing, but they do often indicate sensitive areas of ongoing investigation.
- In a private hearing later in the day, Comey indicated that the FBI had evidence that Jeff Sessions may have had an undisclosed additional meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He cautioned that this was based on intercepted communications between Russian officials, and that it’s possible they were exaggerating.
- Following the testimony, Trump chief-counsel Marc Kasowitz went on record to deny that the President had asked Comey to drop the investigation or asked him for loyalty. Kasowitz countered that Comey should be investigated for leaking.
- Trump followed up on 6/10/17 by stating that Comey lied in key aspects of his testimony, and offering to sit down with Robert Mueller and testify to this.
- Several House and Senate committees followed up on the testimony by again asking for copies of all memos and tapes that either Comey or the Administration had produced.
- On 6/11/17, Senator Diane Feinsten indicated that, based on Comey’s testimony, Congress should investigate Loretta Lynch’s possible interference in the FBI’s Clinton investigation. Feinstein indicated that such an investigation should be separate from the ongoing Russian hearings.
- Senator Angus King (I-Maine) estimated on 6/18/17 that Congress was only about 20% done with their Russia-related investigations. He suggested they might not be wrapped up until the end of the year.
- On 6/28/17 the Senate Intelligence Committee reached an agreement to obtain the memos James Comey wrote after interactions with President Trump, according to chairman Richard Burr. Burr also indicated that the committee aims to finish its work by the end of the year, and plans to double the number of witness interviews it’s held (most have not been in televised public hearings) to nearly 90 by the end of the Summer.
- On 7/27/17 House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes accused top political aides of President Obama of making hundreds of requests during the 2016 presidential race to unmask the names of Americans in intelligence reports. Nunes’ made the assertion in a letter to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, noting that the requests seemed to lack any intelligence justification, and expressed concern they may have had partisan motivation. Earlier in the week Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) had issued statements indicating his belief that Nunes had “created” the allegations (Nunes recused himself from leading the House Intelligence Russian inquiry after controversy surrounding his acquiring documents relating to the allegations from Trump administration officials), but that his committee would investigate instances of unmasking where the results had become public.
- Also on 7/27/17, House Judiciary Committee Republicans called for a new special counsel — to investigate Hillary Clinton, James Comey and Loretta Lynch. In a letter addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Republicans said they were writing to “request assistance in restoring public confidence in our nation’s justice system and its investigators, specifically the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).”
- ABC news reported on 8/11/17 that Congressional investigators want to meet with Rhona Graff, a senior vice president at the Trump Organization who has worked at Trump Tower for nearly 30 years. Graff is widely considered to be a gatekeeper to Trump who has often been central to coordinating between business associates, politicians, and journalists who have sought access. Graff is one of the parties copied in the e-mail chain involved in setting up the June 2016 meeting in which representatives of Russian interests met with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and then campaign manager Paul Manfort while offering material damaging to Clinton in what was described as part of the Russian government’s support of the Trump campaign.
- On 8/30/17 Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher stated that a “rendezvous” is being set up between him and President Donald Trump to relay information he received from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about the hack of the Democratic National Committee last year. Rohrbacher, who has a reputation as being the most Russia-friendly member of the House, indicated that the information will show the DNC hack was an inside job, and that Russia had no involvement in it.
- On 10/4/17 the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings released a statement confirming the scale of Russian 2016 election interference, and that Trump campaign collusion in those efforts cannot yet be ruled out. After conducting more than 100 interviews and reviewing over 100,000 pages of documents, “The issue of collusion is still open,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee’s chairman. “We continue to investigate both intelligence and witnesses. And we’re not in a position to come to any type of finding.” In a rare press conference, the top lawmakers on the committee — Burr and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia — said the American intelligence community was correct that Moscow launched an extensive information and influence campaign against American voters in 2016 and that they appear to be in place to do it again in 2018. Burr said the Russian interference did not change the outcome of the presidential election in terms of changing cast votes. (Editor note: This doesn’t address the role of the interference in influencing and swinging votes.)
- The New York Times ran a story on 10/22/17 about the slowing momentum and internal party divisions of the the Congressional investigations into Russian interference. Per the Times’ story: “All three committees looking into Russian interference — one in the House, two in the Senate — have run into problems, from insufficient staffing to fights over when the committees should wrap up their investigations. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry has barely started, delayed in part by negotiations over the scope of the investigation. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, while maintaining bipartisan comity, have sought to tamp down expectations about what they might find. Nine months into the Trump administration, any notion that Capitol Hill would provide a comprehensive, authoritative and bipartisan accounting of the extraordinary efforts of a hostile power to disrupt American democracy appears to be dwindling.”
- On 10/24/17 Congressional Republicans announced that they were launching two investigations related to Hillary Clinton. The Republican leaders of the Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight and Government Reform committees will jointly investigate the approval of Uranium sales to a Russian-backed firm while Clinton was secretary of state, and donations to the Clinton Foundation made by someone who had formerly been associated with the firm. The Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees annoucned they will also jointly investigate the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. The top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, called the investigations, “…a partisan effort to distract. It’s a partisan effort aligned with what the White House has been urging, and Fox and Breitbart.” Schiff further noted that Republican leadershipmade the decision without consulting with any Democratic committee members.
- Politico reported on 10/27/17 that the Congressional Intelligence committees are moving toward a timeline to conclude their probes. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has suggested his panel’s investigation will end early in 2018, emphasizing that he wants to wrap up by February, ahead of the first 2018 primary elections. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who’s leading the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe, told POLITICO that he hopes to finish before the Senate. Conaway said he intends to seek a meeting with Burr, as well as the House and Senate committees’ top Democrats — Rep. Adam Schiff of California and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia — to sketch out their panels’ conclusions and attempt to generally align their reports. Wildly divergent conclusions, he said, could “embarrass the institution” and could send mixed messages about the urgency of the Russian threat.
- An 11/23/17 article in The Hill discussed the status of the three congressional investigations into Russian election meddling and the possible role of Trump associates. The Senate intelligence panel, which has been the most bipartisan in its approach, has interviewed more than 100 people. Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina has said that he wants to wrap up the probe by early spring, when congressional primaries begin. While there are many areas of bipartisan agreement on the meddling, it’s unclear whether all members will agree to the final report. It’s also unclear if the report will make a strong statement on whether the Trump campaign colluded in any way with Russia. In the House, Democrats hope the intelligence committee can remain focused on the Russia probe as the panel’s GOP chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, and other Republicans have launched new, separate investigations into Democrat Hillary Clinton and a uranium deal during President Barack Obama’s administration. The committee has intervieiwed dozens of witnesses involved with the Trump campaign, the top Democrat on the panel, California Rep. Adam Schiff, told AP the committee has multiple interviews before the New Year. He said the Republican investigations into Clinton and Obama could be “an enormous time drain,” but they have not yet fully organized. He says the committee must be thorough and he doesn’t believe the Russia investigation should end soon. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also divided along partisan lines as Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, haven’t agreed on some interviews and subpoenas. Nevertheless, the panel is showing recent signs that it is aggressively pursuing the investigation. Grassley has been focused on a law that requires foreign agents to register and the firing of James Comey as FBI director. It’s not known if the panel will issue a final report, or if its probe will conclude before next year’s elections.
- The New York Times reported on 11/30/17 that President Trump over the summer repeatedly urged senior Senate Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to end the panel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, according to a half dozen lawmakers and aides. Mr. Trump’s requests were a highly unusual intervention from a president into a legislative inquiry involving his family and close aides.
- On 11/30/17 it was reported that Randy Credico, a New York comedian and political activist, has been subpoenaed to appear before the House Intelligence Committee. Credico, who also hosted a radio show in New York, is set to appear before the committee on Dec. 15th. It is believed that the interview concerns the multiple interviews Credico conducted with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at various points during the 2016 election.
- Following the 12/1/17 of the guilty plea by Michael Flynn in Robert Mueller’s investigation, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that the plea is a sign that the House Judiciary Committee has enough evidence to probe President Trump for obstruction of justice. “There is now more than enough evidence to form the basis of a congressional investigation into the President’s obstruction of justice — and it is long past time that the House Committee on the Judiciary engage on this matter,” Nadler said in a statement. “This development adds further weight to our suspicion of President Trump’s corrupt motives when he approached former FBI Director Comey about the Flynn investigation and asked that he ‘let it go.’”
- On 12/6/17 House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) went forward with plans to file a contempt resolution against top FBI and Justice Department officials for failing to turn over documents he requested over the summer, as part of the panel’s ongoing Russia probe. The contempt resolution will target FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over “outstanding documents” related to an August subpoena he issued that asked for records related to the controversial Russia dossier.
- House intelligence committee senior Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) warned on 12/15/17 that he believes Republicans on the House intelligence committee are intent on shutting down the panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the near future. Schiff noted that Republicans have scheduled no witness interviews after December despite “dozens of outstanding witnesses on key aspects of our investigation that they refuse to contact” and unexecuted document requests. Committee Republicans did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this. Schiff also noted that Republicans have scheduled interviews of two important witnesses in New York in a move that would prevent attendance by committee members who have to stay in Washington for votes. The Wall Street Journal reported that those witnesses are President Trump’s longtime assistant Rhona Graff, now a senior vice president in the Trump Organization, and Felix Sater, a Trump associate who worked to complete a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow while then-candidate Trump falsely claimed he had no business interests in Russia. Reporting by CNN on 1/2/18 discussed the increasing likelihood that Republicans and Democrats on the committee will release competing reports.
- It was confirmed on 12/19/17 that the Senate Intelligence committee has asked for documents from former presidential candidate Jill Stein as part of its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Stein said in a statement that she was cooperating with the probe and is providing documents to the committee. She has captured the interest of investigators partly because she attended a 2015 dinner sponsored by Russian television network RT with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a dinner that also prominently featured Trump’s former National Security advisor and Robert Mueller indictee Michael Flynn.
- The vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (D-VA) spoke on the status of his committee’s investigation on 12/22/17. Warner stated that based on witness testimony and documents that he has seen behind closed doors, the Russia probe is “the most important thing I will ever work on.” He further stated that Facebook still hasn’t been fully candid, and the committee plans to require more information about what happened in 2016, and more transparency on future political ads. They also intend to call back Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and other “principals involved in some of these activities” for more questioning.
- Bloomberg reported on 12/22/17 that former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski have received requests to testify before the House Intelligence Committee regarding the Russia probe. The request to appear before the panel is reportedly for early January. The panel sent letters with the requests, but did not issue subpoenas. Bannon has so far been conspicuously absent from testimony lists for the Congressional committees and Mueller’s investigation, despite his being a key participant in decision-making during the decisions to fire Flynn and dismiss former FBI Director James Comey.
- Politico reported on 1/9/18 on how Congressional Republicans are placing new scrutiny on contacts between Justice Department officials and reporters covering the Trump-Russia investigation. In article notes that GOP congressional investigators have publicly and privately questioned senior Justice Department and FBI leaders about interactions with reporters covering the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. The goal, according to a half-dozen lawmakers and aides, is to expose any concerted effort by law enforcement officials to spin an anti-Trump narrative in the media through unauthorized leaks. Congressional Democrats characterize it as a partisan attempt to discredit the validity of the investigation.
- Former White House chief strategist Steven Bannon appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on 1/16/18. In what was initially a voluntary appearance, the committee found Bannon to be so uncooperative in answering questions that they served him with a subpoena on the spot. Even afterward, Bannon spent the 10 hours of his testimony refusing to answer multiple questions on the grounds that some of the answers could potentially infringe upon executive privilege. He criticized the committee, saying it was part of an “establishment” effort to nullify the election. Bannon also refused to discuss conversations he may have had with Trump even after he left the White House in August. Lawmakers were reportedly perplexed at this, and Bannon’s suggestion that the transition period, when Trump wasn’t yet in office, could be subject to executive privilege claims. The White House, for its part, denied that Bannon had been instructed to invoke executive privilege in his testimony.
- On 1/19/18 Congressional Republicans and Conservative Media began a social media campaign to release a classified House Intelligence Committee memo, apparently drafted by GOP committee members, that outlines how the controversial Trump-Russia Steele dossier was purportedly used as a pretext for the FBI to obtain FISA wiretaps against American citizens. House Intel’s ranking Democrat Adam Schiff blasted its contents as “a profoundly misleading set of talking points.” On 1/21/19 the FBI announced that their request to see the memo “in order to evaluate the information and take appropriate steps if necessary” was denied. Meanwhile, on 1/25/18 it was reported that requests by the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee to view the memo had been denied by House Republicans, as had calls from the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee to release it publicly. The Department of Justice has recommended against releasing the memo, saying it would be “reckless”. Trump is said to have been furious at their stance on the issue. On 1/29/18, the Committee voted on party lines to release the memo, and also voted to not allow Committee Democrats to release a dissenting analysis of the memo’s contents. Following the vote, President Trump has five days to decide if he has any objection to releasing it. In a passing remark before the State of the Union speech on 1/30/18, Trump indicated he was “100 percent” in favor of releasing it. Schiff reiterated his criticisms of the memo, and also revealed that his office has received death threats for objecting to it. House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the fray on 1/30/18, backing the release of the memo and saying it was time to “cleanse” the FBI and Justice Department of any problems. Meanwhile FBI Director Christopher Wray is reported on 1/31/18 to have warned the White House against releasing the memo, saying that some of the information in the document is inaccurate, and later in the day on 1/31/18 the FBI took the unusual step of releasing a public statement of concern about the memo: “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) stated on 1/25/18 that he believes the panel’s chances of getting a voluntary interview with White House adviser Jared Kushner “have been shot.” He blamed this on Senator Diane Feinstein having released transcripts of Fusion GPS’ testimony before the committee. “But the ranking member unilaterally released the transcript of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. That has spooked other potential witnesses.” Fusion GPS had asked that the transcripts be released in response to a Conservative media/Congressional Republican whispering campaign against their integrity, and after Senate Republicans refused, Feinstein unilaterally release them.
- In a 1/29/18 interview, Senate Intelligence Committee senior Democrat Mark Warner stated that the in late 2017 the committee had received “extraordinarily important new documents” in its investigation. Warner said “end-of-the-year document dumps” produced “very significant” revelations that “opened a lot of new questions” that Senate investigators were now looking into, indicating that the inquiry into Trump and the Russian election hacking will not be finished for months longer.
- On 2/1/18 President Trump decided to declassify and release the House Intelligence Committee’s memo alleging bias in the Russia investigation despite security objections from FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, privately telling associates that he expected the memo would discredit the investigation. Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly expressed doubts about this idea, and House Speaker Paul Ryan backtracked on comments of a few days earlier and said that the memo was not an indictment of the FBI or the Department of Justice. Trump doubled down on his opinion, tweeting that “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” It was meanwhile revealed that Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes had made changes to the memo sent to Trump compared to the version earlier reviewed by the Committee. Ranking Democrat Adam Schiff maintained that the changes signifcantly altered the memo in a misleading way, while Congressional Republicans insisted that the changes were minor matters of editing and were not material. The FBI Agents Association on Thursday issued a statement of support for FBI Director Christopher Wray, former CIA Director John Brennan accused House Republicans of “reckless partisan behavior” in releasing the memo, and former Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson also expressed disapproval. Senior Senate Republican John Thune opined that the memo should not be released until it was shared with Senate Intelligence Committee (who had their request to review it denied by the House), and that security concerns from Wray and Rosenstein should be taken seriously. Several other Congressional Republicans subsequently distanced themselves from Trump’s position on the memo.
- Following all of the above hubbub, the memo itself was released on 2/2/18. The central allegation of the memo is that the Russian investigation in general, and the FISA warrant for monitoring Trump associate Carter Page in particular, is based largely on the Steele Dossier. The memo alleges that the dossier is biased by Steele’s dislike for Trump and the fact that his research was being paid for by people connected to the Democratic party, and also that Rod Rosentstein and other figures acted improperly in not informing the FISA court about the political funding of the research. There are a few problems with this version of events: Fusion GPS had started the research under Republican clients, Steele himself didn’t know who was funding it, whatever his personal beliefs his intelligence work in general has been widely respected, the memo doesn’t demonstrate that the dossier was the major source of the FISA application especially since Page was already on the radar of several intelligence agencies since 2013 due to boasting of his Russian ties, had also boasted of his contacts with Trump, it turns out that the court was appraised of the funding source of the research, it also granted a renewal of the application which would not be granted unless the surveillance itself had produced relevant new information, and the memo itself even acknowledges that comments from Trump campaign staffer George Papdopoulos were the initial impetus of the FBI investigation.
- On 2/5/18 The House Intelligence Committee voted unanimously in favor of publicly releasing a classified memo that Democrats say undermines the case in the Republican committee member’s memo that the FBI abused its spying powers while investigating President Trump’s campaign. After initially indicating earlier in the week that it would clear the memo’s release, the Trump administration on 2/9/18 formally refused to release the memo over security concerns (yes, really), and sent it back to Congress for further review and redaction. Meanwhile, on 2/3/18 Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) released his own rebuttal to the House Republican’s memo using non-classified sources to dispute the allegations in the Republican memo.
- It was reported on 2/8/18 that relations between Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have reportedly become so hostile that GOP members of the committee were planning to build a literal wall separating the two parties’ staffers.
- On 2/11/18 ranking Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden asked the Treasury Department to turn over records of a lucrative real estate sale Donald Trump made with Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev as the Senate Finance Committee looks into Trump’s ties to Russians. Wyden’s letter to Treasury outlined how Donald Trump bought a 6.3-acre property in Florida for $41.35 million in 2004 and then sold that property to a company owned by the businessman four years later. The sale price to Rybolovlev more than doubled Trump’s initial investment, to $95 million. The property’s appraisal in 2008 fell short of that sale price by $30 million.
- On 2/13/18 Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) brought up questions over an email former National Security Advisor Susan Rice sent herself during her last day in office to document a meeting between former FBI Director James Comey, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and President Obama about the Trump investigation. The Senators question the timing of the meeting, secrecy of the memo, and if anything in it indicates impropriety in the FISA surveillance of Trump campaign worker Carter Page. Others note that the Obama administration took active steps to memorialize the investigation before the Trump administration took office to prevent the new administration from deleting it, and that Obama tried to detach the White House from the criminal investigation unless it was absolutely necessary to withhold information from a suspected Russian asset.
- Steve Bannon appeared for a second round of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on 2/15/18. During the four hours of questioning, Bannon limited his testimony to 25 pre-scripted questions approved by the White House, and kept his answers short. Committee members rejected Bannon’s claim of executive privilege in doing so, and are in talks with Speaker Paul Ryan about whether to issue contempt of Congress charges against Bannon.
- On 2/25/18, the response to the House Intelligence Committee’s memo from the Democratic members of the committee was released. Although heavily redacted to respond to security concerns expressed by the Trump administration, the Democratic memo makes a through and well-cited case that, contrary to the assertions of the earlier memo from the Republican committee members, the Justice Department did nothing improper in applying for FISA surveillance of former Trump campaign staffer Carter Page, that multiple lines of evidence in addition to the Steele Dossier were used to justify the application, and that issues with that dossier’s political funding were known to the FISA court at the time it made its decision.
- White House communications director Hope Hicks appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on 2/28/18 for a closed-door interview. Hicks met with the committee for more than nine hours, initially refused to answer any questions from investigators about the presidential transition or her time in the White House, with her lawyer telling the panel she was doing so under instructions from the White House. It was only after Democrats tried to subpoena Hicks for her testimony on the spot, and it became clear that Hicks had discussed the transition in a recent interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee, that she and her legal team conferred with the White House and then answered “most” of the committee’s questions about the transition according to sources familiar with the testimony. One area she was unwilling to discuss was the crafting of Donald Trump Jr.’s initial misleading statement about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting as she flew aboard Air Force One with President Trump. When Hicks was pressed about whether she had ever lied for President Donald Trump, she acknowledged she has had to tell what amounted to “white lies”. This admission possibly displeased the President, as Hicks resigned within 48 hours.
- On 3/12/18 the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee announced that they had concluded their year-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. They expect to have a full report out in several weeks, but released a two-page summary of their key findings, including:
- While there may have been incidents of bad judgement, neither President Donald Trump nor anyone involved in his campaign colluded with Russia.
- Republicans on the committee agree that Russia did interfere in the 2016 presidential election, but disagree with the intelligence community’s assessment that they were trying to help Trump while doing so.
- The Obama Administration did not do enough about Russian interference.
- Intelligence officials improperly leaked information related to the investigation.
- the Clinton campaign obtained anti-Trump information from Russian parties.
- Democrats on the Committee were not consulted by Republicans before thy made the announcement. Senior Democratic Committee member Adam Schiff stated that it was improper to end the investigation, as many witnesses have not been interviewed yet, and several others have not cooperated and should be seen again. Even on the Republican side there appears to be some fraying, as committee member Trey Gowdy (R-SC) has indicated that he disagrees with the findings, and believes that the Russians were trying to harm Clinton’s candidacy, and thus de facto boost Trump’s. In an interview with CNN, committee member Tom Rooney (R-FL) also indicated support for the idea that the Russians were trying to boost Clinton and harm Trump, and lamented how politicized the committee’s work had become, stating that they had “lost credibility”.
- A 3/15/18 story by Politico highlighted frustrations by House Republicans with the rollout of the House Intelligence Committee’s announcement that it was concluding its investigation. The headline the GOP wanted from the rollout was that the Committee found no evidence that President Donald Trump or his associates aided Moscow’s scheme to interfere in the 2016 election. Instead, much of the focus has been on lawmakers’ startling conclusion that the nation’s intelligence agencies botched their analysis when they determined Russia wanted Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, which pitted the committee’s Republicans against the leaders of the intelligence community. Speaker Paul Ryan’s office felt compelled to intervene, and convened a meeting with members of the Intelligence Committee’s communications staff to make sure that the Committee stayed focused on the broader point that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and must be stopped from doing it again.
- On 3/18/18 House Intelligence Committee member Mike Conaway (R-TX) said that the Committee was not tasked with investigating collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, despite the Committee issuing the report stating it found no evidence of collusion. A spokeswoman later clarified that he meant “obstruction” rather than collusion. Later on in the interview with “Meet the Press”, Conaway acknowledged that the Committee had not interviewed several key figures in an effort to avoid overlapping with Robert Mueller’s investigation. When asked if he regreted that the committee attempted to draw a conclusion on whether the Russians colluded with the Trump campaign, Conaway denied that the committee drew a conclusion at all. “What we said is we found no evidence of it,” he said. “That’s a different statement. We found no evidence of collusion.”
- On 4/27/18 the House Intelligence Committee released the final report on its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The report found “no evidence” of ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russia. “While the Committee found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, coordinated, or conspired with the Russian government, the investigation did find poor judgment and ill-considered actions by the Trump and Clinton campaigns,” it said. The report did document extensively that Russia did carry out a “multi-faceted” active measures campaign against the U.S. in an effort to “sow fear and division in American society.” The committee voted along party lines to release the report, wrapping up a yearlong investigation that was filled with contentious panel infighting. President Trump responded by declaring that the report proved there was no conclusion and that the “witch hunt” of an investigation, “MUST END NOW!”
- Ranking Democrat on the committee Adam Schiff countered the release of the report by accusing his GOP colleagues of ignoring evidence of collusion. “Throughout the investigation, Committee Republicans chose not to seriously investigate — or even see, when in plain sight — evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, instead adopting the role of defense counsel for key investigation witnesses.” Committee Democrats released their own report, which they indicated was a preliminary report intended to counter misrepresentations in the House Republicans version, to hopefully be followed by a complete report after further investigation. The report documents evidence suggestive of collusion, avenues of investigation not followed by the committee Republicans and other actions of the Republicans on the committee that impeded the investigation, and produces an extensive list of further witnesses and topics that the Democrats on the committee believe need review.
- It was reported on 4/28/18 that former Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s campaign has refused to comply fully with a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee for information and documents made as part of the committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. In a letter to the committee denying access to certain documentation, the Stein campaign’s lawyers wrote that the request was “so overbroad in reach as to demand constitutionally protected materials.” The Stein campaign did provide part of the committee’s request, but refused to turn over the campaign’s internal communications regarding Russia policy, calling them “not pertinent to the subject of Russian interference” in the elections.
- On 6/20/18 Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) called the committee’s hearing on policy responses to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election the first of several “capstone” events to finalize a committee report on the Obama administration’s actions at the time. “The committee is ready to finalize our assessment of the Obama administration’s response to Russian interference, and today’s hearing will be the first of several capstone events.” He told reporters the assessment was “pretty close”.
- Following winning back the House in the 2018 midterm elections, the House intelligence committee’s incoming Democratic majority took steps to hire money-laundering and forensic accounting experts. One Democratic committee office said the purpose of the potential new hires is to examine unanswered financial questions about Trump and Russia. Incoming chairman Adam Schiff has said publicly and privately that he’s interested in President Donald Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank, the German financial giant that has been scorched for its connections to money-laundering, including for Russian interests. When other lenders were loath to lend money to Trump in the 1990s, Deutsche Bank stepped up, and the President may still owe the bank up to $175 million.
- Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on 12/13/18 that the Senate Intelligence Committee has made “quite a few referrals” to special counsel Robert Mueller of cases where witnesses questioned in the panel’s Russia probe were suspected of lying, adding he expects there will be more. The Senate panel has interviewed a slew of witnesses behind closed doors in its Russia investigation over the course of nearly two years, but lawmakers have signaled that they are not finished with the probe. The panel has requested to interview Cohen again, among others. Burr said Thursday he is “fairly confident” the probe will wrap up in the spring. “It’s just a question of how long it takes us to wrap up the remaining folks that we need to interview and those that we need to call back.” It is unclear who the committee believes may have lied during their testimony.
<End “Congressional Hearings” Section>
FBI Investigation/Special Counsel
- On the evening of 5/9/17, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey. This was initially presented as a move prompted by Trump’s reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein expressing concerns about the impropriety of Comey’s actions while investigating Hillary Clinton in 2016. Subsequent coverage made clear that Trump had been planning on firing Sessions for weeks, and had the Justice Department prepare materials as a justification. One of his major motivators in doing so was apparently anger at Comey’s ongoing investigation into Russian allegations, as well as his public discrediting of Trump’s allegations that Obama had him wiretapped. Trump himself contradicted his administration’s official story on the firing on 5/11/17, and explicitly stated that Comey’s pursuit of the Russia investigation was a factor. It was also revealed that just days before the firing, Comey had approached Rosenstein to request additional resources for the ongoing investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election and possible Trump campaign officials involvement with Russia.
- In the wake of Comey’s firing, the Senate Intelligence Committee indicated on 5/10/17 that they would nevertheless like him to testify before the committee the following week. An increasing number of Democratic Senators called for a special prosecutor to oversee the Russian influence investigation, and were joined in this call by Republican Senator John McCain and 20 States’ Attorneys General.
- Acting FBI head Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, testifying before Congress on 5/11/17, broke with Trump by characterizing the Russia probe as “important”, and promised that he would not discuss any details of it with White House officials. McCabe also stated that, contrary to Trump’s assertions after the firing, staff in the FBI had not lost confidence in Comey. This was confirmed by other highly-placed sources in the FBI, who also disputed multiple details of Trump’s claim that Comey had assured him a January private dinner that he was not a subject of the investigation. Trump’s follow-up on the conversation involved a Twitter-post on 5/12/17 stating: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press.”
- Fallout from Trump’s 5/10/17 firing of James Comey continued to unwind for several days. Significant developments included:
- White House spokesmen would neither confirm or deny Trump’s insinuation that he may have taped his conversations with Comey.
- Trump had asked Comey for a “loyalty pledge” in a meeting shortly after the inauguration (which Comey declined to provide).
- Comey revealed on 5/16/17 that, in a February meeting, after asking AG Sessions and VP Pence to leave the room, Trump had asked Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn. He also suggested that Comey instead focus on arresting journalists responsibility for leaking the Flynn story. Most notably, Comey indicated that he had kept detailed memos of this and other conversations with Trump.
- On 5/17/17, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) invited Comey to testify publicly before his committee in May.
- The same day as Chaffetz’s offer, the Senate Intelligence Committee also issued an invitation for Comey to publicly testify.
- And that same day, the Senate Judiciary Committee asked both the White House and the FBI to turn over any memos or recordings from Trump’s meetings with Comey.
- Spurred by increasing Congressional scrutiny and public interest following Comey’s dismissal, the Justice Department acceded to growing demands to appoint an Independent Counsel to investigate Russian election interference and Trump administration ties to Russia on 5/17/17. The appointment of Robert Mueller, a former FBI director with a background as a prosecutor who had served under both Bush and Obama, met with praise from Congressional leaders from both parties.
- The FBI investigation into Russian influence and ties meanwhile continued, with the following major developments in May:
- Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced on 5/18/17 that the FBI investigation is now not only an intelligence probe, but also a criminal investigation, which could result in charges.
- On 5/22/17, Mueller was briefed on the contents of Comey’s Trump meeting memos.
- It was confirmed on 5/26/17 that Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner is a person of interest in the investigation. Specifically, while not naming him as a target, investigators indicate that they want information from him on meetings with the Russian ambassador and Russian bankers.
- On 5/27/17, the FBI indicate that it is not complying, for the moment, with Congressional requests to turn over Comey’s memos, as it first wants to coordinate with Mueller’s investigation.
- In response to the ongoing investigation, the Trump administration is retaining defense attorneys, and creating a “war room” within the White House to coordinate responses.
- The Washington Post reported on 5/22/17 that President Trump asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against the FBI Russia investigation. Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency. Both refused his requests, believing them to be inappropriate.
- On 5/26/17, it was revealed that then-FBI Director James Comey knew that a critical piece of information relating to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email was fake – created by Russian intelligence – but he feared that if it became public it would undermine the probe and the Justice Department itself. As a result, Comey acted unilaterally in June 2016 to publicly declare the investigation over.
- 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.
- Among Robert Mueller’s first actions as Special Counsel have been assembling an extensive legal team with expertise in high-profile criminal fraud, foreign bribery, money laundering and anti-mob cases. His team is spending its first few weeks reviewing the work that has been done to date by the FBI, Justice Department, and U.S. Attorney’s Alexandria, VA office. As of mid June 2017, his staff had expanded to thirteen lawyers with extensive experience in high-profile cases.
- Ahead of former FBI Director Comey’s Senate Testimony, President Trump set up a “war room” headed by outside counsel Marc Kasowitz. Kasowitz had previously represented Trump in many civil disputes during his business career. Early reports indicated that the effort was marked by disarray and infighting. It was also revealed that Kasowitz had been chosen after four top law firms had declined to represent Trump in the matter.
- It was reported on 6/9/17 that Kasowitz’s clients had also included Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to President Vladimir Putin and has done business with Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
- Various sources confirmed to the Washington Post and other outlets on 6/14/17 that Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation is officially looking in to obstruction of justice issues.
- Vice President Mike Pence hired his own legal representation separate from Trump’s team on 6/15/17. Pence hired Richard Cullen of McGuire Woods. Cullen has previously represented Tom DeLay in his corruption charges, served as a defense attorney during the Iran-Contra investigations, and is a former U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia.
- To the surprise of pretty much nobody, President Trump officially announced on 6/22/17 that he had not taped his conversations with former-FBI Director James Comey. He further indicated that he had suggested he had tapes in order to rattle Comey, which could contribute to establishing intent of obstruction of justice.
- On 6/28/17, Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz announced his legal team was delaying previously threatened legal action against former FBI Director James Comey for revealing “privileged information” in his Congressional testimony. Kasowitz indicated they still plan to proceed at some point. Trump has a history of making legal threats against his opponents and then not following through.
- Reporting emerged on 7/9/17 that many of the memos former FBI Director James Comey wrote after his conversations with President Trump contained classified information. This was initially interpreted to indicate that Comey may have broken agency rules when he released them. Subsequent reporting, however, revealed that they do not appear to have been marked classified when released, and that if anything in them is classified (which remains unclear), it may have happen retroactively.
- On 7/12/17 Trump defense team head Marc Kasowitz responded to an e-mail from an (apparently sympathetic to Trump) retired PR-official recommending he resign for the good of the investigation with a series of angry messages. His responses included: “I’m on you now. You are fucking with me now Let’s see who you are Watch your back , bitch.”, “Call me. Don’t be afraid, you piece of shit. Stand up. If you don’t call, you’re just afraid.” and “I already know where you live, I’m on you. You might as well call me. You will see me. I promise. Bro.”. Kasowitz subsequently indicated that he had lost his temper at the end of a long day, and would apologize to the sender.
- It was announced on 7/15/17 that Washington Lawyer Ty Cobb was joining Trump’s legal defense team. Indications are that Cobb, whose legal expertise lies in white-collar crime and congressional investigations, will be coordinating all legal defense and media issues related to Russia. He will coordinating with Trump’s personal defense lawyer Marc Kasowitz, and his appointment has led some to wonder if this is part of a process of sidelining Kasowitz. Also, since the question must arise, Cobb is indeed related to baseball legend Ty Cobb.
- This 7/18/17 story from AP highlights the growing number of legal teams representing figures related to the Russian investigation, and some of the potential conflicts they face in protecting their clients vs. coordinating with each other.
- On 7/21/17 Marc Kasowitz resigned as Trump’s personal attorney regarding the investigation. Kasowitz’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, a longtime GOP operative who worked for the House committee that investigated President Clinton in the 1990s, also resigned. No official statements or explanations on the changes were released.
- President Trump began issuing a series of public statements on the ongoing Special Counsel investigation on 7/19/17. His first such statements were in a New York Times interview where he stated that he regretted appointing Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General, and would not have done so if he knew he would recuse himself from the investigation. he also warned Robert Mueller that if he began to investigate Trump family finances, that would cross a “red line”. He also attacked Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein as being someone from Baltimore, where there were “very few” Republicans. On 7/22/17, he followed earlier remarks up with tweets asserting his unlimited authority to pardon, decrying leaks, and again calling the entire investigating fake news.
- Almost like clockwork following the President’s “cross a line” remarks, news emerged on 7/20/17 that Mueller is examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates. FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008.
- The Washington Post reported on 7/21/17 that President Trump’s legal team was exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s Russia investigation, on the basis of alleged conflicts of interest. It was also reported that Trump had asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe. Sources differed on whether this was prompted by a planned action, or a more general desire to understand how it worked.
- On 7/27/17 Senator Lindsey Graham unveiled plans for legislation that would make it much harder for any special counsel to be fired. He specifically stated that the intention of the legislation was to make it impossible for President Trump to file Special Counsel Mueller without a separate judicial review to okay it. The constitutionality of such a measure is unclear. Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate took measures to adjourn for the Summer without formally going into recess so that the President could not fire Attorney General Sessions during the recess and replace him with an interim appointee (who might be willing to fire Mueller) without need for Senate confirmation.
- On 8/1/17 Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, a member of the Judiciary Committee, stated that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should resign because of his friendship with fired FBI Director James Comey. Echoing similar statements from other Trump supporters, Franks said in a statement that Mueller “must resign to maintain the integrity of the investigation into alleged Russian ties.” While this statement resembles previous rhetoric from Trump surrogates, officially, Trump’s legal team seems to have taken a public turn toward praising Mueller’s integrity and indicating respect for him.
- It was announced on 8/1/17 that former Justice Department official Greg Anders became the 16th lawyer to join Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s staff. Most recently a white-collar criminal defense lawyer with New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, Andres, 50, served at the Justice Department from 2010 to 2012. He was deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division, where he oversaw the fraud unit and managed the program that targeted illegal foreign bribery. Various analysts have noted that Mueller’s team is heavy on people with experience in prosecuting fraud, bribery, money laundering, public corruption, and white collar crime, suggesting the likely direction his investigations have taken.
- On 8/3/17 it was revealed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has formally impaneled a Grand Jury as part of his investigation. A Grand Jury gives Mueller a legal basis to issue subpoenas, and can also take testimony. It is usually also an indication that a prosecutor believes them have sufficent evidence of criminal conduct to issue indictments, although that step itself usually doesn’t occur until later, toward the end of the investigation. This Grand Jury’s first action appears to have involved issuing subpoenas regarding the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russia-connected parties who promised him damaging information on the Clinton campaign as part of the Russian government’s support of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
- A separate story on 8/3/17 indicates that financial transactions between Trump and his associates are becoming a key area of investigation, even where such transactions do not have a direct relation with Russian campaign interference. There are many kinds of transactions that could become part of such an investigation, including a 2016 transfer of property from Trump to his son that could violate rules on tax evasion.
- It was reported on 8/16/17 that a member of Robert Mueller’s team, FBI veteran Peter Strzok, is leaving the Special Counsel’s investigation. There has been no subsequent statement on the reason for Strzok’s departure, although it was announced that he was leaving to join the F.B.I.’s HR Department, which is unusual given that his background is in counterespionage investigations.
- As of late July, Deutsche Bank is reviewing documents involving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans it made to Trump’s organization, in preparation for expected subpoenas from Mueller’s investigation. Deustche Bank has been one of the few major international lenders willing to work with Trump in recent years, due to his track record of reneging on financial agreements, and also has strong ties to Russia.
- Vanity Fair reported on 8/13/17 that Mueller’s investigation is also focusing on the financing of the Trump SoHo real estate project in Manhattan. The luxury apartment building is know to have attracted investment from Felix Sater’s Bayrock Capital, which has multiple connections to Russian financial interests involved with both Putin’s inner circle and Russian organized crime. Trump has previously maintained that he barely knows Sater, who has been under criminal investigation for financial crimes and Russian mob ties, despite multiple indications that Sater has been very active in Trump Organization finances and acted as a go-between for the organization and senior Russian interests.
- On 8/18/17 Reuter’s reported White House special counsel Ty Cobb’s prediction that Robert Mueller’s investigation would be over before the end of the year. Cobb said he would be “embarrassed” if it still hangs over the president in 2018, and stated that he talks to Trump on an almost daily basis and has been in frequent contact with the team of Robert Mueller.
- On 8/24/17 it was reported that President Trump had personally called a Senator to discourage him from backing a bill to block Trump from firing Mueller. Trump contacted Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who had co-sponsored the bill with Chris Coons (D-DE), to say that he was unhappy with the bill and didn’t want it to pass.
- There was also reporting on 8/31/17 that Mueller is partnering with the IRS Criminal Investigations unit as part of his probe. It’s not clear at this point if this partnership specifically relates to the investigation of Manafort, or to Trump’s financial affairs more generally.
- The Washington Post reported on 9/1/17 that Mueller’s investigation has the original draft of President Trump’s memo on the justification for firing FBI director James Comey. Sources who have seen the memo indicate that it specifically references the Russian investigation as the reason for the firing, and not the originally publicly offered explanation that Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton investigation was the cause. Descriptions of early administration deliberations about the memo also seem to show that Vice President Mike Pence knew much more about Trump’s reasons for the firing than he has indicated in public statements.
- On 9/6/17, in a series of private e-mail exchanges, Trump legal team head Ty Cobb indicated he may not be in his position long. The exchanges were with Washington noodle shop owner Jeff Jetton, who has been contacting people involved with the Russia investigation whose e-mail addresses he can figure out, and in this case was quite aggressive. The conversation eventually got to a more civil place, but along the way Cobb made a statement that he might not be in his position for long, and indicated that he was one of the few “adults in the room” in the White House.
- On 9/8/17 Mueller alerted the White House that his team will probably seek to interview six top current and former advisers to President Trump who were witnesses to several episodes relevant to the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. The officials in question are former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, current aide Hope Hicks, White House counsel Don McGahn and one of his deputies, James Burnham, and Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who works closely with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. News emerged the next day that Priebus and McGahn have hired lawyers to represent them concerning the investigation. Spicer is known to have habitually taken extensive notes at meetings, so these will likely be an area of interest for Mueller.
- Several sources have reported on the financial burden the investigation is causing those involved. Michael Caputo, a former campaign adviser to President Donald Trump, has claimed the ongoing federal probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia has taken such a financial burden on him that he’s been forced to dip into his children’s college funds to pay for an attorney. Although Caputo has not had any assistance in paying for his legal aid, a few members of Trump’s team have had their legal services paid for. The Trump campaign paid $50,000 for Donald Trump Jr.’s attorney back in June. It was reported on 9/18/17 that Michael Flynn’s family has set up a separate legal defense fund to cover his involvement in the investigation. It was separately reported on 9/17/17 that the RNC has directly covered $230,000 of Trump’s legal expenses.
- On 9/16/17 Ty Cobb, the head of President Trump’s legal defense team, was overheard by a reporter for The New York Times discussing disputes within the legal defense team during a lunchtime conversation at a popular Washington steakhouse. Mr. Cobb was heard talking about a White House lawyer he deemed “a McGahn spy” and saying White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn had “a couple documents locked in a safe” that he seemed to suggest he wanted access to. He also mentioned a colleague whom he blamed for “some of these earlier leaks,” and who he said “tried to push Jared out,” meaning Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The crux of the dispute seems to be a disagreement between whether to turn over everything to try and end the inquiry as quickly as possible (which Cobb favors) or whether to assert privilege over some information in order to protect the President’s institutional authority (which McGahn favors).
- A New York Times piece on 9/18/17 reveals that Mueller’s team is looking into thirteen separate categories of documents as part of its investigation. The story also reveals that Mueller’s team has shown a measure of deference to White House officials, sparing them grand jury subpoenas and allowing them to appear for voluntary interviews. Trump legal team head, Ty Cobb, has instructed White House officials to be cooperative in order to avoid any subpoenas. Mueller’s office is putting more pressure on figures currently outside the White House, such as Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, and it seems increasingly likely that there will be indictments involving these individuals.
- CNN reported on 9/26/17 that the IRS is formally sharing information with Robert Mueller’s investigation, after the two entities clashed this summer over both the scope of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and a raid on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s home. Part of the concern centered on the far-reaching and broad requests from Mueller’s team. In the case of Manafort, Mueller’s investigators are reaching back 11 years as they investigate possible tax and financial crimes, according to search warrant documents. Mueller is bound by a written order issued by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May which allows the special counsel to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” After several months of being at odds, the IRS Criminal Investigation division is now sharing information about campaign associates, including Manafort and former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.
- The New York Times reported on 10/7/17 that Trump’s legal defense team has decided on a strategy of speedy cooperation with Mueller’s investigation, in the hopes that they can convince Mueller’s team to publicly clear Trump of suspicion.
White House officials once debated a scorched-earth strategy of publicly criticizing and undercutting Mueller, but now hope that Mr. Mueller will declare in the coming months that President Trump is not a target of the Russia inquiry. Trump has long sought such a public declaration. He fired F.B.I. director James Comey in May after Mr. Comey refused to say openly that Trump was not under investigation. According to more than a half dozen White House officials, witnesses and outside lawyers connected to the Russia inquiry, the President’s legal team is working swiftly to respond to requests from Mr. Mueller for emails, documents and memos, and will make White House officials available for interviews. Once Mr. Mueller has combed through the evidence, Mr. Trump’s lawyers plan to ask him to affirm that Mr. Trump is not under investigation, either for colluding with Russian operatives or for trying to obstruct justice.
- Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff to President Trump, was interviewed for a full day on 10/13/17 by members of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s team.
- It was reported on 10/17/17 that Robert Mueller’s team has interviewed Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert who claims he was “recruited to collude with the Russians” in the 2016 election. Tait, a former information security specialist for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, claims that he was recruited by a longtime GOP operative tied to the Trump campaign, Peter W. Smith, to obtain emails deleted from Clinton’s private email server that they believed were hacked by the Russians.
- On 10/24/17, NBC reported that Mueller’s team is also investigating Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta for his work in the Ukraine. The probe of Podesta and his Democratic-leaning lobbying firm grew out of Mueller’s inquiry into the finances of Paul Manafort. Manafort had organized a public relations campaign for a non-profit called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU). Podesta’s company was one of many firms that worked on the campaign, which promoted Ukraine’s image in the West. NBC’s sources say the investigation into Podesta and his company began as more of a fact-finding mission about the ECMU and Manafort’s role in the campaign, but has now morphed into a criminal inquiry into whether the firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. Podesta announced on 10/30/17 that he was stepping down from his consulting company.
- On 10/28/17 the Wall Street Journal editorial board issued an opinion piece calling on Robert Mueller to resign due to conflicts of interest. The editorial makes the case that Comey may have acted improperly with regard to the Steele Dossier, and that the Dossier itself is discredited by having been funded by the Democratic party. “Did the dossier trigger the FBI probe of the Trump campaign, and did Mr. Comey or his agents use it as evidence to seek wiretapping approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Trump campaign aides?” For his part, the editorial contends, Mueller’s history with the FBI and freindship with Comey prevents him from being able to conduct an impartial investigation.
- On the same day the Manafort and Gates indictments were issued, Mueller’s team unsealed a 10/5/17 indictment in which former Trump campaign worker George Papadopoulos plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian sources during the campaign. The details of the indictment make clear that, starting in March 2016, Papadopoulos had repeated contact with Russian-connected sources, that these sources offered support to the Trump campaign including talk of “thousands of e-mails” that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton, and that he consistently informed campaign officials of his efforts to acquire the information and desire to set up meetings for Trump with senior Russian officials including Putin. The indictment also makes clear that facts other than those described in the document are known to the investigation, and strongly indicates that Papdopoulos has been cooperating extensively with the investigation since his July 2017 arrest.
- While Trump administration officials responded by portraying Papadopoulos as a junior volunteer who almost nobody knew and who was acting on his own, subsequent reporting shows that he engaged in extensive domestic and foreign travel in which he met with various people and appeared before groups as a representative of the campaign. Records also seem to indicate that, while the campaign didn’t follow up on many of his requests, it also did not discourage him or ask him to stop. His efforts actually met with encouraging remarks from a campaign supervisor subsequently identifed as Sam Clovis (after these revelations, Clovis withdrew his already controversial nomination for a top post in the Agriculture Department). It is also notable that, through Papadopoulos, multiple campaign officials were made aware of Russian claims to have Clinton-related e-mails well before the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, and contradict repeated statements from Trump and others throughout the 2016 campaign that nobody in the campaign had any knoweldge of the DNC hack.
- An 11/1/17 story from Vanity Fair described the reaction inside the White House to Robert Mueller’s first round of indictments. According to the article, Trump is blaming Jared Kusner for bad advice on firing Comey that led to Mueller’s investigation, aides are openly discussing the threat of impeachment, and Trump is in frequent communication with Steve Bannon, who is urging measures to discredit Mueller and shake up Trump’s legal defense team.
- On 11/3/17 three House Republicans introduced a measure to remove Robert Mueller as special counsel. Separately, measures that were introduced months earlier to prevent Trump from removing Mueller are also on the floor, but are not advancing. For now, the majority of Congressional Republicans seem satisifed to let him continue through the conclusion of his investigation.
- On 11/9/17 Mueller’s investigation interviewed White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. Miller is the highest-level aide still working at the White House known to have talked to investigators. According to sources familiar with the investigation, his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey was among the topics discussed during the interview as part of a probe into possible obstruction of justice.
- ABC reported on 11/10/17 that George Papadopoulos, the Trump foreign policy aide who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, initially misled agents out of what he claimed was loyalty to President Trump. Trump had publicly denied that there had been any contact between his campaign and Russian officials, and Papadopoulos did not want to contradict the official line. The New York times meanwhile ran an 11/10/17 story based on court documents that chronicles Papadopoulos’ March 2016 meetings with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic who boasted of having high-level contacts in the Russian government, Olga Polonskaya, a 30-year-old Russian from St. Petersburg and the former manager of a wine distribution company who Mifsud (falsely) introduced as Mr. Putin’s niece, and an unnamed fourth man with contacts inside Russia’s Foreign Ministry who investigators believe may have Russian intelligence ties.
- The Daily Beast provided more background on Polonska in an 11/10/17 article. According to Polonskaya’s brother, Sergei Vinogradov (her maiden name is Vinogradov) she has never worked for the Russian government, and was introduced to Papadopoulos while discussing an internship with Mifsud. She didn’t speak English well enough to fully follow the conversation between Papadopoulos and Mifsud, he added. Federal prosecutors, though, allege that Papadopoulos hoped that Putin’s “niece” would introduce him to the Russian ambassador in London. After he first met the “niece,” Papadopoulos emailed the Trump campaign to report that he had talked with her about arranging “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump.” Mifsud meanwhile has told an Italian newspaper, “she was just a student, a very good-looking one” and that Papadopoulos’ “interest in her (was) very different from an academic one.”
- On 11/14/17 Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked senior federal prosecutors to “evaluate certain issues” presented by House Republicans, including alleged ties between the Clinton Foundation and the sale of Uranium One. The Obama-era sale of the Canadian uranium mining company to Russia’s Atomic Energy Agency, Rosatom, is already being investigated by the House. In a letter to House Judiciary committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, assistant attorney general Stephen Boyd said the senior prosecutors will make recommendations to the attorney general and deputy general on whether “any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any merit the appointment of a special counsel.”
- Behind the scenes, several senior Justice Department officials indicated they are uncomfortable with the idea, seeing it as politically motivated. Meanwhile on 11/15/17 Fox anchor Shepard Smith ran a piece debunking many of the key talking points behind the idea of a link between the Uranium One sale and improper donations to the Clinton Foundation.
- The Wall Street Journal reported on 11/15/17 that Robert Mueller’s investigators have issued a subpoena to more than a dozen people involved with President Trump’s election campaign for documents related to Russia. The subpoena was issued in mid-October, requesting documents and emails from more than a dozen top campaign officials that include several keywords related to Russia. A source familiar with the matter told the Journal that the subpoena would not compel testimony before a grand jury, but that Trump’s campaign was surprised by the order after voluntarily cooperating with previous requests from Mueller’s team.
- Reporting emerged on 11/17/17 that there are indications that Mueller’s team has interviewed an aide of House Speaker Paul Ryan about his role in revising a plank on arming anti-Russian Ukranian forces during the June 2016 Republican Convention. Ryan chief of staff Jonathan Burks, who would neither confirm nor deny whether he had heard from the special counsel, attended the convention in a personal capacity as a volunteer for the Republican Party, not as a representative of Ryan’s office. At the time, he was a national security adviser to the speaker. The revision of the Ukraine plank has drawn previous interest from investigators as it changed GOP policy in a strongly pro-Russian direction, and seems to have involved pressure for the change from the Trump campaign.
- An 11/19/17 article in the Washington Post described divisions in the White House and among those close to Trump on that status of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. According to the report, some in the West Wing avoid the mere mention of Russia or the investigation whenever possible in order to keep the President focused on governing. Others take solace in the reassurances of White House lawyer Ty Cobb that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will be wrapping up the probe soon and the president and those close to him will be exonerated. Still others regard these hopes as naive as the investigation increasingly focuses on current and former White House staffers and campaign officials, and are also concerned about President Trump’s reported belief that the investigation is nearly concluded compared to their expectation that it is still in early stages.
- Reporting emerged on 11/16/17 that Mueller’s team is preparing to interview White House communication director Hope Hicks. Hicks has been a key Trump confidant throughout the campaign and through the first year of the administration, and some legal experts believe the decision to interview her indicates Mueller has reached a critical point in the overall investigation. “Anytime you can get someone who is the right-hand person or who’s been around the primary target of an investigation, under oath, answering detailed questions, means you’ve progressed very far along in the investigation,” said Adam Goldberg, a former Clinton White House lawyer.
- In the “can’t blame them for trying” category, on 11/27/17 Conservative watchdog Freedom Watch filed a lawsuit to have Mueller removed as Speical Counsel. The lawsuit was filed by Freedom Watch founder Larry Klayman against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director Christopher Wray and the heads of the Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and Inspector General in their official capacities, and seeks to have Mueller removed for “gross prosecutorial misconduct” over the leaks of grand jury information. “Robert Mueller is not a ‘man of integrity’ as the Washington, D.C., Democrat and Republican political establishment like to spin. He is just another pol who is representing his establishment benefactors in both political parties who want to see the presidency of Donald Trump destroyed,” Klayman said in a statement on the lawsuit.
- The Los Angeles Times ran an 11/24/17 profile of Robert Mueller highlighting unflattering comments from many who have worked with him before. Several former colleagues described Mueller as a “gruff guy” who routinely undermined his subordinates and evaded responsibility as head of the FBI. While not disputing his effectiveness, those interviewed criticized Mueller’s handling of many high-profile cases stretching back to 1979, his temperament with government witnesses, and for directing his subordinates at the FBI to shield him from criticism. One former aide went so far as to say that Mueller is “someone that can’t accept the fact that he screwed up.”
- The day after former National Security Advisor Flynn’s 12/1/17 guilty plea to the Special Counsel, President Trump tweeted, “”I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI,” Trump wrote. “He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!” This led several parties to note that this seemingly implied he already knew Flynn had lied to the FBI before firing Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and before pressuring FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation. On 12/3/17, President Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, took responsibility for writing the tweet under the President’s name, which he says he gave to social media director Dan Scavino. Dowd also maintained that the tweet did not admit obstruction, and in any case, as the chief law enforcement officer, the President inherently cannot obstruct justice when giving a view on a legal case. Most legal experts were skeptical of this argument.
- It was reporter on 12/2/17 that Peter Strzok, the former top FBI official assigned to special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election was taken off the job during the summer after his bosses discovered he and another member of Mueller’s team had exchanged politically charged texts disparaging President Trump and supporting Hillary Clinton. In a similar vein, it was reported on 12/5/17 that Mueller’s chief deputy Andrew Weissman had sent an e-mail to Sally Yates expressing pride in her standing up to President Trump before he fired her, and on 12/11/17 that the wife of Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official dismissed for concealing meetings with Fusion GPS, also had worked with the firm. Conservative media and legislators used these revelations as a talking point to allege bias on Mueller’s part and question whether he should be dismissed and/or his investigation shut down. On 12/12/17 Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow went further, calling for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate conflicts of interest in Mueller’s investigation. For his part, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stated in Congressional testimony on 12/13/17 that the special counsel’s investigation is not a “witch hunt”.
- A column in FiveThirtyEight on 12/4/17 compared the progress of Mueller’s investigation to previous special counsels over the last few decades. The comparison noted that it has resulted in indictments sooner than many other investigations, and that it is common for such investigations to last years.
- It was reported on 12/3/17 that President Trump’s personal lawyer confirmed that the president knew in late January that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had probably given FBI agents the same inaccurate account he provided to Vice President Pence about a call with the Russian ambassador. This would mean that Trump was in possession on this information when he later asked then-FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Flynn.
- It was incorrectly reported on 12/5/17 that a U.S. federal investigator probing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election asked Deutsche Bank for data on accounts held by President Donald Trump and his family. After Trump’s lawyer denied any such subpoena had been issued, subsequent reporting clarified that the records had been provided by Deutsche Bank in response to a subpoena from several weeks earlier, and involved people affiliate with trump, and the not his family itself.
- On 12/8/17 Simona Mangiante, the fiancée of George Papadopoulos, disputed top officials’ characterization of him as a “low-level volunteer” and a “coffee boy.” Mangiante, told ABC News that his job on the campaign was to “set up meetings with leaders all over the world” for senior campaign officials. Mangiante said Papadopoulos was “constantly in touch with high-level officials in the campaign.” She said she had seen correspondence proving it.
- It was reported on 12/14/17 that Mueller’s office has requested information from Cambridge Analytica, the data firm utilized by the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential race. Mueller’s team has requested all emails from employees at the firm who worked with the campaign. The request, was voluntary, as was another request the firm complied with from the House Intelligence Committee. Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix was reported earlier this year to have been in contact with top Trump donor Rebekah Mercer about better organizing emails from a hack of DNC and Clinton-campaign servers being released by WikiLeaks.
- President Trump’s private lawyers met with special counsel Robert Mueller and members of his team in mid-December for what the President’s team considered an opportunity to gain a clearer understanding of the next steps in Mueller’s probe. Details of their discussions have not been released.
- It was reported on 12/16/17 that Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian contacts with President Donald Trump’s campaign had gained access to thousands of emails sent and received by Trump officials before the start of his administration. The investigators did not directly request the records from Trump’s transition group, Trump for America, and instead obtained them from the General Services Administration, a separate federal agency that stored the material. Kory Langhofer, an Arizona-based attorney representing Trump for America, accused Mueller of unlawfully obtaining the messages. Langhofer spelled out the complaint in a letter to the main House and Senate oversight committees where he raised potential violations of attorney-client privilege and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure. Mueller’s team rejected this characterization. “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, said in a statement released to the press.
- Mid-December saw a rising tide of criticism of Robert Mueller’s investigation from the Right, raising speculation that cover was being created for President Trump to fire him. On 12/17/17 former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the attacks were politically-motivated, illegitimate, and that if Trump fired Mueller, there should be peaceful nationwide protests. Trump stated on 12/17/17 that he had no such intention. The President has apparently told friends and advisers that he believes the investigation will be wrapping up soon and Mueller will write a letter clearing him of any wrongdoing.
- A 12/30/17 New York Times story on former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos reports that he prompted the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election by drunkenly revealing knowledge of Russian opposition research on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos in May 2016 allegedly revealed to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that Russian officials were shopping possible dirt on Clinton, and Downer then reported the information to U.S. authorities.
- Several sources reported on 1/8/18 that the late December meeting between President Trump’s lawyers and the Special Counsel included discussion of the nature and timing of Trump being questioned by Mueller’s investigation. The president’s legal team is said to be discussing a range of potential options for the format, including written responses to questions in lieu of a formal sit-down. A source familiar with a late December meeting between Trump’s legal team and representatives from the special counsel’s office said the timing of a possible interview or written response has not been set but could come in a matter of weeks.
- On 1/10/18, it was revealed that Special counsel Robert Mueller added a prosecutor with significant cybercrime expertise to his team in November. Ryan Dickey, a senior lawyer in the Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, has been detailed to Mueller’s team since early November. This move has clear applicability to the DNC/Clinton campaign hacking portion of the investigation.
- It was reported on 1/16/18 that former White House strategist Steve Bannon has been subpoenaed as part of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Particular areas of interest for Mueller are believed to be Bannon’s recollection of discussions around the firing of former National Security advisor Michael Flynn, Trump’s dismissal of FBI director James Comey, and statements Bannon made to author Michael Wolff about money-laundering and the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. It was reported on 1/17/18 that Bannon had agreed with Mueller to be interviewed by prosecutors instead of appearing before a grand jury, and would answer questions that he had refused to answer before Congress. Executive privilege cannot be invoked in these interviews, since the Justice Department is part of the Executive Branch.
- Congressional Republicans and Conservative media called into question the impartiality of the FBI based on text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page turned over to the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The messages reveal a distaste for Trump, and also indicate that Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch may have had advanced knowledge that FBI director James Comey was planning on not charging Hillary Clinton in the e-mail server investigation. Congressional Republicans were interested as well in mention of an anti-Trump “secret society” in the texts, although several conceded that from context it could have just been an off-hand figure of speech. Page and Strzok had also served as part of Robert Mueller’s team until they were dismissed based on allegations of bias from the initially revealed text messages. The committee also expressed “concern” about a number of missing messages in December 2016-May 2017 that the FBI maintains were due to a software update glitch that affected numerous agents’ phones. Trump opined that the missing texts were “one of the biggest stories in a long time”. Unfortunately for the conspiracy buffs, the FBI was subsequently able to recover the messages, and released them. The new messages, among other things, reveal that the agents also had considerable disdain for Clinton in addition to Trump, and even thought that a special prosecutor should be named to look into questions around her priavte e-mail server.
- It was reported on 1/21/18 that Mueller’s team has been talking with George Nader, a Bannon associate who boasts of his well-placed connections in the Middle East.
Nader has spoken with Mueller’s team at least twice, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The Special Counsel’s office declined to comment. The significance of the investigation’s interest in Nader is not known. He visited the White House frequently during the early months of the Trump administration. He became friendly with former chief strategist Steve Bannon, visiting his office regularly. A source familiar with the White House meetings said Jared Kushner also met Nader.
- In a 1/23/18 interview, Simona Mangiante, fiancee of George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts and is cooperating with Special Counsel, said she believes, “history will remember him like John Dean.” On the advice of lawyers she did not get in to specifics, but said there is much more that has not yet been told publicly about Papadopoulos’ 10 months as an informal national security adviser to Trump and his interactions with those offering Russian “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
- It was reported on 1/23/18 that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at the public urging of President Donald Trump, has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Wray threatened to resign if McCabe was removed, according to multiple sources. This adds to questions about the President possibly being subject to charges of obstruction of justice.
- On 1/24/18 the President made statements that he was ready, and even eager, to answer questions from Mueller’s investigation under oath. The President’s attorney’s quickly clarified that Trump was speaking hurriedly, and only meant that he is willing to meet with the special counsel, not that he will testify in front of a grand jury under oath. The terms of how and where the President will testify may shortly become vital, as news indicates that the Special Counsel appears to be wrapping up the part of his investigation examining whether President Trump obstructed justice. In recent weeks, Mueller has moved closer to those around Trump by interviewing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The President meanwhile defended his attacks on investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, denying that it amounts to obstruction and saying he was merely “fight[ing] back”. Privately, White House sources are said to be concerned about the potential for the often freewheeling Trump to perjure himself under questioning. On 1/31/18 the President’s attorneys were reported to be arguing that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has not met the high threshold they believe is needed to interview a President in person.
- Speaking of obstruction of justice, the New York Times reported on 1/26/18 that in June 2017 President Trump ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump ultimately backed down after White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive. While Trump quickly described the story as, “Fake news. Fake news. Typical New York Times. Fake stories.”, multiple sources subsequently corrobrated it, and it does not seem to be in doubt. Congressional Republicans reacted cautiously to the story, declining for the moment to revive efforts from last year to pass legislation barring Trump from firing Mueller.
- On 1/29/18 Andrew McCabe stepped down as deputy director of the FBI, bowing to pressure from President Trump and congressional Republicans who were clamoring for his ouster. McCabe had already planned to leave the FBI in 2018, but will now immediately go on leave and then retire in mid-March, when he is eligible to receive his full pension benefits. Trump and his allies have accused McCabe of bias in his handling of the Clinton email case. Despite having considered him to be FBI director after firing Comey, Trump has repeatedly publicly scolded him for his wife’s ties to Democrats (she ran for office in Virginia, and received contributions from major Democratic donors) and his friendship with James Comey, and is reported to have asked him who he voted for in 2016 in a private meeting, and to have exerted pressure on him to resign through Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It was reported on 1/31/18 that Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is investigating why McCabe did not act for three weeks after uncovering a new batch of Hillary Clinton-related emails in the late stages of the 2016 campaign.
- The New York Times reported on 1/29/18 that the memo prepared by the Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee claims that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein approved an application last year to extend surveillance of former Trump campaign associate Carter Page, and that the Justice Department’s application was based partially on the dossier by investigator Christopher Steele. The GOP memo alleges officials did not sufficiently explain their reasoning for extending the surveillance. There is no information that the FBI or Justice Department did anything improper in their attempts to get a surveillance warrant, according to the Times, but the newspaper noted that Republicans could seize on the information and allege that Rosenstein didn’t properly vet the application. Discrediting Rosenstein is seen as a possible precursor to removing him from office, which, with Jeff Sessions recused from the Russia investigation, would give the President an opportunity to appoint a new Deputy AG who might be willing to end the investigation.
- While President Trump has recently added “no obstruction” to his previous favorite phrase “no collusion”, it was reported on 1/31/18 than in a December meeting he had asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he was “on my team.” Rosenstein was reportedly surprised by Trump’s question and replied, “of course, we’re all on your team, Mr. President.” The exchange is the latest instance of Trump demanding loyalty from senior officials at the Justice Department who are directly involved in the Russia investigation, a practice many say violates longstanding norms surrounding the independence of federal law enforcement. On 2/2/18, asked if he retained confidence in Rosenstein or was planning on firing him, Trump replied, “You figure that one out.” On 2/8/18 an ad attacking Rosenstein by a group connected to the Tea Party Patriots organization began to air. The ad slams Rosenstein for “incompetence and abuse of power” and calls on him to “do his job or resign.” A narrator in the ad also describes Rosentstein as “a weak careerist at the Justice Department protecting liberal Obama holdovers and the deep state instead of following the rule of law.” It was reported on 2/9/18 that Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand was planning on stepping down from her post as the Justice Department’s number three official. This is significant as Brand would be next in line in terms of having authority to fire Mueller if Rosenstein was fired or resigned. A long-time veteran of the Justice Department serving under multiple administrations, Brand would be unlikley to be willing to fire Mueller, but a successor might.
- Reports on 1/31/18 indicated that special counsel Robert Mueller is planning on interviewing Mark Corallo, a former spokesperson for Trump’s legal team. Corallo is reported to be planning to discuss a previously undisclosed conference call with Mr. Trump and Hope Hicks, the White House communications director. Mr. Corallo plans to tell investigators that Ms. Hicks said during the call that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting, in which the younger Mr. Trump said he was eager to receive political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians, “will never get out.” That left Mr. Corallo with concerns that Ms. Hicks could be contemplating obstructing justice.
- It was reported on 2/1/18 that Peter Strzok, the FBI agent whose texts have come under Congressional scrutiny Strzok, co-wrote what appears to be the first draft that formed the basis of the letter then FBI-director James Comey sent to Congress shortly before the election re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s e-mail server. Strzok appears to have supported reopening the Clinton investigation once the emails were discovered on disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop. This…complicates…Right Wing media efforts to present Strzok as a Clinton sympathizer leading an FBI conspiracy against Trump. Seperately, a 2/2/18 examination of 7,000 FBI text messages by the Wall Street Journal concluded there was no evidence of an anti-Trump conspiracy in the agency. On 2/7/18 the Journal also reported that text messages between Strzok and agent Lisa Page stating that then-President Obama wanted “to know everything” referred to the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, not a probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server, as some Congressional Republicans had initially charged.
- On 2/4/18 Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, said that he “never felt that the president was going to fire the special counsel,” disputing earlier reports in The Washington Post that he was “incredibly concerned” Trump was moving to fire Mueller last summer. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, Priebus said Trump was clear about what he saw as Mueller’s conflicts of interest in the job, and he allowed that others may have “interpreted that” as Trump’s desire to fire Mueller.
- The New York Times reported on 2/6/128 that President Trump’s attorneys are trying to sway him against agreeing to an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller partially out of concern he might incriminate himself through false statements and could be charged with lying to investigators. On 2/7/18 reporting indicated that the President still wanted to sit down with Mueller despite his lawyer’s concerns.
- It was reported on 2/15/18 that Steve Bannon had particpated in two recent rounds of interviews with Robert Mueller’s team, for a total of 20 hours. Bannon was subpoenaed by Mueller in January, and reportedly made a deal to be interviewed with FBI agents present instead of testifying before a grand jury. While topics discussed during the meetings have not been made public, Mueller is believed to be interested in Bannon’s knowledge from his time as chief strategist of the circumstances around the administration’s firing of former National Seucity Advisor Michael Flynn and the dismissal of former FBI director James Comey.
- On the same date as the 2/16/18 indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three corporations for electoral interference, Mueller’s investigation filed a guilty plea from Richard Pinedo, a 28 year-old Californian who trafficked in false online identities and means to evade financial security systems. It was not immediately clear if the main import of Pindedo is that he was how the Russian indictees purchased their false U.S. identities, and/or if his plea relates to a separate money laundering portion of the investigation.
- While the detailed findings of the 2/16/18 indictment on Russian election interference provide some insulation against dismissing the probe, several conservative activists speaking as recently as shortly before the indictments were announced made the case that President Trump should pardon people being investigated. “I think he should be pardoning anybody who’s been indicted and make it clear that anybody else who gets indicted would be pardoned immediately,” said Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and senior vice president at the conservative Center for Security Policy. “It’s kind of cruel what’s going on right now and the president should put these defendants out of their misery,” said Larry Klayman, a conservative legal activist. “I think he should pardon everybody — and pardon himself.”
- The Wall Street Journal reported on 2/25/18 that President Trump’s legal team was weighing multiple options for how the President would testify in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Possibilities reportedly included providing written answers, having the president give limited verbal testimony, or other options. “Everything is on the table,” a source close to the president’s legal team told the Journal. However, seemingly forgetting the perspective on the Conservative side during Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, a member of Trump’s legal team told the newspaper that having him testify could set a bad precedent for future commanders-in-chief. According to the lawyer, Mueller’s investigators have “all of the notes and memos of the thoughts and actions of this president on all subjects he requested in real time without reservation or qualification, including testimony from his most intimate staff and eight lawyers from the White House Counsel’s Office. Any question for the president is answered in these materials and testimony. It would be a travesty to waste his (Trump’s) time and to set a precedent which would cripple a future president.” In related news, on 3/7/18 reports emerged that Trump had questioned aides who met with Mueller’s team about their interviews, which may not be the best way to discourage speculation about obstruction of justice. On 3/9/18 Trump’s legal defense team floated the trial balloon of allowing Trump to be interviewed in exchange for ending the probe within 60 days. Mueller’s team is not expected to be open to the offer. However, there were also reports on 3/12/18 that Mueller may be considering delaying action on the obstruction of justice investigation until a later time, in order to not discourage witnesses from cooperating with the multiple other open areas of investigation.
- It was reported on 2/28/18 that investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller have recently been asking witnesses about Donald Trump’s business activities in Russia prior to the 2016 presidential campaign as he considered a run for president. Questions to some witnesses during wide-ranging interviews included the timing of Trump’s decision to seek the presidency, potentially compromising information the Russians may have had about him, and why efforts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow fell through.
- It was separately reported on 2/28/18 that Mueller’s investigators have asked witnesses about President Trump’s connection to Democratic emails that were hacked and leaked leading up to the 2016 election. Mueller’s team has reportedly focused on whether Trump was aware of plans for WikiLeaks to publish emails from the Democratic National Committee, or if he was involved in the emails’ release. Investigators have also honed in on Trump’s relationship with Republican operative Roger Stone, an informal adviser during the 2016 campaign. They have reportedly asked witnesses about Stone’s connections to WikiLeaks, and if he’s met the site’s founder, Julian Assange.
- On 3/1/18 Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed back against President Donald Trump after the President chastised Sessions over an investigation into alleged surveillance abuses, calling his approach “disgraceful.” “Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc,” Trump wrote. “Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!” Responding to Trump’s tweet, the attorney general said in a statement that the Justice Department “initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”
- On 3/1/18 the New York Times reported that Mueller’s investigation is questioning George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who was a back-channel negotiator with Syria during the Clinton administration, an adviser to the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and a frequent visitor to President Trump’s White House. Mueller’s investigators have questioned Mr. Nader and have pressed witnesses for information about any possible attempts by the Emiratis to buy political influence by directing money to support Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. The investigators have also asked about Mr. Nader’s role in White House policymaking, suggesting that the focus on Mr. Nader could also prompt an examination of how money from multiple countries has flowed through and influenced Washington during the Trump era. Nader was also involved in arranging a January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Russian officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Prince later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned, Mueller’s team reportedly believes it was an attempt to set up a secret back-channel between the Trump Administration and Russia, and is actively investigating it.
- On 3/11/18 the New York Times reported that President Trump is in talks with Emmet T. Flood, a lawyer who worked on former President Bill Clinton’s team during the investigation that eventually led to his impeachment in 1998. It also mentioned several unnamed sources who claimed Trump was losing confidence in his lawyer Ty Cobb. Trump (via Twitter) said the story, written by Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt, was “purposely” false, stating, “The Failing New York Times purposely wrote a false story stating that I am unhappy with my legal team on the Russia case and am going to add another lawyer to help out. Wrong. I am VERY happy with my lawyers, John Dowd, Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow. They are doing a great job and … have shown conclusively that there was no Collusion with Russia..just excuse for losing.”
- The New York Times reported on 3/15/18 that Mueller’s investigation has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents as part of the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. What exact information is being sought, and what area of the investigation it relates to is unknown, but this marks the first time President Trump’s businesses have been approached by the investigation.
- Politico reported on 3/15/18 that Trump’s legal team was preparing him for interviews with Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s team. The sources cited expected that such an interview wouldn’t be coming in a eek, but was closer than “months and months out”. 3/22/18 reporting by CNN indicated that Mueller’s team has four main areas they want to question the President about: the President’s role in crafting a statement aboard Air Force One that miscast Donald Trump Jr.’s campaign June 2016 meeting with Russians in Trump Tower, the circumstances surrounding that Trump Tower meeting, and the firings of FBI Director James Comey and national security adviser Michael Flynn.
- On 3/16/18 Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired FBI Deputy Director (and former Acting Director) Andrew McCabe less than 48 hours before his planned retirement, which would have qualified him for a pension after 21 years of government service. Sessions justified the removal on the basis of an internal review following questions about McCabe’s “lack of candor” in answers to Congress about his contacts with media outlets. President Trump, who had previously publicly criticized McCabe and called for his firing stated on Twitter, “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!” For his part, McCabe issued a statement denying any wrongdoing on his part, or on the part of Justice Department investigators: “I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey…This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally,’ McCabe’s statement continued. “It is part of this Administration’s ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel investigation, which continue to this day. Their persistence in this campaign only highlights the importance of the Special Counsel’s work.” it was also revealed in the following days that McCabe had written memos following several phone and in-person interactions with Trump, and the Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation is in possession of those memos.
- Following McCabe’s firing, President Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, told The Daily Beast on 3/16/18 that he hopes Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will shut down special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s election interference. “I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.” After the story on his statement began to circulate, Dowd clarified that he was expressing a personal opinion and not speaking as the President’s counsel. Several prominent Republicans spoke up against talk of firing Mueller, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senator Lindsey Graham who said on 3/18/18 that doing so, “would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.” They stopped short, however, of backing any legislative action to insulate Mueller from firing. President Trump himself didn’t seem concerned, as he went on a 3/19/18 Twitter-storm in which he called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” filled with “massive conflicts of interest”, lied about the number of Democrats serving on Mueller’s staff, and accused registered- Republican McCabe of improper links to Democrats due to his wife having run for a race in Virginia as a Democrat, and implied that former FBI Director Comey knew about all of this and “much more”. Some experts noted that Trump’s outburst was not the best way to be seen as not interfering with the investigation.
- On 3/19/18 counsel to the president Jay Sekulow announced that longtime Washington lawyer Joseph diGenova was joining Trump’s legal team. This was widely considered as signalling a tougher approach to Mueller’s investigation from Trump’s legal team, which has so far advised him not to attack Mueller. diGenova has made past statements indicating that the investigations of Trump are meritless, such as a January Fox appearance in which he stated: “There was a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn’t win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime. Make no mistake about it: A group of FBI and DOJ people were trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime.” However, by 3/26/18 it emerged that diGenova would not be joining the legal team due to conflicts of interest. This came amidst other signs of disarray in the President’s legal team, including a 3/20/18 story indicating Trump has discussed firing team lead Ty Cobb, a 3/20/18 story that former Bush Administration Solicitor Genral Ted Olson had declined an offer to join the team, lead attorney John Dowd resigning from the team on 3/22/18, and a 3/27/18 story that former federal prosecutors Tom Buchanan and Dan Webb had declined an offer to join the team. However, the Daily beast reported on 3/25/18 that Trump’s legal team may be more robust than it appears, as it also includes about half a dozen attorneys affiliated with the conservative non-profit American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). On Reuters reported on 3/28/18 that a little-known attorney, Andrew Ekonomou, a former prosecutor with a doctorate in medieval history, will assume a more central role. Ekonomou has been helping Jay Sekulow in representing Trump, but has not worked on high-profile cases such as the Russia investigation, however, according to Reuters.
- CNN reported on 3/28/18 that Trump’s counsel John Dowd had discussed the possibility of President Trump pardoning his former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Dowd reportedly had the discussions with both men’s attorneys. Dowd, denied any conversations of pardons with the two former Trump associates. Lawyers representing Trump in the special counsel probe also said they had no knowledge of the discussions.
- Politico ran a story on 3/28/18 noting that President Trump has, for the first time, criticized Robert Mueller by name. This, combined with surrogates in Right-leaning media outlets publicizing controversial events from Mueller’s past, leads some observers to believe that Trump’s team is moving to a strategy of trying to discredit Mueller.
- On 3/29/18 Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to name a second special counsel to investigate allegations of surveillance abuse within the Department of Justice (DOJ), despite pressure from the Republican Party for him to do so. In his letter to Congressional GOP Committee Chairmen, Sessions said, “To justify such an appointment, the Attorney General would need to conclude that ‘the public interest would be served by removing a large degree of responsibility for the matter from the Department of Justice.” He said he had named a federal prosecutor in Utah, John Huber, to lead the investigation into Republicans’ allegations that the FBI and DOJ abused a surveillance program against a former Trump campaign aide. “The additional matters raised in your March 6, 2018, letter fall within the scope of his existing mandate, and I am confident that Mr. Huber’s review will include a full, complete, and objective evaluation of these matters in a manner that is consistent with the law and the facts.” Trump also took to Twitter on 4/2/18 to accuse the Justice Department and the FBI of “slow walking” documents requested by Congress for the inquiry into what Republicans say is potential abuse and criminality at the department during the 2016 presidential race. FBI Director Christopher Wray had recently announced the bureau was doubling the number of personnel working to respond to the document requests, to 54 staffers working in two shifts from 8 a.m. to midnight. Lawmakers have received about 3,000 documents so far.
- The Washington Post reported on 4/4/18 that Mueller’s team has, “informed President Trump’s attorneys last month that he is continuing to investigate the president but does not consider him a criminal target at this point.” This kind of legal parlance is often used to indicate that a person’s conduct is under investigation, but not likely to directly result in criminal charges. the report also indicated that Mueller’s team expects to issue their findings in stages via a series of reports to Congress, which may or may not be made public. the first such report is likely to cover potential obstruction of justice by President Trump. Other commentators have also noted that the difference between being a “subject” and a “target” can potentially shift in a single interview if investigators feel a false staement has been made.
- CNN reported on 4/4/18 that Robert mueller’s team has directly investigated several Russian oligarchs. It took the unusual step of questioning one Russian oligarch and searching his electronic devices when his private jet landed at a New York area airport, according to multiple sources familiar with the inquiry. A second Russian oligarch was stopped during a recent trip to the US, although it is not clear if he was searched. Mueller’s team has also made an informal voluntary document and interview request to a third Russian oligarch who has not traveled to the US recently.
- It was reported on 4/7/18 that Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Joseph Schmitz pushed government agencies to review materials from the dark web in the summer of 2016 that he thought were Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. Schmitz approached the FBI and other government agencies about material a client of his had discovered that Schmitz believed might have been Clinton’s missing 30,000 emails from her private e-mail server, sources say. The material was never verified, and sources say they ultimately believed it was fake.
- President Trump’s initial reaction to the FBI raid on Michael Cohen came during a 4/9/18 press briefing on Syria in which he derided the raid on Cohen as, “an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.” Reports immediately began to circulate that Trump was weighing firing Rosenstein, and that the White House was coordinating its allies to publicly criticize him, in order to replace him with someone who would be willing to rein in Mueller at Trump’s behest. The Washington Post reported on 4/11/18 that Steve Bannon is pushing the idea of firing Rosenstein and aggressively legally challenging Mueller to administration insiders. On 4/11/18 House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes also came out in favor of impeaching Rosenstein for not turning over an unredacted version of the document which he claims marked the beginning and formal basis of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign. Rosenstein subsequently provided the documents to Nunes. The President’s legal team pulled back on plans to have Trump meet with Mueller’s investigators following the raid on Cohen. The New York Times also reported on 4/10/18 that President Trump attempted to fire special counsel Mueller in December after he became enraged over reports that the special counsel had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for records on Trump’s finances. However, Mueller’s team told the White House that the reports were inaccurate and the president backed off from the move. On 4/11/18 the Senate Judiciary Committee moved forward with a bipartisan bill to prevent the undue firing of special counsels such as Robert Mueller. Mitch McConnell however, had previously indicated that he would not support bringing the measure to the floor for a vote. In the realm of public opinion, a group called Rule of Law Republicans backed by Bill Kristol and other prominent Conservatives began to air an ad on Fox and Morning Joe on 4/11/18 defending Mueller and cautioning against firing him.
- In his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State on 4/12/18, CIA Director Mike Pompeo confirmed that he has met with Robert Mueller’s investigation.
- Former FBI Director James Comey began a tour in support of his memoir on 4/13/18. While certainly disparaging of Trump, the book generally doesn’t have new revelations relevant to the Russian investigation or charges of obstruction of justice beyond what’s already known. In excerpts from the book, and a 3/16/18 interview with ABC, however Comey did state that he thinks it’s possible that Russia has compromising material on Trump, he was mystified at Trump’s disinterest in defending the U.S. against Russian election meddling, and he confirmed that the President had asked him to disprove allegations that there was a “pee tape” of his interactions with Russian prostitutes. The RNC however, wasted no time in rolling out a website and publicity campaign to discredit Comey. For his part, President Trump took to Twitter several times to call Comey a “slimeball”.
- On 4/13/18 Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz released the finding of his investigation into fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Horowitz found McCabe “lacked candor” on four occasions when discussing the disclosure of information for a Wall Street Journal article about the FBI’s Clinton Foundation investigation. In addition, the inspector general determined that McCabe was not authorized to disclose the existence of the investigation because it was not within the department’s “public interest” exception for disclosing ongoing investigations. The inspector general said that the disclosure to the Journal was made “in a manner designed to advance his personal interests at the expense of department leadership.” Proving that his administration’s firing of McCabe had nothing to do with his general beef with the FBI and desire to impede the Russia investigation, President Trump tweeted: “DOJ just issued the McCabe report – which is a total disaster. He LIED! LIED! LIED! McCabe was totally controlled by Comey – McCabe is Comey!! No collusion, all made up by this den of thieves and lowlifes!”
- On 4/20/18, Congressional Republicans apparently leaked copies of former-FBI Director James Comey’s memos documenting his meetings with Trump in the months leading up to his firing. The memos went public, leaked from the House, within minutes of their being received by Republican House committee chairmen. There isn’t a great deal of new material in them, but they do reinforce Comey’s earlier public testimony and paint an unflattering portrayal of seeming pressure on Comey and the investigation from Trump. They also reveal Trump’s focus on the alleged compromising tape of his behavior, including the following: “The President said the ‘hookers thing’ is nonsense but that Putin had told him ‘we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world’ (He did not say when Putin had told him this).” In other FBI-related moves, on 4/19/18 The Justice Department’s inspector general referred its findings on former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to the US attorney’s office in Washington for possible criminal charges associated with lying to internal investigators. For his part, McCabe is reportedly looking to sue for defamation, wrongful termination and other possible civil claims. The Wall Street Journal also reported on 4/20/18 that the same Justice Department office investigating McCabe is also investigating the initial leak by Comey of the memos to friends last year, over concern that they included classified information.
- On 4/15/18 CNN reported that New York attorney Steven Molo, a former prosecutor who specializes in white collar defense and court room litigation, turned down an invitation to represent President Donald Trump, citing an unidentified conflict. On
4/19/18 former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that he was joining President Donald Trump’s personal legal team. In an interview with CNN, Giuliani said he wants his role on the legal team to be “limited”, and that his focus will be on interfacing with special counsel Robert Mueller in his Russia probe and to help bring everything to a conclusion. On 5/10/18, however, citing that the work had become more “all-consuming” than originally expected, Giuliani resigned from his law firm Greenberg Traurig. Giuliani is known to have been friendly with Mueller from their common background as prosecutors, and from the days when then-FBI Director Mueller played a key role in the post-9/11 investigation. Giuliani’s role may also be complicated by his involvement with pre-election leaks about the FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails, and central role as a member of Trump’s transition in activities involving Mike Flynn that under investigation. Trump is reported to have quickly become frustrated with Giuliani, who made several statements that actually seemed to indicate knowledge of wrong-doing on Trump’s part. It was also reported on 5/2/18 that only former legal team member John Dowd had security clearance, and the remaining members of the team may not have sufficient clearance to even take part in questioning by Mueller. The team had another significant shake-up on 5/2/18, with the White House announcing that team leader Ty Cobb would soon be leaving, and Emmet Flood, who had prior experience in the Bush Administration and representing Clinton during his impeachment proceedings, would be joining.
- Amidst ongoing speculation that President Trump may seek to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or replace Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with someone more wiling to limit Mueller’s investigation, Politico ran a 4/17/18 profile of Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who would be next in line if Rosenstein is fired. While Francisco’s views of the Russia probe are not publicly known, as a private lawyer in 2016, he accused Comey’s FBI of overreaching in high-profile political investigations and overstepping its investigative authority — arguments similar to those voiced by Mueller’s conservative critics. Some Conservative House members have gone so far as to start to draft articles of impeachment for Rosenstein, who responded on 5/1/18 by saying, “There are people who have been making threats, privately and publicly, against me for quite some time. I think they should understand by now the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted. We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law.” The Department of Justice also declined a 5/2/18 request from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to view an unredacted memo detailing the scope of Mueller’s investigation. Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reportedly told the President that he will quit if Rosenstein is fired. It was meanwhile reported on 4/19/18 that Rosenstein has issued assurances to Trump that he was not personally a target of either Mueller’s probe or the investigation of longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Sessions has meanwhile indicated that he will not recuse himself in the Cohen investigation, but will “step back” for any areas related to the Russian inquiry. The Senate Judiciary Committee meanwhile voted on 4/26/18 to approve a bipartisan bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired, despite warnings from Senate leaders that the bill is unlikely to receive a vote in the full Senate. On the same date, Trump again hinted that he may intervene in the probe, and on 5/3/18 a Republican House member introduced a measure to end Mueller’s probe if it does not produce evidence of collusion within 30 days. President Trump also issued a statement on 5/6/18 accusing Mueller unrevealed conflicts of interest. Vice President Mike Pence joined in on commenting on Mueller’s investigation on 5/10/18, stating, “What I think is that it’s been about a year since this investigation began. Our administration has provided over a million documents, we’ve fully cooperated in it and in the interest of the country, I think it’s time to wrap it up.”
- On 4/30/18, the New York Times reported on a list of around 50 interview questions that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has submitted to Trump‘s legal team. The list reveals a depth of specificity and breadth of items that Mueller wants to question Trump about, including the circumstances surrounding the firing of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, communications with Jeff Sessions regarding the Russian investigation, and any knowledge of various campaign contacts with Russian parties. Legal experts noted that this would amount to roughly two full days of questioning, and, in the words of a former U.S. Attorney, “For each of the questions, there is already an elaborate follow-up question tree, supported by marked exhibits ready to be presented to refresh Trump’s recollection, impeach him, or otherwise test his credibility. The question tree has a flow: ‘If yes, then [follow up] down this branch. If no, then f/u down this branch. If maybe or non-responsive, then f/u down this branch.’ This is what we do. And no one is better at it than Mueller.” Regarding how the questions came to be in the public sphere, multiple misspellings and grammatical errors in the list strongly suggest it is not an original document, and is instead a reproduction leaked by someone on Trump‘s team. Nixon White House counsel (and Watergate indictee) John Dean observed that if Trump’s team had leaked the questions, that itself could become part of the a case for obstruction of justice. New Trump legal team member Rudy Giuliani offered on 5/6/18 that Trump might refuse to accept a subpoena to testify, and could invoke the 5th Amendment. There was also reporting on 5/8/18 that Mueller’s team has rejected a proposal from the Trump team to accept written answers to the questions. Trump’s team is know to be apprehensive about a live interview, even more so after, in a mock interview, it took the President four hours to get through two questions.
- In further news on Mueller’s investigation, it was reported on 5/4/18 that Viktor Vekselberg, a sanctioned Russian millionaire who attended President Trump’s inauguration was interviewed by Robert Mueller’s investigators earlier this year. Vekselberg, a Kremlin-connected businessman targeted by the Treasury Department’s sweeping sanctions campaign last month, was stopped by federal agents working for Mueller after he stepped off a private plane at a New York-area airport about two months ago. The agents interviewed Vekselberg and screened his electronic devices. Vekselberg was also identified on 5/8/18 as involved with parties that had made payments to Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen’s holding company. Columbus Nova LLC, the investment firm of Vekselberg-owned Renova group made $500,000 of payment’s to Cohen’s firm in eight payments from January-August 2017
- On 5/6/18, the Associated Press reported that Mueller’s investigators have interviewed one of President Donald Trump’s closest friends and confidants, California real estate investor Tom Barrack. The specific topics covered in questions from Mueller’s team were not immediately clear. It was separately reported on 5/11/18 that Mueller’s team is investigating foreign contributions to Trump’s inauguration, including from Russian, Qatari, and Saudi sources. Barrack is know to have raised up to $107 million in funding for the inauguration, so this may be one of the topics Mueller is pursuing with him.
- On 5/8/18 the Washington Post reported that House intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes demanded a piece of information that the FBI and other intelligence officials believed would “endanger a top-secret intelligence source.” The agencies prevailed on Trump to support their request to withhold the information, which Nunes not only demanded be revealed to him, but also threatened to vote to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt. Officials who secured Trump’s support may have left out the fact that the source provided information to the Mueller investigation. As a result, “several administration officials said they fear Trump may reverse course and support Nunes’s argument.”
- For all the attempts on the Right to allege that Mueller has some kind of anti-Trump bias that results in a conflict of interest, news emerged on 5/14/18 involving a much more bona-fide seeming conflict of interest on Mueller’s part relating to a Russian involved with the probe. In 2009, when Mueller ran the FBI, the bureau asked Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to spend millions of his own dollars funding an ultimately-unsuccessful FBI-supervised operation to rescue a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, captured in Iran while working for the CIA in 2007. Although Deripaska is involved in business-dealings with Paul Manafort, he has not been named in any of the Manafort indictments. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz believes Mueller has a conflict of interest because his FBI previously accepted financial help from a Russian that is, at the very least, a witness in the current probe. “The real question becomes whether it was proper to leave [Deripaska] out of the Manafort indictment, and whether that omission was to avoid the kind of transparency that is really required by the law.” Melanie Sloan, a former Clinton Justice Department lawyer and longtime ethics watchdog, also questioned whether the earlier FBI operation was even legal: “It’s possible the bureau’s arrangement with Mr. Deripaska violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the government from accepting voluntary services.”
- On 5/18/18 President Trump tweeted the suggestion that the Department of Justice has placed a spy in his campaign in order to frame him, in apparent response to a 5/12/18 National Review article that wondered if the FBI had a spy on the Trump campaign. A 5/16/18 in-depth piece in the New York Times on the origin of the investigation into Trump’s campaign confirmed that the FBI did make use of an informant in the investigation. Further reporting by the New York Times and the Washington Post revealed that the informant was an American academic working in the U.K. who was never a member of the Trump campaign, but had conversations with campaign co-chair Sam Clovis, and foreign policy advisors Carter Page and George Papadopoulos at various points after the FBI had flagged them as having suspicious contacts with Russian parties. While the initial stories in the Times and the Post did not identify the informant, they included enough detail that others were readily able to identify the person as Cambridge University Politics and International Affairs chair Stefan Halper. The Intercept ran a 5/19/18 story on Halper’s alleged past involvement in campaign spying operations on behalf of the Reagan and Bush campaigns.
- On 5/20/18 Trump tweeted a demand that the Department of Justice, “look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” (The AP reported on 5/23/18 that the President told a confidant that he aimed “to brand” an FBI informant on his campaign a “spy” because he thought it sounded more nefarious.) The Justice Department responded by asking its inspector general to expand an ongoing review to include whether “any impropriety or political motivation” was a factor in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation related to the Russia probe. The DOJ also agreed on 5/21/18 to show Congressional Republicans “highly classified” information they have demanded from the Russia probe after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray met with President Trump. On 5/22/18 19 Congressional Republicans joined in the criticism by introducing a resolution alleging misconduct by the DOJ and FBI involving FISA warrants, the end of the Hillary Clinton investigation, and the beginning of the Trump Russia probe.
- After an outcry that Congressional Democrats would not be included in the briefing, arrangements were made for a 5/24/18 initial briefing involving Congressional Republicans and then a wider briefing involving members of both parties. Democrats emerged from the meetings saying they saw no evidence to support Republican allegations that the FBI acted inappropriately, although they did express grave concern about the presence of a White House lawyer at Thursday’s briefings. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News he had learned “nothing particularly surprising,” and further told NPR, “The two investigations going on that I think will give us the answers to the questions that you raise — the [inspector general] investigation in the Justice Department and the Mueller investigation, I support both of them, and I don’t really have anything to add to this subject based upon the Gang of Eight briefing that we had today, which was classified.”It noted that the 5 guilty please, 14 indictments, and one referral to a Federal prosecutor of Mueller’s probe in its first year makes it the most active such probe this early in it’s span. The article also notes that it is not unusual for such probes to continue for several years. On 5/30/18 senior House Intelligence Committee member Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) stated that the FBI had acted properly. “Think back to what the president himself told James Comey” Gowdy said. “He said, ‘I didn’t collude with Russia, but if anyone connected with my campaign did, I want you to investigate it.’ It strikes me that that’s exactly what the FBI was doing.” House Speaker Paul Ryan backed up this viewpoint on 6/6/18.
- FiveThirtyEight published a 5/17/18 column examining the progress of Robert Mueller’s investigation compared to previous special counsel investigations since Watergate. It noted that the 5 guilty please, 14 indictments, and one referral to a Federal prosecutor of Mueller’s probe in its first year makes it the most active such probe this early in it’s span. The article also notes that it is not unusual for such probes to continue for several years.
- On 5/16/18 Trump legal team member Rudy Giuliani told CNN that Mueller’s team had informed Trump’s legal team that they have concluded they can’t indict a sitting President. This is in reference to Justice Department policy and precedent, which indicates that prosecutors can issue a report to Congress on their findings and recommending further action, but can’t directly indict. On 6/3/18 Giuliani went even further, and stated that Trump could have shot Comey and still couldn’t be indicted for it. Giuliani also indicated that Mueller’s team had agreed to limit questions to Trump from five areas to just two. He also went on record that even if the Trump campaign had offered Russian parties favors in exchange for damaging information on Clinton, there is nothing illegal about that. On 5/21/18 Giuliani stated that Mueller’s team had indicated they planned to conclude their investigation by September. Subsequent reports indicated that Giuliani had made up the date in order to pressure Mueller’s team. It was separately reported on 5/22/18 that Trump’s legal team was negotiating with Mueller’s team in the hopes of limiting an interview specifically to questions of collusion and events happening before the inauguration. Trump meanwhile alleged (aka totally made up) on 5/29/18 that Mueller was preparing to interfere in the midterms through the timing of releasing his report. Giuliani also opined on 5/27/17 that “the basis on which [Mueller] was appointed is illegitimate.” and on 5/29/18 stated that Trump wouldn’t talk to Mueller until he got information on the “informant” in his campaign. In early June Giuliani and Trump both chimed in with the opinion that Trump has full authority to pardon himself (thought Trump went on to add that, since he’d done nothing wrong, he wouldn’t have to). House Speaker Paul Ryan on 6/6/18 didn’t quite state that Trump couldn’t do that, but said, “I think obviously the answer is he shouldn’t and no one is above the law.” On 6/3/18 Giuliani also offered that Trump shouldn’t testify since people’s recollections always change.
- The Washington Post reported on 5/20/18 that the Republican National Committee (RNC) paid nearly half a million dollars to a law firm that represented clients, including former White House communications director Hope Hicks, in the ongoing Russian investigations. The RNC paid Trout Cacheris & Janis $451,780 for its services, according to a federal filing. The Post reported that the RNC began using a pool of money it had gathered for election recounts and other issues to pay for Trump and his associates’ legal fees linked to the Russia investigations
- On 5/23/18 Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team told a court he is ready to move ahead with the sentencing of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. “The parties respectfully request that the Court refer this case for the preparation of a pre-sentence investigation report,” the filing from Mueller’s team reads. A pre-sentence report is used to help a judge prepare for a possible sentence, providing information on the individual’s criminal history, cooperation with authorities, as well as other details that will aid the judge’s decision.
- The New York Times reported on 5/30/18 that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe claimed in a memo he wrote last year that President Trump wanted the memo Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein wrote up about the reasons for firing FBI Director James Comey to mention the Russian investigation. McCabe described a second-hand a conversation he heard about from Rosenstein, who spoke with Trump about firing Comey. Russia and the investigation of the country’s interference in the 2016 election were not mentioned in Rosenstein’s final document. McCabe therefore feared that Rosenstein may have provided a cover story for Trump to fire Comey over the Russia probe by writing, instead, about the former director’s handling of the probe into 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. One person familiar with what Rosenstein said reportedly thought Trump wanted his deputy attorney general to confirm that Trump was not under investigation in the Russia probe. McCabe has turned over his memo about the conversation to Special Counsel Mueller.
- On 5/31/18 President Trump contradicted what he said in a 2017 televised interview, denying that he fired former FBI Director James Comey. “Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia! The Corrupt Mainstream Media loves to keep pushing that narrative, but they know it is not true!” Trump said Thursday on Twitter. In a 2017 interview with NBC Nightly News’s Lester Holt last year, Trump stated, “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”’
- On 6/2/18 the New York Times published a January 2018 confidential 20-page letter Trump’s attorneys reportedly sent to Mueller’s team. Among other things, the letter contends that Trump could not possibly be charged with obstruction of justice for firing former FBI Director James Comey, as the Constitution grants the president absolute authority over federal investigations. The Constitution allows the president, “if he wished, [to] terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon.” The Times has an annotated version of the letter, which also claims : By the time Trump intervened in the Michael Flynn investigation, the investigation was all but over therefore there could not have been obstruction, Trump has turned over so many documents to the Special Counsel that there is no need for an interview, the whole investigation is illegitimate as it is likely a byproduct of “corruption within the FBI and Department of Justice, the potentially incriminating things that Donald Trump said in his interview with Lester Holt may have been misunderstood, and the memos written by former FBI Director James Comey may not be reliable, because Comey may have misunderstood the President. Minutes before the story was published, President Trump issued a tweet claiming it was leaked by Mueller’s team.
- On 6/5/18 CNBC reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has asked witnesses in its probe to turn over their personal phones for examination of encrypted messaging apps. Sources told the news outlet that Mueller’s team has been interested in conversations that took place among Trump associates on WhatsApp, Confide, Signal and Dust, which allow users to communicate using encryption. At least some witnesses have reportedly already complied with the request. A spokesperson for the special counsel’s office declined to comment to CNBC.
- On 6/8/18 James Wolfe, the former head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, was indicted for allegedly lying to the FBI about his relationships with three reporters. Wolfe was arrested Thursday night in Maryland and is scheduled to appear in court on Friday. The DOJ alleges Wolfe lied to FBI agents in December 2017 about his repeated contacts with three reporters, including through his use of encrypted messaging applications. The DOJ also accuses Wolfe of making false statements to the FBI about providing two reporters with non-public information about committee matters. Wolfe was a longtime intelligence panel staffer and served as director of security for the committee, a position that gave him access to classified information. The New York Times confirmed that one its journalists, Ali Watkins, had as part of an investigation into leaks. According to the Times, the FBI asked Watkins about a previous three-year relationship with Wolfe, but she did not answer their questions. The prosecution comes amid a Trump administration crackdown on leaks of classified information.
- On 6/14/18 the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released it’s report on actions of the FBI during the 2016 election. The report found issues with FBI Director James Comey’s behavior, but no evidence that he had behaved criminally. President Trump responded the next day by saying that Comey had behaved criminally, and called the Justice Department’s IG report “wrong”. Key findings of the 500-page report included:
- Former FBI Director James Comey was “insubordinate” in handling the probe into Hillary Clinton, and made improper use of private e-mail, but nothing he did is illegal, and there is no evidence of anti-Trump political bias.
- Some FBI officials made anti-Trump statements during the campaign that were unprofessional in that they could affect the FBI’s reputation for impartiality. There is no evidence that any of these officials did anything illegal, or procedurally improper in their investigations themselves.
- The report opined that Comey was wrong to go public in the ways he did during the Clinton investigation, but did not opine on the negative effects his statements may have had on Clinton in the election. It did support the original FBI finding that Clinton should not be charged with any crime.
- On 6/15/18 the ever-irascible Rudy Giuliani told the New York Daily news that at the end of Mueller’s investigation, “things might get cleaned up with some presidential pardons.” Regarding the investigation, it was separately reported on 6/18/18 that Mueller’s team has told Trump’s lawyers that he could finish within roughly 90 days a report on whether Trump sought to obstruct a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign once the President is interviewed. The confidential obstruction report, which would be delivered to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is expected to contain the prosecutors’ conclusions about whether Trump engaged in any criminal wrongdoing by trying to derail the investigation into his campaign’s contact with Russians, while a further report on the overall investigation would take longer. Meanwhile, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale, tweeted on 6/19/18 that Trump should fire Attorney General Sessions and end the Mueller investigation, calling it “phony” and saying that the Inspector general report on Comey gave him justification for doing so. Meanwhile, on 7/6/18 Giuliani set new conditions for Mueller’s team holding an interview with the President: Mueller needs to prove before an interview that he has evidence that Mr. Trump committed a crime and that his testimony is essential to completing the investigation. On 7/23/18 Giuliani sent out a new stalking horse, saying that the President would agree to an interview in exchange for a guarantee that there would be no questions on obstruction of justice. Giuliani was at it again on 7/29/18 with a statement that the President’s tweets have so thoroughly laid out his defense against obstruction of justice charges that there is no need for Mueller to interview him, which seems a bit odd considering the 7/26/18 New York Times story Mueller was looking at Trump’s tweets as part of his examination of potential obstruction charges. On 7/30/18 the President went on another tweetstorm against Mueller and his investigation, more personally calling out the Special Counsel than in previous tweets. On 8/1/18, the President took the even more unusual step of saying that Sessions should immediately end Mueller’s investigation. Follow-up by White House spokespsersons maintained that this was an opinion (“should”) instead of an order, but it’s still an unprecedented statement from a President under active investigation. Then, rather quixotically, on 8/2/18 there was reporting that Trump still wants to be interviewed, and believes he can convince Mueller that the investigation is in fact a “witch hunt”. This line may not just be for public consumption- an 8/18/18 article in Politico lays out the history of times Trump has been able to talk his way out of trouble during one-on-one meetings with prosecutors. The Washington Post ran an 8/5/18 story based on interviews with 14 White House insiders that paints a portrait of the President privately brooding despite his public bluster, and reportedly most concerned that charges may be brought against Donald Trump Jr. On 8/8/18 Giuliani told NPR that a recently-submitted counter-offer by President Trump to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller may be the “last, best chance” Mueller has to secure Trump’s testimony. The former New York City mayor also said he has the sense that the negotiations between his team and Mueller’s are “kind of near the end” and that they could wind up before Sept. 1. Giuliani stressed that the wanted the questions limited so as not to create a “perjury trap”, and that he thinks sensitivity to doing anything too near the midterm elections makes September the most likely time to proceed. Many analysts don’t think that September date is realistic, and that Giuliani is putting out there as part of a strategy to create unachievable expectations to damage public perceptions of Mueller.
- On 6/18/18, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his office is looking at potential mishandling of confidential information by former FBI director James Comey in his leaking of memos and that the OIG will “issue a report when the matter is complete.” President Trump has accused Comey of wrongfully disclosing confidential information when he leaked the memos about his interactions with Trump, which fueled the Mueller investigation and accusations of obstruction of justice. Earlier reports indicated that some of the information in the memos was classified, and now Horowitz is confirming those suspicious.
- On 6/26/18 Bloomberg reported that in coming months special counsel Robert Mueller will focus on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. A person familiar with the investigation told Bloomberg that Mueller’s team is looking to wrap up the portion of the probe focused on collusion by the fall and hand down any possible collusion-related charges in that time frame. The special counsel’s office declined to comment to Bloomberg. The article went on to point out that at least 13 people tied to Trump have been revealed over the course of the probe to have been in contact with Russians, according to the outlet.
- In often-contentious testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on 6/28/18, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray defended the the integrity of people and propriety of procedures followed in the Russian investigation. They also rejected President Trump’s characterization of the probe as being run by “angry Democrats” by noting, “We’re not angry, and we’re not Democrats.” (Both men were originally appointed by George W. Bush, and are lifelong Republicans.) For their part, Conservative House of Representatives members filed articles of impeachment in an effort to oust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on 7/25/16. The articles were introduced by Freedom Caucus members Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, who accused Rosenstein of stonewalling their requests for information. Meadows withdrew it the next day, after a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was widely understood to have no interest in scheduling a vote on the matter.
- Bloomberg reported on 7/5/18 that Mueller is tapping additional Justice Department resources for help with new legal battles as his year-old investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 election continues to expand. As Mueller pursues his probe, he’s making more use of career prosecutors from the offices of U.S. attorneys and from Justice Department headquarters, as well as FBI agents — a sign that he may be laying the groundwork to hand off parts of his investigation eventually, several current and former U.S. officials said. Mueller and his team of 17 federal prosecutors are coping with a higher-than-expected volume of court challenges that has added complexity in recent months, but there’s no political appetite at this time to increase the size of his staff, the officials said.
- On 7/13/18 former FBI lawyer Lisa Page testified before the House Judiciary Committee, facing House Republicans keen to uncover any discrepancies between her testimony and Peter Strzok’s, the counterintelligence agent who testified in public for 10 hours the day before. Multiple Republican lawmakers described Page as cooperative and credible — in marked contrast to their vituperative characterizations of Strzok — and said she answered some questions that Strzok would not. Page also defended herself against charges of bias, according to GOP lawmakers in the room, providing context to the texts, as Strzok had, albeit more vociferouly, the day before. One Democratic congressional source said that, while Page appeared less assertive and confident in her answers than Strzok had been, she did not appear to have contradicted his testimony in any way.
- On 8/13/18, the FBI fired Peter Strzok, an agent who was removed from the Russia probe last year for sending text messages disparaging President Donald Trump. Aitan Goelman, Strzok’s attorney, said that the deputy director’s decision comes after the head of the office that normally handles disciplinary actions decided Strzok should instead face a demotion and 60-day suspension.
- On 8/13/18 President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that if the President sits down for questioning by special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump will say he never discussed easing up on a probe of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn with former FBI Director James Comey.
- On 8/16/18 President Trump made statements that drew a connection between his decision to revoke former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance with his involvement in the investigation into Russian election interference. The comments, published in an interview in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday night, are in contrast to the White House’s claim earlier in the day that the decision was not politically motivated but based on a view that Brennan, a harsh Trump critic, posed a security risk. “I call it the rigged witch hunt, (it) is a sham. And these people led it!” Trump said in the interview, a full transcript of which was not immediately published by the newspaper. “So I think it’s something that had to be done.”
- The New York Times ran a lengthy disclosure on 8/18/18 of how extensively White House Counsel Don McGahn had cooperated with the Mueller investigation. In at least three voluntary interviews with investigators that totaled 30 hours over the course of nine months, McGahn provided the investigators examining whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice a clear view of the president’s most intimate moments with his lawyer during the firing of F.B.I. director James Comey, clashes with Attorney general Jeff Sessions over his decision to recuse himself, and attempts to fire Special Counsel Mueller. McGahn’s cooperation began in part because McGahn and his lawyer, William A. Burck, could not understand why Trump was so willing to allow McGahn to speak freely to the special counsel and feared Trump was setting up McGahn to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction, according to people close to him. He and Mr. Burck devised their own strategy to do as much as possible to cooperate with Mr. Mueller to demonstrate that Mr. McGahn did nothing wrong. The disclosure prompted concern among Trump’s advisers and, reportedly, the President himself, that McGahn’s statements could help serve as a key component for a damning report on possible obstruction of justice charges. On 8/29/18 the President announced that McGahn would leave his job in the fall, and the actual departure occured 10/17/18.
- President Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani announced on 8/30/18 that Trump’s legal team is preparing a “voluminous” report aimed at discrediting special counsel Robert Mueller. Giuliani told the Daily Beast the team aims to have a “preliminary draft” of the report ready by early September. He also indicated that most of the information in the counterreport is publicly available information that can be found on Google. “The first half of it is 58 pages, and second half isn’t done yet … It needs an executive summary if it goes over a hundred,” Giuliani said. Giuliani also told the Daily Beast that Trump knows the report is part of the team’s legal strategy “and he’s happy with it.” Giuliani also opined on 9/3/18 that the President’s legal team may invoke executive privilege to stop Mueller’s final report on the Russia investigation from being released to the public. Giuliani told The New Yorker that it’s likely the Trump administration would object to the memo being made public information. On 9/6/18 Giuliani stated that President Trump would not answer federal investigators’ questions, in writing or in person, about whether he tried to block the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Giuliani also offered on 12/16/18 that President Trump would only sit for an interview with mueller’s team over “my dead body”.
- On 9/14/18 CNN reported on Congressional lawmakers receiving five months’ worth of recovered messages between former FBI special agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page. North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows released specific extracts, indicating in a letter to the Justice Department that they “suggest a coordinated effort on the part of the FBI and DOJ to release information in the public domain potentially harmful to President Donald Trump’s administration.”
That issue is part of an ongoing inquiry currently being reviewed by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, as witnesses continue to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office about how FBI officials conducted the Russia investigation. CNN’s review of the texts shows Strzok and Page were keenly aware of the news articles about the FBI’s investigation and its offshoots, regularly notifying each other when articles published. Some texts raise questions about their level of involvement in shaping stories about ongoing investigations and whether it was authorized, but frequent coordination and communication with the former head of the FBI’s press office, Michael Kortan, is a consistent theme throughout their interactions.
- On 9/17/18 President Trump ordered the declassification of a series of highly sensitive documents related to the Russia investigation. Under the order, classified parts of a surveillance application that allowed the FBI to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page will become public in addition to “all text messages relating to the Russia investigation” from former FBI Director James Comey and several other top federal officials. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the decision was made “at the request of a number of committees of Congress and for reasons of transparency.” The prompted concerns from several Trump allies about potentially releasing sensitive intelligence information, and the administration backed off of the plan a few days later.
- In what some observers consider to be a sign that his investigation is preparing to wind down (at least in certain areas) it was reported on 10/2/18 that Mueller’s staff is downsizing. Brandon Van Grack and Kyle Freeny — government lawyers with key roles in bringing the case against the former Trump campaign chairman over tax evasion, bank fraud and failure to register as a foreign agent for his lobbying work in Ukraine — are going back to their prior posts at the Justice Department, according to Mueller spokesman Peter Carr. Several stories came out in October stating that Mueller’s investigation was preparing to wrap up key elements after the midterms. ABC News also reported on 11/16/18 that an unusual number of sealed indictments have been added to the federal court docket in Washington, D.C. since the start of 2018. Fourteen were added to the docket since late August alone, just as the midterm elections were drawing near and longstanding Justice Department policy precluded prosecutors from taking any public action that could appear to be aimed at influencing political outcomes. There are thus strong signs that the indictments signal a major forthcoming push of activity from Mueller.
- On 10/3/18 Congressional Republicans emerged from a four-hour interview with former FBI general counsel James Baker saying it had “fundamentally changed” their understanding of the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, confirming and furthering their previous convictions that federal law enforcement agencies were biased in their scrutiny of President Trump’s campaign. Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), both leaders in the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called the closed-door meeting the “most informative” interview they have had in the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees’ nearly year-long probe into the FBI’s investigations of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The meeting was lightly attended, as it was held when Congress is not is session. House Democrats declined to comment.
- On 10/2/18 Federal law enforcement officials confirmed that they have referred a 2-year-old email hacking investigation to special counsel Robert Mueller, according to the Republican operative who was the target of the hack. Jacobus alleges the hacking of her personal email account was part of a broader campaign of harassment and intimidation that followed critical comments she made about Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries. Jacobus, a political PR specialist, served as a source for a 2015 Washington Post investigation that forced a pro-Trump super PAC to shut down. She later sued Trump for defamation. Jacobus told POLITICO that FBI agents in the bureau’s cyber division informed her in September that they had forwarded their investigation to Mueller because the matter came to exceed the bounds of computer intrusion, the crime that had been the initial focus of the investigation. It is not clear what led the FBI to conclude that Mueller has jurisdiction over the matter.
- On 10/15/18 former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements to the FBI about his communication with journalists. Wolfe earlier this year was indicted on three counts of making false statements to the federal agents when they questioned him about his contacts with journalists, according to a release from the Department of Justice. The move against Wolfe has been characterized as part of the Justice Department’s crackdown on Russia-investigation leakers.
- In a totally different kind of Mueller story, The Atlantic reported on 10/30/18 that a company that appears to be run by a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist offered to pay women to make false claims against Mueller in the days leading up to the midterm elections. The special counsel’s office has asked the FBI to weigh in. Mueller spokesman Peter Carr said, “When we learned last week of allegations that women were offered money to make false claims about the Special Counsel, we immediately referred the matter to the FBI for investigation.” Carr confirmed that the allegations were brought to the office’s attention by several journalists, who were contacted by a woman who identified herself as Lorraine Parsons. Another woman, Jennifer Taub, contacted Mueller’s office earlier this month with similar information. The woman identifying herself as Parsons told journalists in an email, a copy of which I obtained, that she had been offered roughly $20,000 by a man claiming to work for a firm called Surefire Intelligence—which had been hired by a GOP activist named Jack Burkman—“to make accusations of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment against Robert Mueller.”
- The Mueller investigation faced challenges of a different sort on 11/7/18 when Jeff Sessions resigned (in a setting that many took to be a de facto firing by Trump) and was replaced by newly-appointed acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker had previously served as Session’s Chief of Staff and is a former U.S. Attorney. More worringly, Whitaker has made multiple statements critical of Mueller’s investigation, and discussed ways it could be slowed down. Trump did nothing to dissuade the fear that he was brought in to do just that by immediately transferring oversight of the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who was overseeing it since Sessions recused himself) to Whitaker, and making his own public statements linking the appointment to concerns about Mueller‘s “illegal investigation”.
- Concern about President Trump using Whitaker to fire or muzzle Mueller led to both nationwide protests and Republican Senator Jeff Flake introducing a bill to protect the Special Counsel’s appointment. Other prominent Republicans like Lindsey Graham supported the move. Democrats in the newly elected House majority also discussed ways they could shore up Mueller’s position, both through holding hearings to make evidence available to him, and by having him testify on his findings if they were otherwise blocked from release. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, however, has refused to bring the bill to a vote, even in the face of Falke refusing to move forward any juducial nominee votes until it is voted on.
- On 11/21/18, President Trump delivered to Robert Mueller’s investigation written answers about pre-election dimensions of the Russia probe but did not answer questions about his behavior as president, including allegations of obstruction of justice. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Axios that it was possible that Mueller would subpoena Trump regarding his activities as president. But Giuliani said he has reason to suspect he won’t: “I think that he would not win a legal battle if he did that, and I think it would consume months.” There was little reporting available on the content of the ansers, but CNN did report that Trump said that he was not told about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between members of his campaign and a Russian lawyer, nor was he told about WikiLeaks duirng the campaign, and specifically Roger Stone did not speak with him about WikiLeaks, which published a trove of hacked emails from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign leading up to the 2016 election. CNN reported that Trump noted that his responses were to the best of his recollection, a common practice during legal proceedings.
- House Republicans had asked former FBI Director James Comey to appear for testimony before the year-end recess. Comey initially said he had no plans to appear and challenged their subponea in court, then relented but said he wouldn’t appear unless it was a public session. He ultimately agreed to appear in private hearings on the condition that a full transcript be released the enxt day so that house members couldn’t misrepresent his testimony. After completing the 12/7/18 testimony to the Judiciary and House Oversight Committees, Comey reported exasperation: “After a full day of questioning, two things are clear to me: One, we could have done this in (an) open setting. And two: When you read the transcript, you will see that we are talking again about Hillary Clinton’s emails, for heaven’s sakes. So I’m not sure we need to do this at all, but I’m trying to respect the institution and to answer questions in a respectful way.” The transcript does indeed show that questions about the Clinton ivnestigation, and possible bias in the FBI’s treatment of trump were major preoccupations of the committee members. In terms of the Russia investigation, Comey revealed that four individuals connected to Trump were under suspicion in 2016 because of their Russian contacts, reiterated that the investigation began due to concern over statements by Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos and not the Steele dossier, and said that while he respected Robert Mueller and they had a good working relationship, they were not friends in any social sense.
- President Trump responded to Comey’s testimony by immediately tweeting: “It is being reported that Leakin’ James Comey was told by Department of Justice attorneys not to answer the most important questions. “Total bias and corruption at the highest levels of previous Administration. Force him to answer the questions under oath!” Lawmakers in the room with Comey said the former FBI director declined to answer some questions on the advice of FBI counsel, a move left some Republicans frustrated. Comey told reporters after the interview that he did not believe that he shut down specific lines of questioning, but, “The FBI, for understandable reasons, doesn’t want me talking about the details of the investigation that is still ongoing, it began when I was FBI director. So it makes sense that they don’t want me to go into those details.”
- On 12/7/18 President Trump said that his lawyers are preparing a “major Counter Report” in response to expected findings from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Trump confirmed the plan in a spate of angry morning tweets in which he also took fresh aim at Mueller and his legal team, accusing them of conflicts of interest and overzealous prosecutions that have “wrongly destroyed people’s lives.” The president’s confirmation of the plan appears to have been spurred by reports that his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others were doing little to prepare to rebut Mueller, who is also looking at whether Trump has obstructed justice. Trump said 87 pages had already been written, adding, “obviously cannot complete until we the see the final Witch Hunt report.” Trump followed this up with a 12/11/18 statement that he was not worried about impeachment, and that “the people would revolt if that happened”. However, confidants indicate that he has privately expressed worry.
- On 12/7/18, amidst news of John Kelly’s departure as White House Chief of Staff at the end of the year, it was reported that Mueller’s team interviewed Kelly regarding potential obstruction of justice, according to CNN. Kelly responded to a narrow list of questions from Mueller over the summer, sources told the network. White House lawyers reportedly rejected Mueller’s request for a full interview.
- On 12/14/18 court officials of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit went to extreme measures to ensure it was as difficult as possible to figure out what Mueller’s team was doing as the court held a secret and mysterious argument about a grand jury subpoena challenge. An entire floor of the courthouse was closed to the public and press for more than an hour. During that time, attorneys secretly entered the courthouse to argue before three federal appellate judges over a grand jury subpoena. The proceedings included participation on Mueller’s team of someone specializing in brigning arguments to the Supreme Court, and an expert in terrorism charges. This adds to recent speculation that Mueller may be seeking to bring the President before a grand jury. (See item in the “unconfirmed” section below.)
<End “FBI Investigation/Special Counsel” Section>
Russian Campaign Interference
- Evidence first emerged in July 2016 that Russian hackers were the source of the massive dump of hacked e-mails from the DNC and several other Democratic campaign-related organizations released shortly before the Democratic Convention.
- It was reported on 3/29/17 that FBI Director James Comey sought to publish an op-ed in Summer 2016 summer about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, but was discouraged from doing so by the Obama White House. In a White House meeting in June or July, Comey reportedly brought with him a draft of the proposed op-ed and presented it to top administration officials, including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. White House officials at the time ultimately rejected the idea, deciding instead that any effort to make information about Russian election meddling public should be coordinated between multiple federal agencies, according to the report.
- On 4/6/17 it was reported by the New York Times that then CIA-director John Brennan was so concerned about increasing evidence of Russia’s election meddling that he began a series of urgent, individual briefings for eight top members of Congress in August 2016. At that time the CIA already had a high degree of confidence that Russian activity was explicitly aimed at benefiting Trump and defeating Clinton. THE FBI was less certain of this, thinking it was possible that the Russian aim was just to generally disrupt the election. By late 2016, the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies were all in agreement that it was highly likely that the Russian aim was specifically to help Trump.
- The U.S. intelligence community reiterated in December 2016 the October conclusion by 17 intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the hacking and leak of DNC e-mails embarrassing to the Clinton campaign. The December finding went beyond the October assessment, in identifying the hack as part of a more concerted Russian effort to influence the U.S. election, with the specific goal of electing Trump. Among the pieces of information bolstering this conclusion is the identity of the hackers who breached DNC servers and released private material from them, evidence that entities connected to the Russian government were bankrolling “troll farms” that spread fake news about Clinton, and high-level intelligence indicating that Putin was personally involved in deciding what information was leaked and how it was used.
- 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.
- On the investigation front, the Trump administration missed a (self-imposed) 4/20/17 deadline to release a report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Trump had announced via tweet in January, amidst the initial public revelation of the Steele memos, “My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days!” In fact, no work toward producing such a report seems to have occurred. Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a written statement it was “deeply distressing” that the president would “not only miss this deadline, but that the work has not even begun.”
- 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.
- In foreign news, on 4/24/17 ABC news reported that a Russian-associated group that was involved in the DNC/Clinton-campaign hack also targeted the recent French Presidential election. Feike Hacqueboard, a senior threat researcher with security firm Trend Micro, told ABC that he had identified four internet domain names connected to a group called “Pawn Storm” that were used to target the French campaign. In addition to the DNC/Clinton hacks, this group has been implicated in cyberattacks on the Turkish parliament, Angela Merkel’s party in Germany (the CDU), as well as cyberattacks on the parliaments of Montenegro and Germany.
- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has apparently not gotten his bosses memo on what not to say about Russia, as he issued a 5/14/17 statement that Russia’s role in interfering in the 2016 election is now well documented.
- It was revealed on 5/17/17 that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told colleagues, including Paul Ryan, in June 2016 that he thought Trump was on Putin’s payroll. When confronted with reports, McCarthy and Ryan first insisted that the conversation never happened and then, after it was revealed that there were tapes of it, said it was meant as a joke.
- Time Magazine issued a detailed cover story on 5/18/17 on the extent of Russia’s use of social media to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. As follow-up, the Federal Election Commission announced on 5/23/17 that it was going to specifically probe Russian-backed purchases of Facebook adds meant to boost Trump and harm Clinton.
- The hacker behind the release of DNC and Clinton campaign e-mails, Guccifer 2.0, also appears to have hacked Democratic party voter-targeting information and shared it with GOP political consultants. Florida political consultant Aaron Nevins confirmed on 5/25/17 he received such information during the campaign, though he says he did not make use of it. Intelligence authorities believe that Guciffer 2.0 is linked to Russian intelligence.
- The Intercept released classified NSA materials on 6/5/17 providing one of the most detailed descriptions of Russian election hacking efforts. The report reveals that efforts originating with Russian military intelligence resulted in cyberattacks on at least one U.S. voting software supplier, and spear-phishing attacks on more than 100 local election officials in the run-up to the November election.
- For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained in a 6/1/17 interview that the Russian state played no part in election-related hacking, but “patriotic hackers” may have acted on their own.
- Bloomberg reported on 6/13/17 that investigators have found evidence that Russian-backed cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states.
- Cybersecurity and Counterintelligence experts from the FBI and the Department of Homeand Security testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee on 6/21/17 that election systems in 21 states were targeted by Russian hackers. There is no indication that votes were changed, but voter registration records may have been deleted or altered.
- A Time Magazine cover story on 6/22/17 on Russian election interference revealed, among other things, that at least one successful attempt to alter voter information was made by Russian hackers, and that private data on tens of thousands of voters was stolen.
- A report by the Washington Post on 6/23/17 examined the ongoing struggle of the Obama administration to frame a proper response to Russian election interference. Among the revelations are that the administration had detailed information about Putin’s personal instructions for manipulating the election, and was perpetually concerned that taking too strong a stand against Russia would lead to accusations that they were interfering in the election in favor of Clinton.
- The Wall Street Journal reported on 6/29/17 that Russian hackers had discussed during the 2016 presidential campaign whether they could obtain emails pilfered from the Clinton campaign and get them to someone who could pass them on to then-Trump advisor and future National Security director Michael Flynn. The article referenced a Republican operative, Peter Smith, who was convinced emails missing from Clinton’s server were in the hands of Russian hackers, and who implied in conversations that he was working with Flynn. White House spokesmen denied any knowledge of Smith, or that he worked with Flynn. Smith died in May 2017 at age 81. A follow-on post on the Lawfare blog by one of the sources of the WSJ article, cybersecurity researcher and former information security specialist at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters Matt Tait, described how Smith listed top Trump advisers Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, and Sam Clovis as part of KLS Research, a group he had formed to conduct opposition research that involved asking hackers, Russian or not, whether they had Clinton’s missing emails. Conway and Bannon have since denied any knowledge of or connection to KLS Research.
- The Guardian reported on 7/5/17 that investigators are specifically looking into whether there was coordination between Russian sources and pro-Trump websites during the 2016 presidential election.
- On 7/6/17 the New York Times published a correction of earlier citations saying all 17 organizations in the U.S. intelligence community signed on to the 1/6/17 assessment that Russia orchestrated hacking attacks during last year’s presidential election. The correction clarified that the assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, and had not been individually approved by all 17 organizations.
- On 7/7/17 MSNBC host Rachel Maddow warned other media outlets that MSNBC was provided forged National Security Agency documents alleging collusion between a Trump campaign official and Russia’s efforts to influence last year’s presidential election.
- According to a story from McClatchy on 7/12/17, investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation (which was overseen by Jared Kushner) helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016. Specifically, investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton.
- In appearances at the annual Aspen Security Forum on 7/20/17, several Administration senior security officials broke with Trump in indicating they accept the consensus of everybody except Trump (and Putin) that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and White House Homeland and Counterterrorism adviser Thomas Bossert all said they backed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia carried out a campaign of cyberattacks and fake news to influence the election in favor of Trump.
- At one of the nation’s largest cybersecurity conferences in Las Vegas on 7/29/17 hackers demonstrated that they could hack all of 30 different voting machines of several models set up for display. Even without prior access to the machines in preparation, many were able to do so in minutes. While the extent to which Russia gained access to voting machines in 2016 is under investigation, it is known that multiple attempts were made.
- The New York Times reported on 8/16/17 that the Ukranian hacker who’s Malware is believed to have played a role in Russian election hacking is cooperating with authorities. There is no evidence that the hacker, as yet unnamed, but going by the online name Profexer, knowingly worked for Russia’s intelligence services, but they do seem to have made use of Malware he developed. Profexer is reported to be cooperating with Ukrainian authorities and F.B.I. investigators.
- An 8/26/17 piece by The Hill describes how Russian social media efforts since the election are increasingly aimed at amplifying alt-right and far-right narratives in the U.S.. Using similar tactics seen in the pro-Trump and anti-Clinton pushes during the 2016 election, a network of media influencers, social media bots and trolls is amplifying Alt Right and Far Right messages, and introducing Russian government talking points into these communities’ dialogue.
- A 9/1/17 article in the New York Times described the previously unknown extent of Russian-backed hacking of U.S. election systems in 2016. Specifically, one target of hacking seems to have been wiping out the voter registration records for tens of thousands of voters in key states, such as North Carolina. The article and subsequent reporting also highlighted that state and federal officials have taken limited steps to prevent a repeat attack, and the funds needed to replace voting equipment, protect databases, and train workers in cybersecurity have not been forthcoming.
- On 9/6/17 representatives of Facebook told Congressional investigators that the company has discovered it sold ads during the U.S. presidential campaign to a Russian company seeking to target voters. Facebook officials reported that they traced the ad sales, totaling $100,000, to a Russian “troll farm” with a history of pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda. Few of the ads directly addressed Clinton or Trump, according to Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, and instead “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”
- On 9/6/7 Facebook turned over data on Russian ad purchases to Mueller’s investigation. The adds involved 500 accounts (almost all of which are now suspended) who had spent roughly $100,000 on about 3,000 ads aimed at exacerbating political tensions during the 2016 campaign. The tech company gave Mueller’s team copies of the ads as well as the identities of the ads’ buyers.
- The New York Times traces the development of false online profiles in a 9/7/17 article. The article describes how social media profiles using false names and pictures borrowed from other users began to proliferate in June 2016. The first generation of these accounts pointed to the website DCLeaks, which was a clearinghouse for the relase of hacked e-mails from Democratic officials. There were eventually hundreds of thousands of these kinds of accounts on Facebook and Twitter, with strong signs of Russian origin.
- CNN produced an in-depth story on 9/12/17 on the “fake news machine” operating out of Macedonia. Macedonia is believed to be the source of much of the cyberactivity targeting the U.S. 2016 election.
- On 9/13/17 the New York Times ran an in-depth story on the role of Russian state-sponsored media in spreading fake news in support of Russian government aims. The article focuses on the development of international cable network Russia Today (RT), and the English-language website Sputnik, and their role in influencing such things as immigration debates in Germany, the Brexit vote, and the U.S. Presidential election.
- The Los Angeles Times reported on 9/3/17 that the FBI is exploring whether the two Russian organizations should be required to register as foreign agents, invoking a U.S. law originally passed before World War II to prevent the spread of Nazi propaganda. A U.S. intelligence community report on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential race concluded in January that Sputnik and RT, as Russia Today is known, were part of a multi-faceted Russian intelligence operation aimed at discrediting democracy and helping Trump win in November.
- After initial hesitation, Facebook agreed on 9/21/17 to turn over all information on thousands of Russian-bought ads purchased during and after the 2016 campaign to Congressional investigators. The roughly 3,000 ads had previously been shared with Robert Mueller’s team, but Facebook was reluctant to turn them over to Congress, citing privacy concerns. The reversal came amid public backlash, and increasing interest in Congress on examining social media’s role in the election, and possible need for further regulation. On 10/2/17, the company issued an extensive FAQ on the nature of the ads, why they were not flagged as being improper, and what motivated the decision to share them with Congress. On 10/4/17, executives from Facebook (and Twitter) confirmed that they will testify at November Senate Intelligence Committee hearings. Google has been asked to testify as well.
- On 9/22/17 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified 21 states that Russia attempted to hack their election systems before the 2016 election.In the majority of the states, the Department of Homeland Security only saw preparations for hacking, like scanning to find potential modes for attack. Voting machines are not connected to the internet and cannot be scanned in this way, but other systems, including those housing voter rolls, can be. DHS has not released a full list of what states were notified, but it is known that one of them was the swing-state of Wisconsin, which Clinton lost by 0.77%.
- The Daily Beast reported on 9/20/17 that suspected Russia propagandists used the Facebook group “Being Patriotic” to organize more than a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida during the election. The demonstrations appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook. The Aug. 20, 2016, events were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump!” and they were billed as a “patriotic state-wide flash mob,” unfolding simultaneously in 17 different cities and towns in the battleground state.
- On 10/4/17 CNN reported that a number of Russian-linked Facebook ads specifically targeted Michigan and Wisconsin, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the situation. Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages. While one source said that a large number of ads appeared in areas of the country that were not heavily contested in the elections, some clearly were geared at swaying opinion in the most heavily contested battlegrounds. Michigan saw the closest presidential contest in the country — Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by about 10,700 votes out of nearly 4.8 million ballots cast. Wisconsin was also one of the tightest states, and Trump won there by only about 22,700 votes. Both states were key to Trump’s victory in the Electoral College.
- Acoording to 10/6/17 CNN reports, a Russia-supported group sold merchandise through “Blacktivist”-branded Facebook and Twitter accounts, which “have been suspended and are among those handed over to Congress as part of its investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.” The Blacktivist Facebook page sold various T-shirts and sweatshirts with messages including “melanin and muscles,” “our sons matter,” and others that mirror slogans for the Black Lives Matter movement. Jonathon Morgan, founder and CEO of New Knowledge, a company that identifies online propaganda, told CNN that the page’s activity “fits a pattern of Russian propagandists’ attempts at appearing as authentic Americans participating in politics,” by selling merchandise and promoting events.
- On 10/9/17 Google confirmed that they have uncovered evidence that Russian operatives exploited the company’s platforms in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 election. The Silicon Valley giant has found that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads by Russian agents who aimed to spread disinformation across Google’s many products, including YouTube, advertising associated with Google search, Gmail, and the company’s DoubleClick ad network. Sources confirm that this campaign does not appear to have been run through the same Russia-based “troll farm” that was reposnible for Facebook campaigns, indicating that the Russian effort to spread disinformation online may have been even more sophisticated than Silicon Valley companies have unearthed so far.
- A 10/9/17 New York Times story sheds more light on the “cultural hacking” by Russian-backed sources of U.S. social media during the 2016 election. Russian sites and users seem to have combed the web for inflammatory content already posted online, and then further edited it for maximum outrage and released it on pages claiming to be U.S.-based.
- The AP released an anlaysis on 10/12/17 of the Facebook page “Being Patriotic”, one of several hundred pages active in the 2016 election now believed to have been Russia-backed. The analysis showed that some of the most common words and phrases on the page were “illegal,” ″country”, “American” and phrases like “illegal alien,” ″Sharia law” and “Welfare state.” “Being Patriotic” was among 470 pages and accounts that Facebook shut down in recent weeks in response to a congressional probe into Russian meddling in last year’s election.
- CNN reported on 10/12/17 that the mobile game app Pokémon Go was reportedly used by a Russian-linked campaign to meddle in U.S. politics. A Russian-linked campaign called “Don’t Shoot Us,” likely run by Moscow-linked “troll farm” Internet Research Agency (IRA), used Pokémon Go and posed as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Moscow-linked actors appear to be the source of the campaign that had a goal to raise racial tensions by bringing up incidents of police brutality.
- A column in Axios on 10/16/17 describes how Russia’s own history of exploiting ethnic tensions domestically and in neighboring republics set the stage for it targeting those same cleavages in the U.S..
- In further indications of the extent of Russian activity in 2016, BuzzFeed reported on 10/18/17 that Russian internet trolls ran a popular Twitter account that claimed to belong to the Tennessee Republican Party. The company took nearly a year to shut down the account, @TEN_GOP, despite repeated notifications from the state’s real Republican Party pointing out that the account was fake.
- McClatchy reported on 10/24/17 on the existence of multiple Russian-backed “troll farms”. A facility in St. Petersburg that employs several hundred people has been the primary one implicated with U.S. social media manipulation thus far. In addition to this facility, there may be dozens more, including facilities in Albania, Cyprus, and Macedonia.
- Twitter announced on 10/26/17 that it was removing all advertisement from Russian-backed US media companies Russia Today and Sputnik. “Early this year, the U.S. intelligence community named RT and Sputnik as implementing state-sponsored Russian efforts to interfere with and disrupt the 2016 Presidential election, which is not something we want on Twitter,” Twitter said in a blog post on the matter. “This decision is restricted to these two entities based our internal investigation of their behavior as well as their inclusion in the January 2017 DNI report. This decision does not apply to any other advertisers. RT and Sputnik may remain organic users on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.”
- On 10/31/17 a former FBI agent testified to the Senate that Russia was using fake news and automated bots on Twitter and Facebook to manipulate American opinion all through 2014. Clint Watts, a former special agent with the FBI, stated that Russian bots began to be active in 2014 and were initially attempting to steer American opinion on issues like Syria. But early in 2015 and on into 2016, he said, the bots began to get into American political issues, like stirring up a rumor that a planned U.S. military exercise in Texas, called Jade Helm, was actually a plot to take over the state. Watts called the 2014 activity “capabilities development.”
- Politico carried a 10/31/17 interview with former head of National Intelligence retired Air Force General James Clapper in which he reiterated his confidence in the intlligence assessment on Russian electoral interference, reflected on new revelations of the extent of Russian-backed social media manipulation in 2016 and opined, “The Russians have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.”
- In preparation for upcoming Congressional testimony, the major social media companies made new revelations on 10/30/17 on the extent of Russian activity during the 2016 election. Facebook identified 80,000 Russia-linked posts on its platform that sought to interfere in the 2016 election and were viewed by up to 126 million people, Twitter found 36,746 automated accounts with possible links to Russia that generated about 1.4 million election-related tweets that were viewed about 288 million times, and Google found two accounts associated with the Russia-linked Internet Research Agency that spent $4,700 on search and display ads during the 2016 election cycle and 18 YouTube channels likely also associated with the Russian entity that published videos in English with “content that appeared to be political.”
- The Wall Street Journal reported on 11/1/17 that Justice Department Prosecutors have identified at least six Russian government members who could be charged with hacking computers at the Democratic National Committee. This is the first indication that specific Russian officials involved with the hack have been identified. According to the story, agents and prosecutors could bring charges against those six officials as early as 2018.
- Representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter met with the House Intelligence Committee on 11/1/17. Highlights of their testimony include:
- The committee publicly released examples of dozens of Facebook adds purchased by Russian accounts that targeted issues ranging from Black Lives Matter to illegal immigration.
- The ads targeted both Republicans and Democrats and were paid for in rubles. As an example, one “Black Matters” ad targeted adults in Georgia, Maryland, Missouri and Virginia and received more than 200,000 impressions and more than 12,000 clicks. It cost 53,425 rubles ($915).
- Committee members expressed frustration that the CEOs of the companies did not attend the hearings.
- They also revealed limited understanding of some technical terms. One lawmaker asked Twitter’s general counsel to explain the difference between a bot and a troll. Several inquired about the definition of “impressions.”
- The companies stressed they are investing in trying to solve the election interference issue. Facebook is doubling the people working on safety and security issues to 20,000 by the end of 2018, for example.
- The same day, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr (R-NC) revealed that Russian actors had organized competing anti-Islam and pro-Islam protests in the same location at the same time on May 21, 2016, using separate Facebook pages operated from a troll farm in St. Petersburg. A Facebook page named Heart of Texas organized a rally at noon on May 21 at the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston to “Stop Islamization of Texas.” Another Russia-linked account, United Muslims of America, organized a counterprotest — a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally for the same place, date, and time.
- The Hill reported on 10/31/17 that thousands attended a post-election march in November organized by a Russian group that used social media to interfere in the 2016 election. The demonstration in New York City, organized by the Facebook page for BlackMattersUS, a Russian-linked group that sought to capitalize on racial tensions between black and white Americans, appears to be the largest and most successful known effort to date pulled off by Russian-linked groups.The event was shared with 61,000 users, and as many as five to ten thousand actually convened at Manhattan’s Union Square and then marched to Trump Tower.
- 11/2/17 reporting by the Associated Press portrayed the global reach of Russian hacking efforts. In addition to targeting related to the 2016 election, the hackers targeted the emails of Ukrainian officers, Russian opposition figures, U.S. defense contractors and thousands of others of interest to the Kremlin. The article describes targets in 116 countries in efforts that go back years, and involved over 4,700 Gmail users, from the pope’s representative in Kiev to the punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow. “It’s a master list of individuals whom Russia would like to spy on, embarrass, discredit or silence,” said Keir Giles, director of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Cambridge, England, one of five outside experts who reviewed the AP’s findings.
- On 11/8/17 Buzzfed published an in-depth article on cybersecurity consultant and former Marine Corps captain Robert Johnston, who verified for the DNC that Russia was behind the hack they experiened in May 2016. The story is based on interviews with Johnston and substantiated by 15 sources at the FBI, the DNC, and the Defense Department, and addresses previously unanswered questions about the nature of the hack, why the DNC turned to a private firm instead of the FBI, and how they found Johnston’s firm, CrowdStrike.
- Russian authorities warned on 11/10/17 of a coming crackdown on American media outlets that operate in Russia, including CNN. The move was explicitly intended as retaliation for an apparent American censure of RT, the state-run news organization formerly known as Russia Today, which American intelligence sources have accused of being used as a propaganda outlet.
- Buzzfeed reported on 11/14/17 that the FBI is looking into a group of wire transfers the Russian foreign ministry sent to embassies around the world with a memo line that said “to finance election campaign of 2016.” The FBI is scrutinizing more than 60 wire transfers totaling more than $380,000. The money, which moved through Citibank accounts, was received between Aug. 3 and Sept. 20, 2016, to Russian embassies in nearly 60 countries, including Afghanistan and Nigeria. BuzzFeed cited a specific payment of $30,000 which the Russian foreign ministry sent to its embassy in Washington, D.C.
- NBC released an analysis on 11/14/17 of how Russian trolls used Twitter to challenge the validity of the U.S. presidential election months before it took place. In apparent expectation of a Trump loss, the trolls began sowing seeds of doubt to make voters question a win by Hillary Clinton. But when Donald Trump’s victory began rolling in, they changed their tune and began tweeting about the Trump success. Kremlin propaganda tweets using the “VoterFraud” hashtag first appeared in August 2016 and slowly ramped up to an Election Day blitz, according to the NBC News analysis of some 36,000 archived tweets.
- The New York Times reported on 11/22/17 that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is so highly regarded by the Kremlin as an intelligence source that he has his own code name from the Russian government. The FBI reportedly warned the Republican lawmaker about this as early as 2012, but he has downplayed suggestions that he was a source to the Russians and said that he does not recall being briefed on the matter. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has investigated a meeting between Rohrabacher and President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, the congressman met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to discuss the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and Rohrabacher also met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya two months before she took part in a meeting with members of the Trump campaign at Trump Tower in 2016. The FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee are looking to interview Rohrabacher about the meeting.
- Facebook announced on 11/22/17 that it’s creating a portal that will allow its users to see what pages created by Russian actors they may have liked or followed. The company said that it would be rolling out the tool as part of its Help Center by the end of the year. It will allow users to see the ads and Facebook pages created by Kremlin-linked group the Internet Research Agency, that they’ve interacted with.
- The Associated Press reported on 11/25/17 that the FBI failed to notify scores of U.S. officials that Russian hackers were trying to break into their personal Gmail accounts. AP reported that nearly 80 interviews with Americans targeted by Fancy Bear, a Russian government-aligned cyberespionage group, turned up only two cases in which the FBI had provided a heads-up. Even senior policymakers discovered they were targets only when the AP told them, a situation some described as bizarre and dispiriting. FBI policy calls for notifying victims, whether individuals or groups, to help thwart both ongoing and future hacking attempts. The FBI declined to discuss its investigation into Fancy Bear’s spying campaign, but three people familiar with the matter — including a current and a former government official — said the FBI has known for more than a year the details of Fancy Bear’s attempts. A senior FBI official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the hacking operation because of its sensitivity, declined to comment on when it received the target list, but said that the bureau was overwhelmed by the sheer number of attempted hacks.
- On 11/30/17 FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that the FBI has a “foreign influence” task force to deal with election interference by outside actors. “I take any effort to interfere with out election system by Russia or any other nation state or non-nation state seriously, because it strikes right at the heart of who we are as a country,” Wray said, in a response to a question about Russia’s election meddling by Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY). Wray was appearing in front of the House Homeland Security Committee. He added that the FBI is coordinating with foreign partners as well.
- A 12/2/17 New York Times report revealed 12/29/16 e-mails from Trump transition adviser K. T. McFarland describing sanctions issued by the Obama Administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling as making it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him.” A White House lawyer said that she meant only that the Democrats were portraying it that way.
- On 12/18/18 Russian tech company Kaspersky Lab sued the Trump administration in U.S. federal court Monday over its decision to ban the company’s software products at all federal agencies due to national security concerns. The firm argues that the Department of Homeland Security deprived it of due process and unfairly damaged its reputation.
- A 12/15/17 story in the Dallas Morning News focused on political contributions made by U.S. citizens with close ties to Russia. To quote the lead from the article: “Buried in the campaign finance reports available to the public are some troubling connections between a group of wealthy donors with ties to Russia and their political contributions to President Donald Trump and a number of top Republican leaders. And thanks to changes in campaign finance laws, the political contributions are legal. We have allowed our campaign finance laws to become a strategic threat to our country.”
- The AP released further reporting on 12/22/17 on the hacking activities of the Russian hacking group “Fancy Bear”. There were at least 200 journalists, publishers and bloggers targeted by the group as early as mid-2014 and as recently as 2017. The AP identified journalists as the third-largest group on a hacking hit list obtained from cybersecurity firm Secureworks, after diplomatic personnel and U.S. Democrats. About 50 of the journalists worked at The New York Times. Another 50 were either foreign correspondents based in Moscow or Russian reporters like Lobkov who worked for independent news outlets. Others were prominent media figures in Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics or Washington. Previous AP reporting revealed Fancy Bear used phishing emails to try to compromise Russian opposition leaders, Ukrainian politicians and U.S. intelligence figures, along with Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and more than 130 other Democrats.
- The Washington Post published an in-depth story on 12/25/17 chronicling how Russian-backed trolls spread throughout the 2016 election while intelligence agencies failed to keep up. Per the story: “Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement, a fear of making matters worse or a misguided belief in the resilience of American society and its democratic institutions. ne previously unreported order — a sweeping presidential finding to combat global cyberthreats — prompted U.S. spy agencies to plan a half-dozen specific operations to counter the Russian threat. But one year after those instructions were given, the Trump White House remains divided over whether to act, intelligence officials said.”
- It was reported on 1/12/18 that the suspected Russian hackers accused of breaching the Democratic National Committee and meddling in France’s presidential election are now targeting the U.S. Senate, according to new research. Since June, the hacking group known as “Fancy Bear” has been setting up fake websites mimicking the Senate’s login server, hoping to trick Senate staffers into entering their credentials there, according to cybersecurity firm Trend Micro. The tactic, known as “phishing,” suggests that the Kremlin is laying the groundwork for a widespread compromise of Senate employees.
- Twitter announced on 1/18/18 that that the company is trying to “identify and inform individually the users who have been exposed to [Russian troll farm] accounts during the election.” Twitter released information on 1/20/18 making the extent of the activity more clear: They had identified 3,814 accounts that are likely under the control of the Kremlin-linked troll farm called the Internet Research Agency (IRA). These accounts produced a staggering 176,000 tweets in the 10 weeks preceding the election, which were then retweeted by another 50,258 automated accounts tied to the Russian government. At least 700,000 users interacted with the troll tweets.
- McClatchy reported on 1/18/18 that the FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency. FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA. The FBI is suspicious because the NRA spent $30 million to support Trump, triple what it spent to support Mitt Romney in 2012. Most of the money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose where the money came from.
- Reporting on 1/21/18 revealed that #SchumerShutdown, the hashtag that GOP leaders and the White House were using to accuse Democrats of causing the government shutdown, became the top trending hashtag being promoted by Russian bots and trolls on Twitter. These figures were provided by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project led by former top national security officials from both parties. In a similar vein, CNN reported on 1/25/18 that the Twitter hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo, aimed at pushing for the release of a controversial House Intelligence Committee memo alleging bias in the investigation of links between the Trump campaign and Russia, was partially driven by more than 1,000 accounts that were created in a four day period.
- Material from Twitter’s evidence submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee released on 1/26/18 revelaed that Russian-linked Twitter bots shared Donald Trump’s tweets almost half a million times during the final months of the 2016 election. The automated accounts retweeted the Republican candidate’s @realDonaldTrump posts almost 470,000 times, accounting for just more than 4 percent of the re-tweets he received from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, 2016. Hillary Clinton’s account got less than 50,000 retweets by the Russian-linked automated accounts during the same period of time. Twitter also found that Russian-linked accounts were responsible for 48 percent to 73 percent of the retweets of WikiLeaks’ Twitter accounts during the same time period.
- Dutch news sources reported on 1/25/18 that the Dutch intelligence service AIVD was a crucial source of information to American intelligence agencies about Russian election manipulation efforts in 2016. The AIVD had penetrated Russian hacking network “Cozy Bear” starting in 2014, and was one of the first to realize that this network was hacking and releasing material from the Democratic Party.
- In a 1/30/18 interview, CIA Director Mike Pompeo stood by the intelligence community’s assesment that Russia was responsible for campaign interference. Pompeo further indicated that he had every expectation that they would try again in 2018, but that he believed the U.S. would be ready. It was sperately reported that Pompeo had recently met in Washington D.C. with the heads of Russia’s internal and external security bureaus to discuss counter-terrorism measures. Such meetings are not uncommon, but it is rare for them to occur in the U.S., leading some to wonder whether this signals to Russia that the administration is not taking the 2016 election interference charges seriously.
- In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 2/13/18 the heads of six top U.S. intelligence agencies said that Russian interference in the United States has not diminished since the 2016 presidential race and is continuing in advance of this year’s midterms. During the hearing, the directors of the CIA, FBI, National Intelligence, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency were asked to reaffirm their view that Moscow’s election meddling has continued since the 2106 election, and they did so unanimously.
- Wired reported on 2/15/18 that, in the wake of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida troll and bot-tracking sites reported an immediate uptick in related tweets from political propaganda bots and Russia-linked Twitter accounts. Tracking from the Alliance for Securing Democracy and RoBhat Labs, show that shooting-related terms dominated Russian-linked Twitter site’s trending hashtags and topics, including Parkland, guncontrolnow, Florida, guncontrol, and Nikolas Cruz, the name of the alleged shooter. Popular trending topics among the bot networks include shooter, NRA, shooting, Nikolas, Florida, and teacher. Some of the Russian bots have even pushed pro-gun control views, which matches a now-familiar pattern of promoting both sides of controversial issues in U.S. politics to maximize discord.
- On 2/15/18 the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement that election officials from all 50 states will receive classified briefings on Russian threats to election system integrity. The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will join in the briefings. “This national-level classified dialogue with officials” from the National Association of Secretaries of State, the National Association of State Election Directors and the federal Election Assistance Commission, “is part of an ongoing effort to ensure the integrity and security of the nation’s election infrastructure, particularly as the risk environment evolves,” the intelligence office said.
- On 2/16/18 Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation issued an indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian corporations outlining details of a massive electoral interference operation. Some key details include:
- The individuals and companies were connected to the Internet Research Agency, previously known to be behind many of the Russian social media efforts in the 2016 election.
- The operation began in 2014, and shifted into a high level of activity in 2016, at its height employing several hundred people in St. Petersburg with a monthly budget of over $1 million.
- Its explicit purpose was to boost the candidacy of Donald Trump, while harming that of Hillary Clinton. To that end, it also boosted Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, attacked other Republican candidates, and sought to increase tensions between political groups.
- This involved extensive use of Facebook, Google, Instagram, Paypal, and Twitter, and up to 80 individuals making trips to the United States and organizing rallies and campaign events as well.
- Using false identities, these individuals posed as U.S. nationals and were in ongoing contact with up to one hundred state and local Trump campaign officials and party activists, using them to help arrange events, spread social media, and gaining information from them to sharpen their messaging and targeting.
- The U.S. individuals cooperating with this Russian effort believed they were in contact with U.S. nationals.
- Reaction to the indictments was varied. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said, “As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain, whereas in the past it was difficult to attribute for a couple of reasons.” President Trump engaged in a Friday-Sunday tweet–storm in which he claimed vindication in the campaign not knowingly engaging in collusion, noted the efforts started before he ran, called out McMaster for not noting that the indictments didn’t say the effort affected the election, blamed the FBI, blamed Obama, cited anti-Clinton conspiracy theories, and falsely denied he had ever claimed that the Russians weren’t involved. Facebook Vice President Rob Goldman issued a series of tweets touting Facebook’s cooperation with the investigation, but disputing that the aim of the Russian operation was to help Trump, as opposed to causing general division and chaos. Goldman later walked back his comments, saying it was his personal opinion and only applied to specific Facebook ads he had seen. Spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, said the indictments provided “no substantial evidence” of Russian meddling, and that there were “no indications that the Russian state could have been involved.” Analysts meanwhile noted that the indictment established a conspiracy but didn’t charge anyone with criminal conspiracy, didn’t address the DNC hacking or demonstrate Russian government involvement, and didn’t deal with previous indications of Trump campaign communications with Russians, suggesting that all these cases are still being developed. Meanwhile, several commentators noted that what was established was a detailed case of Russian interference, massive (though unwitting) participation by people in the U.S., and validation of the work of the FBI and the Justice Department, which makes it more difficult for the President to fire Mueller, deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or FBI director Christopher Wray.
- On 2/17/18 the Washington Post published an interview with one of the workers in the St. Petersburg “troll farm” whose activities are documented in the 2/16/18 indictment from Robert Mueller’s team. In the interview, 43-year-old Marat Mindiyarov describes his work with the internet Research Agency beginning in 2014, how he eventually transferred to the section responsible for election-related propaganda in the U.S., and details of his activities and how compensation and training at the firm worked.
- Gizmodo reported on 2/21/18 that Conservative Twitter users complained about a loss in followers after Twitter reportedly suspended thousands of accounts. The action is believed to have been part of the social media giant’s effort to get rid of suspected Russian bots.
- On 2/21/18 U.S. Democratic leaders called on Congress to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation $300 million to fight foreign efforts to interfere in congressional and state elections in November, amid growing concerns about potential Russian influence on the polls.
- On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Devin Nunes, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, sent a tweet on 2/21/18 in which he sarcastically called on Russian bots to help an article he had linked to go viral. “Catch up on mainstream media Russian conspiracy theories in this piece by @FDRLST PS-If you are a Russian Bot please make this go viral PSS-If you’re not a Russian Bot you will become one if you retweet.” The article in The Federalist ridiculed alleged conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation, particularly the contention by site Hamilton 68 that the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo was pushed by Russia-linked Russian bots. The article though casts doubt on Hamilton 68’s methodology, and points to the fact that the site does not disclose which specific accounts it is tracking.
- On 2/27/18 U.S. Cyber Command chief Adm. Michael Rogers, who also serves as director of the National Security Agency (NSA), told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee that he has not received specific direction from the Trump administration to disrupt Russian cyberattacks targeting U.S. elections. While Rogers said he has not asked for additional authorities to stop Russian cyberattacks at the source, he noted that it would ultimately be up to the President to give him that permission. Rogers did say he has directed the cyber mission force, which is part of U.S. Cyber Command, to “begin some specific work” on the issue, but would not go into further detail on the steps in the unclassified setting.
- On 2/27/18 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denied the accuracy of an NBC News report that alleged Russia breached voter sites or registration systems in seven U.S. states prior to the 2016 election. “NBC’s reporting tonight on the 2016 elections is not accurate and is actively undermining efforts of the Department of Homeland Security to work in close partnership with state and local governments to protect the nation’s election systems from foreign actors,” DHS acting press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said in a statement. His comments come after U.S. intelligence officials told NBC that an analysis requested by President Obama showed that Russian operatives penetrated websites or databases of Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin.
- NPR reported on 3/1/18 on Russian politician Alexander Torshin’s ties to the NRA.
Torshin has methodically cultivated ties with leaders of the National Rifle Association and documented efforts over six years to leverage those connections and gain deeper access into American politics, and even claimed that his ties to the NRA provided him access to Donald Trump, and the opportunity to serve as a foreign election observer in the United States during the 2012 election. Torshin is a prolific Twitter user, and has written numerous times about his connections with the NRA, of which he is a known paid lifetime member. NPR translated a selection of those posts that document Torshin’s relationship to the group. These revelations come amid earlier news that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin, the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, illegally funneled money to the NRA to assist the Trump campaign in 2016.
- In a 2/27/18 podcast interview with Politico, Michael Hayden, a retired general who led the NSA and the CIA under President George W. Bush, discussed his views on the “convergence” of interests between Trump and Russia and the Russian attack on the 2016 election. “There is an eerie and uncomfortable echo between some of the things the president tweets, the different points of emphasis on Fox News, the thematic stories in the alt-right media, and Russian bots,” Hayden told Politico. “I don’t have to create collusion here: Each for their own purposes are well-served by creating deeper divisions within American society. The president, to play to his base; Fox News, for ratings; the alt-right, because they have a conspiratorial view of everything; and the Russians, to mess with our heads.” Hayden further stated that, “The overall objective of the Russian effort was to mess with our heads and erode confidence, and they decided by midsummer that the very best way they could mess with our heads was to make more people vote for Donald Trump, period.”
- On 2/28/18 PBS reported the results of a study by computational social scientists at the University of Southern California documenting that Conservative Twitter users retweeted posts from Russian trolls more than 30x more than Liberal users in the run-up to the 2016 election. By using machine-learning algorithms, the researchers analyzed 43 million election-related tweets produced by 5.7 million Twitter accounts in the month before the 2016 election. From this large swath of data, the team revealed three key things: the Twitter users’ political ideologies, how many of these users were Russian trolls or bots, and the geographic location of the American users who interacted with the trolls. The team labeled the people who interacted and retweeted with Russian trolls the most as “spreaders.” They found 28,274 spreaders overall. Of those, 892 were liberal spreaders, and 27,382 were conservative spreaders. Most of the retweets of Russian trolls came from two southern states, Texas and Tennessee. Texans shared more than 26,000 Russian tweets and Tennesseans shared nearly 50,000.
- Former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough made statements to NBC on 3/4/18 confirming reports from last year that Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had significantly “watered down” a response to reports of foreign election interference in September 2016. “It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down,” McDonough said on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, referring to a Sept. 2016 letter from top congressional leaders warning states of “malefactors” seeking to use cyberattacks to disrupt the elections while not naming Russia specifically. McDonough said McConnell and McConnell alone insisted on watering it down, and that he didn’t know why. He also said the administration went to leaders in Congress to ask them for help in ensuring states had what they needed in terms of election security measures, but received little interest in acting.
- The New York Times reported on 3/4/18 that the State Department has yet to spend any of the $120 million allocated to it in order to address foreign efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. Because of the lack of spending, the Global Engagement Center, which is responsible for addressing Russia’s disinformation efforts, does not have a single Russian-speaking analyst. In the final days of the Obama administration, Congress told the Pentagon to give $60 million to the State Department so it could coordinate efforts to fight Russian and Chinese “anti-democratic propaganda,” the Times reported. (Now former) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took seven months to decide whether to spend the money but, because the fiscal year was just a few days from ending, the Pentagon said the State Department could no longer get it. The State Department had another $60 million available for the next fiscal year but, after deliberating for five months, finally said last Monday that it would take $40 million.
- On 3/5/18 Reddit stated that they had removed “a few hundred accounts” linked to Russian propaganda. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, writing under the username spez, said the site removed accounts that they “suspect are of Russian origin or content linking directly to known propaganda domains.” Huffman further wrote, “We have found and removed a few hundred accounts, and of course, every account we find expands our search a little more. The vast majority of suspicious accounts we have found in the past months were banned back in 2015–2016 through our enhanced efforts to prevent abuse of the site generally.” Huffman also said the site hasn’t seen many ads from Russia “either before or after the 2016 election” and that ads from Russia are currently banned from the site, but did concede that propaganda was shared indirectly using the platform. His statements came a few days after The Daily Beast reported that it had obtained leaked files from a prominent Russian “troll farm” about its efforts on Reddit.
- NPR ran a 3/15/18 profile on Russian Internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk, who spent two months working undercover at the Internet Research Agency’s troll factory in 2015, creating fake social media accounts and writing blog posts meant to sow divisions in the U.S. and turn Russians against Americans. “The factory worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was a day shift, a night shift, and even shifts over the holidays. The factory worked every single second,” Savchuk says. According to Savchuk, there were a few hundred people in the building at any given time, divided into groups. Those with the best English skills posed as Americans and created accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They’d use those troll accounts to stir up trouble on subjects such as U.S. elections or race relations. Each troll was given a list of topics to focus on by a supervisor. She says there were usually about 10 topics on the list. “It is laughable when Putin says that we do not know about trolls or trolls do not exist,” she says, “because when anyone looks through the Kremlin-controlled newspapers or state TV, they can see that the propaganda in that media is the exact same stuff that the trolls are posting.” Savchuk eventually leaked documents, videos and her story to the independent Russian news outlet Moy Rayon in 2015.
- McClatchy reported on 3/16/18 that Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for the National Rifle Association (NRA) reportedly raised concerns regarding potential ties the organization may have to Russia. According to McClatchy Mitchell expressed concerns over the possibility that the organization helped in an effort to funnel Russian money into the 2016 presidential election to help the campaign of President Trump. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have reportedly included Mitchell on a list of people they want to interview. Sources told McClatchy that Senate Democrats also want to find out information she may have regarding the NRA’s possible ties to Russia. Mitchell denied she had raised concerns about the NRA’s connections to Russia, telling McClatchy in an email it was a “complete fabrication.” It was subsequently announced that The Federal Election Commission has launched a preliminary investigation into whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the National Rifle Association that were intended to benefit the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election. The inquiry stems in part from a complaint from a liberal advocacy group, the American Democracy Legal Fund, which asked the FEC to look into media reports about links between the rifle association and Russian entities, including a banker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- Government agencies announced on 3/15/18 that Russian hackers are conducting a broad assault on the U.S. electric grid, water processing plants, air transportation facilities. According to the alert issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, “Since at least March 2016, Russian government cyber actors” have targeted “government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors,” including those of energy, nuclear, water and aviation. The announcement was the first official confirmation that Russian hackers have taken aim at such facilities. Bloomberg News had reported in July 2017 that Russian hackers had breached more than a dozen power plants in seven states, an aggressive campaign that has since expanded to dozens of states, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
- There was a flurry of activity involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook starting with the 3/17/18 announcement from Facebook that it was blocking the company from the site: “In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe.” The Guardian provided further information in a 3/17/18 article based on information provided by Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica who claimed the company illegally harvested information from up to 50 million Facebook users and used it to craft targeted political messaging. Following this, The New York times reported on 3/18/18 that Cambridge Analytica’s employees had been in contact with executives from Russian oil giant Lukoil in 2014 and 2015. There were reportedly three meetings with Lukoil executives in London and Turkey and Lukoil was interested in how data was used to target American voters. On 3/18/18 The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica had employed non-American citizens to work on US election campaigns in apparent violation of federal law, despite receiving a legal warning that this was forbidden by U.S. campaign law. On 3/19/18 Britain’s Channel Four News aired undercover footage of the head of Cambridge Analytica saying that his firm used bribes and sex workers to trap politicians in compromising situations. Channel Four also produced footage of Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix claiming they were in charge of the Trump campaign’s digital efforts, “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting. We ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy.” Stories also circulated on 3/19/18 that Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, was planning an eventual departure from the company after having been at odds with other company executives about how to deal with disclosures of Russian election activity on the site. On 4/4/18, the estimate of the number of Facebook users who potentially had their data shared with Cambridge Analytica was upped to 87 million.
- Following the above revelations, House Democrats called on officials from Cambridge Analytica to testify before Congress, and the UK’s Information Commissioner applied for a warrant to search the offices of London-based political consulting firm. Officials from both parties in the U.S. Senate, and officials in the U.K. made similar calls for testimony from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Congressional Democrats from three separate committees also indicated in a 3/19/18 story by Politico they want to hear more from Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale about potential data sharing between the campaign and Russian entities. While Republicans seem content with Parscale’s previous insistence he knows nothing about Russian election manipulation schemes, more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and staffers told POLITICO that no investigation into Moscow’s election interference can be complete without a full accounting from Pascale. The Federal Trade Commission announced on 3/20/18 that it was launching an investigation of Facebook‘s actions. ABC News also reported on 3/21/18 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team met with digital experts who worked to support the President’s campaign following the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Mueller had previously requested e-mails from employees at Cambridge Analytica who worked with the Trump campaign.
- The Daily Beast reported on 3/22/18 that U.S. investigators have discovered that “Guccifer 2.0,” the hacker who claimed credit for a breach of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 presidential race, revealed himself as a Russian intelligence operative. U.S. investigators identified the hacker as a Moscow-based Russian intelligence operative after the hacker failed to activate a virtual private networking (VPN) service meant to obscure the operative’s location before logging on. The result was the operative’s Moscow IP address showing links to the Russian Military Intelligence Service’s servers being caught in the logs of a U.S. social media company, allowing U.S. investigators to track the individual.
- On 3/21/18 the Conservative-leaning owner of television stations Sinclair Broadcasting group mandated that its outlets run a segment on the so-called deep state that was produced by a former reporter for the Russian propaganda outlet RT. The “must-run” piece featured Sebastian Gorka, the former adviser to President Donald Trump, lamenting the existence of a deep state—a popular conspiracy theory in some circles that longtime career public servants in the government are working to subvert the U.S. government. Trump has repeatedly complained about such a mysterious rogue network. Sinclair national correspondent Kristine Frazao produced the segment. Before joining Sinclair in 2013, she was an anchor/ correspondent at RT, formerly Russia Today, for more than three years. RT is an international television network funded by the Russian government, and, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, “the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet.”
- On 4/3/18, Facebook announced that it removed 70 Facebook accounts, 65 Instagram accounts, and 138 Facebook Pages that were controlled by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). Many of the Pages also ran ads, all of which have been removed. Facebook noted that the vast majority of content (95%) was in Russian and targeted either people living in Russia or Russian-speakers around the world including from neighboring countries. The Kremlin blasted Facebook’s move to remove the content as “hostile censorship”.
- On 4/10/18 and 4/11/18 Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress for public testimony. Questions chiefly delved into Facebook’s privacy policies and the business uses it makes of users’ personal information. Regarding Cambridge Analytica, Zuckerberg stated that the company should have banned them when it first learned of the misuse of personal data in 2015. “When we heard back from Cambridge Analytica that they had told us that they weren’t using the data and deleted it, we considered it a closed case. In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. We shouldn’t have taken their word for it. We’ve updated our policy to make sure we don’t make that mistake again.” He also stated that Facebook has been cooperating with Robert Mueller’s investigation, and that he regrets not doing more to combat Russian manipulation efforts in 2016, stating that the company is now focused on it, but that, “This is an ongoing arms race. As long as there are people sitting in Russia whose job is it to try to interfere in elections around the world, this is going to be an ongoing conflict.”
- It was reported on 4/11/18 that the National Rifle Association (NRA) disclosed in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that it received contributions from 23 individuals with links to Russia since 2015. The letter stated that the gun rights group received just over $2,500 from those individuals, and that most of the money was from “routine payments,” like membership fees. Some of the payments may have come from Americans living in Russia, the NRA noted. The number did contradict earlier statements from the NRA that they had received only one Russian contribution in 2012-2018.
- Reddit announced on 4/10/18 that it has found nearly 1,000 accounts suspected to be linked to a Russian troll farm. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman wrote that the platform had identified 944 accounts suspected to be created by the Russian Internet Research Agency, “few of which had a visible impact on the site.” Huffman wrote that of the accounts that had gained “karma,” or the site’s metric for activity, more than half had already been banned ahead of the site’s investigation into Russian accounts. He said that seven accounts with a significant amount of activity “made it past our defenses.”
- On 4/20/18 the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit against the Russian Federation, Wikileaks, and the Trump Presidential campaign for conspiring to damage the DNC and its candidate during the 2016 Presidential election. In the complaint filed in federal district court in Manhattan, the DNC claims that the “illegal conspiracy inflicted profound damage” on their organization, impacting their campaign work, scaring away donors, causing over a million dollars in damages and inspiring personal attacks against their employees. While it is an unusual move, there is precedent in the DNC having eventually won damages from a similar lawsuit stemming from the Watergate investigation.
- Axios reported on 4/22/18 that, in the face of likely further Russian hacking in the upcoming midterms, 14 states can’t guarantee the accuracy of their election results. Five states (Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Delaware) have no paper trails at all for their electronic voting systems, and another nine do not for many of their counties. Senator James Lankford (R-Okla) announced on 4/22/18 that the Senate expects to work out the final details of an election security bill “within weeks”. A bipartisan group of senators were working to revise the legislation designed to help guard digital voting infrastructure from cyberattacks after state election officials expressed some concerns with the current version. Department of Homeland Security official Jeanette Manfra said on 4/24/18 that Russian hackers likely targeted more than 21 states before the 2016 election, and that the department only had enough “visibility” to confirm activity targeting 21 states because of sensors in place in the state systems and information provided by the intelligence community. On the White House front, on 5/15/18 the Trump administration announced it was eliminating the National Security Council cyber adviser position.
- CNN reported on 4/27/18 that The National Rifle Association (NRA) is gathering documents in preparation for a possible investigation into its connections to Kremlin-tied banker, Alexander Torshin. Staffers have been told to gather documents related to Torshin or his associate, Maria Butina, who runs a pro-gun group in Russia. Both Congressional sources and the FBI are interested in investigation possible Russian-linked support for NRA efforts in the 2016 election.
- On 5/2/18 Cambridge Analytica announced it is shutting down. The British company said in a news release that it would be starting bankruptcy proceedings in the U.S. and U.K. Its parent company, SCL Group, is also shutting down. Cambridge Analytica had been losing clients since it was revealed in March that it had improperly obtained data on 87 million Facebook users, and is also under investigation in the UK and the US for recent reports indicating it may have broken campaign laws by employing foreign workers on US campaigns, talked with Russians interested in the U.S. election, and participated in unethical against candidates in races it was involved with. The New York Times reported on 5/16/18 that The FBI and the Department of justice have launched an investigation of the company. It is not immediately clear if this is part of Mueller’s probe, or a separate investigation.
- On 5/9/18 the Associated Press reported that one of the Russian hacking groups that meddled in the 2016 presidential election posed as ISIS hackers and threatened U.S. military wives. Five military wives received death threats supposedly from the ISIS-linked CyberCaliphate group in February 2015, leading to media coverage on the terror group’s online reach. New evidence suggests it was actually carried out by the same Russian hacker collective—known as Fancy Bear or APT28—that is believed to have exposed the emails of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta.
- On 5/8/18 the Senate Intelligence Committee released the unclassified version of its investigation into Russian cyberattacks on digital U.S. voting systems ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The report is the first installment of the committee’s overall report on Russian interference in the election, and finds that Moscow conducted an “unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign” against the nation’s voting infrastructure. It affirms the intelligence community’s assessment that hackers associated with the Russian government targeted state election infrastructure, and states that intelligence officials have “varying levels of confidence” that 21 states were targeted by Russia, including 18 that officials have definitive evidence showing targeting efforts. The lawmakers also found that other states witnessed “suspicious or malicious behavior” that the intelligence community could not trace back to Moscow. Most of the attempts amounted to hackers scanning a state’s secretary of state website or voter registration infrastructure for vulnerabilities, and did not amount to successful breaches. However, “In a small number of states, Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure,” the report states. “In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data; however, they did not appear to be in a position to manipulate individual votes or aggregate vote totals.” On 5/11/18 the Committee also reiterated previous finding of the intelligence community that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was to help the Trump campaign, and on 5/16/18 the Republican and Democratic chairs of the committee co-signed an initial report to the same effect. This specifically differs from the House Intelligence Committee’s conclusions that Russia sought to sow general discord, but did not specifically favor Trump.
- On 5/9/18 the Washington Post reported that a company at the center of questions involving President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen is listed as the organization behind a string of websites targeted toward white nationalists and other members of the alt-right. Columbus Nova, a company whose U.S. chief executive, Andrew Intrater, and Russian investment partner Viktor Vekselberg have both reportedly been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, is listed as the registrant behind a handful of domains for websites named after the alt-right that were created during the 2016 election. It is unclear if any of these websites were launched or ever hosted content.
- On 5/10/18, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee published more than 3,500 Facebook and Instagram ads linked to the Russian propaganda group Internet Research Agency. The ads ran on those platforms between Spring 2015 and Summer 2017. USA Today conducted an analysis of the ads and found that relatively few mentioned Clinton or Trump directly, while the majority seemed generally intended to exacerbate racial tensions. More than half explicitly mentioned race, and 25% involved crime or policing with racial connotations. The ads ranged for 44 a month in 2015, rising to 400 a month between September and November 2016, and collectively were served around 50 million times. The New York Times also launched an interactive feature where users can provide their demographic information to see which ads may have been served to them.
- On 5/14/18, Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian company accused by Special Counsel Robert Mueller of funding a propaganda operation to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, asked a federal judge for access to secret information reviewed by a grand jury before it indicted the firm. Lawyers for Concord Management said Mueller had wrongfully accused the company of a “make-believe crime,” in a political effort by the special counsel to “justify his own existence” by indicting “a Russian-any Russian.” They asked the judge for approval to review the instructions provided to the grand jury, saying they believed the case was deficient because Mueller lacked requisite evidence to show the company knowingly and “willfully” violated American laws. Concord is one of three entities and 13 Russian individuals charged earlier in 2018 by Mueller’s office, in an alleged criminal and espionage conspiracy to meddle in the U.S. Presidential election.
- On 5/16/18 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said they had obtained documents that suggest Russia used the National Rifle Association (NRA) to help fund and otherwise aid President Trump’s 2016 campaign. “The Committee has obtained a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign,” the document reads. The Democrats identified two figures of particular interest: Maria Butina, a Russian national living in the U.S., and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. The Democrats noted that Butina, who worked as an assistant to Torshin, has refused to cooperate as a witness.
- On 5/22/18 Trump administration officials warned Congress of ongoing efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2018 midterm congressional elections. At a briefing attended by about 40 or 50 members of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security Department and the director of National Intelligence said states and cities overseeing elections need to be prepared for threats. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters regarding Russia, “We see them continuing to conduct foreign influence campaigns,” but added there is no evidence of Russia targeting specific races.
- McClatchy reported on 6/1/18 that a new Russian influence operation has surfaced that mirrors some of the activity of efforts to sway the 2016 U.S. elections. A website called usareally.com appeared on the internet May 17 and called on Americans to rally in front of the White House June 14 to celebrate President Donald Trump’s birthday, which is also Flag Day. FireEye, a Milpitas, Calif., cybersecurity company, said Thursday that USA Really is a Russian-operated website that carries content designed to foment racial division, harden feelings over immigration, gun control and police brutality, and undermine social cohesion.
- On 6/11/18 McClatchy reported that several prominent Russians in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle or high in the Russian Orthodox Church have been identified as having contact with National Rifle Association officials during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The contacts emerged amid a deepening Justice Department investigation into whether Russian banker and lifetime NRA member Alexander Torshin illegally channeled money through the gun rights group to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. Other influential Russians who met with NRA representatives include Dmitry Rogozin, who served as a deputy prime minister overseeing Russia’s defense industry, and Sergei Rudov, head of one of Russia’s largest philanthropies, the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. The foundation was launched by an ultra-nationalist ally of Russian President Putin. The Russians talked and dined with NRA representatives, mainly in Moscow, as U.S. presidential candidates vied for the White House. It is a crime, potentially punishable with prison time, to donate or use foreign money in U.S. election campaigns.
- On 6/28/18 President Trump cited Russia’s denial of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in a tweet stating: “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!”
- On 7/3/18 the Senate Intelligence Committee released an unclassified summary of the results of its review of the intelligence community’s assessments on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The review unequivocally upheld the conclusion of the intelligence community that Russia developed a “clear preference” for then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election and sought to help him win the White House. This represented a direct repudiation of the committee’s counterpart in the House, which agreed that interference had occurred but cast doubt on the methodology that determined it had a pro-Trump aim, and of President Trump himself, who has consistently rejected assertions that Moscow sought to bolster his candidacy. “The Committee has spent the last 16 months reviewing the sources, tradecraft and analytic work underpinning the Intelligence Community Assessment and sees no reason to dispute the conclusions,” Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a statement.
- NPR reported on 7/12/18 that Russian operatives working out of the St. Petersberg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) used fake accounts disguised as local U.S. media outlets to exploit Americans’ trust in local news. NPR found that accounts linked to the IRA operated at least 48 social media accounts disguised as U.S.-based local media organizations, including @ElPasoTopNews, @MilwaukeeVoice, @CamdenCityNews and @Seattle_Post. None of the accounts reviewed by NPR, some of which had tens of thousands of followers, had been used so far to spread disinformation, according to the report. The link to the IRA suggests that the accounts were to be used in some future operation.
- On 7/13/18 the Justice Department announced indictments against 12 Russian nationals as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, accusing them of engaging in a “sustained effort” to hack Democrats’ emails and computer networks. All 12 defendants are members of the GRU, a Russian federation intelligence agency within the main intelligence directorate of the Russian military, who were acting in “their official capacities.” The indictment provides a great deal of detail on which individuals took what actions at what points as part of the hack and subsequent distribution of DNC and Clinton campaign e-mails. In addition to these technical details, the indictments reveal:
- Russian hackers apparently made their first attempt to breach Clinton’s private emails around the same time that then-candidate Trump publicly called on Russia to recover the missing emails from her private server.
- Russian intelligence officers allegedly registered the domain for the website used to publish material, DCLeaks, in April 2016, and launched the site “[o]n or about June 8, 2016”, one day before the Trump Tower meeting between members of the campaign and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
- A Republican U.S. congressional candidate contacted Russian operatives in 2016 (believing them to be hackers, not intelligence agents) and successfully obtained damaging stolen information on their opponent.
- The indictment mentions Russian downloading of DNC election analytic data.
- The indictments make clear references to the Russian agents contacting Wikileaks and Trump operative Roger Stone for help with distributing the stolen materials, but do not name them, which could indicate future pending indictments involving these parties are still in process.
- On 7/13/18 former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka urged the U.S. to impose targeted sanctions on Russian figures. “General sanctions aren’t really that efficacious, unless you’ve got decades, and we don’t have decades to wait. This is an anti-status quo actor, and it destabilizes the region and is a bad actor globally,” Gorka told Hill.TV’s Buck Sexton on “Rising.” “The most effective thing I want to see more of is the targeted sanctions. When you target individual members of the government or the oligarchy … That changes behavior. What it’s about is behavior modification, so putting more modification, so putting more pressure on individual bad actors that are powerful in Russia.” The administration in April inflicted sanctions on seven Russian oligarchs and their businesses. The sanctions were added under a law passed through Congress last year in response to the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
- On 7/13/18, Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence said that the persistent danger of Russian cyberattacks today was akin to the warnings the United States had of stepped-up terror threats ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Mr. Coats said as he cautioned of cyberthreats. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
That note of alarm sounded by Dan Coats, came on the same day that 12 Russian agents were indicted on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Mr. Coats said those indictments illustrated Moscow’s continuing strategy to undermine the United States’ democracy and erode its institutions.
- On the heels of Mueller’s indictment of Russian intelligence agents for hacking related to the 2016 election, and the fallout from President’s Trump’s publicly siding with Putin against his own agencies assessments in Helsinki, on 7/17/18 the Justice Department charged Russian national Maria Butina who, along with her mentor, Kremlin-linked banker Alexander Torshin, aimed to set up backchannel communications during the presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with conspiring against the US as a foreign agent. Butina was arrested and appeared in court in Washington, DC. Court filings reveal that she and her mentor, Kremlin-linked banker Alexander Torshin, spent three years trying to make inroads with US political organizations (particularly the NRA) and operatives to develop a more conciliatory approach to Russia among American politicians. In a follow-up 7/18/18 filing on a request by Butina to be released on bail, the Justice Department presented evidence that Butina, has been in regular contact with Russian intelligence, and even attempted to offer sex in exchange for a position with an organization she targeted (widely understood to be the NRA). Prosecutors included that information in court documents in order to make the case that the danger was “serious” that she would leave the country. Butina’s actions have actually been fairly widely covered in previous reporting, to the extent that House Intelligence Committee Democrats wanted to question her, but were shut down by the Republican majority apparently in what Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said on 7/19/18 was a desire to not “tarnish” the NRA. In a 7/21/18 call, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo that Butina was detained on “fabricated charges” and should be released. The Washington Post reported on 7/22/18 that Butina received financial support from Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian billionaire with ties to U.S. energy and technology firms. The Post reported that Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April 2018 that Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian billionaire, provided funding for a guns right group she represented. A spokesman for Nikolaev told the Post that the businessman was in contact with Butina but declined to confirm whether he offered money. On 7/26/18 Senate Democrats indicated their desire to get more information about a 2015 meeting in Moscow between top NRA donors and a number of Russian nationals who have since fallen under scrutiny from law enforcement. A group of former NRA presidents, board members and major donors traveled to Moscow that year on a trip seemingly sponsored by “Right to Bear Arms,” the Russian gun-rights group co-founded by Butina, where they reportedly met with Butina, Alexander Torshin, the Deputy Governor of the Russian Central Bank who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018, and Dmitry Rogozin, then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2014. It was also reported on 7/26/18 that Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.) once dined with Butina. ABC reported that Rohrabacher’s office confirmed he met with the then-28-year-old Russian at French eatery Bistro Bis in Washington, D.C., in February 2017. In addition, federal officials told ABC that Butina had arranged a meeting two years earlier in St. Petersburg that Rohrabacher attended. Rohrabacher also admits to this, but denies any wrongdoing or special significance to the trip outside of his Congressional duties. The Washington Post on 8/3/18 reported the first known link between Butina and a Trump campaign figure. According to documents and testimony provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee and described to The Post, Butina sought out interactions with J.D. Gordon, who served for six months as the Trump campaign’s director of national security before leaving in August 2016 and being offered a role in the transition effort. The two exchanged several emails in September and October 2016, culminating in invitations from Gordon to social occassions in late October. Gordon previously has been identified as one of the figures involved in changing the party plank on arming the Ukraine at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and has given contradictory statements on his actions there.
- On 7/16/18 Axios ran a piece on why the popular Right-Wing talking point on the right about the DNC refusing to hand over the server that experienced the hack to the FBI is misinformed. Axios describes how, rather than turn its server over to the FBI, the DNC hired a private security firm, Crowdstrike, to investigate the hacking.
It is increasingly common for those private firm investigators to handle the low-level forensic work in place of the FBI. Leo Taddeo, former special agent in charge of the cyber division of the FBI’s New York office, told The Hill: “In nine out of 10 cases, we don’t need access, we don’t ask for access, we don’t get access…We usually ask for the logs and images, and 99 out of a hundred times, that’s sufficient.” This approach saves time and money, prevents an organization from losing critical IT infrastructure, and immunizes the FBI against liability if it should damage the server or the data it contains. It is also clear form the 7/13/18 indictment that the FBI had sufficient sources of evidence from it’s investigation to identify what the hackers did in great detail even without the server.
- The Guardian reported on 7/14/18 that ByteGrid, a company that provides key services for Maryland elections, has been bought by a parent company with links to a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. Maryland Senate president Thomas V Mike Miller and House speaker Michael Busch made the announcement, based on news the received from an FBI briefing, at a news conference in the Maryland State House in Annapolis, a gathering that included staff members of Governor Larry Hogan.Miller said the announcement of the 7/13/18 indictments by special counsel Robert Mueller convinced Maryland officials to disclose their own FBI briefing. “The FBI conveyed to us that there is no criminal activity that they’ve seen. They believe that the system that we have has not been breached.” The vendor used by Maryland, ByteGrid, was purchased by a Russian investor in 2015 without knowledge of Maryland state officials, officials said. In a statement released late on Friday the company said: “ByteGrid’s investors have no involvement or control in company operations.” ByteGrid encouraged people to read the company’s Maryland elections contract, which is a public record.
- Microsoft disclosed on 7/19/18 that it identified and helped thwart hacking attempts on three congressional candidates earlier this year, marking the first publicly known hacking efforts targeting candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. The company did not disclose whether the attempts were of Russian origin. The first specifically identified case was reported on 7/26/18, when the Daily Beast used a combination of court records and internet sleuthing to identify that malicious emails to an aide of Senator Claire McCaskill, who is a very competitive reelection race, were sent from a server that likely belongs to Fancy Bear, the same Russian intelligence group responsible for numerous 2016 hacks. There also rising concerns about activity that suggests that Russian hackers are targeting the U.S. power grid. Facebook joined the party on 7/31/18 when the company said it had removed 32 pages and accounts across Facebook and Instagram involved in “inauthentic behavior”. The majority of activity seemed to be aimed at exacerbating tensions around the upcoming first anniversary “Unite the Right” protest in Washington D.C.
“We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this,” Facebook said in a post, “But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week. We will update this post with more details when we have them, or if the facts we have change.” In further confirmation, on 8/2/18 Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats stated that the intelligence community sees Russia has tried “to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike.” Speaking at a White House Press briefing alongside FBI Director Chris Wray, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and NSA and Cyber Command Director General Paul Nakasone, Director Coats explained, “We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.”
- On 7/25/18 the Senate Intelligence Committee announced plans to host executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google for a hearing later this year on election interference. A spokesperson for Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, confirmed that the hearing would likely be in September and that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai had been invited. A second source said that Dorsey and Sandberg have agreed to attend.
- FiveThirtyEight ran a 7/30/18 story on Russian targeting of private election data systems, and what states are doing to respond to it. The story highlights the difficult of crafting a response given the patchwork of state and local election systems, and different levels of coordination with the federal government.
- On 7/31/18 FiveThirtyEight published a preliminary analysis of nearly 3 million tweets from accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency. The tweets themselves were uploaded to GitHub. The data set is the work of two professors at Clemson University: Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren. Using advanced social media tracking software, they pulled the tweets from thousands of accounts that Twitter has acknowledged as being associated with the IRA. The professors shared their data with FiveThirtyEight in the hope that other researchers, and the broader public, will explore it and share what they find. The data set includes 2,973,371 tweets from 2,848 Twitter handles. It includes every tweet’s author, text and date; the author’s follower count and the number of accounts the author followed; and an indication of whether the tweet was a retweet. The entire corpus of tweets dates from February 2012 to May 2018, with the vast majority from 2015 to 2017. The analysis found that the trolls came in several varieties. Right Trolls behave like “bread-and-butter MAGA Americans, only all they do is talk about politics all day long,” Linvill said. Left Trolls often adopt the personae of Black Lives Matter activists, typically expressing support for Bernie Sanders and derision for Hillary Clinton, along with “clearly trying to divide the Democratic Party and lower voter turnout.” News Feeds are a bit of a mystery: They present themselves as local news aggregators, with names such as @OnlineMemphis and @TodayPittsburgh, and the news they link to is typically legitimate. Hashtag Gamers specialize in playing hashtag games (e.g., #LessInterestingBooks might give rise to the tweet “Waldo’s Right Here”); many of their tweets are harmless wordplay in the spirit of the games, but some are socially divisive, in the style of Right Trolls or Left Trolls. And Fearmongers, relatively rare in the data set, spread news about a fake crisis, such as salmonella-contaminated turkeys around Thanksgiving, or the toxic chemical fumes described at the beginning of the New York Times Magazine article about the Internet Research Agency.
- In a further indication of the potential vulnerabilities of U.S. election systems, on 7/31/18 hackers at an annual security conference in Las Vegas demonstrated their ability to to crack election-style voting machines. In one case, Carsten Schürmann, an associate professor with IT-University of Copenhagen, successfully cracked into an Advanced Voting Solutions’ 2000 WinVote machine through its Wi-Fi system without any physical access to the machine or a landline connection.
- On 8/6/18, the U.S. judge overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal case against Russians accused of interfering in the 2016 election agreed to appoint an independent lawyer to review pretrial evidence for possible national security issues before giving it to a Kremlin-linked defendant. U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich approved a request to appoint a so-called firewall counsel to review any evidence provided to by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s firm, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, was one of the parties indicted for election interference in the 2/16/18 indictment involving the Internet Research Agency. Mueller’s team had argued that if Prigozhin gains access to “sensitive” evidence, he could use it to thwart U.S. efforts to “prevent his continuing criminal activity in Russia and elsewhere” outside the U.S..
- On 6/12/18, a court filing in the Manafort case from Robert Mueller’s office stated that Russian intelligence agencies are trying to meddle in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. The claim of active election-focused intelligence operations came as prosecutors moved to block more than a dozen Russians who are charged criminally in the prior effort from gaining access to evidence gathered as that case was assembled. “Public or unauthorized disclosure of this case’s discovery would result in the release of information that would assist foreign intelligence services, particularly those of the Russian Federation, and other foreign actors in future operations against the United States. The substance of the government’s evidence identifies uncharged individuals and entities that the government believes are continuing to engage in interference operations like those charged in the present indictment.”
- On 7/31/18 Buzzfeed reported on bank transactions totaling nearly $300,000, by Paul Erickson, a conservative consultant from South Dakota, and Maria Butina, who is in jail awaiting trial on charges of secretly acting as a Russian agent. Banks had flagged the charges as “suspicious,” noting in some cases that they could find no “apparent economic, business, or lawful purpose” to explain them. Per the article, “Now FBI counterintelligence officers say the duo’s banking activity could provide a road map of back channels to powerful American entities such as the National Rifle Association, and information about the Kremlin’s attempt to sway the 2016 US presidential election.” Politico separately reported on 9/17/18 that the Russian government has conducted six consular visits to Butina and passed four diplomatic notes to the U.S. Department of State about her case. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken twice to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to complain about Butina’s incarceration and prosecution. In the days following Butina’s arrest, the official Kremlin Twitter account changed its avatar to a picture of her and launched #FreeMariaButina, and government-funded news outlet RT has written a number of articles about her, decrying her prosecution and detention. If they were worried she might be feeling pressure to flip, that concern appears to have been well-founded, given an 11/16/18 filing indicating that Butina’s lawyers have entered into negotiations with federal prosecutors. In the filing, the two sides requested to postpone the next hearing in the case because they are currently “in negotiations regarding a potential resolution of this matter.” This was followed on 12/10/18 by an announcement that Butina would change her plea to “guilty”. This is likely, but not certain, to be followed up by cooperation with the Federal investigation. Butina pled guilty on 12/14/18 to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the U.S., a felony that carries a five-year prison term, but with an estimated sentencing guideline range from zero to six months in prison. As a noncitizen, Butina would face deportation after serving any prison sentence.
On 8/9/18, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said Russians have “penetrated” some of his state’s voter registration systems ahead of the 2018 midterms. “They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about,” he told the Tampa Bay Times before a campaign event in Tampa.He added, “We were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the intelligence committee to let the supervisors of election in Florida know that the Russians are in their records.” Meanwhile, an 11-year-old boy was able to hack into a replica of the Florida state election website and change voting results found there in under 10 minutes during the world’s largest yearly hacking convention, DEFCON 26.
- On 8/15/18 reporting emerged that FBI agents were investigating a series of cyberattacks over the past year that targeted a Democratic opponent of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Rohrabacher is widely seen as the most pro-Russia and pro-Putin member of Congress and is a staunch supporter of President Trump.
On 8/21/18 Facebook announced it had discovered several new state-sponsored disinformation campaigns stemming from Iran and Russia. The company says in a blog post that it has removed 652 fake accounts, groups and pages associated with the campaign, which it says was coordinated from Iran. It has also flagged another new campaign based in Russia that has targeted politics in Syria and Ukraine.
- On 8/22/18 Microsoft announced that parts of an operation linked to Russian military intelligence targeting the US Senate and conservative think tanks that advocated for tougher policies against Russia were thwarted. In its announcement, Microsoft said it executed a court order giving it control of six websites created by a group known as Fancy Bear (the same group that was behind the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee directed by the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit). The websites could have been used to launch cyberattacks on candidates and other political groups ahead of November’s elections, the company said. Microsoft also said it has no evidence that the domains were used in successful attacks, but that it was working with the potential target organizations.
- On 8/23/18, Reality Winner, a former government contractor accused of leaking confidential information to the media, was sentenced to more than five years in prison. Winner, 26, was accused of taking a report about a 2016 Russian military intelligence cyberattack from the NSA facility where she worked and sending it to an online news outlet. She initially faced 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 63 months in prison with three years of supervised release.
- On 8/24/18 it was reported that CIA sources in Russia have gone quiet ahead of November’s midterm elections, leaving intelligence agencies largely in the dark about Moscow’s plans to interfere. The New York Times reports that a number of CIA informants in Russia had grown silent as of late, likely as a result of aggressive counterintelligence efforts by the Kremlin.
- On 9/8/18 CNN reported on a study it worked on with with researchers at Clemson University that had archived millions of tweets sent by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll group indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February 2018. The data showed a particular interest the trolls took in weighing in on the debate about NFL players protesting police brutality. While they used some accounts to push petitions to fire the protesting players, they used others to hail them as heroes, making every effort to inflame arguments about race, patriotism, and national identity.
- On 9/12/18 President Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order for new sanctions for people and companies found to be interfering in U.S. elections. Under the order, the intelligence community will have 45 days after each election to assess whether any foreign meddling occurred. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence will then send its assessment to the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, which will have 45 more days to determine whether the sanctions described in Trump’s order should be imposed. The Treasury and State Departments can also impose penalties beyond those sanctions.
- On 10/1/18 the New Yorker published an article based on the forthcoming book: “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know,” by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, that examines whether Russian meddling had a decisive impact in 2016. Jamieson offers a forensic analysis of the available evidence and concludes that Russia very likely delivered Trump’s victory.
- On 10/4/18 the Trump administration indicted seven Russian intelligence officers on federal charges for allegedly conducting malicious cyber operations against the United States and its allies. Officials with the Justice Department’s national security division and the FBI announced the charges shortly after officials in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands revealed a secret joint intelligence mission that thwarted a Russian intelligence operation targeting a global chemical weapons watchdog at The Hague. U.S. officials allege that some of the Russians caught in the operation at The Hague participated in a global hacking campaign against individuals and organizations in the U.S., Canada and Europe. These include attacks on Olympic organizations, including the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, as well as attacks on a U.S. nuclear power company in Pennsylvania.
- The New York Times reported on 10/8/18 that former Trump Deputy Campaign chair Rick Gates, requested proposals from Israeli company Psy_Group to create fake online profiles and gather intelligence against Republican opponents and Hillary Clinton in 2016. According to the story, Psy-Group, a company staffed primarily by former Israeli intelligence officers, proposed using fake online profiles to attack Senator Ted Cruz and influence 5,000 delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention. Another proposal offered opposition research about Hillary Clinton and people close to her. A third proposal describes a long-term plan to use social media to expose divides in rival campaigns. Mueller’s team has obtained these proposals and have questioned Psy-Group employees. While there is no apparent direct connection with Russian interference efforts, it does show a Trump campaign official with Russian ties soliciting election interference plans very similar to those actually enacted by Russian Intelligence.
- On 10/11/18, The Atlantic reported defense in a lawsuit by the DNC against the Trump campaign filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed in July in the Eastern District of Virginia by two donors and one former employee of the Democratic National Committee, alleges that the Trump campaign, along with former Trump adviser Roger Stone, worked with Russia and WikiLeaks to publish hacked DNC emails, thereby violating their privacy. (Stone is referenced throughout the lawsuit but is not a named defendant.) The Trump campaign, represented by Jeffrey Baltruzak, Michael A. Carvin, Nikki L. McArthur, and Vivek Suri, all of the law firm Jones Day, responded that the campaign can’t be held legally responsible for WikiLeaks’s publication of the DNC emails. Furthermore, the Trump lawyers argued, the First Amendment protects the campaign’s “right to disclose information—even stolen information—so long as (1) the speaker did not participate in the theft and (2) the information deals with matters of public concern.”
- On 10/19/18 the Department of Justice unsealed charges against Russian national Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova with participating in a conspiracy to influence the 2018 midterm elections. The September complaint, which was unsealed as U.S. intelligence officials issued a warning on foreign influence campaigns, charges Khusyaynova with overseeing financing for “Project Lakhta,” an umbrella Russian effort engaged in political interference operations which included the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin troll farm. Khusyaynova, 44, is the first individual to be charged in relation to the midterm elections.
- On 12/1/18 Defense Secretary James Mattis said that Russian operatives attempted to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, apparently confirming this publicly for the first time. Mattis spoke of the relationship between the Trump administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin during an interview at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. “There is no doubt the relationship has worsened. He tried again to muck around in our elections this last month. We are seeing a continued effort around those lines.” It was further reported on 12/4/18 that the House GOP campaign arm suffered a major hack during the 2018 midterm campaigns, exposing thousands of sensitive emails. The email accounts of four senior aides at the National Republican Congressional Committee were surveilled for several months, the party officials said. The intrusion was detected in April by an NRCC vendor, who alerted the committee and its cybersecurity contractor. An internal investigation was initiated, and the FBI was alerted to the attack, but senior House Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana were not informed of the hack until Politico contacted the NRCC on 12/3/18 with questions about the episode.
- On 12/10/18 several defendants, including the Trump campaign, WikiLeaks and a member of President Donald Trump’s family, filed arguments against the lawsuit filed by the Democratic National Committee, arguing a federal judge should dismiss accusations of an international conspiracy ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The filings total more than 150 pages. Among them, the 2016 Trump campaign argued that the suit should be dismissed because, while the Russian hacking may have been against the law, it was allegedly done by the Russians before the suit’s identified contacts with the Trump campaign, which the DNC suggests concerned the stolen material, a timeline that they said immediately challenged the basis and scope of the conspiracy as alleged in the lawsuit. “The DNC thus alleges — unburdened by any actual facts — that President Trump’s campaign… conspired with Russia and a hodgepodge of others to publish materials stolen from the DNC’s computer systems. But the DNC does not claim the Campaign had any role in hacking its systems and stealing the materials — it attributes that only to Russia. Nor does the DNC claim the Campaign played any part in publishing the stolen materials — it attributes that only to Russia and WikiLeaks.”
- The Washington Post published a 12/17/18 article based on a draft version of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s examination of Russian electoral interference in 2016. While the report and a companion piece doesn’t highlight a great deal of previously unknown information, it does make clear in great detail the scale of the operation, and its careful targeting. Conservative voters were fed false information chiefly on guns and immigration to motivate them to vote, and left-leaning groups were fed information designed to distract them and discourage them from voting, as well as promotion of third-party candidates like Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Operations involved Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, You Tube, and many other companies, and on Facebook the 20 biggest Russian-operated pages alone had 39 million likes, 31 million shares, 5 million reactions, and 3 million comments. Post-election, the same group has concentrated on online activites to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation.
<End “Russian Campaign Interference” Section>
Trump-Russia Ties (pre-inauguration)
- Despite his July 2016 campaign trail denials that he had any contact with Putin, several year’s worth of statements by Trump, including a 2013 video of him describing his strong personal relationship with Putin, have emerged. CNN put together a timeline of over 80 Trump statements praising Putin or boasting about his relationship with him going back to 2013.
- It is also known that, while Trump’s claim that he has “zero investments in Russia” is technically true, Russian financiers are heavily involved in backing many of Trump’s investments in other countries. Many of these financiers are closely tied to Putin and the circle of oligarchs that form his base of support.
- Along these same lines, Reuters reported on 3/17/17 that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida. The buyers include politically connected businessmen, such as a former executive in a Moscow-based state-run construction firm that works on military and intelligence facilities, the founder of a St. Petersburg investment bank and the co-founder of a conglomerate with interests in banking, property and electronics as well as individuals from the second and third tiers of Russian power.
- As part of his dealings with Russian financial interests, USA Today reported on 3/28/17 that the President and his companies have been linked to at least 10 wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations or money laundering. This is according to a review of court cases, government and legal documents and an interview with a former federal prosecutor.
- The New York Times reported on 3/1/7 that American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence. Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Mr. Trump’s associates.
- A March 7th story revealed that Trump himself met Ambassador Kislyak at a VIP reception in Washington D.C. in April 2016. There is no indication that it was more than an inconsequential meet and greet, but it contradicts previous statements Trump has made about never having had any such meeting.
- The Washington Post reported on 4/3/17 that the United Arab Emirates arranged a meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials. The meeting took place around Jan. 11 in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions. Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign, he was an avid supporter who contributed $250,000 to Trump’s campaign, the national party and a pro-Trump super PAC led by GOP mega-donor (and Steve Bannon backer) Rebekah Mercer. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos serves as education secretary in the Trump administration. U.S. officials said the FBI has been scrutinizing the Seychelles meeting as part of its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
- The Guardian further reported on 4/13/17 that Britain’s spy agencies played a crucial role in alerting their counterparts in Washington to contacts between members of Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives. They first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said. This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information. Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians.
- Reporting from the Daily Beast on 4/27/17 indicated that Russia was indirectly one of the largest donors to the Trump inauguration. A $500,000 donation toward inauguration expenses from Venezuelan oil-producer Citgo appears to have occurred very shortly after Rosneft, the Russian State oil company, acquired a 49.5% share in Citgo. US entities are forbidden from doing business directly with Rosneft due to sanctions put in place after Russia’s military and electoral intervention in the Ukraine, but this indirect funding makes the donation legal.
- 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.”
- President Trump’s lawyers released information about his income tax returns on 5/12/17, stating that the returns do not show income from Russian sources or debt owed to Russians, with the exception of $95 million paid by a Russian billionaire for a Trump-owned estate in Florida and $12.2 million in payments in connection with holding the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. In addition to the Florida estate and the beauty pageant, the lawyers said Mr. Trump received undisclosed payments over 10 years from Russians for hotel rooms, rounds of golf, or Trump-licensed products, like wine, ties or mattresses. But they said those amounts were “immaterial” and would not have been identified as coming from Russian sources in the tax returns. As mentioned above, a significant additional source not covered by these kinds of disclosures is the extensive role Russian-connected financiers play in arranging financing for Trump projects in the U.S. and abroad.
- The New Republic has a 7/13/17 lead story on the financial ties between Trump’s properties and Russian interests. The nearly 6,000-word story chronicles the development of these interests, particularly involving figures connected to the Russian mob and money-laundering operations, from the mid-80s through the early 2000s.
- President Trump has thus far denied any knowledge of the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort with a Russian lawyer who Trump Jr. had been promised had damaging information on Clinton provided as part of the Russian government’s support for Trump’s candidacy. Kushner and trump Jr. have both indicated they never passed on information about it. What can be verified is that the person who arranged the meeting, Bristish-born consultant Rob Goldstone, and the alleged providers of the information, Azerbaijani-Russian billionaires Aras Agalarov and Emin Agalarov, have been involved in business transactions with Trump and previously socialized him. Their relationship dates back to the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, which is also where Trump once stated he first met Putin, before denying during the 2016 campaign that he had ever met him.
- The Wall Street Journal reported on 7/12/17 that U.S. Intelligence agencies started to overhear Russian government officials discuss Trump associates as early as 2015. Sources told the Journal that this wasn’t considered particularly concerning at the time, but was seen as puzzling. Investigators are now reportedly combing through those reports again in light of the emails released by Donald Trump Jr..
- The Washington Post reported on 8/14/17 that a junior campaign adviser was encouraging the Trump campaign to meet with Russian leadership in March 2016.
The adviser, George Papadopoulos, sent an email to seven campaign officials with the subject line: “Meeting with Russian Leadership – Including Putin.” in which he offered to set up “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump”. The campaign officials, including Paul Manafort, raised concerns about the propriety of doing so, and there is no indication the proposal was followed up on.
- Reports emerged on 8/24/17 that Congressional investigators have unearthed an email from a top Trump aide that referenced a previously unreported effort to arrange a meeting last year between Trump campaign officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The aide, Rick Dearborn, who is now President Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff, sent a brief email to campaign officials in June 2016 relaying information about an individual from West Virginia who was seeking to connect top Trump officials with Putin. Dearborn himself seemed skeptical of the matter. Subsequent reporting revealed that the source was a former Iraq war-contractor named Rick Clay, who was encouraged by a devout Christian friend who had come in contact with Russians through their work in Christian organizations, and thought that they and the Trump campaign should talk about their “mutual values”. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito was also aware of the outreach, which was discouraged by Dearborn and not followed up on.
- The Guardian ran an in-depth story on 9/18/17 documenting the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow. The Pageant, which Trump’s company produced, may be the first time/place that Trump met Putin, and also involved connections between Trump and various Russian interests who have had some involvement with the Russian meddling investigation.
- McClatchy DC reported on 9/21/17 that Trump’s former bodyguard had extensive knowledge of Trump associate Felix Sater’s connections to Russian criminal figures. Trump has played down his relationship with Sater, despite growing evidence of links between the two, including recently published emails detailing how Sater worked with a top Trump Organization lawyer on a planned Moscow property deal as late as 2016, during the presidential campaign. Before he became Trump’s bodyguard in 2015, Gary Uher was an FBI agent involved in a complex deal to bring Sater back from Russia in the late 1990s. The resulting plea deal allowed Sater to avoid prison time in a Wall Street probe by serving as a government informant until his sentencing in 2009. During much of the time that he was a secret informant, Sater was a Trump Organization business associate, working on projects in New York, Florida and Arizona.
- According to 10/25/17 CNN reports, the head of a data analytics company linked to the Trump campaign contacted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2016 regarding thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, sent an email to several people including top Donald Trump donor Rebekah Mercer, relaying that he had emailed Assange seeking access to emails from Clinton’s private server. Assange subsequently confirmed the story, and maintained that WikiLeaks had rejected the request.
- On 11/5/17 the leaked “Paradise Papers” on the international finances of wealthy individuals revealed several previously-undisclosed Russia links on the part of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The papers revealed that Ross has an interest in Navigator Holdings, which earns millions a year transporting oil and gas for Russian energy firm Sibur. Two major Sibur shareholders are under some form of US sanctions. Another Sibur shareholder is Russian President Putin’s son in law, Kirill Shamalov.
- Politico ran an 11/19/17 story on Donald Trump’s first trip to Russia in 1987. The article chronicles how the trip seems to have been arranged by top level Soviet Diplomatic officials, and been part of an attempt by the KGB to enhance its contacts with American information sources during a key moment of Cold War escalation.
- Vanity Fair reported on 11/23/17 that Israeli intelligence officials were warned in January that American intelligence agencies believed Russia had “leverages of pressure” over President Donald Trump. Members of Mossad, Israel’s foreign espionage agency, and other Israeli intelligence officials attended a meeting in Langley, Virginia, a short time before Trump’s inauguration. At the meeting, an American intelligence official warned Israel to “be careful” once Trump was inaugurated, adding that it was possible sensitive information shared with the White House and the National Security Council could be leaked to Russians.A few months later, Trump made headlines when he revealed highly classified intelligence information during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The article provides extensive coverage of what was revealed in that meeting, and the ramifications of the leak.
- A Bloomberg article on 11/22/17 described issues related to the Trump SoHo Hotel project. The Trump Organization has recently sold its interest in the propeorty, which opened in 2010. It had been a financially troubled investment, but beyond that, it had also attrcated many Russian-linked investors who are involved in investigations into potential money-laundering. The relationship between the Trump Organization and these Russian financial interests is believed to be one of the focuses of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
- The House Intelligence Committee met with Blackwater founder Erik Prince on 11/30/17 for a closed-door interview. The interview is designated as an “open hearing in a closed space,” which means it will be conducted privately but the committee will later release a public transcript, likely with some redaction.
While Prince never formally worked for President Donald Trump during or after the 2016 campaign, he has maintained close ties to the Trump orbit and has acted as an informal adviser on foreign policy. His role in the Russia investigation centers on a secret meeting in the Seychelles, a remote island chain in the Indian Ocean, with a Russian businessman tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prince has previously insisted that the meeting had nothing to do with Trump.
- A 12/15/17 story in the Dallas Morning News focused on political contributions made by U.S. citizens with close ties to Russia. To quote the lead from the article: “Buried in the campaign finance reports available to the public are some troubling connections between a group of wealthy donors with ties to Russia and their political contributions to President Donald Trump and a number of top Republican leaders. And thanks to changes in campaign finance laws, the political contributions are legal. We have allowed our campaign finance laws to become a strategic threat to our country.”
- On 3/8/18, excerpts were published from veteran political reporter Michael Isikoff’s forthcoming book “Russian Roulette: the Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump”. These first excerpts covered Trump’s November 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant, during which many of the connections that are currently being examined between trump and Russia-linked parties were first formed.
- On 3/23/18 Bloomberg News reported that an influential Trump fundraiser offered to help a Moscow-based lawyer get U.S. sanctions lifted on some Russian companies. Elliott Broidy, the deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee, sent a proposal to Andrei Baev, a lawyer at Chadbourne & Parke LLP, shortly before Trump’s inauguration outlining a plan to influence U.S. officials.Both men acknowledged the offer in statements to Bloomberg, but insisted that the plan never came to fruition. “From the beginning I made it clear that while I would consider trying to help the firm build a team and to put them in touch with some experts, I am not a lobbyist and didn’t plan on becoming one. I also made clear from the beginning that any arrangement we reached would need to be in full compliance with U.S. law. We never made any agreement, and the project never went anywhere. I never contacted any U.S. officials on behalf of Chadbourne or its clients and never had any contact with Chadbourne’s clients,” Broidy told Bloomberg in a statement.
- The Washington Post reported on 3/23/18 that George Papadopoulos, the former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who has pled guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with Robert Mueller’s investigation, was reportedly encouraged by a senior-level campaign official to make contact with the Russians. The campaign’s deputy communications director, Bryan Lanza, urged the young adviser in a September 2016 email to accept an interview with a Russian news agency shortly before the election concluded, The Washington Post reported Friday. “You should do it,” Lanza wrote, pushing him to help improve the U.S. “partnership with Russia.” He was also encouraged to form ties between then-candidate Donald Trump and top foreign officials by other top campaign figures like the campaign’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon as well as adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, according to the report.
- On 3/29/18 The Guardian ran a story about the how Latvian government’s anti-corruption bureau examined a 2010 venture by Trump associates and Putin-linked businessmen to build a hotel and entertainment complex in Riga, Latvia. A senior Trump executive visited the city to scout for locations. Trump and his daughter Ivanka spent hours at Trump Tower with the Russian, Igor Krutoy, who also is also associated with people involved in arranging the 2016 Trump Tower meeting. The deal ultimately fell apart following scrutiny from the Latvian government’s anti-corruption bureau.
- Bloomberg reported on 4/23/18 that President Trump spent the night in Moscow the night before the Miss Universe contest in November 2013, contradicting what he told former FBI Director James Comey. Flight records of Trump’s trip to Russia confirm Trump’s overnight stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow. In the memos from Comey, which the former FBI director kept during his time in office to document his interactions with the president, Comey writes that Trump twice told him that hadn’t stayed the night in Russia during the trip. On 4/26/18 Trump himself confirmed this. “I went to Russia for a day or so,” Trump said in an interview on “Fox & Friends.” “Of course I stayed there.”
- McClatchy reported on 6/19/18 that Buyers connected to Russia or former Soviet republics made 86 all-cash sales — totaling nearly $109 million — at 10 Trump-branded properties in South Florida and New York City between 2007 and 2010. Many of them made purchases using shell companies designed to obscure their identities. Major purchases included Aleksandr Burman, a Ukrainian who engaged in a health care scheme that cost the federal government $26 million and was sentenced to a decade in prison, paying $725,000 cash for a condo at a Trump Tower I in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. in 2009, Leonid Zeldovich, who has reportedly done extensive business in the Russian-annexed area of Crimea, buying four Trump units outright at a cost of more than $4.35 million, and Igor Romashov, who served as chairman of the board of Transoil, a Russian oil transport company subject to U.S. sanctions, paying $620,000 upfront for a unit at a building adorned with the future U.S. president’s name in Sunny Isles Beach in 2010.
- ABC reported on 6/25/18 that Special counsel Robert Mueller has acquired the computer and phones of Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater and is the brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Representatives of Prince confirmed the story while noting, “All we will add is that much of the reporting and speculation about Mr. Prince in the media is inaccurate, and we are confident that when the investigators have finished their work, we will be able to put these distractions to the side. ” Mueller is reportedly probing several 2017 meetings that occurred in Seychelles during the time period Prince met with a Russian banker there. Prince also reportedly organized a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that included Donald Trump Jr. and Lebanese-American businessman George Nader during which Nader reportedly said the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia wanted to aid Trump in his bid for the White House. Mueller’s team is known to have spoken with Nader as part of its probe.
- On 6/26/18 McClatchy published a story outlining how offshore companies were used to route more than $3 million linked to a massive fraud case in Kazakhstan into a Trump-branded property. Kazahk oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov has been convicted of stealing millions from Bank TuranAlem, which he used to run. His son-in-law, Ilyas Khrapunov, ran a network of shell companies that were part of the operation for hiding money. Khrapunov used a now-shuttered bank in Tanzania, named FBME, to move part of the money to Khrapunov’s relatives to purchase condos in Donald Trump’s Trump SoHo project. The investment was facilitated by Trump associate Felix Sater, who has longstanding ties to Russian organized crime, but it is not clear what, if anything, Donald Trump knew about the scheme.
- Vox ran a lengthy article on 7/5/18 on one known are of interest for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation- foreign sources of funding for the President’s inauguration. Reporting over the past year has indicated the funding for the event was raised from several Russian oligarchs, as well as several other foreign governments, raising questions of possible influence-peddling. Of particular interest in this regard is that Richard Gates, now cooperating with Mueller’s probe, served as “shadow chair” of the event, and played a key role in raising over $100 million for it.
- On 7/9/18 the New Yorker reported that, during a private meeting shortly before the November, 2016, election, crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, floated to people connected with the Trump campaign the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The story cited current and former U.S. officials as syaing that bin Zayed, was not the only leader in the region who favored rapprochement between the former Cold War adversaries. Three countries that enjoyed unparallelled influence with the incoming Administration—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.—privately embraced the goal. Officials from the three countries have repeatedly encouraged their American counterparts to consider ending the Ukraine-related sanctions in return for Putin’s help in removing Iranian forces from Syria.
- On 8/18/18, prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller said in a court filing that former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos should spend at least some time in prison for lying to the FBI during the Russia probe. The prosecutors disclosed that George Papadopoulos, who served as a foreign policy adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign during the 2016 presidential race, caused irreparable damage to the investigation because he lied repeatedly during a January 2017 interview. Those lies, they said, resulted in the FBI missing an opportunity to properly question a professor Papadopoulos was in contact with during the campaign who told him that the Russians possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails. On 9/1/18 Papadopoulos filed a request for leniency saying that he misled agents during a January 2017 interview not to harm an investigation but rather to “save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master.” The filing also alleges that then-candidate Donald Trump “nodded with approval” at the suggestion of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, “…and deferred to Mr. Sessions who appeared to like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it. George’s giddiness over Mr. Trump’s recognition was prominent during the days that followed.” Sessions, when asked about that meeting at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, said that he “pushed back” on the idea of the Putin summit. CNN previously reported that Trump “heard him out,” but Sessions shut down the idea of a Putin meeting, according to another adviser in the room, when Papadopoulos proposed the idea and offered to help execute it. Sessions’ reaction was confirmed with another source who had discussed his role. On 9/8/18 Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in prison. In a post-sentencing interview with CNN, Papadopoulos said he doesn’t remember telling anyone on the campaign that Russia had damaging emails about Hillary Clinton, but “can’t guarantee” that he kept the bombshell from his campaign colleagues.
- In related news, on 9/7/18 DNC lawyers wrote in court filings that Joseph Mifsud, who was Papadopoulos’ source for claiming that the Russians had e-mail “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, “is missing and may be deceased.” The Committee indicated that an investigator had been used to find Mifsud, who has been missing for months, and was told the Maltese professor may be dead. “The DNC’s counsel has attempted to serve Mifsud for months and has been unable to locate or contact him. In addition, public reports have said he has disappeared and hasn’t been seen for months,” DNC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said. Matters became more mysterious after Stephan Roh, a 51-year-old Swiss lawyer claiming to represent Mifsud, sent BuzzFeed a November 2018 e-mail stating that Mifsud is willing to testify before the U.S. Senate.
<End “Trump-Russia Ties (Pre-Inauguration)” Section>
Trump-Russia Ties (post-inauguration)
- 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.
- In his first official call with Putin on 2/9/17, Trump denounced the 2010 “New START” treaty that caps US and Russian missile numbers. Putin had previously shown interest in October 2016 in reconsidering several of its nuclear treaties with the U.S.. On 3/10/17 the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff confirmed that Russia has deployed new missiles in violation of the treaty.
- Within the same 24-hour period as NSA advisor Michael Flynn’s 2/14/17 resignation due to questions about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russian officials, a Russian spy ship turned up off the shore of Connecticut, Russia conducted a cruise missile test in violation of treaties with the U.S., and Russian jets buzzed a U.S. Navy ship on the Black Sea.
- 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.
- It was reported on 2/22/17 that White House press secretary Sean Spicer arranged calls between outside officials and reporters to dispute media reports that officials in Trump’s presidential campaign had contacts with Russia intelligence officials before the election. Spicer reportedly connected officials including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr with reporters from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. During the calls, journalists were told the story wasn’t true but weren’t given details.
- Russian media criticisms of the Trump administration escalated in mid-April, a further indication that Russia may be souring on Trump. This follows tougher words against Russia’s role in Syria, and a re-affirmation of U.S. ties with NATO, and is a switch from very pro-Trump messaging leading up to and following the 2016 election. State media’s messaging is widely believed to follow Putin’s wishes. In an amusing footnote, Russian media announced on 4/19/17 that the government plans to investigate American media outlets to determine whether they illegally influenced the Kremlin’s 2016 parliamentary elections.
- On the other hand, per reporting from 4/21/17, the Trump team remains interested in brokering a deal on the Ukraine that could end sanctions against Russia. The administration is expected to appoint a special envoy for directly communicating with Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to Putin. The envoy’s job would involve negotiating with Surkov over ending the three-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine, which began when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed pro-Russian separatists in the country.
- Exxon Mobil would also like better relations. The Wall Street Journal reported on 4/19/17 that Exxon Mobil asked the Treasury Department in recent months for a waiver to drill for oil alongside Russian state oil company Rosneft. The drilling would take place in the Black Sea, an area covered by sanctions instituted by the United States to prevent certain business dealings in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon Mobil’s CEO in 2012 when he struck the joint venture deal, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson has since recused himself from all government matters involving Exxon, sold his stock in the firm, and is placing shares he would have received over the next decade into an independent trust. Alas for Exxon Mobil, the Trump administration officially responded on 4/21/17 that it would not grant the waiver.
- 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.”
- One meeting Trump did hold after firing FBI Director James Comey was a private White House session on 5/11/17 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Reporters were barred from the meeting, but photos from Russian state photographers ended up being widely released in the Russian press, a move that left the White House furious. Kislyak’s meetings with multiple Trump campaign officials during the campaign and before the inauguration is known to be one focus of the FBI investigation.
- During this meeting, Trump revealed highly classified information related to intelligence gathering against ISIS. This information was so sensitive that it had not been shared with many US allies, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster took immediate steps to warn several domestic intelligence agencies that it had been revealed. Putin has gamely offered to turn over a Russian transcript of the meeting if it will help allay U.S. concerns.
- Prompted by continuing revelations of the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Senate on 6/15/15 passed a new round of sanctions against Russia 98-2. The Trump administration has pushed back, and is seeking to water down the sanctions in the House.
- The Washington Post reported on 6/23/17 that top White House advisers are trying to curb President Trump’s Twitter outbursts about the Russian investigation by encouraging him to hold early-morning calls with his outside legal counsel. The line of thought is that the President will have vented his frustration with the investigation and have been reassured by his legal team before stepping into work.
- In weekend interviews and on Twitter 6/24/17, Trump criticized Obama for not doing more about Russian election interference. This marks the first time Trump has indicated he accepts the consensus of the intelligence community that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election.
- On 6/25/17 CNN announced that it would impose stricter review rules on stories involving the Russian investigation after retracting a story falsely linking a Trump associate to an a Russian investment group. President Trump gleefully took advantage of the opportunity to reiterate his view that CNN is “fake news” and say that all the other networks (except Fox) and major newspapers were as well.
- Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe released an undercover video on 6/27/17 of a CNN producer saying the network’s heavy coverage of possible collusion between Trump administration officials and Russia during the 2016 presidential election is “mostly bullshit.” It may be relevant to note that the producer in question is from the medical division of CNN, and O’Keefe has a history of releasing videos with heavily edited and out of context comments.
- 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.
- President Trump held his first official meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Germany on 7/7/17. The session had been originally scheduled to last for a half hour, but went on for more than two hours. It was a closed-door session that included Putin, Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and translators. It is known that Trump raised the question of Russian election interference, and Putin vehemently denied it. They then talked about a Syrian ceasefire, and working together to create a framework for addressing “challenges of cyberthreats and interference in the democratic processes”. There is also known to have been some talk on U.S. sanctions against Russia, though Trump and his staff have released contradictory details of what was covered.
- Following the meeting, Putin and Lavrov made statements that Trump seemed satisfied with the Russian leader’s denial that the Kremlin did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Senior administrations officials declined to dispute this, and indeed Trump seemed to state in 7/9/17 tweets that he accepted Putin’s denials, and it was time to move forward on Russian relations. Responding to mounting criticism of the the idea of working with Russia on cyber-security (including from many prominent Republicans), Trump tweeted later in the day, “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t” but that a ceasefire with Syria can and did, and it is time to move forward.
- In addition to their publicly scheduled meeting at the G-20 summit, it was reveled the week of 7/17 that President’s Trump and Putin had another meeting of nearly an hour at a dinner for heads of state. White House sources have characterized it as a casual conversation lasting a few minutes, but sources in the room indicate it lasted much longer. In a breach of protocol, no translator or other U.S. representative accompanied Trump. Trump also indicated that they talked about “adoption”, which would seem to mean some discussion of sanctions under the Magnitsky act. AP has reported that this conversation concerned senior administration national security and foreign policy advisers, who were already uneasy with Trump’s persistent overtures to Russia. For Russia’s part, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov coyly insinuated on 7/21/17 that Putin and Trump may have had several more undisclosed meetings at the summit.
- On 7/19/17, the Trump administration announced it was shutting down the CIA’s program to arm and train rebels fighting the Syrian government. This is considered a victory for Russia, which has called for the move for years.
- News emerged on 7/24/17 that Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Justice’s criminal division, Brian Benczkowski used to represent Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s largest financial institutions. Alfa Bank has close ties to the circle of oligarch’s surrounding Putin, and server connections between Trump Tower and Alfa Bank has been separately mentioned as part of the Russian investigation. they might not be wrapped up until the end of the year.
- On 7/29/17 President Trump agreed to sign a package of sanctions against Russia that had been passed by an overwhelming House majority. The administration had earlier tried to convince the House to water down sanctions passed by the Senate following revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Faced with a House margin that could have easily overturned a Presidential veto, the administration relented and signed. The Russian government responded by announcing that it would react strongly, starting with the expulsion of several hundred U.S. diplomatic personnel. Even while signing the bill on 8/2/17, Trump issued a signing statement decrying it as against U.S. interests, criticizing Congress for passing it, and indicating he could make a better deal
- A lawsuit was filed on 8/1/17 by a paid NPR commentator alleging that a wealthy Trump backer and Fox News worked together with the White House to knowingly craft and promote a false story about the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich in order to distract attention from the Russian investigation. The suit by Rod Wheeler charges that a Fox News reporter created quotations out of thin air and attributed them to him to propel the story (which Fox later retracted due to criticism as challenges to its authenticity mounted), and that the story itself was crafted under direction by Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Dallas investor and unpaid Fox commentator who had offered to pay Wheeler to investigate Rich’s death, and aided by meetings Butowsky and Wheeler had with then-White House Communications Director Sean Spicer. The lawyer behind the suit, Douglas Wigdor, indicated plans to depose both Trump and Spicer for the case.
- It was reported on 8/2/17 that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is declining to use $80 million that has already been earmarked by Congress to combat Russian propaganda. this come over the please of lower level State Department officials to proceed.
- George Nesterczuk withdrew his nomination to head the Administrations’ Office of Personnel Management on 8/7/17 after question arose about his ties to Paul Manfort and work consulting with Pro-Russia parties in the Ukraine. Nesterczuk said he was pulling out over the partisan atmosphere and “baseless” allegations against him. According to multiple sources who were tracking his nomination, however, the confirmation process was moving slowly, in part because he had yet to submit his paperwork to the relevant committee, despite being nominated in May.
- On 8/21/17 Russia announced that Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Antonov will replace Sergey Kislyak as the new American ambassador. This is considered to be another sign of cooling ties between Putin and Trump, as Antonov is considered more of a hardliner towards the U.S., and has previously been under sanction by the E.U. for his role in Russia’s political and military interference in the Ukraine.
- The State Department announced on 8/31/17 that the Trump administration is ordering Russia to shutter a consulate in San Francisco as well as annexes in Washington and New York. According to State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, the move was positioned as a response to the Russian government’s order that the U.S. cut down the number of diplomatic personnel in Russia, which Russia made after Congress overrode President Trump’s veto of enhanced sanctions over Russian electoral interference.
- On 9/22/17, President Trump reacted to the latest revelations about Facebook’s role in Russian manipulation of the 2016 election. Trump showed how seriously he took the news that Facebook has discovered thousands of political ads published on its platform over the past two years were linked to fake accounts based in Russia by responding, “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?”
- After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the course of APEC meetings during his Asia trip, President Trump stated on 11/11/17 that Putin again denied having any role in election meddling, and that Trump believes him. Trump’s statements to reporter’s questions included the following: “He said he didn’t meddle, he said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times…I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election, he did not do what they are saying he did…Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says I didn’t do that. I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
- Meanwhile, 11/11/17 statements by Putin’s office contradicted President Trump’s assertion that they had again discussed Russia’s alleged election meddling. “No,”Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov responded when asked by CNN, “as far as you know, did the two leaders discuss meddling?” And CIA Director Mike Pompeo announced that he stood by US intelligence assessments that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. Former intelligence officials raised concerns that the interactions with Putin show the Trump can be “played” by adversaries. “I think he’s giving Putin a pass,” John Brennan, CIA director under President Barack Obama, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and to try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national-security standpoint.” James Clapper, former U.S. director of national intelligence, agreed with that assessment and said he thinks “both the Chinese and the Russians think they can play” Trump with flattery.
- It was reported on 11/14/17 that the U.S. has hired a private Russian company that grew out of a security business co-founded President Vladimir Putin’s former K.G.B. boss to provide security for the U.S. embassies in Russia. Under a no-bid contract awarded by the Office of Acquisitions in Washington, security guards at the American Embassy in Moscow and at consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok will be provided by Elite Security Holdings, a company closely linked to the former top K.G.B. figure, Viktor G. Budanov, a retired general who spent 25 years planting agents in Western security services and hunting down their operatives.
- BuzzFeed reported on 12/8/17 that the Trump administration dismissed a deal from a top Russian diplomat earlier this year regarding a mutual ban between Washington and Moscow on foreign political interference. U.S. administration officials told the publication that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was in a July meeting with State Department Under Secretary Tom Shannon when he presented U.S. officials with a deal that would prohibit both governments from meddling in each other’s elections.
- The Trump administration and its defenders used three reporting mistakes in early December to bolster its argument that the Russia investigation is “fake news”. Although all three reporting errors- early reports that candidate Trump had directed Flynn to contact the Russians, that Mueller had subpoenaed Trump family records from DeutsceBank, and that WikiLeaks had sent a link to documents to Donald Trump Jr. before they were publicly available- were corrected the same day to less directly implicating but still relevant versions of each incident, the sloppy reporting lent itself to efforts to discredit the entire subject.
- The Washington Post published a lengthy piece on 12/14/17 chronicling how Trump has resisted all calls from staffers to recognize Russian election interference, and take action to prevent a recurrence. Despite overwhelming agreement on what happened from his own intelligence agencies, Trump has maintained doubt about the subject, and determined to pursue ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and not take action against Russia.
- Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on 12/18/17 that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be handling President Trump like “an asset.” “I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president,” Clapper said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” clarifying that he means this “figuratively.” Clapper took aim at the news that Putin called Trump to thank him and the CIA for sharing information that helped prevent a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg, describing the move as a “rather theatric gesture.”
- In statements on 12/28/17, President Trump floated a new legal defense: There was no collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 election, but even if there was, it doesn’t matter, because collusion is not a crime.
- On 1/10/18 Senate Democrats released a report warning of deepening Russian interference throughout Europe and concluding that, while some Western democracies have responded with aggressive countermeasures, President Donald Trump has offered no strategic plan to bolster their efforts or safeguard the U.S. from again falling victim to Kremlin meddling.
- 1/29/18 was the date set by legislation passed by overwhelming majorities of both houses and signed by the President in 2017 on which the government was required to list individuals and businesses who had ties with the Putin regime, and authorizing the President to impose sanctions on them. The administration formally declined to do so, citing the fact that the threat of sanctions was already having a detrimental effect on Russia’s activities and weapons sales to the country, so there was no need to enforce them.
- In an added twist, a section of the law aimed at carefully targeting the Russian elite seems to have been undermined by the administration. The law called on the Treasury Department, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department, to submit a detailed report identifying “the most significant senior foreign political figures and oligarchs” in Russia, “as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth” and an “assessment of the relationship between individuals” and “President Vladimir Putin or other members of the Russian ruling elite” and an “identification of any indices of corruption with respect to those individuals.” The agencies did prepare this list, which was due at midnight on 1/29/18, but at the last minute an unknown party threw out the experts’ work and instead wrote down the names of the top officials in the Russian presidential administration and government plus the 96 Russian billionaires on the Forbes annual billionaires list. This defeats the measure’s intention to split the Russian elite and offer prominent Russians who are not tied to Putin or corruption the option to do business with and live in the West.
- As President Trump attended the National Prayer Breakfast on 2/8/18, a record-breaking Russian presence was in attendance as well. As many as 60 representatives from Russia’s religious and political elite were expected to attend, more than three times last year’s number. One Russian official, Aleksandr Zharkov, told the Russian business newspaper RBC, “It’s a very unique situation, because despite all these difficulties we have (in relations with the US), the quota for Russians is very high this year. It is a sin not to use any platform possible for negotiations between different layers of society.” Two Russian officials said a “Russia house”, a space to hold informal meetings, would be organized at the event.
- The New York Times reported on 2/9/18 that a Russian with purported intelligence ties bilked American spies out of $100,000 in 2017, promising to deliver stolen National Security Agency cyberweapons in a deal that he insisted would also include compromising material on President Trump. The cash was intended as the first installment of a $1 million payout, in the investigation of the theft of secret hacking tools that had been devastating to the N.S.A.. American intelligence officials said they made clear that they did not want the Trump material from the Russian, who was suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence and to Eastern European cybercriminals. He claimed the information would link the president and his associates to Russia. Instead of providing the hacking tools, the Russian produced unverified and possibly fabricated information involving Mr. Trump and others, including bank records, emails and purported Russian intelligence data. The United States intelligence officials then cut off the deal because they were wary of being entangled in a Russian operation to create government discord.
Exxon Mobil Corp. announced on 3/1/18 that it is exiting some of its joint ventures with Russia’s state-owned oil company, citing sanctions first imposed in 2014. Exxon had originally tried to fight the sanctions, which were imposed in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. The company reached the deals with Rosneft starting in 2012 under the leadership of former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson, who is now secretary of State. Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontyev told Reuters that Exxon “will suffer serious losses as a result of this.” Rosneft plans to continue with the affected projects by itself.
- On 3/15/18 the Treasury Department announced that the U.S. will impose new economic sanctions on two-dozen Russian individuals and entities for cyberattacks in the U.S. and meddling in the 2016 election. Sanctions will target five entities and 19 individuals from Russia for actions ranging from the “destabilizing efforts” in the 2016 presidential election to the “NotPetya” malware attack, the costliest and most disruptive in history. Some of those entities and individuals — including the “Internet Research Agency,” which allegedly used fake social media accounts to sow division in the U.S. — have already been indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller. The new sanctions also target two Russian military intelligence firms and a half-dozen people associated with them, and come as the U.S. has joined the UK and EU on condemning the Russia government for the recent nerve gas poisioning of a former Russian intelligence official and his daughter in the UK.
On a 3/20/18 call following what is widely believed to have been a fixed election, President Trump congratulated his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on his reelection to a fourth term. This came despite the fact national security advisors had told Trump not to congratulate Putin, even placing a section in his briefing materials that read “DO NOT CONGRATULATE”. Trump also did not follow aides’ instructions that he condemn Putin over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K., according to the Post. The Kremlin also annoucned on 4/2/18 that Trump had invited Putin to the White House. If the meeting were to occur, it would be the first time the Russian President has had a White House meeting since a 2005 meeting with George W. Bush. However…
- On 3/26/18 the Trump administration announced Monday it will expel dozens of Russian diplomats from the United States in retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom. U.S. officials said 48 Russians stationed at posts around the country, including the embassy in Washington, and 12 at the Russian mission to the United Nations in New York face banishment for conducting intelligence activities under diplomatic cover that undermine national security. Russia retaliated on 3/30/18 by expelling 60 US diplomats and closing the US Consulate in St. Petersburg. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, in his last public remarks as President Trump’s national security adviser on 4/4, also strongly denounced Russia for its increased aggression around the world and declared: “We have failed to impose sufficient costs.” In a further move, on 4/6/18 the Trump administration announced it would sanction seven Russian oligarchs and a dozen companies they own and control. The sanctions were imposed under a law Congress overwhelmingly passed last year to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election and other destabilizing activities, including its military intervention in Ukraine and involvement in the Syrian civil war. “The Russian government engages in a range of malign activity around the globe,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.”
On 4/9/18 President Donald Trump called out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name after reports of a chemical weapons attack in Syria. “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” Trump tweeted. “Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!” This marked the first time the President had directly criticized Putin. The U.S. subsequently participated in a coordinated missile strike on Syrian targets with France and the U.K.. The administration has not engaged in further sanctions against Russia, however, amidst reports that Trump is resistant to aides advice on being tougher on Russia, with the President even contradicting earlier comments from UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
- On 4/8/18 UN Ambassador Nikki Haley responded to White House attempts to undercut her after she asserted that the administration was poised to impose new economic sanctions on Russia. National economic adviser Larry Kudlow said that Haley “got ahead of the curve” and that “there might have been some momentary confusion about that.” Haley wasted no words in her written reply: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” It was separately reported on 4/23/18 that U.S. officials will consider easing sanctions on Rusal, an aluminum producer controlled by a businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Treasury Department on Monday extended the time frame (currently until October 23rd) during which companies could wind down their dealings with the faltering aluminum producer targeted by U.S. sanctions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also said the department would consider a petition from Rusal to lift the sanctions, given the economic troubles the actions caused for U.S. allies.
- On 5/2/18 Ukraine’s chief prosecutor froze four pending investigations into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort as the U.S. finalized a weapons sale to the Eastern European country. One Ukrainian lawmaker, Volodymyr Ariev, stated that the cases were put into the “long-term box,” so as to avoid upsetting President Trump. “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” Ariev told the New York Times. The decision to halt the investigations came shortly after the U.S. approved the sale of 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 35 launching units to the Ukrainian government.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin told an Austrian news outlet on 6/5/18 that he and President Trump regularly talk. Putin told Austrian news outlet ORF TV, “Indeed, Donald Trump and I have, firstly, met more than once at various international venues and secondly, we regularly talk over the phone.” He noted that he has not had a one-on-one summit with Trump as he did with former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, but said that the two leaders talk regularly. Putin noted the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election while saying, “the president of the United States is coming under attack over various matters,” Putin said. He added that the political situation was the main reason the two leaders have not had a bilateral summit. According to official White House statements, the two presidents have spoken on the phone eight times since Trump took office in January 2017. The last time they spoke was March 20 when Trump reportedly ignored the advice of White House officials and congratulated Putin on his reelection.
- In other Trump-Russia relation news, 6/8/18 saw President Trump call for Russia to be reinstated in the G-7 while . Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn before leaving for Canada to attend the G-7 summit, Trump said, “Russia should be in this meeting. Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting?” Russia was ousted from the then-Group of Eight in 2014 in order to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine. “Whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run,” Trump said. “And in the G-7, which used be the G-8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.” But on 6/11/18 the U.S. Treasury sanctioned several Russian entities and individuals for their role in international cyberattacks spearheaded by Russian intelligence agency the FSB, including the NotPetya malware and attacks on the U.S. energy system. “The United States is committed to aggressively targeting any entity or individual working at the direction of the FSB whose work threatens the United States and will continue to utilize our sanctions authorities,” said Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Sanctions target companies Digital Security (as well as it’s subsidiaries Embedi and ERPScan), Kvant Scientific Research Institute and Divetechnoservices as well as Divetechnoservices owner Vladimir Yakovlevich Kaganskiy and personnel Aleksandr Lvovich Tribun and Oleg Sergeyevich Chirikov.
- On 6/18/18, responding to reports that Trump told world leaders at the G-7 meeting in Canada last week that Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula is Russian because everyone there speaks Russian, the hosts of the Russian version of 60 Minutes victoriously declared that “Crimea is ours, Trump is ours.” Russia was kicked out of the G-8, an intergovernmental political group of the world’s most developed economies, in 2014 after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine. The international community considers Russia’s annexation of Crimea illegal.
- On 7/11/18 the Senate confirmed Presdient Trump’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Criminal Division despite concerns about his ties to a bank that has come under scrutiny by the FBI. Senators voted 51-48 to approve Brian Benczkowski to be an assistant attorney general. Benczkowski was first nominated more than a year ago, in June 2017. He was renominated in January after his nomination was bounced back to the White House at the end of last year. Benczkowski’s nomination had stalled amid questions about his work at Alfa Bank, a Russian bank that has faced scrutiny in the federal investigation into Moscow’s influence on the 2016 presidential election.
- Many observers of U.S.-Russian relations, mindful of the particular questions about this administration’s relationship with Russia, were bemused when it was announced in June that a summit meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin would be held in Helsinki just after Trump attended a NATO conference. The decision to have it be a private meeting with only interpreters, and to dispense with all the usual extensive protocol that goes in to setting something like this up also raised eyebrows. The President even declined to have a note-taker present for the meeting, due to reported concern that details would be leaked. Any benefit of the doubt that remained, though, was severely rattled by the press conference that followed the 7/16/18 meeting. Trump, publicly declined to endorse the US government’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying he doesn’t “see any reason why” Russia would be responsible. Standing beside Putin, Trump touted Putin’s vigorous denial and pivoted to complaining about the Democratic National Committee’s server and missing emails from Hillary Clinton’s personal account. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Trump also touted Russia’s agreement to cooperate with the investigation in return for being able to interrogate people it suspected of foul play, including the former U.S. Ambassador.
- Fallout was swift, furious, and went on for several days. The President issued a tweet on the flight back from Helsinki walking back his statements somewhat, and on 7/17/18 read a statement saying that he mispoke and meant to say he didn’t see any reason Russia “wouldn’t” be responsible, adding: “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.” But he then added: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.” On 7/18/18, the President replied, “no,” to a reporter’s question about whether Russia is still targeting the U.S. The White House also walked back that comment, saying that he was saying “no” to answering the reporter’s question. Bill Browder, a foreign investor in Russia whose chief accountant was killed in custody after revealing government corruption, and one of the people Putin mentioned as wanting to interrogate, penned a 7/17/18 editorial defiantly condemning Trump. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on 7/18/18 that the President would discuss allowing Russian investigators to come to the United States to question U.S. citizens, but the administration subsequently backed off after the Senate voted 99-0 on 7/19/18 to block the President from handing over U.S. citizens for questioning. On 7/18/19 the New York Times reported that the then President-elect had been given a briefing in January 2017 with detailed evidence that Putin ordered election interference, despite casting doubt on exactly that idea many times after that point. On 7/19/18 Sanders issued a statement saying that Trump had, in fact, strongly confronted Putin. And on 7/19/18 Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Texas) blocked a resolution that would have lent the Senate’s support to the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee rejected a motion to subpoena the interpreter present at Trump and Putin’s private meeting, and House Republicans rejected a Democratic proposal to provide additional funding for state election security grants in a spending bill. That same day, the administration’s own Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, forcefully reiterated the intelligence community’s assessment on Russia and took exception to the President’s post-summit statements. Regarding what Putin and Trump agreed to at the summit, it was reported on 7/19/18 that Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it. The Russian government has also made statements that many other agreements were reached, none of which have been disclosed by the administration. A 7/21/18 story highlighted how Republicans in Congress were urging the administration to publicly state what was agreed to. It has also been reported that the CIA and NSA, through various listening networks, do have a good idea what was discussed at the meeting. On 7/25/18, the administration backed off of an earlier announcement that Putin would have a pre-election visit to the White House. National security adviser John Bolton said in a statement the next one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin will be “after the first of the year” and following the conclusion of the Russia probe, which he described as a “witch hunt.” Reports indicate that Putin has invited Trump to Moscow for the meeting.
- It was reported on 7/30/18 that, over the past few months, Russia had liquidated 84% of its U.S. Treasury holdings. What relation, if any, this has to U.S.-Russian relations is uncertain. A Russian Treasury spokesperson portrayed the move as a planned asset re-balancing, and it’s not a particular significant move economically. Market watchers speculated that it could be in response to April U.S. sanctions against Russian aluminum producers (which the trump administration has indicated it is thinking of lifting), or a general move to reduce holding of U.S. assets that could be frozen in the vent of further sanctions. in the realm of further sanctions, on 8/9/18 the State Department said it will impose fresh sanctions on Russia after determining it used nerve agent against a former Russian double agent living in the UK.
- On 8/8/18 Sen. Rand Paul delivered a letter from President Donald Trump to Russia President Vladimir Putin that “emphasized the importance of further engagement” between the two leaders. “I was honored to deliver a letter from President Donald J. Trump to President Vladimir Putin’s administration,” Paul said in a statement, which also noted that the letter was given to representatives for Putin, who has been out of Moscow all week. The letter highlighted how the U.S. wants to continue to work together with Russia on “countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges,” Paul said.
- On 11/30/18, amidst new revelations from Michael Cohen’s sentencing documents about business dealings with Russia during the campaign, President Trump decided to cancel a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at upcoming the G20 summit.
<End “Trump-Russia Ties (Post-Inauguration)” Section>
Attorney Michael Cohen worked for the Trump Organization from 2007 until 2018 in various guises, eventually becoming a vice-president of the organization and special counsel to Donald Trump. Along the way, he gained a reputation for being extremely loyal to Trump, acting as a “fixer” who would work behind the scenes to make problems go away. His points of contact with the Russian investigation are manifold:
- In September 2015 Cohen solicited a $150,000 donation to the Trump Foundation by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk. Pinchuk made the donation after Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate at the time, gave a 20-minute speech at a conference in Kiev promoting closer ties between Ukraine and the West. Pinchuk has previously advocated compromising with Russia to resolve the country’s conflict with Ukraine.
- In November 2015 Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.” This person repeatedly proposed a meeting between Trump and the President of Russia, telling Cohen that such a meeting could have a “phenomenal” impact “not only in political but in a business dimension as well,” because there is “no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [the President of Russia].” This interaction was not known until December 2018, when it was revealed as part of Cohen’s sentencing for the federal case against him. Cohen reported that he did not follow up on the invitation because he was busy with high-level contacts already involved in the below-mentioned potential Moscow investment.
- In late 2015 Cohen received a proposal for a Moscow residential project from a company founded by billionaire Sergei Gordeev who once served in the upper house of the Russian parliament. While Cohen does not appear to have followed through the initiative, the October 2017 report of the contact stands out sharply against Trump’s repeated denials of having any communication or business interests involving Russia.
- In late 2015 Ivanka Trump connected Cohen with a Russian athlete who offered to introduce Donald Trump to Putin to facilitate a 100-story Trump tower in Moscow. There is no evidence that Ivanka Trump’s contact with the athlete, Dmitry Klokov, was illegal or that it had anything to do with the election. But congressional investigators have reviewed emails and questioned witnesses about the interaction, and so has special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. The contacts reveal that even as Trump was campaigning to become president of the United States, associates of his were in contact with Russian parties in order to help close a business deal that could have made the Trump family millions.
- In fact, from November 2015 to December 2016 Cohen and business partner Felix Sater worked on a deal to open a Trump Tower in Moscow. Trump’s company and investors signed a letter of intent to open up a massive development as part of the Trump brand but dropped the deal in January 2016 after they failed to get the land and permits to launch. Sater pushed for the deal in November 2015 e-mails with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that specifically highlighted involving Putin and bolstering Trump’s campaign. Sater’s e-mail stated, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” It was subsequently revealed that Cohen sent a message about the real estate deal to Putin’s personal spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016. The emergence of news about the attempted deal in August 2017 refuted numerous statements made during the campaign that Trump had no business dealings with Russia. On 5/7/18 Buzzfeed ran an in-depth 5/17/18 story on the efforts by Cohen and Sater. With reporting based on mails, text messages, congressional testimony, architectural renderings, and interviews with key players and investigators, the story chronicles how talks to construct the 100-story building continued, “even as the presidential candidate alternately bragged about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and rejected suggestions of Russian influence, and as Russian agents worked to sway US public opinion on Trump’s behalf.”
- Cohen’s original story during Congressional testimony in 2017 was that these talks stopped in January of 2016 as the campaign began in earnest, that Trump had not been involved in them, and that Cohen had not spoken to anyone in the Russian government about them. In November 2018 legal filings, Cohen admitted the talks extended into June 2016, that he was in talks with the Russian government for approvals, and that he kept Trump informed and even discussed the possibility that both he and Trump could travel to Russia after the convention. These plans only seeme to have been abandoned when news of Russian hacking against the DNC first went public in June 2016.
- In June 2016 Cohen and a business associate exchanged emails in the weeks before the Republican National Convention about Cohen possibly traveling to an economic conference in Russia that would be attended by top Russian financial and government leaders, including President Vladimir Putin.
- In January 2017 Cohen and Sater met in New York City with pro-Russian Ukrainian politican Andrii Artemenko to discuss a peace plan for that country that could give Russia long-term control over territory it seized in 2014 and lead to the lifting of sanctions against Moscow. (It was also revealed in March 2017 that Alex Oronov, a Ukrainian businessman and longtime associate of Cohen who helped organize the January meeting , had died at the age of 68. Exact details of his death remain unclear.) It was confirmed on 5/14/18 that Artemenko had been called to testify before a grand jury connected to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and planned to comply with the request.
- 11 days before Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Cohen had a Trump Tower meeting with with Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two men reportedly discussed strengthening U.S.-Russia relations under the soon-to-be President Trump. Soon after Cohen’s meeting with Vekselberg, Andrew Intrater, the CEO of American investment firm Columbus Nova, who is Vekselberg’s cousin and was present at the meeting, hired Cohen on a $1 million consulting contract with the hopes that he could help connect wealthy GOP donors to Columbus Nova, but ended the contract after seven months. Columbus Nova is the U.S. affiliate of Vekselberg’s company. Intrater insists that Vekselberg had no role in the decision to hire Cohen.
- Congressional investigators indicated on 9/6/17 that they were keen to investigate revelations that the Trump Organization was seeking to do business in Moscow during the 2016 election. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN, “It seems to be inconsistent with the idea that the Trump Organization was having no business dealings with Russia. It raises a whole host of questions that people associated with then candidate Trump were trying to do business with senior folks in Russia.” When Cohen released a statement denying any role in Russian meddling in the 2016 election after the committee asked him not to comment, the Senate on 9/19/17 called off the closed-door interview and asked Cohen to appear at an open hearing on Oct. 25th. This hearing was then dealyed indefinitely on 10/20/17, and ultimately replaced by closed-door hearings before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on 10/26/17 and 10/27/17.
All of the speculation about Cohen’s role came to a head when the FBI raided his home, office, and hotel room on 4/9/18. Seized in the raid were emails, tax documents and records related to his payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Other seized documents include business records and communications between Cohen and Trump, a certain number of shredded documents , recordings Cohen has made of various meetings, more than a dozen phones, 731 pages of messages sent on encrypted platforms, including WhatsApp and Signal, and records of calls including to the White House. The raid was authorized by a New York-based Federal Court, and was approved by Assistant Attorney General Rosenstein based on information forwarded by Robert Mueller’s investigation, but is not directly a part of Mueller’s investigation. It was also reported that long-time Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg is mentioned in the recordings, and is confirmed to have been subpoenaed as part of the investigation.
While attempting to assert that attorney-client privilege covered much of the material seized by investigators, Cohen had several incentives to cooperate- a 4/20/18 article by the New York Times highlights Trump’s poor past treatment of him. According to multiple sources, Trump treated Cohen poorly, with gratuitous insults, dismissive statements and, at least twice, threats of being fired. Roger Stone noted that, “Donald goes out of his way to treat him like garbage.” Cohen also faced charges due to significant unpaid taxes and underwater loans related to his taxi medallion investments. The tax debt alone may have exceeded $280,000. His partner in the business, Evgeny Freidman, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors on 5/23/18, and pleaded guilty to evading taxes and agreeing to pay restitution and judgments to New York State. On 6/13/18 Michael Cohen split with his legal team, a move that often is a prelude to becoming a cooperating witness, and on 7/2/18 in an interview with ABC stated that, “My wife, my daughter, and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.” ABC further reported that Cohen was ending his joint defense agreement with Trump, which is what Michael Flynn did before flipping. On 7/5/18 Cohen dropped the reference “personal attorney to President Donald J. Trump” from his Twitter and LinkedIn biographies, and hired Larry Davis as his new attorney. Davis has previously served as a special counsel to former President Bill Clinton, and is an outspoken Trump critic. On 7/10/18 Davis told journalists that Cohen was making a “Declaration of Independence” from Trump.
The denoument of the legal case came after Cohen’s legal team announced that, after reviewing more than 4 million files seized in the raid, they believe that 12,000 contain privileged information. This was later further narrowed to a little over 4,000 documents. On 7/20/18 special master Barbara Jones determined that 1,452 of the 4,085 documents designated as privileged by Cohen’s legal team did not actually fit that designation, but agreed that the other 2,633 were either fully or partially privileged. With only 2,600 of around 4 million documents excluded, on 8/7/18 reports revealed that the tax fraud case against him was going forward. Plea… To the extent that the investigation into Cohen seems to involve things like payments to Stormy Daniels, communications that Trump had with Cohen regarding the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, arranging hush money for the Deputy RNC Chair’s affair with a Playboy model, burying an Us Weekly story about affairs involving Trump and Donald Trump Jr., influence peddling with foreign governments, and representing Fox’s Sean Hannity for as yet unnamed matters (which Hannity denies), there is no apparent direct relation to the Russian investigation, and I therefore don’t focus on these parts of the story here.
What could matter more to the investigation are the corporate payments Cohen seems to have facilitated. Reporting on 5/8/18 indicated that a holding company of Cohen’s had received payments totaling several million dollars from several major corporations, and from Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Mueller’s investigation has apparently been aware of some of this, meeting with one of the companies, Novartis, in 2017, and asking for documents from Ford Motor Company, which declined offers of services from Cohen in January 2017. Cohen arranged a Trump Tower meeting with Vekselberg 11 days before Trump’s inauguration. Soon after Cohen’s meeting with Vekselberg, Intrater hired Cohen on a $1 million consulting contract with the hopes that he could help connect wealthy GOP donors to Columbus Nova, but ended the contract after seven months. On 7/13/18 the Senate Finance Committee Democrats released a report documenting that Cohen also pitched Novartis on an opportunity that would benefit Columbus Nova. Cohen also received a secret payment of at least $400,000 to fix June 2017 talks between the Ukrainian president and President Trump. The payment was arranged by intermediaries acting for Ukraine’s leader, Petro Poroshenko, though Mr Cohen was not registered as a representative of Ukraine as required by US law. Shortly after the Ukrainian president returned home from the meeting, his country’s anti-corruption agency stopped its investigation into Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
There is also the matter of Cohen’s alleged role as outlined in the Steele Dossier. On 4/13/18 McClatchy reported that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has evidence that Cohen secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Confirmation of the trip would lend credence to retired British spy Christopher Steele’s report in his dossier that Cohen strategized there with Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, about lifting sanctions related to Russian meddling in the Ukraine, and arrnaging payments for Russian hackers who provided information to the Trump campaign. If true, this would be a significant “smoking gun”, but it’s not clear how it could square with the fact that Cohen has produced his passport and demonstrated he made no trips to the Czech Republic or immediately neighboring countries in this time frame (although he was in Italy). On 5/13/18 Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing porn star Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit against Cohen, posted photos showing a Qatari diplomat Ahmed al-Rumaihi on his way to a 12/12/16 meeting in Trump Tower with Cohen just five days after news broke of the multibillion-dollar sale of 19.5 percent of the Russian oil giant Rosneft to Qatar Investments. Trump and associates benefiting from the Rosneft sale as a quid-pro-quo for helping ease sanctions is one of the principle allegations of the Steele Dossier. It is worth noting that Cohen’s plea deal (see below) included mention of a handwritten request for reimbursement from the Trump Organization of $50,000 for “tech services,” that Cohen had solicited from a technology company during and in connection with the campaign. The Steele dossier discusses Cohen allegedly playing a role in figuring out how to get deniable cash payments to hackers working in Europe under direction of the Kremlin.
Shortly after August 2018 reports that Federal prosecutors were preparing criminal charges against him by the end of the month, on 8/22/18 Cohen admitted eight counts, including tax and bank fraud, in a plea deal with prosecutors which may see his prison sentence reduced from 65 years to five years. The plea deal also involved campaign finance violations. Following this, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that they wanted Cohen to appear before their Russian investigation, marking the first new witness in their inquiry in months. One thing they might want to ask him about is his lawyer’s contention that Cohen was present at a meeting where Trump Jr. informed Trump about the upcoming Trump Tower meeting with Russian representatives. However, the Senate intelligence Committee also got back in touch with Cohen’s team on his earlier denial of knowing about the meeting in advance, and was told that he stood by that denial. Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis also announced on 8/22/18 that he would not accept a pardon from President Trump, and that he had information that would be of interest to Mueller‘s investigation. Subsequent reporting in September indicated that Cohen had participated in ten hours of interviews with investigators from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller over several sessions.
The results of these interviews began to become apparent on 11/29/18 when a cooperation agreement between Cohen and Mueller’s investigation became public, followed by a guilty plea in court and a signed filing of charges. The key takeaway from the filings was Cohen admitting that he lied to Congress about the extent of the Trump Organization’s negotiations with Russia for a possible Trump Tower project in Moscow. Cohen told Congress that negotiations for the Moscow project stopped in January of 2016 as the campaign began in earnest, that Trump had not been involved in them, and that Cohen had not spoken to anyone in the Russian government about them. In the new filings, Cohen admitted the talks extended into June 2016, that he was in talks with the Russian government for approvals, and that he kept Trump informed and even was in talks about the possibility that both he and Trump could travel to Russia after the convention. These plans only seeme to have been abandoned when news of Russian hacking against the DNC first went public in June 2016. Cohen also stated that he lied about all this in order to stay consistent with the public story of the Trump campaign. This was followed by reporting from reporting from Buzzfeed News that the Trump Organization planned to give a $50 million penthouse in the planned Trump Tower Moscow to President Vladimir Putin while the company was in negotiations in 2016 to build the development, according to four people familiar with the matter.
On 12/7/18 the Southern District of New York filed its sentencing memo for Cohen, arguing for “substantial jail time” due to his history of deceit during questioning, and choice to only selectively cooperate on certain matters. Mueller’s investigation submitted its own filing on the same day, saying that Cohen had given “relevant and useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to” Mueller’s investigation, including information about a previously undisclosed attempt by a Russian nationals to reach Trump’s presidential campaign in November 2015. The filing stopped short of making a sentencing recommendation based on his cooperation. On 12/12/18 Cohen was sentenced to 36 months in prison. At his sentencing hearing, Cohen expressed regret for having covered up Trump’s “dirty deeds” and said, “The irony is today is the day I get my freedom back. I have been leading a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I greatly admired.” His lawyer subsequently stated that Cohen was willing to “tell all” once Mueller’s investigation concluded, and implied that Trump was aware of Cohen’s plans to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project.
<End “Michael Cohen” Section>
A retired Army Lieutenant General, Michael Flynn joined the Trump campaign as a national security advisor in February 2016, and formally served as the Administration’s U.S. National Security Advisor for approximately one month until resigning in February 2017 for making fraudulent statements to the FBI. Flynn is the proximate cause of the existence of the Special Counsel’s investigation itself, as it was the circumstances around his departure from the Trump White House that intensified the FBI’s investigation, which in turn spurred President Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey, kicking off the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Both before and after becoming involved with the Trump campaign, Flynn had multiple points of connection to the Russian investigation including:
- In February 2014 an FBI informant who attended the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, an academic forum for former spies and researchers, was alarmed by the general’s apparent closeness with a Russian woman who was also in attendance. The concern was strong enough that it prompted another person to pass on a warning to the American authorities that Mr. Flynn could be compromised by Russian intelligence.
- In June 2015, Flynn took a trip to Egypt and Israel, paid for by a U.S. company Flynn was advising. The company hoped to build more than two dozen nuclear plants in the region, in partnership with Russian interests. Subsequently, Flynn may have violated federal law by failing to disclose the trip in his security clearance renewal application in 2016.
- In December 2015, Flynn received $45,000 for attending Russian state TV network RT’s gala dinner in Moscow, where he sat next to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Flynn didn’t originally include the payment when he first filed required ethics forms in January 2017 for his White House job.
- In addition to the RT payments, Flynn was also paid $11,250 for two speeches in Washington — one in August 2015 for Volga-Dnepr Airlines, a Russian charter cargo airline, and a second, in September 2015, for Kaspersky Government Security Solutions Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of Kaspersky Lab, a Russian-based cybersecurity firm. At the time, Volga-Dnepr was on a Pentagon watch list of “unsuitable” companies for U.S. parties to have transactions with. These various payments were eventually listed in amended financial disclosure forms Flynn delivered to the White House on 3/31/17, more than a month after he stepped down from his NSA post.
- During the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 previously undisclosed calls acoridng to May 2017 reporting by Reuter’s.
- In the summer of 2016 American spies collected information revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over Trump through his advisors. Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort were specifically mentioned in these conversations.
- Some time after August 2016, foreign intelligence agencies, including the UK and a Baltic nation, began tracking communications between Trump campaign and business officials and Russian contacts, including contacts with Flynn, out of concern that Russia was seeking to influence the campaign as part of its long-term goal of weakening NATO.
- In the fall of 2016, Republican activist Peter Smith identify Flynn (and his son) as backer of Smith’s efforts to seek Russian help to recover missing e-mails from Hillary Clinton. Smith died from apparent suicide in May 2017 (not sepcifically suspicious given his age and ill-health), but not before sharing his notes with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, with Mueller’s investigation said to also be looking in to the matter. In August 2018 Buzzfeed reported on suspicious fund transfers Smith made as he began his inquiry. In October 2018 the Wall Street Journal reported that Smith had a professional relationship with Flynn as early as 2015, when the two had a meeting just after Flynn left his position at the top of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Smith also told those around him during the 2016 presidential race that he was using Flynn’s connections in his email project, according to the paper.
- Just before the end of the campaign, Flynn entered into a brief advisory role with Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis company that aided the Trump campaign. The disclosure came in an amended public financial filing in which shows that just before the end of the campaign, Flynn entered into a consulting agreement with SCL Group, a Virginia-based company related to Cambridge Analytica, the data mining and analysis firm that worked with Trump’s campaign. SCL has been alleged to ultimately have Russian funding, and to have possibly been a source of data Russian interests used to target their social media campaign to influence the 2016 election.
- Before the Nov. 8th election, Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak communicated by text message, by phone and in person, which Kislyak confirms, but declined to say whether they had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia.
- In December 2016 Trump’s senior aide (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner and Flynn met with Kislyak at Trump Tower for what they described as an “introductory meeting” and “kind of an inconsequential hello.” Prior to this being reported in March 2017, Trump had maintained that he had not ordered, or known about, any meetings Flynn had with Kislyak.
- Further in December 2016, Flynn had several discussions with Kislyak on lifting sanctions, and also urging Russia not to react to sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for electoral interference until Trump was in office. We know of contacts on 12/28/16, 12/29/16, and 12/31/16. Such pre-inauguration contacts are strongly against protocol, and represent potential violations of the Logan Act forbidding private citizens from conducting foreign policy as well.
- Even worse, Flynn had initially denied that this occurred, and then, after nine different sources confirmed it, “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.” He also told Vice President Mike Pence that he did not discuss sanctions.
- Within minutes of Trump’s inauguration in January, 2016 Michael Flynn told a former business associate that sanctions against Russia would be “ripped up” early in the new presidency. Flynn informed his former associate that the plan to work with Russia to build nuclear reactors in the Middle East was “good to go,” because Flynn was ensuring the sanctions would be “ripped up” as one of Trump’s first orders of business. The whistleblower’s account is detailed in a letter from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) which he sent to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
- On 1/24/17, the FBI interviewed Flynn because of their concerns about his contacts with Kislyak, and he denied they had been related to sanctions. The FBI already knew this wasn’t true, and on 1/26/17 the Justice Department notified White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn had lied, and might be at risk for blackmailing from Russian intelligence. McGahn then informed the President. While public denials from Flynn and other figures in the administration continued for several days, Flynn eventually resigned on 2/13/17. Subsequent to Flynn’s eventual December 2017 guilty plea, K.T. McFarland, who served as Flynn’s deputy on the National Security Council, amended earlier testimony to the FBI that she didn’t have a precise memory of whether Flynn had spoken to Kisylak to say that she could infer from a general conversation with Flynn that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak.
Clearly in trouble at this point, Flynn offered to testify to the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee in exchange for immunity. The Intelligence Committee declined the offer on 3/31/17. Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) did indicate that Flynn would be a potential witness before the committee. The FBI also did not seem to be interested. The House Oversight Committee, had its request for documents related to ex-NSF head Michael Flynn’s business ties with Turkey and Russia denied by the White House on 4/25/17. Based on documents the committee was able to obtain, chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), indicated that they believe that Flynn broke the law by declining to disclose the payments from both Russia and Turkey in his application to renew his security clearance. Among these are documents showing that Flynn was warned by the Pentagon against accepting foreign payments following his retirement in 2014. And then in May 2017, just hours before FBI Director James Comey was fired, Federal prosecutors delivered the first subpoenas related to the Russia investigation. These subpoenas were issued by the US Attorney’s Office in Alexandria to associates of Flynn. On 9/13/17 Flynn refused a new request to appear as a witness before the Senate intelligence committee. Flynn first declined to comply with a Senate subpoena in May, asserting his Fifth Amendment rights.
By this time, Flynn must have know he was on Mueller’s priority list, and the incentives to cooperate grew from there. Reports emerged on 9/13/17 that even during his brief time in office as National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn continued to work on private consulting projects. Among these was a plan to build nuclear reactors throughout the Middle East, with possible Russian financial backing. NBC also reported on 9/13/17 that Flynn’s son was a subject of the federal investigation into Russian meddling. The inquiry into Flynn junior was focused at least in part on his work with his father’s lobbying firm, Flynn Intel Group. On 11/5/17 NBC reported that Federal investigators had gathered enough evidence to bring charges against Flynn and his son as part of the probe into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. Sources indicated the investigators were speaking to multiple witnesses to gain more information surrounding Flynn’s lobbying work, including whether he laundered money or lied to federal agents about his overseas contacts. One area related to Flynn that Mueller was known to be focusing on was Flynn’s role in producing a documentary about an exiled Turkish cleric at the height of the 2016 presidential race. Flynn failed to register as a foreign agent when his firm began lobbying on behalf of a businessman with ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Flynn’s firm, Flynn Intel Group, was paid $530,000 in August 2016 by the businessman, Ekim Alptekin. Flynn Intel Group was tasked with fomenting dissent inside Turkey and with lobbying the US government to extradite the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who currently resides in Pennsylvania and whom Erdogan believes is responsible for planning an attempted coup in 2016. Flynn also had financial incentives to cooperate, per Bloomberg reporting on 7/17/17 that he planed to set up a fund to raise money to pay his legal bills stemming from the multiple investigations.
It therefore came as no surprise when the New York Times and Washington post reported on 11/23/17 that former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s legal team had informed President Trump’s legal team that they could no longer discuss matters relating to Special Cousel Robert Mueller’s investigation. On 12/1/17 former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn was charged on 12/1/17 by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in federal court in Washington DC with one count of making a false statement to the FBI about his Russian contacts. The court documents suggest that the charge was part of a plea agreement between Flynn and Mueller. This is bolstered by the fact that the plea was to a very limited and minor charge, ignoring multiple more serious potential charges, which indicates the likelihood that Flynn made a deal, as does the plea agreement itself, which promises full cooperation with the investigation and even willingness to participate in “covert law enforcement activities”. Initial coverage by ABC inaccurately reported that Flynn would testify that Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians. Subsequent filings revealed that Flynn spoke with a “senior official” in President Trump’s transition team to discuss what he should communicate to the Russian ambassador in December 2016 phone calls, and debriefed with the same official afterward. Reporting by several parties based upon court filings and senior sources indicated that the official in question is Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
In confirmation of his status as a cooperating witness, we have subsequently heard nothing publicly from Flynn, and next to nothing about him from Mueller’s investigation. Most recently, came a 6/29/18 filing in which Mueller requested a delay in Flynn’s sentencing on his December 2017 guilty plea for a third time, a strong sign that Mueller’s team believes that they are still receiving valuable cooperation from Flynn. For its part, the initial White House response emphasized that Flynn was fired for lying to administration officials, and had only been with the administration for a short time. The Kremlin got in on the commentary too, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov stating on 12/4/17 that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to not retaliate against the U.S. after Washington levied a new round of sanctions last year was not influenced by any official conversations with Michael Flynn. 12/4/17 reporting on December 2016 on e-mails from K.T. McFarland, President Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, appears to undermine her testimony before Congress in which she denied knowing anything about Michael Flynn’s contacts with top Kremlin officials. McFarland told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2017 that she did not discuss or have any knowledge of Flynn’s contact with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, but the December 2016 e-mails clearly mention those contacts. The Washington Post reported on 12/27/17 that President Trump’s lawyers are preparing to attack the credibility of former national security adviser Michael Flynn if he claims Trump committed wrongdoing. “He’s said it himself: He’s a liar,” one person working on Trump’s legal strategy told the Post.
After a fourth request for delay in sentencing in August 2018, on 9/21/18 lawyers working for Mueller asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to move forward with Flynn’s sentencing. “The matter is now ready to be scheduled for sentencing,” Mueller’s prosecutors wrote in a joint filing with Flynn’s defense attorneys, and requested late November or early December date for sentncing. The sentencing memo was filed on 12/4/18, recommending that Flynn serve little or no jail time due to his exemplary cooperation and substantial contributions to the investigation. It was accompanied by a six page supporting memorandum describing his contributions, but the public version of it was hevaily redacted. Several observers noted that the memo indicates Flynn has cooperated with two as yet-unidentified investigations (one of which may not even be Mueller’s) in addition to the probe of Trump-Russia ties, has given testimony regarding other senior officials, and that Mueller clearly has substantial further areas of investigation open. Flynn filed his own sentencing memo requesting no jail time on 12/11/18 discussing the extent of his cooperation (including more than 60 hours of interviews, thousands of documents, and “facilitation of electronic devices”), and including more than 100 pages of testimonials and citations of his military record. Flynn’s memo also stated that the informality of the FBI interview at which Flynn lied should be considered a mitigating factor, a notion that Mueller’s investigation strongly criticized in a follow-up filing, though ultimately upholding the recommendarion for sentencing leniency. The judge also did not appear to be amused by Flynn’s memo, and subsequently released a redacted version of the FBI’s initial interview memo, making clear Flynn had received seevral warnings, and also been led toward truthful answers, which he balked at giving.
<End “Michael Flynn” Section>
Jared Kushner is an investor, real estate developer, and publisher who was a central figure in the Trump campaign (running its digital media operation) and who currently serves as senior White House advisor. His connection to Trump, of course, is ultimately much more personal than that. Since 2009 Kushner has been married to Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and unquestionably one of his most trusted confidants. Along the way, Kushner has become involved in several aspects of the Russian investigation:
- In the spring of 2016 Kushner received an email chain that described Aleksander Torshin, a former senator and deputy head of Russia’s central bank who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as wanting Trump to attend an event on the sidelines of a National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in May 2016. The email also suggests Torshin was seeking to meet with a high-level Trump campaign official during the convention, and that he may have had a message for Trump from Putin. While Kushner recommended passing on the idea, he forwarded the e-mails to several campaign officals, and Torshin subsequently was seated with Donald Trump Jr. during a private dinner on the sidelines of the NRA event.
- Kushner was one of the parties (along with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort) to the June 3, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with individuals claiming to be offering information damaging to Hillary Clinton as part of Russia’s support for the Trump campaign. Kushner has maintained that he didn’t read to the bottom of the forwarded e-mail invitation where Russian government support for Trump and the offer of material damaging to Clinton was discussed.
- Kushner received e-mails in Septmeber 2016 regarding Donald Trump Jr.’s correspondence with WikiLeaks around the time that they were releasing material from the DNC and Clinton campaign that ultimately has proven to have been hacked by Russian intelligence agents. Before this was reported in November 2017, Kushner had maintained to congressional Russia investigators that he did not communicate with WikiLeaks and did not recall anyone on the Trump campaign who had.
- In October 2016, one month before Election Day, Jared Kushner’s real estate company finalized a $285 million loan with Deutsche Bank as part of a refinancing package for property in Manhattan. At the time, Deutsche Bank was negotiating to settle charges from New York state regulators that it aided a possible Russian money-laundering scheme. This case has since been settled, but Congressional committees investigating Russia have (thus far unsuccessfully) asked Deutsche Bank for more information on this and it’s other financial dealings with Trump and his family. The Guardian reported on 6/29/17 that the firm of the (now former) head of Trump’s Russian investigation legal defense team, Marc Kasowitz’s, was also involved in this real-estate sale.
- In December 2016 Kushner met with Sergei Gorkov, chairman of Russian state development bank Vnesheconombank (VEB). Gorkov is a former member of the FSB, the Russian state security agency that is the inheritor of the KGB, and a close confidant of Vladimir Putin. VEB, for its part, is under sanctions over Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine. The New York Times reported on 4/6/17 that Kushner had failed to disclose these contacts as required when applying for top-security clearance in connection with his work with the Trump administration. Kushner eventually updated his federal disclosure form several times to include more than 100 names on a list of foreign contacts.
- Also in December 2016, Kushner had meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kisylak about setting up a “back-channel” for direct communication between the Administration and the Russian government. Such a move is not unusual per se, but has attrcated attention given the sensitivity of charges concerning Russia at that time, and the fact that it was to be logistically hosted by Russia, rather than the more typical move of having the State Department or a U.S. intelligence agency set it up.
- In January 2017 close friend of Jared Kushner Richard Gerson, a New York-based hedge-fund manager, was reportedly in Seychelles at the same time that Trump adviser and brother to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Erik Prince, was in the country to secretly meet with United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials including Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. During that time, Gerson communicated with George Nader, the businessman who had set up Prince’s meeting, as well as with al-Nahyan himself, according to NBC sources. Gerson had also met with Nader weeks earlier when Trump officials met with Nader and al-Nahyan at the New York Four Seasons hotel, where Kushner himself was also in attendance. According to several reports, Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Seychelles meeting between Prince and UAE officials served to set up a back channel between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Because of these connections, Kushner has naturally been of interest to the various Russia investigations. Reports emerged on 6/15/17 that Robert Mueller’s team was focused on investigating Kushner’s business dealings and finances, and Kushner hired Abbe Lowell to represent him in the FBI investigation on 6/26/17. On 7/14/17, Lowell formally took over all Russian-related activity from Kushner’s main attorney, Jamie Gorelick. This could be a recognition of escalating legal action, but is also consistent with Gorelick wanting to avoid any conflict of interest, as she had been in the same firm as Robert Mueller before he left to accept the Special Counsel position.
There have been indications that Mueller’s team may be investigating Kushner for matters beyond the Russian investigation, including conversations during the transition to shore up financing for 666 Fifth Avenue, a Kushner Companies-backed New York City office building reeling from financial troubles. NBC reported on 3/2/18 that Mueller’s team is scrutinizing whether any of Jared Kushner’s business discussions with foreigners during the presidential transition later shaped White House policies, focusing specifically on his discussions during the transition with individuals from Qatar and Turkey, as well as Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates. And, as mentioned above, Kushner’s close friend Richard Gerson, a New York-based hedge-fund manager, has drawn the eye of Mueller’s investigators due to his proximity to meetings that top members of the Trump campaign had with United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials including Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Seychelles during the same time that Trump adviser and brother to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Erik Prince, was in the country to secretly meet with al-Nahyan and other UAE officials, and a few weeks earlier when Trump officials, including Kushner himself, met with al-Nahyan at the New York Four Seasons hotel. Mueller is looking into whether the Seychelles meeting between Prince and UAE officials served to set up a back channel between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Kushner also attracted attention from the Congressional investigators. On 7/24/17, ahead of private appearances before the House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence Committees, Trump son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner released an 11-page statement. Among the highlights (it should be noted that Kushner’s testimony was not issued under oath):
- Kushner strongly denied any collusion, or improper financial relations, with Russia-connected interests.
- He reiterated earlier statements that he had not read the full e-mail string on the June 2016 meeting with Russian representatives, Donald Trump Jr., and then-Trump campaign director Paul Manafort before attending.
- He stated that he deemed the meeting so unimportant that he e-mailed an assistant to call him so he had an excuse to leave. Kushner further stated that he never met with, or heard from, the Russian lawyer again after that point.
- He described briefly meeting Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at an event at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016, but disputed press reports that he had any further meetings or calls with Kislyak after that time, except for a brief meeting requested by the ambassador and Michael Flynn in December 2016 to discuss policy matters (chiefly Syria) related to the coming transition.
- Regarding his December 2016 meeting with Russian Banker Sergey Gorkov, Kushner said he took the meeting at Kislyak’s request after being told that Gorkov was “someone with a direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration and best ways to work together.” Kushner stated that no business ties or deals were discussed at the meeting.
- Kushner blamed serial revision of his disclosure forms after they had initially omitted the above meetings on the forms being prematurely filed by an assistant before they were ready.
While Kushner may not have been under oath, the Senate Judiciary Committee was still not pleased when some of the revelations mentioned above made it seem he had not been honest in his testimony. On 11/16/17 the Committee sent a letter to Kushner’s attorney requesting further disclosure of documents that did not appear to have been released following previous requests. Kushner received emails in September 2016 about WikiLeaks and about a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite” in May 2016 and forwarded them to another campaign official, according to a letter to his attorney from Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
For their part, the President Trump’s outside legal team is reported to have sought to wall off Jared Kushner from discussing the Russia investigation with his father-in-law. CNN also reported assertions (and White House denials) that some of President Donald Trump’s legal team had advised that his son-in-law Jared Kushner step down from his role as White House adviser. Sources familiar with the matter told CNN the White House legal team discussed during the spring whether Kushner ought to step aside in order to protect the President from legal scrutiny over his associates’ interactions with Russians. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in response that there was “certainly no presentation” on the issue, or any conversations that she was aware of. Kushner, meanwhile, reportedly pressed White House aides to more vigorously defend the Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and the Kremlin-linked lawyer. Most recently, in December 2017, Kushner’s Senior Counsel, Abbe Lowell, reportedly looked into hiring a crisis public relations firm for Kushner. Lowell reached out to at least two firms, according to the Washington Post.
<End “Jared Kushner” Section>
Paul Manafort/Richard Gates
Paul Manafort is a lobbyist and political consultant who first became active with the Trump campaign in February 2016, initially playing a key role in getting ready for the Republican Convention, and eventually becoming chairman of the campaign from June through August 2016. Although not personally close to Trump before the campaign, Manafort has known longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone since 1980, founding the consulting firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly with him and working with him at BMSK from 1980-1996. At BMSK, Manafort often found himself consulting and lobbying for foreign leaders with despotic tendencies. After leaving and starting a new firm, Manafort began to get involved specifically with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians around 2003-2004. Manafort’s ties to Russia before, during, and after the Trump campaign include:
- As early as 2005 Manafort secretly worked for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska on a plan to “greatly benefit the Putin Government”. According to AP reporting, Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan pitched to Deripaska that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government. Subsequent reporting revealed just how extensive Manafort’s financial ties to Deripaska were. $26 million changed hands in the form of a loan between a company linked to Manafort and Deripaska, part of total known business dealings between them of around $60 million over a decade, according to financial documents filed in Cyprus and the Cayman Islands.
- Manafort had former Ukranian-President Viktor Yanukovych as a consulting client, and his 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. Reporting on the FBI’s investigation into Manafort’s business ties to Yanukovych in August 2016 was shortly followed by Manafort being dismissed from the Trump campaign.
- Using documents found following the revolution in 2014, Ukrainian opposition lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko alleged that Manafort paid himself $750,000 out of the pro-Russia ruling party’s slush fund by forging invoices in a ledger to Belize. The AP confimred in April 2017 that $1.2 million of payments received by Manafort’s consulting firm matched transactions from the “Black ledger” that Leschenko has indicated should be investigated for money laundering.
- Court filings from Robert Mueller’s investigation revealed that Manafort was interviewed twice by FBI agents prior to joining the Trump campaign. One meeting in 2014 was first reported in February 2018 by BuzzFeed, but the April 2018 court filings also show a meeting with FBI agents that occurred tin 2013, as FBI agents reportedly interviewed Manafort about his work in Ukraine. A former FBI official told BuzzFeed in that Manafort denied knowledge about money stolen by the government of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and promised to turn over documents. He never did, according to the report.
- McClatchy DC reported on details of Paul Manafort’s travel to Russia and the Ukraine from 2004-2015. During this time, he visited Moscow 18 times, and was in the Ukraine 138 times, including 19 times consulting for a pro-Russian opposition party in 2014-2015 after the fall of the the Russian-backed leader of the Ukraine. In the course of these trips he was in frequent contact with Vladimir Putin’s allies while working as a consultant for oligarchs and pro-Kremlin parties. The details lead some Russia experts to suspect that the Kremlin’s emissaries at times turned Manafort into an asset acting on Russia’s behalf. “You can make a case that all along he …was either working principally for Moscow, or he was trying to play both sides against each other just to maximize his profits,” said Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state in President George W. Bush’s second term. “He’s at best got a conflict of interest and at worst is really doing Putin’s bidding,” said Fried, now a fellow with the Atlantic Council.
- The New York Daily News reported that Manafort, had engaged in a series of puzzling real estate deals in New York City over the past 11 years that resemble transactions often used for money-laundering. These transactions totaled several million dollars, and follow a pattern used by money launderers: buying properties with all cash through shell companies, then using the properties to obtain “clean” money through bank loans.
- Financial records filed in Cyprus in 2016 indicate that Manafort had been in debt to pro-Russia interests by as much as $17 million before he joined Trump’s presidential campaign in March 2016. Manafort kept bank accounts in the international tax haven during his years working in Ukraine and investing with a Russian oligarch. The money appears to have been owed by shell companies connected to Mr. Manafort’s business activities in Ukraine when he worked as a consultant to a pro-Russia political party.
- Manafort was one of the parties, along with Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and son Donald Trump Jr., to the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with Russia-linked individuals promising material damaging to Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s official support of the Trump campaign. NBC reported on 9/1/17 that Paul Manafort’s notes on the June 2016 meeting with representatives of Russian interests include mention of “political contributions” near references to the RNC. A September 2018 follow-up story by the Washington Post reproduced Manafort’s notes from the meeting, and went into detail on their possible significance. Among otherr things, Manafort seems to have stopped taking notes when it became clear that the promised damaging information about Clinton was not significant, and the Russian’smain purpose of the meeting was to discuss the Magintsky Act.
- In a July 7, 2016 e-mail from shortly before Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, Paul Manafort offered to provide briefings on the race Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin. Manafort made the offer in an email to an overseas intermediary, asking that a message be sent to Deripaska, an aluminum magnate with whom Manafort had done business in the past. “If he needs private briefings we can accommodate.” There is no reported evidence indicating whether Deripaska received the offer, or if briefings were held.
- Some sources believe Manafort was behind the July 2016 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” 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.”
- A purported cyberhack of Manafort’s daughter suggests that he was the victim of a blackmail attempt while he was serving as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign during the summer of 2016. The undated communications, which are allegedly from the iPhone of Manafort’s daughter, include a text that appears to come from a Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko, seeking to reach her father, in which he claims to have politically damaging information about both Manafort and Trump. While Manafort’s reponse to the initial hack claim was that the messages were “obviously fake”, a further body of thousands of text messages from Manafort’s daughters has been released by hacktivists, and has the appearance, both in volume and detail, of being genuine. In the messages, Manafort’s family expressed severe misgivings about the political consultant’s work for both Yanukovych and Trump.
- On 8/19/16, the day he stepped down from Trump’s presidential campaign amidst controversy over his Ukraine ties, Manafort filed papers creating a shell company. This company soon received $13 million in loans from two businesses with ties to Mr. Trump, including one that partners with a Ukrainian-born billionaire and another led by a Trump economic adviser. The loans appear to have been part of an attempt to deal with debt related to Manafort’s real estate holdings.
- CNN reported that investigators wiretapped Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election. The government snooping continued into early 2017. Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Several of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive. According to a 9/18/17 report, Robert Mueller’s team has been provided details of the wiretapped conversations. It was subsequently reported that some of Manafort’s conversations were with Russian individuals and specifically involved the 2016 election.
- In the spring and summer of 2017, Manafort advised administration officials on how to undermine the FBI and Mueller investigation in three ways, according to Vox’s 12/14/18 reporting on government records and interviews with three people with knowledge of the contacts. First, Manafort advised the president and his political surrogates to aggressively and directly attack the FBI and other elements of the federal law enforcement apparatus investigating his administration. The goal of Manafort’s advice was to “delegitimize” the investigation. Second, Manafort counseled the White House to allege that the pro-Western Ukrainian government had colluded with the Democratic National Committee to try to help Hillary Clinton win the 2016 presidential election. Third, in early 2017, Manafort provided the White House specific information on how Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign had sponsored research into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. More specifically, Manafort provided information to the White House as to how to discredit the so-called Steele dossier. Manafort’s contacts with the White House continued even after his cooperation with Mueller. Without telling prosecutors, Manafort’s defense attorneys were secretly providing details of their client’s cooperation with the special counsel to the president’s legal team.
- Manafort on 4/12/17 announced that he would register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for the past work he had done. He maintained that the work he was registering for was not done on behalf of Russia, and concluded before he joined the Trump campaign.
With things like the above being widely publicly reported by Spring 2017, it was inevitable that Manafort would attract the interest of the various Russia investigations. He was formally scheduled to meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee and Judiciary Committees the week of 7/25/17. Manafort had initially declined to hold the meetings, but then after being subpoenaed, agreed to a non-public hearing that would not be under oath. This was apparently replaced by a brief appearance before the Senate Intelligence Panel, and Manafort’s agreement to turn over to the committees notes he took during the June 2016 meeting between himself, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and various Russian-government-connected individuals. He also agreed to appear before the Judiciary Committee at a later time.
Further Congressional meetings were not to be, however, as news broke on 8/9/17 that the FBI conducted a pre-dawn raid on Paul Manafort’s Virginia home on 7/26/17. The raid occured without warning the day Manafort was scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a day after he met with Senate Intelligence Committee staff members. The search warrant requested documents related to tax, banking and other matters, and agents left with an extensive amount of material. It was subsequently reported that investigators had met with Manafort’s son-in-law and sometimes business partner Jeffrey Yohai earlier in the summer. On 8/10/17 Manafort replaced his existing legal team, WilmerHale, with Miller and Chevalier, a boutique firm that specializes in defense regarding financial crimes. And indeed, reporting by McClatchy on 8/22/17 indicated that financial crimes involving Manafort had become a particular focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Mueller’s team soon followed with 8/29/17 subpoenas to an attorney with the Akin Gump law firm who had previously represented Manafort, and Manafort’s spokesman. On 8/30/17 it was further reported that Mueller was partnering with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in his investigation into Manafort. Reporting eventually revelaed that Mueller’s investigators collected 400,000 documents including financial records, corporate records and emails involving Manafort, and also had information from 36 laptops, phones, thumb drives and other electronic devices that were seized during the raid of Manafort’s house. Fueled by all this information, on 10/30/17 the first indictments in Robert Mueller’s investigation were handed down against Manafort and his business partner Robert Gates. The 31-page indictment accused Manafort of earning over $12 million from improperly-disclosed lobbying and public relations work for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians, and then (with help from Gates) divvying it up over a number of shell companies, and making over 200 wire transfers to various businesses in order to hide the origin of the money and avoid paying income taxes on it. Manafort and Gates turned themselves in, plead “not guilty”, and reached a bail agreement that involved home arrest during legal proceedings.
It’s worth saying a few words about Manafort’s longtime business partner Richard Gates, as he is heavily involved in most of the charges against Manafort. Politico ran a 3/28/18 profile on Gates which noted that while Paul Manafort is a higher-profile target for Mueller’s investigation, Gates is one with potentially much more information on the Trump campaign and White House, as he stayed with the Trump team after Manafort was removed as campaign director in August 2016, and played an active and high-level role during the transition and early months of the administration. Gates was part of a four-person task force working to advance the Presdient’s agenda, and was working in the White House at least through March 2017. He also lacks the personal loyalty to Trump through family ties or decades of association that many other figures in the investigation have.
Gates played a key role in the developing the legal case against Manafort as well. Reports in Janaury 2018 began to suggest Gates was shifting to cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. On 2/1/18 three attorneys representing Gates told a federal court they were immediately withdrawing as counsel and on 2/14/18, multiple sources reported that Gates was preparing to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. On 2/21/18 new charges were filed against Manafort and Gates. The next day the detailed 37-page indictment was unsealed, revealing 32 new charges of bank and tax fraud adding to the 12 charges already filed in October 2017. On 2/23/18 Gates entered a guilty plea to several tax and foreign agent reporting charges, and on the same date a new indictment of Manafort was unsealed. The latest indictment provided additional details on earlier charges, and also accused Manafort, with Gates’s help, of secretly retaining a group of former senior European politicians to take positions that were favorable to Ukraine as part of their lobbying work for Kiev’s government. Manafort allegedly wired more than $2 million from his offshore accounts to pay these former politicians.
On 2/27/18, Mueller’s team moved to drop 20 of the charges against Gates in return for his cooperation. CNN reported in March 2018 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team made clear in 2017 that it wanted former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates’ help with its central mission, investigating the Trump campaign’s contact with the Russians, rather than providing further information against Gates’ business partner Paul Manafort. This fits with the 3/28/18 court filing alledging that Gates was in contact with a colleague of Manafort’s who worked for a Russian intelligence agency, and that Gates knew of these ties while he worked on the Trump campaign. Gates would have to talk about these contacts if prosecutors wanted, according to his plea deal. 4/5/18 court filings further indicated that Mueller’s investigation may be actively building a collusion case against Manafort or other Trump campaign officials, and potentially basing it on the testimony of Gates. The filing was a response to a motion from Manafort’s attorneys to see additional details of search warrants related to Manafort. Mueller’s team generally turned over these kinds of details, but as it pertained to a warrant obtained for phone numbers linked to Gates, the special counsel’s office insisted that the warrant be redacted because they are “relating to ongoing investigations that are not the subject of either of the current prosecutions involving Manafort.” On 4/19/18 prosecutors working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team further told a Washington DC court that their interest in Paul Manafort stemmed in part from his suspected role as a “back channel” between the campaign and Russians intent on meddling in the election.
Gates was not the only Manafort associate who cooperated with Mueller. In addition to the additional charges against Manafort and guilty plea from Gates in February 2018, a sealed filing from 2/16/18 was released on 2/20/18 with a guilty plea from lawyer Alex van der Zwaan for lying to the FBI about work his law firm performed for Gates and Manafort in 2012 related to Ukraine. The charging documents say van der Zwaan made false statements about communications with Gates and another unnamed person, only identified as “Person A”, and deleted or failed to produce emails that were being sought. Zwaan is the son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan. Information in van der Zwaan’s 3/28/18 sentencing memo revealed that the FBI believed that the unnamed business associate of Manafort and Gates had ties to Russian intelligence. The documents alleged that Gates was aware that the unidentified associate “was a former Russian Intelligence Officer” and that Gates and the individual continued to communicate in the months before the 2016 presidential election. Subsequent reporting established that “Person A” was Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Russian employee of Manafort’s. The Daily Beast reported that Kilimnik had also founded the consulting firm Begemot Ventures in Washington D.C. in February 2015. Begemont shared an office building with the offices of Sam Patten, a Republican lobbyist and foreign policy consultant with ties to Roger Stone who had previously worked on Cambridge Analytica’s targeting during the 2014 midterms. Patten is also listed as Kilimnik’s partner in the venture. On 4/3/18 van der Zwaan was sentenced to 30 days in jail and $20,000 in fines for lying to the FBI, becoming the first person found guilty as a result of Mueller’s investigation, and was deported to the Netherlands on 6/5/18 after serving his sentence.
Against this background of cooperating witnesses, two seperate trial dates were scheduled for Manafort. On 2/28/18, a September trial in Washington D.C. was set for the foreign agent registration charges against Manafort. On 3/8/18, a second trial date for tax and bank fraud charges was set for July in Virginia. This set off several months of legal wrangling. On 3/13/18 U.S. Virginia District Judge Thomas Ellis III imposed house arrest on Manafort because of the strength of the case against him and the fact that he had the means and motive to flee the country. This resulted in him wearing two ankle bracelets because an earlier judge had kept him under house arrest after Mueller asked the judge to deny Manafort’s request to release him, pointing to a draft of an op-ed the former Trump campaign manager ghostwrote with an associate tied to Russian intelligence. A 6/4/18 filing by Mueller’s team then asked Judge Ellis to revoke his house arrest, alledging that there was probable cause that Manafort had engaged in felony witness tampering. This was followed by a 6/8/18 indictment saying that between February and April 2018 Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik reached out to the two former associates to urge them to tell the special counsel’s team that the Hapsburg Group’s efforts consisted only of outreach in Europe and not in the United States. The question of the geographic target of the Hapsburg Group’s activities is significant because any lobbying or public relations in the United States on behalf of foreign politicians, governments or companies would require disclosure with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Based on the evidence of witness tampering, on 6/15/18, the judge in his September Washington D.C. trial ordered that Manafort be held in jail until trial.
Manafort’s team meanwhile engaged in multiple rearguard actions to slow the progress of the cases. On 4/7/18 lawyers for Manafort made filings arguing that what could be key evidence against him should be kept out of court because the FBI violated his Constitutional rights by illegally entering a storage locker belonging to Manafort’s firm. U.S. Washinton D.C. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson declined this request by Manafort to suppress evidence on 6/21/18. On 6/22/18, Berman Jackson further rejected Manafort’s attempt to toss out a money laundering charge stemming from his use of offshore bank accounts funded by a lobbying campaign he masterminded on behalf of political interests in Ukraine. Seperately, on 4/3/18 Berman rejected Manafort’s argument that Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller in May 2017 was illegal, as Mueller had exceeded the investigative authority that Rosenstein provided. On 5/16/18 Berman Jackson also dismissed a second motion from Manfort’s defense arguing that Mueller had exceeded the scope of his authority in the case. On 5/4/18, the presiding judge in the Virginia case, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis, himself had strongly questioned the basis on which Mueller’s team was pursuing the case. “I don’t see what relation this indictment has with what the special counsel is authorized to investigate,” Ellis said. “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. … What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.” On 5/17/18, Special Counsel Robert Mueller provided Judge Ellis with an unredacted version of the Justice Department memo laying out the scope of his investigation . On 6/26/18 Ellis dismissed Manafort’s bid to have the case thrown out on the grounds that Mueller’s mandate did not cover what he is being charged with, ruling that the trial should continue.
On the prosecution side, Mueller’s team made public new evidence on 6/12/18 that Manafort directed an organized but unregistered lobbying campaign in the U.S. on behalf of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In a public court filing, Mueller’s team released two memos from 2013 detailing Manafort’s involvement in efforts to influence debate in Congress and in the U.S. press about the imprisonment of Yanukovych’s main political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko. On 6/13/18 Special Counsel Robert Mueller requested 150 blank subpoenas for the pending Virginia trial, and on 7/11/18 requested another 100. In a 7/6/18 filing, Mueller also put forth evidence that a banking executive allegedly helped Manafort obtain loans of approximately $16 million while the banker sought a role in the Trump campaign, which would be a campaign connection admissible to discuss during the trial. On 7/18/18, Mueller’s team filed a list of over 500 pieces of evidence it planned to submit in the trial. The items range from immunity agreements to texts between Manafort and Ukraine’s former president and a fellow U.S. political consultant, and included photographs and documents of expensive purchases prosecutors say Manafort made with money he attempted to hide from U.S. authorities. On 7/23/18 Judge Ellis approved Mueller’s request for immunity for five witnesses connected with Manafort’s financial dealings.
On 7/31/18 Manafort’s team withdrew a civil suit against Mueller aimed at blocking the case from going forward, and the Virginia trial for Paul Manafort officially commenced. Mueller’s team kicked off by describing how Manafort did not pay taxes on a large portion of the $60 million he earned working for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, hid the income in a web of 30 overseas bank accounts, and lied to U.S. banks to borrow millions of dollars against his real estate holdings once the money from Ukraine dried up. Manafort’s attorney painted a drastically different portrait of Manafort, calling him a successful political consultant who left the day-to-day operations of his company to his former associate Rick Gates, who betrayed him. On the fourth day Manafort’s accountant Cindy Laporta, under immunity, testified that she believes she committed crimes for Manafort and Gates, had misgivings about their finances, and believed they were not being truthful. The government also made further arguments to back up the portion of the case dealing with bank fraud. The next day, Manafort’s business partner, and cooperating government witness, Rick Gates took the stand. Gates testified in great detail that he and Manafort knowingly worked to subvert tax law, and committed numerous acts of bank fraud to do so. Upon cross-examination by defense on the sixth day, Gates freely admitted to embezzeling from Manafort himself and to having had an affair, two items the defense lasid out to discredit him, but stuck to his story about Manafort’s actions. The prosecution meanwhile questioned an IRS revenue auditor and FBI forensic accountant who laid out in detail the path that Manafort’s money followed, from income from the Ukraine to offshore accounts to $15 million worth of luxury purchases.
A flurry of recesses initiated by Judge Ellis on the next day of the trail caused some observers to wonder whether the case might be headed to mistrial. However, the prosecution then closed a day later, and the defense closed on 8/14/18 without calling any witnesses. Closing arguments occured on 8/15/18 with prosecutors urging jurors to focus on financial records and Manafort’s “lies”, and Manafort’s lawyers arguing that the case was a mishmash of “selective” evidence that didn’t amount to any crime at all. During deliberations, questions from the jury seemed to indicate questions on some of the charges, and indeed, the jury came back with a guilty plea on 8 charges, but was deadlocked on another 10, apparently due to one juror holding out. Even these charges still held out the prospect of an effective life-sentence for Manafort and, amidst preparations for the second trial in Washington DC in Septmeber, speculation on whether Trump might pardon him (including revelations that he had repeatedly talked with his lawyers about doing so), Manafort’s team initiated a series of on-again off-again plea deal talks with Mueller. A plea deal was reached on 9/14/18, leading to the filing of admission to reduced charges related to the upcoming DC trial, but also introducing 38 pages of evidence related to them into the public record.
Following Manafort’s plea deal, his former associate Sam Patten pleaded guilty in federal court to acting as a foreign agent and agreed to cooperate with government prosecutors. As laid out in the filing documents, and various journalistic reports, Patten worked with Manafort on campaigns in Ukraine. Patten also reportedly once worked for Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that came under scrutiny following its work for the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, and worked with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian who Mueller indicted earlier this year along with Manafort for conspiring to obstruct justice and obstructing justice. Kilimnik is widely believed to have ties to Russian intelligence, and to be the Russian national identified as Foreigner A in the criminal information filed as part of the plea deal. The statement of the offense filed by the U.S. attorney’s office also says that Patten worked to conceal a $50,000 payment from the Ukrainian oligarch for tickets to President Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
Alas, things were not as rosy for Manfort and Mueller as they seemed. On 11/26/18 Mueller made a court filing staing that Manafort had repeatedly lied to investigators, and as a result the cooperation deal was nullified and the government wanted to move immediately to sentencing. Among this issues at hand, subsequent reporting revealed that Manfort’s team had repeatedly contacted Trump’s legal team even after Mananfort became a cooperating witness. Separate stories came out that same week from the Guardian claiming that Manafort had held secret talks with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange while working with the campaign (both Manfort and WikiLeaks issued statements categorically denying this), and also that the Mueller probe was questioning him about a November 2017 meeting with the Ecuadorian President, and whether Assange was discussed during that meeting. Mueller’s team followed up with a sentencing memo on 12/7/18 laying out how, after becoming a cooperating witness, Manafort had lied about communications with Konstantin Kilimnik (a longtime business associate whom Mueller has claimed is tied to Russian intelligence), falsely denied that he conspired with Kilimnik to try and witness tamper, lied about a certain payment of $125,000 in 2017, lied regarding another (redacted) Justice Department investigation, and claimed not to have been in contact with Trump administration officials in 2018, when he in fact was. Many details were redacted in the memo, but Mueller’s team stated they were prepared to provide the judge with a detailed accounting in a non-public document. Vox separately published a 12/14/18 in-depth recounting of ways Manafort advised Trump administration officials in the spring and summer of 2017 on how to politically undermine the FBI and Mueller investigation.
<End “Paul Manafort/Richard Gates” Section>
Carter Page is a Navy veteran, energy consultant, and founder/managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a one-man investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business. Page seems to have first become involved with the Russian energy sector while working as a London-based investment banker with Merril Lynch in 2000 on deals involving the Russian state energy company Gazprom. Prior to that, he had been with the strategy consulting firm Eurasia Group, whose president felt that he was not a good fit due to strong pro-Russian views and sympathy for Vladimir Putin. Page joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 as a foreign policy advisor, but resigned in September after his links to Russia began to receive press attention. These links as they relate to the Russian investigation include:
- Page had meetings with with Russian intelligence agents in 2013. He 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. Podobnyy had apparently been seeking to recruit Page, but ultimately received nothing more than publicly available documents from him.
- Page met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during the Republican convention in Cleveland in July 2016. These meetings also involved national security advisers to the Trump campaign J.D. Gordon & Walhid Fares. Gordon told CNN that he, Page, & Fares stressed to the Russian envoy that Trump would like to improve relations with Russia. Gordon added that at no time did inappropriate talk come up about colluding with the Russians to aid the Trump campaign. These revelations came out on 3/2/17, when Carter Page reversed himself on multiple prior denials about having had any official contact with Russian representatives during the campaign.
- 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, and was told by Lewandowski that he could make the trip, but not as an official representative of the campaign. When reporting on the trip emerged in march 2017, Lewandowski claimed that he did not specifically remember the e-mail, but did not dispute the accuracy of the story.
- While appearing during the House Intelligence Committee’s Russian probe, Page testified that he mentioned to Jeff Sessions that he was traveling to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Sessions had previously denied any knowledge of Page’s trips. In the interview, Page said that he sought permission for his trip ahead of time and asked for advice about his remarks at a university, and afterward he offered to provide a readout to the campaign. Page also floated the idea that Trump travel to Russia in his place to give an Obama-like foreign speech. This contradicted earlier statements by Page that he went to Russia as a private citizen and unrelated to the campaign. Page also indicated that during the trip he had in fact met with a senior Russian Minister, despite earlier denials of any contact with Russian government officials. Page also acknowledged having a conversation with a separate high-ranking official from Russian state-backed oil company Rosneft, which plays a prominent role in allegations in the Steele dossier, but indicated it was just catching up with an old friend, and nothing substantive was discussed.
- Understandably given activities like the above-mentioned, the FBI obtained a secret FISA court order in the Summer of 2016 to monitor Page’s communications as part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign. The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to officials.
- The FBI wrote in the warrant that it believed Russia was trying to recruit Page. When a redated version of the warrant was made public in 2018, Page made subsequent statements that “I’ve never been an agent of [a] foreign power by any stretch of the imagination” although he allowed that he had previously called himself an “informal adviser” and that in 2016 “there may have been a loose conversation” with Russian officials about U.S. sanctions. But he added that “there was nothing in terms of any nefarious behavior” and that he’d never heard from Russians about compromising information on Hillary Clinton. He specifically denied having ever communicated with Igor Sechin or Igor Diveykin, Russians who were listed in the FBI documents.
- The FISA order was also informed by allegations about Page made in the “Steele Dossier” (see separate section below) including that Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort used Page as an intemediary in communications betweent the campaign and Russians about cooperation, and that Page had “conceived and promoted” the idea leaking materials stolen from the DNC to WikiLeaks.
- Page was in Moscow on December 2016, for what he described as meetings with “business leaders and thought leaders”. The New York Times report on this came out days after a 2/5/17 PBS interview in which Page maintained that he had not had any meetings with Russian officials in the past year.
His background with Russia and repeated habit of denying contacts until they were revealed by subsequent reporting made Page an obvious person of interest to the various Russian investigations. On 6/26/17, Page confirmed a Washington Post story that he had been interviewed five times by the FBI as part of its investigation into Russia, for a total of 10 hours of questioning. Page was also subpoenead by the Senate Intelligence Committee, but on 10/10/17 informed them that he would not be cooperating with any requests to appear before the panel and also stated that he and would plead the Fifth. He did, however, appear in a private session before the House Intelligence Committee on 11/3/17. In a highly unusual move, Page did not bring an attorney to his interview (a transcript of which was subsequently publicly released), which was described by some lawmakers as meandering, at times confusing, and contradictory.
Other than these appearances, news about Page’s role itself has been fairly limited. He was active in a lawsuit involving Yahoo news, but on 3/21/18 a federal judge dismissed fPage’s legal claims over the September 2016 Yahoo news article that revealed he was under U.S. government scrutiny over his ties to Russia. U.S. District Court Judge Lorna Schofield rejected a portion of a lawsuit Page filed without an attorney seeking damages against Yahoo’s parent company Oath over the 2016 story by veteran investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. Schofield’s ruling said the article could not be considered a violation of a federal law known as the Anti-Terrorism Act, despite Page’s claim that the story headlined “U.S. intel officials probe ties between Trump adviser and Kremlin” resulted in death threats against him. Schofield noted that Page never really argued that the Yahoo story was false.
Allegations of impropriety in the decision to pursue FISA surveillance against Page have also become a cause celebre of Rightwing media (see “FBI investigation” section above for more). In response, on 7/23/18 the FBI released a redacted version of its previously classified surveillance warrant application after news organizations and advocacy groups like Judicial Watch sued for its disclosure. The release of the 400-page document itself is significant as it marks the first public disclosure of a highly sensitive FISA request. Although heavily redacted, and despite a 7/24/18 Twitter meltdown by President Trump to the contrary, nothing in the warrant appears to support the claims of political bias or impropriety that have been made by House Republicans and Right-leaning media.
In an interview with the New York Post on 5/26/18, Carter Page said that the FBI investigation of him cost him business, income and even his girlfriend. Page told The Post that during the media barrage he faced in late 2016, he visited his girlfriend at her London flat, where she was “freaking out with the fake news about me,” and subsequently ended their relationship. Page went on to say that he believes that FBI infromant professor Stefan Halper was secretly spying on him as part of a “politically motivated” investigation of Team Trump, using fake sympathy to gain his trust — all while fishing for dirt on Page’s ties to Russia, where he’d worked as an energy consultant. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be a trap,” Page said. On 8/31/18 Department of Justice (DOJ) official Bruce Ohr reportedly told lawmakers when he testified before the House Judiciary and Oversight committees that former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele told him that Page had met with higher-ranking Russian officials than he has previously stated. Page responded by pointing to a tweet he wrote about the report, in which he slammed the DOJ as “corrupt” and charged it with being a co-conspirator with the Democratic National Committee and Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that funded the dossier compiled by Steele.
<End “Carter Page” Section>
Jeff Sessions was the Attorney General of the United States under Trump from 2017-2018. Prior to that, he was a U.S. Attorney, the Attorney General of Alabama, and served for twenty years as a Republican Senator from Alabama. Sessions was one of the earliest prominent elected officials to endorse Donald Trump’s campaign, and served as a senior policy advisor for the campaign, and prominent member of Trump’s transition team prior to being appointed Attorney General. He is also the proximate reason for the ongoing existence of the Special Counsel, as revelations of his multiple contacts with Russian officials after previous denials about the subject led to Sessions recusing himself from oversight of the investigation. The contacts in question include:
- In March 2016 Sessions took part in a meeting including then campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in which Papadopoulos proposed developing contacts between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sessions initially denied there had been any such meeting, then subsequently said that he had attended it, but had pushed back on Papdopoulos’ suggestion. Subsequent reporting by Reuters cited three people at the meeting who contradicted Sessions version of events. Although the accounts provided to Reuters differed in certain respects, all three, who declined to be identified, said Sessions had expressed no objections to Papadopoulos’ idea. One person said Sessions was courteous to Papadopoulos and said something to the effect of “okay, interesting.” In his August 2018 sentencing filing, Papadopoulos stated that Trump had “deferred to Mr. Sessions who appeared to like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it.”
- Richard Burt, a lobbyist for Russian state-owned businesses, claimed he attended two dinners hosted by Jeff Sessions duirng the 2016 campaign. This June 2017 revelation seemed to contradict Sessions’ 6/13/17 testimony that he did not “believe” he had contacts with any lobbyists working for Russia during the presidential race.
- CNN and NBC reported that both Sessions and Trump senior advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner may have had a private meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during an April 2016 event at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. This event was sponsored by a Russian think tank, and was also attended by Trump and his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort. In June 2017 Congressional tstimony, after initially denying the existence of the meeting, Sessions confirmed that there was “an encounter” but no substantive talk with Ambassador Kisylak.
- Sessions further met twice with Kislyak during the campaign in June and September 2016. In his Senate confirmation hearings for the AG position, Sessions had previously indicated that he was not aware of any Trump-campaign surrogates who had met with Russian officials, and that he had no such contacts himself. Post-revelation in March 2017, Sessions maintained that he did not consider the conversations relevant and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak. He did, however, recuse himself from any Justice Department investigations that may arise over Russian campaign interference or Trump campaign ties to Russia. Trump has stated that, while he does not think Sessions did anything wrong, he was not aware of any of Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak.
- The Washington Post reported that Kislyak told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race. This is according to conversations intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, and contradicts numerous earlier public assertions by Sessions.
- While appearing during the House Intelligence Committee’s Russian probe, former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page testified that he mentioned to Jeff Sessions that he was traveling to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Sessions had previously denied any knowledge of Page’s trips.
- A story in Foreign Policy described how Attorney General Jeff Sessions abruptly settled a money laundering case in May 2017 involving Natalia Veselnitskaya, the same Russian attorney who met with Donald Trump Jr.. The case, involving tax fraud in Russia and laundering a portion of the $230 million from it into Manhattan real estate, was filed in 2013 by Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was fired by Trump in March.
- CNN reported on 5/25/17 that Sessions deliberately omitted information on meetings with Russian parties from his security clearance applications. Sessions claims that he was advised that he did not have to do so by an unnamed FBI employee.
- On 7/13/17 (a day late), the Justice Department complied with a request to release Jeff Sessions disclosure form from his security clearance application. In the application Sessions answered “no” the following question: “Have you or any of your immediate family in the past seven (7) years [bold font in original] had any contact with a foreign government, its establishment (such as embassy, consulate, agency, military service, intelligence or security service, etc.) or its representatives, whether inside or outside the U.S.?” As established above, prior to filling out the form, Sessions had multiple meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and also had meetings with lobbyists for Russian state-owned businesses.
- ABC News reported on 3/21/18 that Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe oversaw a federal investigation in 2017 into whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fully forthcoming in his testimony to Congress about his contacts with Russian officials. Top GOP and Democratic lawmakers learned about the probe, which has since been closed, last year in a private briefing with McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Sessions was reportedly unaware of the investigation when he fired McCabe on 3/16/18.
For reasons you might have gathered from the above, investigators have been interested in talking further with Sessions. He is known to have been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and Sessions hired Chuck Cooper to represent him in matters relating to the Russian investigation on 6/20/17. He also appeared several times before the various Congressional committees investigating Russian election interference. Highlights of his first appearance, before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 6/13/17, include:
- He denied that he had deliberately withheld disclosures on his prior Russian contacts.
- Sessions 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.
- He 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” with Ambassador Kisylak in April 2016.
- Sessions used some version of the line “I can’t recall” 21 times.
- 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.
On 10/18/17 he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Highlights of Sessions testimony there include:
- Sessions at first denied he had been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, then hedged and said he might have to clear his answer with Mueller.
- Asked by Senator Leahy whether he’d discussed e-mails with any Russian officials since the start of the 2016 campaign, Sessions replied, “I don’t recall.”
- In response to the same question on discussing Russian interference in the 2016 election: “No”.
- The Magnitsky Act: “I don’t believe I’ve ever had any discussion at any time about the Magnitsky Act.”
- And general discussions on Trump’s positions: “I think that’s a possibility.”
Following Carter Page’s 11/3/17 testimony, members of the House Judiciary committee indicated they would like Attorney General Jeff Sessions to return for further testimony. Both Page’s statements and details from former Trump campaign worker George Papadopoulos’ indictment seemed to contradict statements that Sessions had previously made under oath that he had no knowledge of anyone related to the campaign having contact with Russian sources. Sessions returned for testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on 11/14/17. Highlights included:
- His opening statement said that the “chaos” of Trump’s 2016 campaign caused him to forget meetings in which Trump campaign aides told him that they were reaching out to members of the Russian government.
- Regarding Papadopoulos: “I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting. But I did not recall this event which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago. And I would gladly have reported it had I remembered it, because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper.”
- In all, Sessions used some version of “I can’t recall” 85 times during his testimony.
- Sessions vehemently denied any intention to mislead. Separately, Wired has released a list of 43 specific points about Russian contact and the subsequent investigation that Sessions has been unable to recall in the 11/14 and previous Congressional testimonies.
The House Intelligence Committee also got in some time to talk with Sessions. On 11/30/17 the Committee had closed-door testimony with the Attorney General. Details were not released, but committee co-chair Democrat Adam Schiff indicated concern that, in his testimony, Sessions declined to answer whether President Trump ever asked him to obstruct the ongoing investigation into Russian inference in the 2016 presidential election. Schiff rejected Sessions claim of being unable to discuss the matter because of executive privilege. Schiff also criticized the “unilateral” decision of the committee’s Republican majority to not release the testimony, which Schiff said “extensively” covered the interactions Sessions had with former Trump campaign officials like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.
The other main interaction Sessions has had with the investigation is ongoing indications that his decision to recuse himself from overseeing it led to significant friction with Presdient Trump. Early June 2017 reporting indicated that Sessions and Trump had one or more heated arguments in which Trump seems to have blamed Sessions’ recusal for the subsequent appointment of a Special Counsel. Following these, Sessions offered to resign, but was turned down by Trump. The New York Times further reported on 9/14/17 that, according to multiple sources, shortly after learning in May that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate links between his campaign associates and Russia, President Trump berated Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an Oval Office meeting and said he should resign. Accusing Mr. Sessions of “disloyalty,” Mr. Trump unleashed a string of insults on his attorney general. Ashen and emotional, Mr. Sessions told the president he would quit and sent a resignation letter to the White House, which the Presdient subsequently did not accept. Mr. Sessions later told associates that the way he was treated was his most humiliating experience in decades of public life.
It was further reported in December 2017 that President Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. Both the AP and the Times cited two sources familiar with the details of the conversation between McGahn and Sessions. It was revealed on 1/31/18 that the Justice Department has turned over a trove of internal documents to Mueller’s team, including correspondence related to the planned resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. On 5/30/18, President Trump made another of his repeated series of statements expressing regret in choosing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. The next day, Axios reported that Trump pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reclaim control of the Russia investigation on at least four separate occasions, three times in person and once over the phone. These attempts continued into late 2017. As of late August 2018, Trump was actively lobbying Republican senators to support removing Sessions. The day after the 2018 midterms, Sessions resigned (in a setting that many took to be a de facto firing by Trump) and was replaced by newly-appointed acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.
<End “Jeff Sessions” Section>
Roger Stone is a consultant and lobbyist known for specializing in opposition reasearch, chiefly for Republican candidates. Along the way he has developed a reputation as a trickster, and self decribes as a “master of the political dark arts”. He began this work during the Nixon administration, and has often played a part in Republican presidential campaigns since then. Stone is also a long-time associate of Donald Trump, who he first worked with in the 80s, and of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who he founded and ran a consulting firm with from 1980-1996. His formal role with Trump’s Presidential campaign ended in August 2015 (with some dispute about whether he was fired or quit), but he remained an informal adviser throughout the campaign. Stone has attracted particular attention for possible links with the hacker of the DNC and with WikiLeaks, which subsequently released the hacked materials. These links include:
- Stone associate Sam Nunberg has alledged that Stone had phone conversations with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the spring of 2016, Stone has, so far, denied ever having spoken with Assange.
- In May 2016 Stone met with a Russian who offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton in exchange for $2 million. In June 2018 letters to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, lawyers for Trump foreign policy adviser Roger Caputo and Stone say Caputo arranged a meeting between Stone and the Russian man who called himself Henry Greenberg. The two political operatives assert that they were transparent in their testimony before the committee, despite not disclosing the meeting. Caputo later told CNN he communicated with Greenberg by phone, and while he recognized that Greenberg had an accent, Caputo “assumed he was a US citizen.” “It was May 2016. Nobody was talking about Russia, collusion, etc.” Caputo said he now believes the Russian who met with Stone was an FBI informant because “the OSC (Office of Special Counsel) knew more about it than I did.” Stone’s lawyer described the encounter as a “one-time, 20-minute interaction” and stated that Greenberg offered Stone “non-specific, damaging Clinton information” in exchange for a $2 million payment from Trump, but that Stone declined. Stone told CNN he never discussed the meeting with the Trump campaign, nor anyone else, adding that it was “so ludicrous that I forgot about it.”
- Stone is known to have had August 2016 Twitter interactions with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker responsible for stealing material from the DNC and Clinton campaigns, who has subsequently been confirmed to have been a Russian intelligence operative. When these contacts were first reported in March 2017, Stone claimed that they were casual communications praising Gucciger 2.0 after the fact for the hacks, and that Stone had no indication that the cyberattacks were arranged by Russian security forces. However, Stone’s tweets in the days after raised questions about whether he knew in advance that emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, would be imminently published by WikiLeaks. “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary,” Stone tweeted on August 21. And it has subsequently emerged that, despite at first saying it was only a handful of August tweets Stone in fact was in contact with Guciffer 16 times during the campaign season.
- Stone is also alledged by former associate Sam Nunberg to have been in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during the 2016 campaign. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in an 8/4/16 email to Nunberg, Stone wrote: “I dined with Julian Assange last night.” The next day, Stone tweeted, “Hillary lies about Russian Involvement in DNC hack – Julian Assange is a hero.” In an interview with the paper, Stone stated, “I never dined with Assange, there was no such meeting. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. This was said in jest.” Stone also appeared on Infowars on August 4th and indicated that Assange would soon reveal damaging information about the Clinton Foundation. In an e-mail to CNN following disclosure of the messages, Stone stated, “Airline and credit card records establish that I flew on Jet Blue from NY to LA on August 1 and returned from LA to Miami on August 3. Credit card records show I stayed at the London hotel in West Hollywood on August 1st and 2nd. My passport shows I never left the country in 2016- never mind traveling to London. Even I have not perfected the ability to be two places at once.”
- September 2016 e-mails from Stone reportedly show that he wanted WikiLeakers founder Julian Assange to give him damaging information on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. According to the Wall Street Journal story, the E-mails show Stone requesting Randy Credico, a New York radio host who had recently interviewed Assange, to ask Assange for emails about Clinton’s alleged role in interfering with a possible peace deal in Libya in 2011, when she was secretary of State. “Please ask Assange for any State or HRC e-mail from August 10 to August 30 — particularly on August 20, 2011.” Credico told the Journal that he never passed Stone’s request onto Assange despite telling Stone otherwise, saying he “got tired” of Stone “bothering” him. Stone told the Journal that Credico “provided nothing” to him and that WikiLeaks never provided him with any emails.
- Stone also apparently had October 2016 contact with Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon about WikiLeaks. The day before a scheduled Assange press conference, Matthew Boyle, the Washington editor of Breitbart News, emailed Stone, who stated that Assange’s information would be good and complained that Bannon often failed to call him back. Boyle then emailed Bannon, who co-founded Breitbart, to get in touch with Stone, suggesting he “clearly he knows what Assange has.” The next day, after Assange’s press conference, Bannon emailed Stone. Stone said Assange feared for his safety, but that he would be releasing “a load” of documents every week going forward. In final emails with Bannon, Stone stated that he didn’t know if the Clintons cut a deal with Assange, and asked Bannon to have billionaire Republican donor Rebekah Mercer send money to his 501(c)(4).
- As recently as January 2018, Stone sent a text message to his associate Randy Credico stating that he was actively seeking a presidential pardon for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “I am working with others to get JA a blanket pardon,” Stone wrote, in a January 6 exchange of text messages obtained by Mother Jones. “It’s very real and very possible. Don’t fuck it up.”
Given the above, Stone has understandably been a focus of interest for investigators. As early as February 2017 he was publicly named as one of the Trump associates that the FBI was looking at for possible ties to Russian operatives, and in March 2017 the Senate Intelligence Committee ordered him to retain all Russia-related documents. Stone testified before the House Intelligence Committee on 9/26/17. The testimony itself was not public, but in a statement issued beforehand, he made the following points:
- He believes that the investigation is an irresponsible political proceeding.
- He denied having any ties to Russia or to pro-Russian Ukranian politicians.
- He indicated doubt that Russian interests generally, or the hacker Guccifer 2.0 specifically had anything to do with the DNC hack, which he believes evidence indicates was not a hack at all, but a download of data from someone on the inside.
- He cast doubt on the Intelligence community’s assessment of Russian campaign interference, noting many times that intelligence analysts have been wrong.
- He characterized his 8/21/16 tweet that “it will soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel” as having nothing to do with the hacked DNC materials that was released shortly afterward, and was instead prompted by his feeling that his friend Paul Manafort was being treated unfairly for his Russian connections, and that Podesta had improper connections that should also come to light.
- He denied ever having had direct contact with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and indicated that his Twitter communications with Guccifer 2.0 between 8/14/16 and 9/9/16 were entirely public, and benign.
- He closed by urging Congress to investigate evidence that the Clinton campaign was working with Russian and Ukranian interests to influence the election.
Stone also appears to have attracted strong interest from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. On 3/4/18 Axios reported on a subpoena that an unnamed witness had shared with them after receiving it from Mueller‘s team. The subpoena asked for all communications between the person and multiple key Trump campaign-related parties from November 2015 to the present. On 3/5/18 the witness was identified as former Trump campaign advisor and longtime Stone associate Sam Nunberg, who announced that he was not going to cooperate, and then embarked on a frenzied round of television appearances. By week’s end, Nunberg did show up for questioning, and also announced that he was seeking treatment for alcohol abuse after several television hosts noted he had seemed inebriated during earlier appearances. Nunberg relationship with Stone, who he refers to as a mentor, lead to suspicions that the pressure on him was aimed at getting information on Stone. Reporting soon emerged that Nunberg had confirmed that Stone had phone conversations with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2016, and knew that WikiLeaks had obtained emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign ahead of any public knowledge about the leaks. Stone denied the reports.
Nunberg appears to have been the first Stone associate questioned by Mueller, but many others followed. On 3/30/18, Ted Malloch, a regular contributor to the conspiracy theory outlet Infowars (where Stone is alos a regular contributor), was questioned about Stone, Assange and Wikileaks by the FBI at Logan Airport after flying to Boston from London. Malloch was also issued a subpoena to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury on April 13. On 5/16/18 Mueller subpoenaed Jason Sullivan, a social media specialist who previously worked for Stone. A lawyer for Sullivan told Reuters that two subpoenas were delivered, which Reuters reported seemed to indicate a focus on Stone and his communications with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. On 5/18/18 Mueller subpoenaed John Kakanis, who has worked as a driver, accountant and operative for Roger Stone. According to sources familiar with matter, Kakanis was briefly questioned by the FBI on the topics of possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the WikiLeaks website, its founder Julian Assange, and the hacker or hackers who call themselves Guccifer 2.0. On 5/19/18 Stone indicated that he expected to be indicted, saying, “I am prepared should that be the case, but I think it just demonstrates, again, this was supposed to be about Russian collusion, and it appears to be an effort to silence or punish the president’s supporters and his advocates.”
No indictment was forthcoming at that time, but on 6/28/18 the investigation subpoenaed Andrew Miller, a long-time associate of Stone who also previously served as the campaign manager to a woman who claimed to be a madam used by former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to obtain prostitutes. On 7/20/18 it was reported that Mueller’s team had subpoenaed Kristin Davis, a former aide of Roger Stone and the “Manhattan Madam” connected to the infamous Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. An interview with Davis took place on 8/1/18, and sources said investigators expressed interest in having Davis testify before a grand jury. meanwhile, on 8/4/18 Federal Judge Beryl Howell issued a 92 page decision rejecting Miller’s attempt to quash his subpoena to testify on the grounds that Mueller was overstepping his mandate, and on 8/10/18 Miller was held in contempt of court. Axios also reported that Mueller had interviewed Steve Bannon about October 2016 communications he had with Stone about Wikileaks.
On 8/10/18 Randy Credico, who has been identified by Stone as his back-channel Assange, was subponead by Mueller’s investigation. Reporting further emerged on 8/14/18 that Stone sent Credico a string of threatening emails when he spoke out disputing Stone’s account of his contacts with Assange. One read: “I am so ready. Let’s get it on. Prepare to die cock sucker.” Stone says that particular email was not a threat, but a message of support when he heard that Credico had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Credico says he has never had prostate cancer. On 9/7/18, Credico sat for two hours of questioning with Mueller’s grand jury. It was reported on 9/5/18 that Mueller’s office had subpoenaed Jerome Corsi, an InfoWars contributor and consipracy theorist with longstanding links to Stone. Subsequent reporting indicated that questions about Corsi centered on communications suggesting he provided Stone advance knowledge that the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman had been stolen and handed to WikiLeaks.
In a suprise development, on 11/26/18 Corsi announced that he had decided to withdraw from a plea deal agreement with Mueller’s investigation, and even relased the draft agreement. The week before, Corsi had acknowledged he was in plea negotiations with Mueller’s office, and earlier this month, he said he expected to be indicted for “giving false information to the special counsel or to one of the other grand jury.” On 11/26 Corsi said he was refusing the deal because he believed he would by lying by signing the plea agreement because he says he did not willfully mislead anyone. According to the draft document, Corsi tipped off Stone that WikiLeaks would release a tranche of emails hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The tip came in August, weeks before the October release. This was after Stone (identified as “Person 1”) wrote to Corsi in late July 2016 telling him to get to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has been holed up for years, and obtain the Clinton emails that WikiLeaks had. The document says that Corsi forwarded the note to an individual identified as Ted Malloch, a Trump ally who has also been interviewed by the special counsel’s team. While Mueller’s office has not commented, one thing that is clear from the draft is that his investigation is privy to extensive electronic communication between Stone and Corsi. Incoming House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, meanwhile, said that Stone’s testimony before the panel in 2017 “needs to be provided to the special counsel for consideration of whether perjury charges are warranted.” Schiff also said that Stone’s email correspondence with his associate Jerome Corsi, which Stone released publicly, was “inconsistent with his testimony before our committee.” The Senate Judiciary Committee also requested new testimony and documents from Stone, which he invoked the 5th amendement to refuse on 12/4/18.
With some form of indictment looking likely, it is worth noting that Stone has repeatedly, and as recently as August 2018, said that he would not testify against Trump under any circumstances, a fact which Trump publicly praised him for as recently as 12/3/18.
Muellers investigation is not the only legal examination Stone is involved with, though he did get a spot of good news on 7/3/18 when U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle dismissed a lawsuit alleging that Stone and President Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia and WikiLeaks to publish hacked Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 presidential race. Huvelle said in her ruling that the suit’s efforts to tie the Trump campaign and Stone’s alleged actions to the nation’s capital were too flimsy for the case to proceed in a Washington, D.C., court. “Campaign meetings, canvassing voters, and other regular business activities of a political campaign do not constitute activities related to the conspiracies alleged in the complaint.” Huvelle made clear that her decision was a technical one based on issues of legal jurisdiction and was not a definitive ruling on allegations that the Trump campaign struck an illicit deal with the Russians during the presidential contest. The lawsuit was subsequently re-filed with the Trump Campaign as the defendant in Virginia, and is now being appealed by the Trump Campaign.
<End “Roger Stone” Section>
Donald Trump Jr. (including Trump Tower Meeting)
Donald Trump Jr. is a senior trustee of the Trump Organization. He is also, of course, the eldest son of the President. As such, he was involved with the Trump campaign from its earliest days. The particular area that generates the most interest in Trump Jr. regarding the Russian investigation is his role in the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with representatives of Russia purporting to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton. There have also been questions about his involvement with Russian connections with the NRA, and communications with WikiLeaks around the time that it released hacked information from the Clinton campaign. The specifics of his potential activities include:
- Russian oligarch Alexander Torshin, a close supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, briefly met with Trump Jr. at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) May 2016 annual convention in Louisville, Ky. On 5/26/18 it was reported that the FBI has obtained Spanish prosecutor’s wiretapped conversations of Torshin’s phone calls with a convicted Russian money launderer. “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned,” Spanish prosecutors said of Torshin’s meetings. Torshin, a close supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, briefly met with Trump Jr. at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) May 2016 annual convention in Louisville, Ky. The FBI did not say why it sought to obtain the recordings. Spanish police had investigated Torshin for involvement in a money laundering scheme. It is not clear what time period the wiretaps were from.
- Donald Trump Jr. had a 6/9/16 meeting with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya after being promised material damaging to Clinton in the meeting. Then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and senior advisor/Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner were also in attendance. When the story first surfaced, Trump Jr. initially claimed that the meeting was purely to discuss changes to a Russian policy banning U.S. adoptions from Russia (which Putin had put in place in response to a 2012 Congressional act forbidding dealings with Russian officials involved with the death-in-detention of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian auditor who was jailed after uncovering a major tax fraud case involving government officials). Trump Jr. subsequently revised that to say it was to discuss the campaign, but he went into the meeting not knowing anything about what would be discussed. However…
- It was very shortly confirmed that the meeting was specifically in response to a promise of information damaging to Clinton provided by Russian government-connected sources who wanted to aid Trump’s campaign. This not only contradicted Trump Jr.’s story from earlier in the weekend, a statement that had been crafted by President Trump and senior advisors on the way back from the G20 summit, it also contradicted numerous earlier statements such as the March 2017 “Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did,” he said. “But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”
- At this point, his story changed to one where he had been offered the information, but when it came time for the meeting nothing of substance was provided. Minutes before the new York Times was going live with the text of the e-mails that lead to the meeting, Trump Jr. himself tweeted them out. For her part, Natalia Veselnitskaya denied any connection to the Russian government or having any campaign-related information. Veselnitskaya has extensive ties to close allies of Putin. She came to the United States last year in connection with a $230 million tax fraud case initially exposed by Sergei Magnitsky, the accountant who died in a Russian prison after accusing prosecutors in that country of the fraud. It was further reported on 4/27/18 that Veselnitskaya appears to have greater ties to the Russian government than she previously admitted. The New York Times reported that Veselnitskaya in at least one instance worked for Russia’s chief legal office against the U.S. Justice Department in a fraud case targeting a top Russian firm with government connections. And in an interview on “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” and on MSNBC’s “On Assignment with Richard Engel,” Veselnitskaya calls herself an “informant” for the Russian government, an admission that goes further than her previous claims of just being a private attorney.
- After cable news appearances where Trump Jr. firmly stated that everything had now been disclosed, it emerged on 7/14/17 that the meeting had also been attended by several other people, including Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist and former Soviet counterintelligence officer who is suspected by some U.S. officials of having ongoing ties to Russian intelligence. Akhmetshin maintains that he was just there to discuss the Magnitsky Act, although there was also a presentation of documents about DNC fund flows by Veselnitskaya. His version of the meeting is different from hers in several respects. At least one reporter with a longstanding relationship with Akhmetshin does not find it likely that he has an ongoing relationship with Russian intelligence, but does corroborate his participation in pro-Putin lobbying activities in recent years.
- On 7/18/17, The Washington post The Washington Post identified the eighth person in the room for the Trump Tower meeting: Ike Kaveladze, a U.S. citizen who works as a vice president for the Crocus Group, the real estate firm owned by Russian Trump associate Aras Agalarov. Subsequent reporting has revealed that Kaveladze was the focus of a congressional inquiry into possible Russian money laundering in November 2000.
- The New York Times Reported on 8/21/17 that Rinat Akhmetshin, an attendeee of the June 2016 meeting, has routinely done work suggesting high-level ties with the Russian government and Kremlin-backed oligarchs. Among the items reported by the Times are Akhmetshin’s association with a former deputy head of the Russian spy service, his twice working on legal battles for Russian tycoons whose opponents suffered sophisticated hacking attacks, helping Russian federal prosecutors bring corruption charges against an American businessman in the former Soviet Union who turned out to be working for the C.I.A., and work exposing possible corruption in government contracting that complicated American efforts to keep troops at an air base in Kyrgyzstan, which Russia opposed.
- A 10/9/17 story from the Washington Post revealed an e-mail that corroborates Natalia Veselnitskaya’s story that the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower was meant to discuss the Magintsky Act. The e-mail states specifically that Veselnitskaya would like to bring lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, due to his familiarity with the Russian government’s position on the issue. The newly disclosed email was provided by Scott Balber, a U.S. lawyer representing Aras Agalarov, the Russian billionaire who hosted the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 and who had helped secure the Trump Tower meeting for Veselnitskaya.
- On the other hand… The New York Times reported on 10/27/17 that Veselnitskaya arrived at Trump Tower with a memo detailing information she believed was damaging to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s camapign. Veselnitskaya had shared the memo months before with Russia’s prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika.The memo reportedly contained information accusing a company linked to two major Clinton donors of a scheme to illegally purchase shares in a Russian company and avoid tens of thousands of dollars in Russian taxes. Paragraphs from that memo were lifted verbatim from a document that Chaika’s office had earlier given to U.S. congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
- According to a 12/7/17 CNN report, Rob Goldstone, the British publicist who arranged the June 2016 meeting sent multiple emails to a Russian participant and a member of Donald Trump’s inner circle later that summer, the first indication there was any follow-up after the meeting. The emails raised new questions, as Trump Jr. had for months contended that after being promised he would get dirt on Hillary Clinton, the brief meeting focused almost exclusively on the issue of Russian adoptions, and there was no discussion with the participants after that session. Goldstone went on the record in September 2018 saying that he had discussed preapration for the meeting with Mueller’s team.
- Buzzfeed reported on a complex web of financial transactions among some of the planners and participants of the meeting who moved money from Russia and Switzerland to the British Virgin Islands, Bangkok, and a small office park in New Jersey. These transactions occured shortly after the meeting, and then again immediately following the election. The documents, released in September 2018, show Aras Agalarov, a billionaire real estate developer close to both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, at the center of this vast network and how he used accounts overseas to filter money to himself, his son, and at least two people who attended the Trump Tower meeting. The report also indicated that Mueller’s office is investigating the transactions.
- The June 2016 meeting is not the only Trump Tower meeting involving Trump Jr. that has attracted investigators’ interest. The New York Times reported on an August 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump Jr., an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, and an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes. Prince, the private security contractor and the former head of Blackwater, arranged the meeting. The emissary, George Nader, told Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win. The social media specialist, Joel Zamel, extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign. The firm had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump. Prince and Nader are also the principals behind pre-inaguration meetings intended to establish a “back door” with Russia, and the existence of this latest meeting contradicts earlier Congressional testimony by Prince.
- While most of the attention around Trump Jr. has involved the Trump Tower meeting, CNN reported on 12/6/17 that then-candidate Donald Trump, Trump Jr. and others in the Trump Organization received an email in September 2016 offering a decryption key and website address for hacked WikiLeaks documents, according to an email provided to congressional investigators. CNN’s initially incorrectly stated that this was provided 9/4/16, the day Trump Jr. first tweeted about WikiLeaks and before the WikiLeaks data dump from hacked DNC and Clinton campaign e-mails occured, but was subsequently corrected to reflect that it happened 9/14/16, several days after the WikiLeaks information had been released.
- The Atlantic ran a story further chronicling frequent contacts between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks. The messages were also turned over by Trump Jr.’s lawyers to congressional investigators. They are part of a long, largely one-side correspondence between WikiLeaks and the president’s son that continued until at least July 2017. The messages show WikiLeaks, who the American intelligence community believes was chosen by the Russian government to disseminate the information it had hacked, actively soliciting Trump Jr.’s cooperation. WikiLeaks made a series of increasingly bold requests, including asking for Trump’s tax returns, urging the Trump campaign on Election Day to reject the results of the election as rigged, and requesting that the president-elect tell Australia to appoint Julian Assange ambassador to the United States.
The revelation of the Trump Tower meeting, and Trump Jr.’s role in it, made him one of the primary focuses of the various investigations. On 7/21/17 Special Counsel Mueller’s team requested that White House staff save all documents connected to the Trump Tower meeting. Mueller sent a document preservation request to the White House asking staff to preserve an array of communications pertaining to the meeting between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Trump Jr., such as text messages, notes and voicemails. The AP reported on 8/31/17 that a grand jury used by Mueller heard secret testimony from a Russian-American lobbyist who attended a June 2016 meeting with President Donald Trump’s eldest son. A person familiar with the matter confirmed that Rinat Akhmetshin had appeared before Mueller’s grand jury in recent weeks.
Trump Jr. had been scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee the week of 7/25/17. He manged to reschedule, and change the appearance from an under-oath public hearing to a transcribed private hearing that did not take place under oath. In the meantime, the committee met on 7/27/17 with Bill Browder, the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management. Browder stated that he had no doubt that the lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. was acting as an agent of the Russian government in the meeting. Browder has been battling the Russian government for over a decade following allegations that Russian law enforcement stole $230 million his company had paid in taxes. His lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in Russian custody after investigating the affair, ultimately leading Browder to work with Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which levied targeted sanctions against powerful players in Russia.
Trump Jr. finally appeared before staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee on 9/7/17. Trump Jr. claimed in the testimony that he took the meeting, despite qualms about it, because he thought it was important to evaluate the fitness of Clinton for the Presidency. “To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out…Depending on what, if any, information they had, I could then consult with counsel to make an informed decision as to whether to give it further consideration.” He also insisted that he did not collude with Russia, and that his e-mail saying “I love it” when promised Russian-provided information about Clinton was a colloquial way of expressing his appreciation for the meeting organizer, and not approving of the source or contents. This testimony is the fourth version of why he took the meeting that Trump Jr. has offered.
Beyond speaking with Trump Jr. directly, Congressional investigators also questioned several of the other participants in the meeting. The Associated Press reported on 11/18/17 that investigators sought more information on a June 2017 Moscow meeting between lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin and Ike Kaveladze, a business associate of a Moscow-based developer and former Trump business partner. Investigators questioned both men about why they met and whether there was some effort to get their stories straight about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Akhmetshin told congressional investigators that he asked for the Moscow meeting with Kaveladze to argue that they should go public with the details of the Trump Tower meeting before they were caught up in a media maelstrom. Akhmetshin also told the investigators that Kaveladze said people in Trump’s orbit were asking about Akhmetshin’s background. Scott Balber, a lawyer for Kaveladze, confirmed that his client and Akhmetshin met over coffee and that the Trump Tower meeting a year earlier was “obviously discussed”, but Balber denied his client had been contacted by Trump associates. Documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee on 5/16/18, however, reveal that attorneys for Donald Trump Jr. did seek to coordinate public statements from some attendees the meeting. After the meeting became public, Trump Jr.’s attorney Alan Futerfas contacted three participants in the meeting, publicist Rob Goldstone, Russian singer Emin Agalarov, and Russian executive Ike Kaveladze to discuss their memories of the day and sign on to a joint statement about what happened.
House and Senate Intelligence got in on the act as well. On 11/28/17 the House Intelligence Committee interviewed the translator who attended a controversial meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer at the height of the presidential campaign. And the Associated Press reported on 4/22/18 that Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian government-connected lawyer who was one of the principal participants of the June 2016 meeting, had been interviewed by representatives of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Committee approached Veselnitskaya earlier in 2018, but she refused to go the United States, saying she feared for her safety. The lawyer and the committee’s investigators instead met in a Berlin hotel in March 2018, and talked for three hours. “That was essentially a monologue. They were not interrupting me,” Veselnitskaya said. “They listened very carefully…Their questions were very sharp, pin-pointed.” Veselnitskaya also indicated that she has not been contacted by Robert Mueller’s investigation.
On 5/16/18 the Senate Judiciary Committee released 2,500 pages of documents relating to its investigation of the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. The documents include transcripts of hearings, related exhibits, and written correspondence with witnesses that took place between August 2017 and March 2018, involving the U.S. and foreign attendees of the meeting, arranger of the meeting Robert Goldstone, and Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. The documents generally follow what is publicly known, although they do confirm that Natalia Veselnitskaya made charges that investors Dirk and Robert Ziff may have funneled money out of Russia to the Democratic National Committee. Veselnitskaya did not provide documentation of this, and Trump Jr. seems to have not followed up on the claim. As part of the material, ranking Committee Democrat Senator Diane Feinstein released a memo critical of shortcomings in the Committee’s approach, noting that it had not interviewed key witnesses, and citing unanswered questions about whether Trump Jr. was in advance contact with then-candidate Donald Trump about the meeting, and who in the White House was involved in crafting false statements about the content of the meeting when it became public in 2017.
Outside the realm of what all this means to the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, a story from Politico examines what criminal charges could conceivably result from the Trump Tower meeting. The story makes the point that “collusion” is not an meaningful legal term, and seeking opposition research is not itself illegal. Actual charges could include conspiring to violate the election laws of the United States, which prohibit foreign nationals from contributing any “thing of value” to an electoral campaign. To the extent that the Trump campaign aided, abetted or advised the Russians (or any other hackers) about what would be most useful to steal from the Democrats or how best to enhance the impact of their release, they may well have violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And lying to the federal government in your registration forms or your security application is a false statement. Using the wires to perpetrate a crime is often wire fraud.
A final aspect of the the story involves Donald Trump Senior’s possible prior knoweldge of the meeting, and subsequent role in spreading false information about it. News began to emerge on 7/31/17 that President Trump played an active role in drafting the initial statement Trump Jr. released after revelations of the meeting. According to multiple sources, the President took part in drafting the response on the way back from the G20 summit on 7/8/17, and actively overruled advisors, including Jared Kushner, who wanted full disclosure, instead pushing the cover story that the meeting had been about adoption policy. This inevitably raised questions about how much Trump knew about the meeting, and when he knew it. The Trump campaign began paying Alan Futerfas, the attorney currently representing Donald Trump Jr. for Russia-related matters, several weeks before his hire was announced. The formal announcement came shortly after news broke of Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, which suggests the imminent emergence of the matter was known internally several weeks before it publicly emerged. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has approached the White House about interviewing staffers who were aboard Air Force One when the initial misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower was crafted.
Michael Cohen uped the ante on 6/27/18 with a claim that then-candidate Trump knew in advance about the Trump Tower meeting. Cohen reportedly alleged that he was present, along with several others, when Trump was informed of the Russians’ offer by Trump Jr., and approved going ahead. President Trump immediately denied the charge via Twitter. His senior lawyer Rudy Giuliani, however, on 7/30/18 offered the rather damaging admission that there was a meeting a few days before the Trump Tower meeting to plan the upcoming meeting, and that Cohen, Richard Gates, Kushner, Manafort, and Trump Jr. were all present. In Giuliani’s take, Trump not being present at the meeting proves that he didn’t know about it. On 7/31/18 longtime Trump organization executive Barbara Res, who was Trump’s right-hand person for decades, offered her opinion that it was virtually impossible that Trump didn’t know about the meeting beforehand. On 8/5/18 President Trump, reacting to a story that he was worried about Trump Jr.’s possible exposure by tweeting: “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!” This marked the first time the President has publicly aknoweldged that the Russian offer of information was in fact the reason for the meeting, contradicting numerous previous official and unofficial public statements by himself and his son. Knowingly sliciting or accepting foreign campaign contributions, whether monetary or in form of information, is in fact a crime, and the White House seeming to realize that the admission was significant, cancelled the Presdient’s travel and public appearances the next day.
<End “Donald Trump Jr.” Section>
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.
- Veteran journalist Howard Blum has written a March 2017 article for Vanity Fair revealing in detail the story of how Steele went about putting together the information in his dossier. It’s well worth a read for those interested in this story, and fans of long-form journalism in general.
- 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 one indication of the general regard for his work, the FBI was revealed on 2/28/17 to have been about to hire Steele to further help with their investigation into Russian interference and possible Trump campaign ties. This wasn’t considered a necessary endorsement of all of his findings, but rather respect for the quality of his work. The plan was scrapped after the memos began to circulate and became controversial.
- 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.
- CNN reported on 2/10/17 that several of the details of the Steele dossier have been confirmed by government investigators. Specifically, they are able to confirm that the dates and locations of many of the meetings between Russian officials mentioned in the dossier match actual movements of those officials.
- It was reported on 8/4/17 that two Republican House Intelligence Committee staffers traveled to London earlier in the summer to track down Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence operative who compiled a controversial dossier on President Donald Trump and Russia, according to three people familiar with the matter. The Republican staffers made this trip without consulting with Democrats on the committee, or the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The news was met with criticism from House Committee Democrats, and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee from both parties.
- Reports emerged on 10/4/17 that Mueller’s team is reviewing the Steele Dossier as part of its investigation. Though the investigation declined to comment, follow-up reports later in the week indicated that Steele himself has been interviewed as part of the inquiry.
- Reporting emerged on 10/24/17 that the Clinton Campaign and the DNC helped fund the research that led to the Steele Dossier. Marc E. Elias, a lawyer representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained Fusion GPS, a Washington firm, to conduct the research in April 2016. Fusion GPS subsequently hired ex-British intelligence official Michael Steele as part of its research. Prior to that, the firm’s research had been funded by a Republican opponent of Trump.
- On 10/28/17, Fusion GPS, the firm whose research led to the Steele dossier, announced it had come to an agreement with the House Intelligence Committee on releasing it’s financial records. The agreement comes amid revelations that Perkins Coie, a law firm representing Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and the conservative Washington Free Beacon separately paid the firm to conduct research on Trump. The House intelligence committee said the agreement “will secure the committee’s access to the records necessary for its investigation,” while a lawyer for Fusion GPS said “it helped the company honor its legal obligations and protect its First Amendment rights.”
- Axios ran a story on 10/29/17 covering the beginning of the Fusion GPS research that eventually led to the Steele Dossier. In Fall 2015, Fusion GPS began working on a deep dive into Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Washington Free Beacon, funded by hedge fund manager Paul Singer a Republican backer of Trump rival Sen. Marco Rubio, was the client. Fusion is led by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, former Wall Street Journal reports who had specialized in international coverage. Fusion’s researchers noted that Trump’s business empire seemed inordinately weighted to Russia, and so they turned much effort to untangling that part of his business story. When it became clear that Trump was going to become the nominee, Singer ceased paying for the research and funding was taken over by representatives of the DNC and the Clinton campaign. GPS brought on Christopher Steele, a former premier Russia expert for British intelligence, since so much of what it had uncovered involved Russian connections. Fusion GPS briefed major news organizations on it’s findings in September 2016, but the allegations did not enter the public sphere until Buzzfeed broke the story in January 2017.
- Robert Litt, former General Counsel to the Director of National Intelligence under Obama wrote a 10/26/17 column for Lawfare maintaining that the Steele Dossier had not been a key part of the intelligence community’s findings about Russian interference. “The dossier itself played absolutely no role in the coordinated intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in our election. That assessment, which was released in unclassified form in January but which contained much more detail in the classified version that has been briefed to Congress, was based entirely on other sources and analysis.”
- On 11/3/17 Keith Schiller, Trump’s former bodyguard and one of his most trusted aides, testified before the House Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session. Schiller’s testimony was focused on Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow as part of the Miss Universe pageant that his company owned. The Steele Dossier alleges that Russian intelligence obtained compromising video of Trump and prostitutes during the visit. Schiller confirmed that a Russian participant in pageant planning meetings offered to “send five women” to Donald Trump’s hotel room, but that he took it as a joke. He later told Trump about it who also laughed. Schiller testified that nobody came to the hotel room when Trump went to bed, or as he was stationed outside the door for a period of time afterward. He could not testify to what happened after he left, but does not believe that anything happened, and told investigators that both he and Trump were aware that Moscow hotel rooms were likely to be bugged.
- The Guardian ran an 11/15/17 story on the background of Christopher Steele, the former British spy behind the Steele Dossier. The article details Steele’s background in Russia, how he started his investigation, and some of what his research indicates about how Russia cultivated a relationship with Trump over the years.
- In a 1/2/18 op-ed published in the New York Times, Fusion GPS co-founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch pushed back against the suggestion by some Republican lawmakers that the dossier sparked the criminal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. “As we told the Senate Judiciary Committee in August, our sources said the dossier was taken so seriously because it corroborated reports the bureau had received from other sources, including one inside the Trump camp.” They also stated that Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent who compiled the dossier, was never told that the research was being funded by the Clinton campaign.
- On 1/5/18 the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended its first charges in the Russian investigation- against Christopher Steele, the author of the Fusion GPS dossier on Trump’s Russia ties, for lying about talking to reporters. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), told the Justice Department that they had reason to believe that a former British spy, Christopher Steele, lied to federal authorities about his contacts with reporters regarding information in a dossier, and they urged the department to investigate. The Justice Department has not commented on the referral, but Committee Democrats were critical of the move, and its focus on discrediting the document’s author, rather than seeking to verify its contents.
- The New York Times published a 1/8/18 profile of Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, the political research firm that produced the Steele Dossier. The peice noted that Mr. Simpson himself has appeared before three congressional committees for some 20 hours of questions and answers, making him among the most significant players in the Trump-Russia affair, based on testimony. It also highlighted that Fusion GPS has done work for domestic and international clients, and both parties, specializing in opposition research. This has included work for pro- and anti-Putin forces, including working for June 2016 Trump Tower attendees Rinat Akhmetshin and Natalia V. Veselnitskayaon to find information on Putin opponent William Browder as part of their effort to overturn the Magnitsky Act. “We collect facts,” Fusion said in a statement, describing itself as a research company. “Occasionally, the facts turn out to be helpful to people we deplore, like Vladimir Putin, or undermine people for whom we have considerable sympathy, like Mr. Browder.”
- As the Congressional and Right-leaning media whispering campaign against Fusion GPS escalated, the comapny’s senior partners urged Congress to release the full transcript of their testimony, which they felt addressed many of the allegations being made against their work. Congressional Democrats were all for it, but the committee chair balked. Then, on 1/9/18, California Senator Dianne Feinsten took matters into her own hands, and publicly released the transcripts. The full document runs over 300 pages. Some highlights noted by various readers include:
- Fusion GPS has extensive background in investigating issues related to Russia, so its work in the area is well-informed.
- The firm has many Democratic and Republican clients, and first began the investigation while under the employ of a Republican client.
- Christopher Steele did not know who the clients were while he was investigating.
- The investigation started as a fact-finding mission, and wasn’t looking to build any particular narrative, but early, they realized financial ties to Russia and organized crime were a major part of the story.
- When Steele went to Russia, he found that ties between Trump and the Kremlin were a fairly open secret.
- When in Russia, Steele also found indications that hacking and digital espionage was being engaged in. Steele investigated and found the allegations credible.
- Based on this, Fusion GPS informed the FBI of the nature of some of their findings, believing that there were potential law enforcement and national security concerns involved.
- The FBI took this information seriously because it matched with concerns they were already developing about the Trump campaign, prompted in part by a source on the inside.
- After the election, concerned that the election had been compromised, and seeing news reports that the FBI was not convinced of Russian interference, Fusion GPS brought their material to John McCain hoping that he would share it with senior FBI officials.
- They were especially concerned because one of their sources had already been murdered under suspicious circumstances.
- On 1/10/18, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen filed suit against Fusion GPS and Buzzfeed (the first outlet to publicly release the Steele Dossier) for defamation. Most legal experts regard the suit as mainly a gesture, since a positive finding would require that the information is untrue, and that the party knew it was untrue when issuing it and maliciously went forward anyway. This is a high bar, and could also result in the allegations in the dossier being extensively aired during trial, which Cohen is unlikely to want. Threats to sue that are not followed through to trial are a frequent tactic of the Trump Organization.
- It was reported on 2/12/18 that Buzzfeed has hired a former FBI investigator to confirm as much of the contents of the Steele dossier as possible. This company hired Anthony Ferrante, a former top FBI investigator who now works for FTI Consulting, to investigate the dossier’s claims. Ferrante and a team of experts spent the last six months tracking down leads, according to Foreign Policy. BuzzFeed’s interest in verifying the document is not editorial, rather it is in response to a libel suit against the company by 37-year-old Russian tech executive Aleksej Gubarev. Gubarev, who lives in Cyprus and heads a Luxembourg-based tech company.
- On 3/12/18 the New Yorker published an extensive piece on Christopher Steele and the dossier he produced from his research on Russian involvement with the Trump campaign. In one surprising detail, the magazine says the former British spy authored a separate dossier with “a senior Russian official” as its source stating that individuals inside Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed to have stopped Mitt Romney from becoming head of the State Department. The memo said Russia used “unspecified channels” to request that Trump choose a secretary of State who would remove “Ukraine-related sanctions,” according to the report. The Kremlin also reportedly wanted the department’s head to accommodate Russia in regards to Syria, where the Russian government has been backing President Bashar Assad in a years-long civil war.
- On 4/19/18, Politico reported that Michael Cohen was dropping his libel suits against BuzzFeed and Fusion GPS over publication of the Steele dossier. Cohen abandoned the suits after federal investigators seized documents and electronic records from his home, office and hotel room. “The decision to voluntarily discontinue these cases was a difficult one,” Cohen’s attorney David Schwartz said. “We believe the defendants defamed my client, and vindicating Mr. Cohen’s rights was — and still remains — important. But given the events that have unfolded, and the time, attention, and resources needed to prosecute these matters, we have dismissed the matters, despite their merits.” Dropping the suits also prevents them from doing discovery that could complicate any other cases he faces.
On 8/21/18, a judge in Washington DC dismissed a lawsuit against Christopher Steele by three Russian oligarchs who claimed he defamed them by writing that they tried to influence the 2016 US election. Lawyers for Russian billionaires Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan had argued that Mr Steele was not entitled to free speech protections under the first amendment to the US constitution, because he is not a citizen of the United States. But Judge Anthony Epstein disagreed, writing in his judgment that “advocacy on issues of public interest has the capacity to inform public debate, and thereby furthers the purposes of the First Amendment, regardless of the citizenship or residency of the speakers”.
- In a move related to a different lawsuit, on 9/6/18 a magistrate judge in the Southern District of Florida declined Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley’s request to acquire a deposition Steele made as part of the lawsuit Russian technology executive, Aleksej Gubarev, filed against BuzzFeed and Steele for defamation following the news outlet’s publication of the Steele dossier, which mentioned Gubarev and his company. The judge ruled that, under the terms of the protective order that sealed the deposition in the first place, Gubarev’s lawyers could not hand over its contents unilaterally, and the court declined to require the deposition’s production to Grassley. The judge ruled that Grassley and the House Intelligence Committee would have to move forward in formal channels and “advise the court why it would be appropriate to require the production of these depositions.”
- On 10/11/18 Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson announced that he intends to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to decline a subpoena issued by the House Judiciary Committee. Simpson invoked his “rights not to testify under the First and Fifth Amendments,” his lawyers said in a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who had subpoenaed Simpson to appear in a closed-door deposition on Oct. 16.
<End “Steele Dossier” Section>
Unconfirmed (use with extreme caution)
- Putin’s Chief Strategist, Alexander Dugin, has become the intellectual hero of Alt-Right “Traditionalists” around the world. There are many contacts between Dugin and his supporters and the U.S. Alt Right movement, Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon and Breitbart.com, as well as more “traditional” Conservative organizations. Dugin has also influenced rightist movements throughout Europe, including the backers of the “Brexit” withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.
- Security experts reviewing data patterns possibly related to election interference found that a Trump business server was in regular communication with servers belonging to a Russian bank throughout the campaign. This server connection to Alfa Bank was most active during Business hours in New York and Moscow, indicating some kind of direct communication between parties vs. passive ad serving or something of the like. It also appears to have had particular spikes of activity involving Denial of Service (DNS) attacks during key moments in the campaign.
- 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.
- Five days before the election, the private plane of Putin government-connected Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev was parked next to Trump’s plane on the tarmac in Charlotte, NC. Trump spokesmen claim that they did not meet then, and have in fact never met, despite the fact that Trump sold a Palm Beach mansion to the Russian fertilizer magnate for $95 million in 2008. This is one of several times Ryoblev’s plane has been at an airport in close proximity to a Trump visit, and it should also be noted that Ryoblev’s chief aide is a former contributor to the London division of Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com.
- 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.
- Business Insider detailed on 2/11/17 that the timing of contacts between Trump campaign officials and supporters, actions by the campaign, and actions by the Russian government appear to support several of the allegations in the Steele dossier.
- 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.
- A Twitter user has put together a timeline of Attorney General Session’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Kisylak and statements by Russian officials during the October 2016 G20 summit that seems to show correspondences between positive changes in attitude toward U.S. relations by the Russian officials and Sessions’ meetings.
- Columnist and reporter Seth Abramson (Huffington Post, Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times, Washington Post) has used Twitter to lay out a detailed theory on the Russia-Trump connection. It involves then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner arranging meetings in the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016 (at the same event mentioned in the section above where Trump now admits he did briefly meet Ambassador Kislyak) that involved Trump, Sessions, Kislyak, and the ambassadors of several countries involved in the Rosneft financial transaction mentioned in the Steele Dossier.
- 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.
- Towards the end of a 4/13/17 article by the Guardian describing foreign intelligence agencies alerting the U.S. intelligence community to Trump campaign ties with Russia, there is the statement: ‘One source suggested the official investigation was making progress. “They now have specific concrete and corroborative evidence of collusion,” the source said. “This is between people in the Trump campaign and agents of [Russian] influence relating to the use of hacked material.”’ The source is unidentified and further details were not provided, so this needs to be treated with extreme caution. but, given The Guardian’s track record and journalistic quality, it shouldn’t be discounted either.
- 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 5/11/17 that the FBI has raided the Annapolis office of Strategic Campaign Group, a Republican fundraising and campaign consulting firm in Maryland. The intent of the raid, and if it has any connection to the Russia investigation, is unclear at this time. It does appear that the firm has business ties to Trump and that one of its board members is also a former board member of BKSH & Associates, a lobbying firm whose founders include key Russia-investigation targets Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
- A Russian citizen accused of being a hacker by both Russia and the U.S., Yevgeniy Nikulin, has claimed U.S. officials offered to cut him a deal in October 2016 if he admitted to interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Nikulin was arrested in the Czech Republic in connection with hacking charges, but it it not clear what role, if any, he actually plays in ongoing investigations.
While Vice President Michael Pence has thus far insisted that he did not know about the issues involving Flynn in advance, MSNBC has put together an overview indicating that Pence must have been well aware of charges and concerns about Flynn.
- 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.
- Columnist and reporter Seth Abramson (Huffington Post, Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times, Washington Post) used Twitter to lay out a detailed timeline indicating that Donald Trump was aware of the meeting Donal Trump Jr. had with Russian sources offering information damaging to the Clinton campaign. It involves the fact that Trump was in Trump Tower that day for numerous other meetings with Manafort and Kushner involving opposition research, and the timeline of public mentions he made about Clinton and Russia shortly afterward.
- It was revealed on 7/13/17 that Peter Smith’s April 2017 death was from suicide. Smith was a political operative who had been recruiting hackers (including Russian) to recover missing e-mails from Hillary Clinton in October 2016 on behalf of the firm KLS Research, which he claimed Michael Flynn was affiliated with. I hesitate to include this here, as there is no indication of foul play- Smith was in his 80s, experiencing health problems, and had a large life insurance policy which was about to expire, a pretty common suicide set-up. But I’d hate to be accused of withholding information!
- Russia expert and Politics Professor at the University of Toronto Seva Gunitsky laid out his view in a 7/18/17 interview with Vox that improper financial ties with Russian interests, and not collusion, is likely to be the “real story” of the investigation.
- Wikileaks appears to be taking part in (or following) the Trump administration legal team’s strategy of trying to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller. A 7/30/17 tweet from the site released information that Mueller delivered enriched Uranium to Russia in 2009. Omitted was the context that Mueller did so in his capacity with the FBI, and that the sample was one that had been captured by Department of Energy representatives in the Republic of Georgia as part of an illegal transaction. It was being sent to Russia so that its unique signature could be tested against former-Soviet stockpiles as part of non-proliferation efforts.
- On 8/1/17, the Progressive think-tank Center for American Progress released a 50-page report making the case for collusion between Trump and his campaign and Russia. The report was released both of the CAP’s website, and distributed to Democrats in Congress to, in the words of senior strategic adviser for CAP Adam Jentleson, “Convey that it’s time to stop beating around the bush on Trump’s collusion with Russia. There is a mountain of evidence that Trump and his associates colluded with Russia and it’s time to start saying so.”
- The website Hamilton 68 is publishing an online dashboard tracking the activity of Twitter accounts for media outlets known to be controlled by the Russian government and pushed by “bot and troll” Twitter accounts frequently linked to Russian influence campaigns. The website is published by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts, and is an offshoot of the German Marshall Fund for the U.S., an organization that aims to “strengthen transatlantic cooperation on regional, national, and global challenges and opportunities in the spirit of the Marshall Plan.” One particular uptick noted on the site on 8/7/17 was bots that were targteing Paul Ryan with calls to resign just as he was beginning his recess in his home district.
- John Sipher and Steve Hall, two former CIA officials with expertise in Russia, penned an 8/2/17 New York Times editorial making the case that Russian collusion with the Trump campaign is plausible. They base this on examining the sequence of events from the June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian representatives, subsequent activity by Wikileaks, and coordinated events between the Trump team and the Russian influence campaign, in light of their own professional experience of how Russian counterintelligence operations work.
- A CNN story on 8/3/17 mentions in passing that U.S. intelligence intercepts appear to reveal claims by Russian operatives indicating that Paul Manafort was in conversation with them about working together. In the summer of 2016, investigators became more suspicious when they turned up intercepted communications that U.S. intelligence agencies collected among suspected Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort to coordinate information that could damage Hillary Clinton’s election prospects. The suspected operatives relayed what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians. I’m leaving this in this section for the time being, as there isn’t more detail on the kinds of U.S. officials the story is sourced from, or corroboration from news agencies.
- Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz has put forth a theory that Robert Mueller has located the grand jury in Washington D.C. in order to stack it with jurors who are likely to be hostile to Trump. He explains this as the reason that an already-enpaneled FBI investigation jury in Alexandria, Virginia is not being used. Legal experts counter that juries have to be located in a locale where the crimes occured (in which case Washington D.C. would be the appropriate venue depending on the main charges in view), and in any case, other potentianl sites, like Alexandria or New York City, would not be any more likely to produce Trump-friendly juries.
- One amusing tea leaf to watch regarding Trump’s intentions is the National Enquirer. Throught the 2016 campaign, and since the inauguration, the Enquirer, which is run by a long-time Trump supporter, has consistently run stories praising Trump and highlighting often lurid charges against his adversaries. If so, Trump does not seem likely to be supporting Paul Manafort as the FBI targets him, given 8/9/17 Enquirer headline “Trump Advisor Sex Scandal—Paul Manafort’s Sick Affair: Target in FBI-Russia probe also cheated with a woman half his age!”.
- In one of his signature Twitter-thread speculations, columnist and reporter Seth Abramson (Huffington Post, Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times, Washington Post) makes a case that a comparison of the official preview text of Trump’s speech at the April 2016 conference in the Mayflower Hotel to his ad-lib comments that night reveals that Trump was signalling to Russia a desire to cooperate with them. Conference attendees included senior campaign officials, Jeff Sessions, and Russian diplomats including Ambassador Sergey Kisylak.
- On 9/5/17 a Russian politician threatened to “hit Donald Trump with our Kompromat” on state TV. Nikita Isaev, leader of the far-right New Russia Movement, said the compromising material should be released in retaliation over the closure of several Russian diplomatic compounds across the US. When asked whether Russia has such material, Mr Isaev, who is also director of the Russian Institute of Contemporary Economics, replied: “Of course we have it!”. Isaev is an extremist politician known for over the top pronouncements, so you may want to take the statement with all appropriate grains of salt.
- On 9/11/17 Russian politican Vyacheslav Nikonov mocked how U.S. intelligence “missed it when Russian intelligence stole the president of the United States.” Nikonov, a member of the Russian parliamentary body, the Duma, made the remarks on the panel show “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” on an episode discussing the decline of U.S. power in the world. As with Isaev’s comments above, Russian politicans speaking for TV audiences should be taken with a grain of salt. University of Virginia professor Allen Lynch has offered the opinion that Nikonov was less stating the extent of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and more mocking the resulting chaos as emblematic of U.S. weakness.
- Vanity Fair ran a story on 9/17/17 making the case that the data operation Jared Kusnhner was in charge of gave Russian interetsts the data needed to target their social media campaigns. The piece, speculative in tone, notes possible connections between the Russian social media efforts and the data from Cambridge Analytica, a firm which was working for the Trump campaign.
- A 9/18/17 piece by former Federal Prosecurtor Renato Mariotti speculates on the case Robert Mueller’s team is building. Mariotti sees evidence that the team is preparing for indictments against Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. And such indictments may be standalone, and not relate to the rest of the main body of the investigation, which includes a focus on possible Trump administration obstruction of justice, the details of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with representatives of Russian interests promising information damaging to Clinton as part of official Rusisan support for Trump, the mechanics of the Russian social media influence campaign, and some form of money laundering or financial impropriety. Mariotti expects the investigation will not conclude before the end of the year, and that the charges Mueller brings will likely be narrower and more targeted than many observers expect.
- Vox ran a profile on 10/22/17 of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm linked to Trump associates that is being examined as part of the Russia investigation. Investigators are particularly interested in whether the firm played any role in providing data analytics that enabled the Russians to do precision targeting of their social media efforts during the 2016 election.
- NBC reported on 11/17/17 that a Turkish/Iranian gold trader with ties to Turkish President Recep Erdoganmay may be cooperating with Federal prosecutors looking in to ties between Michael Flynn and the Turkish government. Reza Zarrab, who faces charges in federal court in Manhattan for skirting sanctions with Iran by allegedly moving hundreds of millions of dollars for the Iranian government and Iranian firms via offshore entities and bank accounts, is now cooperating with federal prosecutors. Several legal experts say prosecutors may be seeking any information Zarrab has about any ties between the Turkish government and former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.
- An 11/24/17 Newsweek column lays out the case the always-interesting Seth Abramson makes that the information-sharing deal between President Donald Trump’s legal team and that of former national security adviser Mike Flynn has been a “scandal,” and could be construed as form of witness tampering. The conclusion of cooperation between Flynn and Trump’s teams has caused many observers to believe that Flynn is formally cooperating with Mueller’s investigation in preparation for some kind of plea bargain.
- In a 12/11/17 piece in the New Yorker, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin describes the reaction of Trump’s legal team to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s guilty plea. The article also discusses how Flynn’s plea fits into the larger picture of possible cases for collusion and obstruction of justice.
- A 12/6/17 article on CNN calls in to question Vice President Mike Pence’s insistence that he didn’t know about National Security advisor Michael Flynn’s December 2016 contacts with Russia’s ambassador to discuss sanctions. The article points to evidence released following Flynn’s 12/1/17 guilty plea showing that a wide group of people in the Trump transition team were aware of the contacts, raising the question about how Pence, as head of the transition team, could then have been in the dark about them.
- McClatchy reported on 12/28/17 that a Russian hacker who claimed he hacked the Democratic National Committee on orders from a high-level Russian security official now says he planted personal details in DNC servers that can prove he was behind the break-in. Konstantin Kozlovsky told RAIN television that he hid his passport number and visa number for a visit to St. Martin in a data file on the DNC systems so that he could prove his story later. The new detail bolsters Kozlovsky’s credibility as he awaits trial in an unrelated bank hacking case. Previously, the Russian security official has denied Kozlovsky’s claims—but the official he claims to have worked with, Dmitry Dokuchaev, is himself being held on secret charges of treason.
- On 1/4/18 advance word from journalist Michael Wolff’s insider expose of the Trump administration Fire and Fury began to leak. While the administration dismissed the book as rumor-filled and inaccurate, Wolff has the visitor logs to indicate White House access, claims to have hundreds of hours of recordings, and the contents of several specific conversations quoted have been corroborated by participants. Prominently featured in the book were several comments from interviews with former chief strategist Steve Bannon concerning the Russia investigation:
- Regarding the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting- “Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”
- Further on the meeting– “The chance that Don. Jr did not walk these Jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.”
- Bannon also reportedly stated that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is centered on money laundering, saying that the White House is “sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five” hurricane.
Further on Mueller’s investigation- “Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr and Jared Kushner. They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”
- And Jared Kushner- “It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy.”
- In promotional interviews Wolff indicated that while White House insiders reject collusion charges, they do think Trump’s financial affairs are a potential problem. “People don’t think in the White House — don’t think that he colluded with Russia. They do think that if the investigation goes near his finances, he’s sunk.”
- The Associated Press carried a story on 1/17/18 reviewing Trump’s performance during previous legal questioning as it relates to what kind of witness he might be when interviewed by the Special Counsel. Per the story: “The transcripts reveal a witness who is by turns voluble, giving expansive answers far beyond the questions asked; boastful, using unrelated queries to expound on his wealth or popularity; unapologetic, swift to defend incendiary comments or criticized actions; and occasionally combative, once deriding a lawyer for “very stupid” questions. The garrulous style belies the “just the facts, ma’am” approach many defense lawyers advocate.”
- The Guardian reported on 1/30/18 that the FBI is reviewing a second dossier alleging collusion between President Trump and Russia. The dossier was written by former journalist and political activist Cody Shearer, and despite being viewed skeptically by media organizations he shared it with prior to the election, the bureau is still investigating its veracity. The memo was given to the FBI in 2016 by former British spy Christopher Steele, after the bureau asked him to “provide any documents or evidence that could be useful in its investigation.” Steele reportedly told the bureau he couldn’t vouch for the credibility of Shearer’s memo, “but that he was providing a copy because it corresponded with what he had separately heard from his own independent sources.”
- Politico ran an story on 2/2/18 on two legal experts making the case that Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is likely to make an indictment against President Trump for obstruction of justice. While many legal experts contend that Mueller lacks the legal standing to bring criminal charges against Trump and is more likely to make recommendations to Congress and leave it up to them to act, at least two attorneys working with clients swept up in the Russia probe told POLITICO they consider it possible that Mueller could indict the President. Neither attorney claimed to have specific knowledge of Mueller’s plans, but based their opinions on their understanding of the law and interactions with the special counsel’s team.
- Hopefully it’s clear why this story would be in this section, but let it be noted that Anastasia Vashukevich, a Belarusian woman jailed in Thailand for offering sex lessons without a work permit, says she has a story to tell involving the Kremlin, Russian billionaires and the president of the United States. Vashukevich told The Associated Press that she fears for her life, and wants to exchange information on alleged Russian ties to Donald Trump’s campaign for her own personal safety. While it is not clear what evidence, if any, she actually has, in February Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s top foes, published an investigation drawing on Vashukevich’s social media posts suggesting corrupt links between billionaire Oleg Deripaska and a top Kremlin official, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko. The report featured video from Deripaska’s yacht in 2016, when Vashukevich claims she was having an affair with him. Vashukevich is now claiming that she can link the Kremlin to Trump and Manafort, who worked for Deripaska a decade before Trump hired him.
- In a 3/26/18 opinion piece in the New York Times, former Assistant Attorney General and acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger offers his view that a sitting president should not be required to submit to a criminal trial, as the requirements of that would be incompatible with the duties of the nation’s chief executive. However, a president can and should be indicted by a grand jury with the trial postponed until they are out office if the facts warrant it. This move would prevent the usual five-year statute of limitations for most federal crimes from elapsing. This discussion pertains to the legally uncertain question of what status an indictment of President Trump by Robert Mueller’s investigation would have.
- On 3/29/18 Russian media analyst Julia Davis passed on news that Russian state TV had reported that an unnamed high-level White House source quietly told the Russians that the number of Russian diplomats in the U.S. is not being cut (they can send 60 other diplomats to replace the ones being expelled). They quote the source: “The doors are open.”
- The extradition of an alleged Russian hacker could signal a break in the investigation of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. Yevgeniy Nikulin made a 3/30/18 appearance in a San Francisco federal courtroom after an 18-month legal tug-of-war with the Russian government, which made a competing claim to extradite Nikulin from the Czech Republic. Nikulin, 30, was arrested in a Prague restaurant on Oct. 5, 2016 . On Oct. 20, Nikulin was indicted on federal charges of hacking the private user databases of three U.S. internet giants, LinkedIn, Dropbox and Formspring, and mail accounts tied to Google. Nikulin’s extradition is expected to lead to intense pressure from U.S. prosecutors for him to agree to a plea deal so that investigators can learn what he knows about the Kremlin’s cyber operations. Still to be learned is whether Nikulin has information that could assist Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded in Russia’s cyber attacks during the election.
- Politico ran a 4/8/10 analysis of the possibility that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort could seek to put the FBI on trial in his court cases stemming from charges brought by Robert Mueller’s investigation. Such a move would be unlikely to be effective, as judges often resent politicization of their cases, and would depend on very shaky charges of FBI bias. But it could create public support/cover to justify a pardon from Trump after the trial concludes.
- Jonathan Chait authored a 4/13/18 opinion piece in New York Magazine laying forth his case for strongly suspecting that Russia does have compromising video of Donald Trump, as described in the Steele Dossier.
- In a 6/4/18 Fox interview, George Papadopoulos’ wife Simona Mangiante advocated for a pardon for Papadopoulos and argued that he had been set up through an FBI conspiracy. Asked about earlier comparisons she made between Papadopoulos and Nixon staffer/Watergate witness John Dean, she maintained that she had never meant John Dean in the sense that President Trump had done anything wrong, reiterating there was a conspiracy to frame him. This struck some observers as very odd, since Papdopoulos is a cooperating witness with the Mueller investigation, and has been for some time. These observers noted that the change in her public messaging coincides exactly with Trump associates beginning to push the “SpyGate” story. Curious…
- Following the June 2018 announcement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement some commentators began speculating about whether Trump family ties with Kennedy were used as part of a push to get him to retire. Kennedy’s son Justin knows Donald Trump Jr. from real estate circles, and Kennedy’s other son Gregory went to law school with Trump’s Silicon Valley advisor Peter Thiel. Of particular relevance to the Russian investigation, Justin Kennedy worked for Deutsche Bank for more than a decade and was the global head of real estate capital markets, where he became one of Trump’s “most important lenders” and handed Trump over $1 billion in loans for him to renovate and build skyscrapers in Chicago and New York. During this time, Deutsche Bank was one of few banks willing to do business with the then financially shaky Trump, and allegations that this involved Deutsche Bank helping to funnel Russian funds to Trump investments are an ongoing subject of investigation.
- In a provacative July 2018 article in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait puts forth a case that Trump may have been a Russian intelligence asset since 1987, and that Putin is in effect his “handler”. While this certainly should be seen as a radical theory, Chait marshalls much evidence from the last 18 months of reporting to support it. It certainly shouldn’t be considered anymore fringe than the Trump/Rightwing Media/Freedom Caucus article of faith that the entire story is completely made up and being perpetrated by a cabal of journalists, intelligence agency employees and FBI leaders who want to damage trump as payback for defeating Clinton…
- On 7/10/18 Trump supporter and legal maven Alan Dershowitz in a new book sayid that in the event Trump is impeached, the Supreme Court could intervene and overturn the vote to remove him from office. Dershowitz pens in “The Case Against Impeaching Trump” that if evidence of collusion with the Russian government arose that incriminated Trump, it would not be a criminal offense. Dershowitz further explained that though such collusion would be a “political sin,” it does not entirely meet the Constitution’s specification of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” needed for impeachment. Most legal experts are…skeptical… of this interpretation.
- Journalist Garrett Graff made a case in a 7/19/18 column in Politico that Russia might try to help Democrats in the 2018 midterms. His reasoning is that Russia’s goal was never helping the Republican Party in and of itself, but rather the goal was generally weakening and causing disarray in the U.S. In 2016 that cause was helped by supporting Trump, but in 2018 it might best be served by creating an antagonistic divided government by flipping Congress to the Democrats. Perhaps in response, President Trump tweeted on 7/24/18 that he is concerned that the Russians will help the Democrats in 2018, although his stated reason was that, “no President has been tougher on Russia than me”.
- The New Yorker published a 10/15/18 article outlining the results of research by a group of computer scientists into the link between a Trump Organization server and Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s largest banks. The researchers found that the pattern of communication strongly suggests that the link between Alfa Bank and the otherwise relatively minor Trump Organization server was used as a commmunication channel whose activity correlates strongly to key moments in the campaign.
- On 10/4/18 a Russian deputy attorney general, who is thought to have directed Russian attorney (and trump tower meeting attendee) Natalia Veselnitskaya in her efforts abroad on behalf of Russia’s government, reportedly died in a helicopter crash. The Daily Beast reported that Saak Albertovich Karapetyan was aboard an unauthorized helicopter flight, which crashed near the village of Vonyshevo, outside of Moscow. Karapetyan was reportedly behind Veselnitskaya’s global efforts to lobby lawmakers to overturn anti-corruption acts such as the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which passed in 2012. The U.S. legislation is similar to others around the world which commemorate Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died while trying to expose a $230 million fraud scheme in Russia. The acts have reportedly incensed Russian President Vladimir Putin. There’s no particular indication of foul play, but expect it to get added to somebody’s Russia death list…
- In more “maybe it mean something, maybe it doesn’t” news, on 10/9/18 the office of a Russian internet troll farm linked to election interference efforts by Russia’s government during the 2016 presidential election was set on fire in an arson attack early Tuesday morning, according to reports. The Moscow Times reports that the office of the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency was set ablaze around 3 a.m. Tuesday local time by an unknown suspect who used a Molotov cocktail to start the fire.
- On 10/11/18 Salon published an interview with investigative journalist Craig Unger about his new book “House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia“. In the book, Unger presents a detailed account of his allegations that Trump has for decades laundered billions of dollars for Russian organized crime figures and other oligarchs. Unger believes that, ultimately, Trump’s involvement with Russia’s criminal underworld may have created an opening for Putin and his agents to manipulate and control him.
- Nelson W. Cunningham, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, general counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee under then-chair Joseph R. Biden, and general counsel of the White House Office of Administration under Bill Clinton wrote a 10/31/18 article in Politico on evidence that he thinks suggests Mueller’s investigation is preparing a grand jury subponea of President Trump. He further believes that a series of sealed filings and hurried hearings indicates that the President’s team is fighting back.
- New York Magazine reported on 11/7/18 on rumors that Donald Trump Jr. might shortly be indicted. Trump Jr. testified that he never informed his father of a meeting with Russian officials promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, but there are indications that Mueller has obtained proof that it is not in fact true. Gabriel Sherman reported in Vanity Fair that White House officials are concerned about Donald Jr. “I’m very worried about Don Jr.,” a former West Wing official told Sherman, who fears Mueller will be able to prove perjury, and Politico reported that Trump Jr. “has told friends in recent weeks that he believes he could be indicted.”
- It is unknown at this time if the move has any connection to Trump, but on 11/29/18 Federal agents raided the offices of Chicago city alderman Edward Burke, even papering over doors and windows. In addition to serving as an alderman, Burke is also an attorney and partner in the firm Klafter & Burke, specializing in property tax assessments. Burke’s law firm represented President Trump for years, helping him challenge his property tax assessments for Trump Tower. However, Burke stopped representing Mr. Trump earlier this year, citing “irreconcilable differences”.
- In a 12/13/18 article in the New York Times, reporter Devlin Barrett argues that Mueller’s pattern of proceeding to sentencing of several key witnesses without first making them testify at trial suggests he may be nearing the end of his work, and that the aim of this work is producing a written report rather than going to trial. In the cases of Cohen, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Mueller has proceeded to the sentencing of each without first making him testify at trial against others. “That’s at odds with the common practice of prosecutors — which is to hold the stick of a tougher prison sentence over defendants until they have completed all of their cooperation, particularly any public testimony. While the recent legal action has led to speculation that prosecutors are narrowing in on the president in anticipation of more criminal charges, Mueller’s sentencing timeline suggests a different outcome to some legal experts — that the accounts of those cooperating witnesses will appear in a written report, not in court.”
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