This will be a little different from our typical update. There are some new items in various categories since last week’s post, and I’ve noted those below as usual. But what I mostly want to do here is lay out my take-aways from the Mueller Report now that it’s had a week to settle. The issues related to obstruction of justice are definitely important, but as the main focus of this blog has been the collusion investigation, that’s mostly what I’ll be discussing.
One question I had from Barr’s initial summary was whether Mueller had constrained his evaluation of possible collusion charges strictly to cooperation with the Internet Research Agency and the GRU’s hacking efforts. Having now read the report, it’s clear that he did not! “Russian Government Links To And Contact With The Trump Campaign” is a third area of evaluation in parallel with the other two, and it receives around 100 pages of detailed consideration in the report.
As a side note, both the collusion and obstruction sections are full of stories that were first revealed in public reporting over the past two years. The report confirms the press accounts, sometimes adding to them in more detail, but almost never contradicting them. The press had these stories, and had them right. So there’s your “fake news”!
A second question Barr’s summary left open was what level of specificity and burden of proof was established in the collusion finding. Now that we can read the report, we know that Mueller’s team looked quite specifically at particular federal statutes involving conspiracy, foreign agent registration, campaign finance violation, and impeding an investigation. If an action did not met the requirements of charging under those statutes, they did not charge it, regardless of the questionable judgment or ethics of the action.
They also did not pursue charges on anything that was not overwhelmingly likely to result in conviction. I.e. the key determinant was not that there was no evidence, but that there was not enough evidence to guarantee conviction. (And several issues preventing the investigation from reaching this evidentiary level, including evidence being inadmissible for technical reasons, subjects lying, and evidence destruction were cited.)
So “did not establish” collusion has to be understood in the context of these specific constraints. What we can say is that the investigation found no reported evidence of “hard collusion”. That was its job, so it stopped there. My personal observation is that multiple examples of “soft collusion” are still very much in view. The report establishes:
- Candidate Trump repeatedly lied about having any business interests involving Russia when in fact such interests had been ongoing from the earliest stages of the campaign through the convention.
- Multiple Trump-connected parties knew that Russia wanted to help the campaign and, in that context, continued to pursue various connections with Russia throughout the campaign and transition.
- As part of this, information and viewpoints frequently passed back and forth between Trump-connected parties and multiple Russia government-connected parties throughout the campaign.
- Several times people connected with the campaign were promised “dirt” on Clinton by Russian parties. They often pursued these offers, and nobody ever informed the FBI or national security agencies.
- On an ongoing basis, Paul Manafort shared polling data and campaign strategy with an associate with probable Russian intelligence ties.
- Albeit unwittingly of it’s being produced by a foreign intelligence agency, Trump surrogates frequently passed on materials from the internet Research Agency’s online campaign.
- While there is no evidence of anyone connected with Trump actively and knowingly aiding the GRU in its hacking efforts, the campaign eagerly made use of the fruits of those efforts. Even after it was publicly reported that Russia was behind the hacking, the campaign continued with this, and candidate Trump even publicly encouraged Russia to further hack Clinton’s e-mails (which the GRU then attempted hours later).
Having poured over the report in detail I have a few outstanding questions:
- The report mentions that the party that offered compromising information on Clinton to Roger Stone and Michael Caputo, Henry Oknyansky, could not be located. Where is he now? What more might we learn from talking to him?
- Joseph Mifsud, who told George Papadopoulos in March 2016 that there was “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of e-mails, has also vanished. The report establishes possible contacts he had with both the GRU and the Internet Research Agency. Where is he? What more might we learn from talking to him?
- The report makes clear that there were four different tracks of people (Cohen, Foresman, Page, and Papadopoulos) trying to get Trump to travel to Russia in the March-May 2016 timeframe. Was this purely coincidence, or were Russian parties actively working to get Trump there?
- Mentions of intrusion attempts by the GRU into U.S. election systems are made, with a note that the investigation did not follow up on them because other state and federal parties were following up. Who? What have they found?
- What was Carter Page doing in his July 2016 trip to Russia? The report notes that his explanations to both the Trump campaign and federal investigators were contradictory and didn’t make sense.
- The report lists 14 referrals from Mueller to other venues that are ongoing. 12 are entirely redacted. What are they, and what are they looking in to?
- We know that Mueller’s investigation looked at the role of Cambridge Analytica, but its name is not mentioned anywhere visible in the report. Is it part of an ongoing investigation?
- Mueller’s team was loaded with money laundering experts, and is known to have looked at issues relating to Trump’s finances with Deutsche Bank, and the financing of the inauguration. Neither of these are mentioned in the report at all. What role do they play in ongoing investigations?
- The Steele Dossier is mentioned in passing, but no mention of investigating its allegations, or findings thereon, is made. Is there still some kind of ongoing investigation involving it?
- What about that darn Trump Organization server that had such mysterious traffic patterns with a Moscow-based Alfa Bank server? The data is well established in several press reports, but there is no apparent mention of it in the report.
One final note. A quick glance shows that the redactions are much more heavily concentrated in the first half of the report (the “collusion” section):
We also know that around 70% of the redactions by number of lines involved touch on an “ongoing matter”:
As each of the 14 referred cases that the report mentions conclude, many of these blanks will be filled in, and new information probably added to them. Perhaps between this, and the ongoing Congressional investigations, we may actually get some further answers to my questions above!
In the meantime, as mentioned, there are some other updates. You’ll find the associated sections highlighted further down. But before we get there, with the report now released, here is 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.
- As part of this interference, Russians 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. At least two possible sources of these analytics were through hacking of DNC databases, and then- Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort repeatedly sharing detailed internal polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian business associate with ties to Russian intelligence, from April through August 2016.
- 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, Richard Gates, and George Papadopoulos have already plead guilty and cooperated with Mueller’s investigation, Paul Manafort was found guilty in one trial and then became a cooperating witness to avoid a second before lying during cooperation and being sentenced to eight years in prison, Roger Stone has been indicted, and Jared Kushner, Carter Page, Erik Prince, Felix Sater, Jeff Sessions, and Donald Trump Jr. all took known actions that led the Special Counsel to consider charges against them.
- 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.
- While the Special Counsel’s report states that Mueller’s investigation “did not establish” collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian election interference efforts based on burden of proof as regards specific federal statutes, it is known that Russia actively cultivated and sought to make use of contacts with Trump-connected individuals and organizations. More than 100 separate points of contact between Russian-linked parties and Trump-linked people during the campaign and transition have been documented.
- 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 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. The Special Counsel’s investigation found evidence that argues both for and against formal obstruction of justice charges, but stops short of indicting the President. Attorney General William Barr likewise reviewed and decided not to pursue charges, but the report stresses that Congress can take action in this case.
- 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?
- Did Trump share his senior campaign officials’ awareness of Russian election interference, either during the campaign or afterwards, and is thus responsible for not exposing it?
- Given that the Russian election manipulation seems to have been based at least in part on sophisticated data analytics, were there means in addition to the DNC hack and Manafort-Kilimnik link by which they could have gotten this information?
- Since Obstruction of Justice charges were ultimately left to Congress, what further action, if any, will Congress take in this matter
- What else may come out as a result of this investigation? Referrals from the Special Counsel’s have led to 14 active cases involving Trump and Trump-related parties (12 of which remain unidentified), and House and Senate committees have several ongoing investigations. Recall that Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal was an outgrowth of, but not in any way directly connected to, the Whitewater investigation.
To understand more, it’s very 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 (new content in bold italics):
- 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 Manafort’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
- Unidentified Foreign Company (D.C. Circuit Court Ruling against company on behalf of Mueller investigation), 12/18/18
- Paul Manafort (brief in response to Mueller’s sentencing memo), 1/8/19
- Paul Manafort (government’s sentencing support filing, documenting extent and nature of lies to government investigators), 1/15/19
- Roger Stone (indictment on seven counts), 1/24/19
- Concord Consulting & Management LLC (government’s opposition to defendant’s motion to disclose discovery), 1/31/19
- Paul Manafort (redacted transcript of sentencing hearing), 2/4/19
- Roger Stone (designation of related criminal case), 2/15/19
- Roger Stone (apology to Judge Amy Berman Jackson for Instagram post), 2/18/19
- Paul Manafort (sentencing memo), 2/23/19
- Paul Manafort (exhibits to sentencing memo), 2/23/19
- Unidentified Foreign Company (redacted copies of memorandum orders and opinions involving the case), 2/28/19
- Roger Stone (notice from Mueller’s team to Judge Berman Jackson about possible gag order violations), 3/4/19
- Paul Manafort (defense sentencing memorandum), 3/7/19
- Michael Flynn (joint status report on Flynn’s cooperation with Mueller), 3/12/19
- Richard Gates (joint status report requesting a 60-day delay in sentencing), 3/15/19
- Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings to House and Senate Judiciary leaders, 3/24/19
- Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election, (this is the official version, searchable versions can be found here and here) completed 3/22/19, redacted public release 4/18/19
In addition to Mueller’s filings, these Other Primary Source Documents provide a wealth of information (new content in bold italics):
- 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)
- Warrants relating to FBI investigation of Michael Cohen (released March 2019, cover aperiod starting July 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 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)
- SDNY indictment of Natalia Veselnitskaya in connection with money laundering (January 2019)
- Letter from House Committee Chairs to Attorney General on Special Counsel report (February 2019)
- Opening Statement of Michael Cohen’s House Oversight Committee testimony (February 2019)
- Document requests to 81 individuals and organizations from the House Judiciary Committee (March 2019)
- Michael Cohen additional documents provided to Congress (April 2019)
- Government ‘s sentencing memo for Mariia Butina (April 2019)
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 (new content in bold italics):
- 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)
- Paul Manafort, American Hustler (The Atlantic, 3/10/18)
- 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)
- Seven Theories of the Case, Updated: One Year Later, What More Do We Know About L’Affaire Russe? (Lawfare, 8/2/18)
- 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)
- The Surprising Nuance Behind the Russian Troll Strategy (Medium, 10/20/18)
- The Steele Dossier: A Retrospective (Lawfare, 12/14/18)
- A Complete Guide to All 17 (Known) Trump and Russia Investigations (Wired, 12/17/18)
- Mueller Exposes Putin’s Hold Over Trump (Forbes, 12/16/18)
- How Russian Money Helped Save Trump’s Business (Foreign Policy, 12/21/18)
- How Russia’s military intelligence agency became the covert muscle in Putin’s duels with the West (Washington Post, 12/27/18)
- What if the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell (Lawfare, 1/11/19)
- The Spy Who Wasn’t (New Republic, 2/11/19)
- Let Me Tell You About My Friend Maria Butina- Who Might Be A Russian Spy (Refinery 29, 2/14/19)
- Intimidation, Pressure and Humiliation: Inside Trump’s Two-Year War on the Investigations Encircling Him (New York Times, 2/19/19)
- A Mueller Mystery: How Trump Dodged a Special Counsel Interview- and a Subpoena Fight (Washington Post, 3/28/19)
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 (new content in bold italics):
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)
- 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:
- 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 Senate Intelligence Committee began its hearings 3/31/17. Among the highlights from the first two days of testimony:
- Marco Rubio’s campaign was also targeted by hackers with Russian IP addresses during the 2016 election.
- Former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts further revealed that all the major Republican candidates were targeted.
- Such cyber-targeting continued even after the election, including attacks against Rubio on the first day of hearings, and coordinated social media attacks against Paul Ryan over recent weeks.
National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and FireEye chief executive Kevin Mandia, a pair of cybersecurity experts, described how Russian agents and upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia pushed “fake news” during the election.
- Senate Committee members of both parties also took pains to differentiate themselves from the increasingly politicized House hearings, promising an unbiased and bipartisan approach.
- The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held hearings on Russia the week of 5/8/17. Key witnesses were former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Among the highlights:
- Former Obama-administration national security advisor Susan Rice declined an invitation to testify to the Subcommittee on Russian hacking. Rice had initially accepted the invitation from committee chair Lindsey Graham, but then subsequently declined after being informed by Committee ranking Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse that the invitation was not issued with his knowledge, and was the only request for testimony the committee issued that was not bipartisan. Rice had earlier become the subject of allegations, which do not appear to be substantiated, that she had improperly unmasked and revealed information about surveillance of Trump-related personnel’s contacts with Russia.
- Yates detailed how she had informed Trump administration officials that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn was susceptible to blackmail from Russia 18 days before he was fired.
- She also testified that she warned White House counsel Don McGahn in late January that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other senior officials and that as a result, public statements by White House officials were inaccurate.
- Clapper clarified earlier his remarks, oft-repeated by the Trump administration, that he had seen no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He sought to make clear this statement reflects the fact that he had not seen the FBI evidence, and not an authoritative opinion that the evidence itself was lacking.
- Clapper stated that the Russians had also collected information on certain Republican Party affiliated targets but did not release any Republican related data, and only leaked information involving the Democratic Party.
- In relation to allegations involving Rice, Clapper explained that the request from intelligence officials for unmasking of a US citizen is “legitimate” and essential to determine motives of the foreign agent being monitored, and does not constitute “improper” leaking
- Yates and Clapper both told members of the Subcommittee that they had never leaked classified information to the news media, nor authorized anyone else to do so.
- Following questions to Clapper about information on Trump business dealings with Russia, Sen. Graham indicated that he wants to look into President Trump’s potential business ties to Russia as part of the Senate investigation.
- Congressional hearings on Russia continued as well. Some of the highlights from the second half of May include:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.”
- 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 2/25/18, 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.
- 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.
- On 1/15/19 House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff confirmed that the committee was re-launching its Russia investigation. The Democrats now in the new majority on the committee have made offers to half a dozen new staffers, including an expert in corruption and illicit finance and a former prosecutor. House Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be doing their best to delay the start of the investigation, as Intelligence is the only one of 23 committees that they have not yet chosen members for. This was resolved a few days later, and on 2/6/19 the Committee formally voted to release its transcripts to Robert Mueller’s investigation. In a 2/7/19 interview, House Intelligence Committee member Eric Swalwell (CA) said the committee is “going to take an MRI to any Russian financing that the Trump Organization and the president may have had,” Swalwell said. Schiff followed up on 2/10/19 with indications that the Committee plans to closely investigate Trump’s dealings with Deutsche Bank, expressing concern that Mueller’s investigation may have been too deferential to observing the “Red Line” Trump has said extends around investigations of his family’s finances. In addition to its own investigation, the House Intelligence Committee is planning to coordinate with House Financial Services on money-laundering questions and with House Foreign Affairs on Russia.
- In weekend talk show appearances on 3/3/18, the Democratic chairmen of two House committees argued that there is already evidence Trump is guilty of collusion and obstruction of justice. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), said Democrats will request documents from more than 60 people close to or within the administration starting on Monday. The congressman said it’s “very clear” that Trump obstructed justice, but stopped short of saying such an offense would automatically trigger impeachment proceedings. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said “there is direct evidence” the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, citing a 2016 Trump Tower meeting. He added it is not evidence the president engaged in a criminal conspiracy and said he looked forward to additional investigation. Seperately, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that there are “enormous amounts of evidence” suggesting collusion between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. “Where that evidence leads, in terms of a conclusion, and we still have some of those key people to come back, I’m going to reserve judgment, until I’m finished. Warner added, “There’s no one that could factually say there’s not plenty of evidence of collaboration or communications between Trump Organization and Russians.” Warner’s comments came in response to a quote from Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in which he said there was “no factual evidence” of collusion.
- On 3/4/19 the House Judiciary Committee launched a broad investigation into President Trump’s inner circle. The panel demanded documents from 81 individuals, entities and federal agencies, and given them a deadline of March 18th. The investigation will focus on three primary areas: whether the president obstructed justice by interfering with criminal investigations; potential corruption such as violation of campaign and financial reporting laws, as well as possible misuse of office for personal gain; and abuses of power to include misuse of the pardon power and attacks on the press, judiciary and law enforcement agencies. Talking Point Memo did a thorough run-down on 21 specific issues the document requests seem to involve. Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler indicated on 3/14/19 that about half of the contact parties were planning on complying. On 3/19/19, the White House missed its deadline for turning over many of the materials. Other prominent parties publicly declining to comply included Roger Stone and Julian Assange. In an exception to the general trend, it was reported that Hope Hicks was fully cooperating.
- Separately, the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform committees, wrote letters to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo asking that they turn over personnel records detailing the president’s communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, following reports that Trump had sought to destroy records detailing such contacts. On 3/21/19 White House counsel Pat Cipollone formally declined to cooperate by letter, asserting that the President’s diplomatic communications are confidential and protected by executive privilege and the requests are beyond Congress’s legitimate realm of inquiry.
- On 3/5/19 House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff announced a series of hires, including a former prosecutor with experience combating Russian organized crime, to lead his investigation of the Trump administration. Daniel Goldman, who served as an assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from 2007 to 2017, joined the committee’s staff as a senior adviser and the director of investigations in February. On 4/15/19 the House Intelligence and Financial Services committees issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and several other banks as part of House Democratic investigations into President Trump’s finances.
- On 3/11/19 the Senate Intelligence Committee interviewed Simona Papadopoulos, wife of Mueller indictee and former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papdopoulos. She was also accompanied by two attorneys- for the closed-door interview. After the interview, she Tweeted “I Love America.”
- In a 4/3/19 letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., requested six years of Trump’s personal and business tax information from 2013-2018, including individual tax returns and returns from eight businesses linked to Trump. He also asked whether any of them are or have been under audit – and for all the information to be delivered to Capitol Hill within a week. The Trump team responded on 4/4/19 by hiring a law firm to battle efforts to see his income tax returns. In a letter Friday to Treasury Department General Counsel Brent McIntosh, lawyer William Consovoy argued that the House Ways and Means Committee has no “legitimate committee purpose” for seeking the president’s returns. The attorney from the law firm Consovoy McCarthy Park also wrote that the Treasury would set “set a dangerous precedent” by releasing the returns. In further action, on 4/15/19 Trump’s attorneys William S. Consovoy and Stefan Passantino urged Mazars USA not to comply with a subpoena to turn over a decade of the president’s financial records from the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The attorneys called it a politically motivated scheme to take down the president.
- On 4/22/19 President Trump and his private business sued the House Oversight and Reform Committee to try to block a subpoena requesting financial records from the president’s accountant. The lawsuit asks a federal court in Washington, D.C., to prevent Committee Chair Elijah Cummings from obtaining records from Mazars USA, an accounting firm used by the president and his businesses, arguing congressional Democrats are abusing their subpoena power. “Democrats are using their new control of congressional committees to investigate every aspect of President Trump’s personal finances, businesses, and even his family. Instead of working with the president to pass bipartisan legislation that would actually benefit Americans, House Democrats are singularly obsessed with finding something they can use to damage the President politically.” On 4/24/19 the Treasury Department officially missed the deadline to turn over requested information on Trump’s taxes to Congress. The Department claimed it needed until later in May to make a proper determination.
<End “Congressional Hearings” Section>
FBI Investigation/Special Counsel
- Fallout from Trump’s 5/10/17 firing of James Comey continued to unwind for several days. Significant developments included:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 9/16/17 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 1/24/18 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 3/16/18 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 4/15/18 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
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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 6/14/18 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 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.
<End “FBI Investigation/Special Counsel” Section>
Russian Campaign Interference
- Russian media also announced that three senior officials of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, and a cyber-security contractor working with the FSB had been arrested and charged with treason on 1/28/17. Analysts believe that, given the timing, and the kinds of people involved, that this move likely has something to do with the U.S. intelligence finding on high-level Russian official participation in manipulating the U.S. election.
- A report that was issued on 4/20/17 (by Reuters) revealed that a Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to three current and four former U.S. officials, a document prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in June recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia. A second institute document, drafted in October, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency.
- 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 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 2/16/18 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.”
- 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.
- 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 5/10/18, 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 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:
- 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 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 7/31/18 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.
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.
- On 12/27/18 the Washington Post published a legthy article on how the Russian Military Intelligence Agency (the GRU) became Putin’s preferred agency for intelligence operations against foreign governments. The GRU is the agency behind the Internet influence campaign in the 2016 election and the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaigns.
- In a possible prelude to arranging an exchange for suspected (and confessed) Russian intelligence agent Mariia Butina, it was reported on 1/1/19 that a US citizen and corporate security director had been detained in Russia on accusations of spying. Former Marine Paul Whelan, 48, of Novi, Michigan, was arrested in Moscow while attending a family wedding, on suspicion of carrying out an act of espionage. His family rejects the accusation.
- On 1/17/19 Facebook said that it had removed hundreds of pages and accounts that pretended to be real news sites from places in Eastern Europe, but were actually operated employees from Russian state-owned news company Sputnik. The effort potentially shows a new tactic being used by Russia to weaponize misinformation — using its state-run media arm to create fake posts that look like they come from real newsrooms in vulnerable countries. Facebook says the groups also spent $135,000 on ads, the first big ad spend announcement the tech giant has made since it first revealed bad actors bought ads on the platform in the fall of 2017.
- It was reported on 1/16/19 that former Trump presidential campaign aide Rick Gates provided Special Counsel Robert Mueller information on a firm in the Middle East that is reported to have worked with the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. election. The Israeli company, Psy-Group, had come up with a plan for online election manipulation that was very similar to what Russian intelligence agencies subsequently carried out.
- For something completely different from the Mueller investigation, on 12/28/18, it was revealed in a court filing that Special Counsel Robert Mueller got his hands on a “nude selfie” while collecting a cache of data from a Russian company charged with interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Concord Management and Consulting, which is accused of coordinating a massive social media plot to help elect President Trump, lamented in court papers late Thursday that the special counsel is overstepping his authority by refusing to release some of the data his team has obtained. Mueller argues the data should be sealed because it contains “sensitive” information about national security and U.S. intelligence techniques. “Could the manner in which he collected a nude selfie really threaten the national security of the United States,” the lawyers asked in the filing. It was not clear from the filing who’s portrayed in the selfie and the photo wasn’t referenced at any other point in the papers. This complaint doesn’t appear to have been the extent of Concord Management’s activities, as a 1/30/19 filing by Mueller’s investigation revealed that a pro-Russian Twitter account spread confidential information from a the criminal case against Concord Management. The situation stems from terabytes of data in the criminal case against Concord Management and Consulting. The Justice Department has been turning over evidence to Concord’s US-based legal team, who can review it with a limited number of people as they fight the case. Prosecutors now allege that some of the information turned over to Concord before trial got out in October — after a now-suspended Twitter user touted that it had a “Mueller database” and a computer with a Russian IP address published thousands of documents online. ore than a thousand of those documents were part of the case’s evidence collection, and were listed online under labels and folders known only to those involved in the case, the prosecutors said. Other documents published online and mixed in with the real evidence were “junk material,” prosecutors said.
- On 1/30/19, the National Rifle Association made its first public attempt to distance itself from any formal involvement in a now infamous trip to Moscow undertaken by a group of its high-ranking members, but internal NRA emails and photos posted on social media reviewed by ABC News appear to show the organization was significantly involved in planning it. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has launched an investigation of the NRA and written a series of letters seeking “information and documentation” about the trip, disputed the NRA’s public attempt to distance itself from the trip. On the House side, it was reported on 2/18/19 that Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) were opening an investigation into what they call the “complex web of relationships” between certain individuals from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Russia. The representatives made a range of requests from NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre in a letter obtained by ABC News.
- On 2/27/19 the Washington Post reported that the U.S. military blocked Internet access to the Internet Research Agency during the 2018 midterms. The strike on the St. Petersburg-based company was part of the first offensive cyber-campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a U.S. election. “They basically took the IRA offline,” according to one individual familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They shut them down.” The operation marked the first muscle-flexing by U.S. Cyber Command, with intelligence from the National Security Agency, under new authorities it was granted by President Trump and Congress last year to bolster offensive capabilities.
- In further indication of the scope and focus of Russian interference in 2016, on 4/12/19 the Washington Post reported on a study by Clemson University documenting how thousands of Russian Twitter accounts turned their misinformation focus to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. The study found that thousands of tweets from Russian-owned accounts masquerading as conservative accounts supporting President Trump began targeting Sanders’s supporters shortly after the primary concluded.
- The news pretty much vanished amidst the coverage of the Mueller report release, but on 4/20/19 the government issued its sentencing memo in the case against Mariia Butina. Federal prosecutors asked for Butina to receive 18 months in prison for conspiring to act as an agent of Russia in an effort to influence U.S. politics, saying that Butina provided information of “immense” value to Russia in the runup to the 2016 presidential election. Prosecutors said Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense and was not a trained intelligence officer, but she did take actions on behalf of a Russia that could have harmed U.S. national security.
- The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a 4/18/19 story on a local example of the kind of election manipulation described by the Mueller report- a series of October 2016 “Miners For Trump” rallies that were actually organized and promoted by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency.
- On 4/23/19 Twitter announced it had removed more than 5,000 bot accounts that called special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation a hoax. The accounts do not appear connected to Russia, but instead have ties to a social media operation that previously promoted messages sympathetic to Saudi Arabia’s government, according to NBC. “While our investigations are ongoing, in cases such as this, attribution is difficult. If we do have reasonable evidence to support state-backed activity, we will disclose the accounts as part of our information operations archive,” a Twitter spokesperson added.
<End “Russian Campaign Interference” Section>
Trump-Russia Ties (pre-inauguration)
As allegations about Russian election interference began to appear in the summer of 2016, coverage also started to hone in on possible ties between then-candidate Trump, and people in his orbit, with Russia. His surrogates throughly dismissed the topic. So, for example, asked in a July 2016 interview, “Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign and Putin and his regime?” then campaign manager Paul Manafort replied, “No, there are not. That’s absurd. And, you know, there’s no basis to it.”
Trump himself weighed in on the matter repeatedly, both pre and post-election:
- July 26, 2016- “I mean, I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia,” Trump tells CBS4.
- July 26, 2016- “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia,” Trump tweets.
- Oct. 6, 2016- During the second presidential debate, Hillary Clinton says Russia is trying to help elect Trump, “maybe because he wants to do business in Moscow.” Trump calls this assessment “so ridiculous,” adding, “I know nothing about Russia … I don’t deal there.
- Oct. 24, 2016- “I have nothing to do with Russia folks, I’ll give you a written statement,” Trump says at a campaign rally.
- Jan. 11, 2017- Trump tells reporters that he has “no deals that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away,” adding that he could “make deals in Russia very easily” but “I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict.”
- Jan. 11, 2017- “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!,” Trump tweets.
- Feb. 7, 2017- Trump tweets, “I don’t know Putin, have no deals in Russia, and the haters are going crazy.”
His surrogates continued their denials after the election as well. Two days after, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said, “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.” In March 2017 then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer, when asked about the topic, said, “I’ve said it from the day that I got here, there is no connection. If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection.”
We now know that these denials were false. Russian contacts involving key specific Trump-connected parties (Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, Donald Trump Jr.) are covered in sections below. In addition to these, year’s worth of pre-inauguration contacts with Trump himself, the Trump Organization, and the Trump campaign have been documented. These include:
- Politico ran a 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.
- The New Republic published a 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.
- The Independent reported that the former mayor of Moscow has confirmed that Donald Trump met with officials in Russia in the 1990s to discuss a possible building project after archival footage of the meeting was posted online.The video, allegedly aired by Russian state television in 1995, shows the US president meeting with members of the former mayor’s administration. “Trump was in Moscow,” Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow from 1992 through 2010, told the Interfax news agency. “He had contacts…on matters related to the construction of the Okhotny Ryad underground mall on Manezh Square.”
- McClatchy DC reported that Trump’s former bodyguard had extensive knowledge of Trump associate Felix Sater’s connections to Russian criminal figures. 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. While Trump has downplayed his relationship with Sater when questioned, during much of the time that he was a secret informant, Sater was a Trump Organization business associate with an office near Trump’s in Trump Tower.
- While Trump’s claim that he has “zero investments in Russia” is technically true, going back to at least 2002, Russian financiers have been 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.
- Going back to 2009, 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.
- McClatchy reported 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.
- A Bloomberg article describes issues related to Russian investment in the Trump SoHo Hotel project starting in 2010. The Trump Organization has recently sold its interest in the property, which opened in 2010. It had been a financially troubled investment, but beyond that, it had also attracted many Russian-linked investors who are involved in investigations into potential money-laundering. 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 an apparent effort 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.
- 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.
- In transactions dating from 2011-2013, Trump 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.
- President Trump’s lawyers themselves 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.
- The person who would one day arrnage the Trump Tower Meeting, British-born consultant Rob Goldstone, and the alleged providers of information offered in the meeting, Azerbaijani-Russian billionaires Aras Agalarov and Emin Agalarov, were previously involved in business transactions with Trump and had 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.
- Bloomberg reported that 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, and other publis statements. 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 he hadn’t stayed the night in Russia during the trip. On 4/26/18 Trump himself contradicted these former statements. “I went to Russia for a day or so,” Trump said in an interview on “Fox & Friends.” “Of course I stayed there.” This is relevant to unconfirmed allegations of the Steele Dossier (see separarte section below) that compromising video of Trump was obtained during his stay and is part of the leverage that Moscow has over him.
- As you’ll see here and in other places, the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, which Trump’s company produced, plays a key role in possible connections between Trump, his associates, and Russian interests. The Guardian ran an in-depth story on it in September 2017. Newsweek also published excerpts from veteran political reporter Michael Isikoff’s book “Russian Roulette: the Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump” covering the trip.
- A 2013 video of Trump describing his strong personal relationship with Putin has emerged.
- CNN put together a timeline of over 80 Trump statements praising Putin or boasting about his relationship with him going back to 2013.
During the Campaign
- According to reporting by The Guardian in late 2015 Britain’s spy agencies first became aware of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agent. 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.
- The Wall Street Journal reported 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..
- This is covered in more depth in the Michael Cohen section, but, beginning in late 2015 Trump was in ongoing negotiations to build a Trump Tower Moscow. Trump fixer Michael Cohen actively purused the deal through the Republican convention, and it was only finally abandoned after the November election. Trump and his representatives in general denied any business interests in Russia throughout the campaign, and specifically denied the stories about Trump Tower Moscow as they began to emerge in 2018. In fact, Trump was consistently briefed on the progress of negotiations (which included communications by Cohen with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office), had signed a letter of intent, and even seriously discussed visiting Moscow with Cohen during the campaign. After news and supporting documents were made public, Trump changed his story and said that of course he purused the deal, and there was nothing wrong with doing so, since he might not have won and then might have gone forward with it.
- A story in the Dallas Morning News focused on political contributions made by U.S. citizens with close ties to Russia during the 2016 election cycle. 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.”
- CNN reported that Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has expressed interest in the Trump campaign’s relationship with the National Rifle Association during the 2016 campaign. “When I was interviewed by the special counsel’s office, I was asked about the Trump campaign and our dealings with the NRA,” Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, told CNN regarding his February 2018 interview. The special counsel’s team was curious to learn more about how Donald Trump and his operatives first formed a relationship with the NRA and how Trump wound up speaking at the group’s annual meeting in 2015, just months before announcing his presidential bid, Nunberg said. A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. President Trump was not asked about his connection with the NRA in the written questions Mueller posed to him, according to a source familiar with the questions. The NRA had already come under scrutiny from lawmakers for its massive spending in support of Trump in 2016 and its ties to Russian nationals, including Maria Butina, who has plead guilting to acting as a foreign agent.
- The Washington Post first reported that junior campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was encouraging the Trump campaign to meet with Russian leadership in March 2016. 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 further possible import of Papadopoulos became clearer in December 2017 when Mueller’s team unsealed an earlier indictment in which Papadopoulos plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian sources during the campaign. The details of the indictment describe how, 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.
- Papdopoulos’ cooperation extended through 2018, when prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller said in a court filing that Papadopoulos should spend at least some time in prison for lying to the FBI during the Russia probe. The prosecutors disclosed that Papadopoulos 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 the 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. 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.” Sessions, when asked about that meeting at a later 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. 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, as part of their lawsuit against the Trump campaign and Russian parties, DNC lawyers wrote in September 2018 court filings that Joseph Mifsud, who was Papadopoulos’ source for claiming that the Russians had e-mail “dirt” on 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.” 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.
- Trump himself met Russian 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.
- Congressional investigators unearthed an June 2016 email from a top Trump aide that referenced an effort to arrange a meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The aide, Rick Dearborn, who later became President Trump’s deputy chief of staff, sent a brief email to campaign officials relaying information about an individual from West Virginia who was seeking to connect top Trump officials with Putin. 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 June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donal Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort with Russian parties offering information damaging to Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” is discussed in more depth in the Donald Trump Jr. section. For his part, Trump Senior has consistently denied knowing in advance about the meeting and/or approving it. Several allegations to the contrary are outstanding, but nothing in the public realm has thus far proven Trump’s story false.
- The Washington Post reported that George Papadopoulos was 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. “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.
- 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.
- The Center for American Progress updated their Moscow Project website on 1/9/19 to reflect the most recently disocvered of 101 contacts people connected with the Trump campaign made with people connected with Russia during the campaign or transition. For good measure, the New York Times came out with its own interactive list of 101 pre-inaguration contacts between Trump and associates and Russian nationals and WikiLeaks on 1/26/19.
- According to reporting by the Washington Post, in January 2017 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. ABC reported in June 2018 that Special counsel Robert Mueller had acquired Prince’s computer and phones. 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. “
- The New York Times reported that American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing January 2017 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.
- Vanity Fair reported that Israeli intelligence officials were warned in January 2017 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.
- 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.
- Reporting from the Daily Beast on 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.
- Vox ran a lengthy article on interest by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in 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 2/5/19, President Trump’s inaugural committee received a subpoena from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, meaning criminal investigations into the inauguration’s money are heating up. The scope of documents requested in the subpoena and potential crimes investigators are extensive, investigating everything from false statements to money laundering. Investigators are said to be interested in the inaugural committee’s spending, its donations, whether any donations came from illegal foreign sources, and potential corruption involving favors for donors. On 3/15/19 Mueller’s team made a filing requesting another 60-day delay in Gates’ sentencing, because he continues to help with “several ongoing investigations”. The main area of his cooperating is believed to invovle the inaugural committee.
One open question is what, if anything, the legal ramifications of Trump and 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. It is also possible that election laws were violated, as they forbid receiving any donations from a foreign entity, including in-kind donations of things like information. 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.”
<End “Trump-Russia Ties (Pre-Inauguration)” Section>
Trump-Russia Ties (post-inauguration)
Knowing that Russia actively intervened in the election in an attempt to aid Trump, a natural question presents itself: What did Russia hope to gain from this? One place to look for the answer is in the shape of U.S.-Russian relations after the inauguration. Likewise, Trump and Trump administration connections with Russia after the election may provide information on the possibility of Trump’s collusion with Russian interests, be it implicit or explicit. So what do we see when we look at post-inauguration Trump-Russia ties?
An aspect that immediately stands out is the presence in the administration of people with strong Russian connections:
- First up in this regard is former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson was instrumental in negotiating billions of dollars worth of business with the state oil company, 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.
- 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. On 7/11/18 the Senate confirmed Benczkowski by 51-48 after he was renominated in January after his 2017 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.
- 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 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.
- An April 2018 VICE article highlighted that two senior Trump administration officials were once registered as lobbyists for an investment company controlled by a Soviet-born industrialist who made billions doing business with newly sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Makan Delrahim is now the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice, after rising from his original appointment as deputy White House counsel and deputy assistant to the president. David Bernhardt is the No. 2 official in Trump’s Department of the Interior. Both men registered as lobbyists in 2011 and 2012 for Access Industries, a holding company controlled by billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, long in business with billionaire associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ties are one thing, but policy is where push really comes to shove. Here too there are many indications of a friendly attitude toward Russia:
- In his first official call with Putin on February 2017, 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.
- Per reporting from April 2017, the Trump team remained interested in brokering a deal on the Ukraine that could end sanctions against Russia. The administration was 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.
- Exxon Mobil would also like better relations. The Wall Street Journal reported April 2017 that Exxon Mobil asked the Treasury Department 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. Alas for Exxon Mobil, the Trump administration officially responded on 4/21/17 that it would not grant the waiver. 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 the sanctions.
- Shortly after firing FBI Director James Comey, President Trump had 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 pushed back, seeking to water down the sanctions in the House. On 7/29/17 President Trump agreed to sign the package of sanctions after they had been passed by an overwhelming House majority. 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
- 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.
- 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 came over the pleas of lower level State Department officials to proceed.
- 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.
- 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 2017 legislation requiring the government 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.
- New sanctions did arrive later in 2018, however. On 3/15/18 the Treasury Department announced that the U.S. would impose 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 3/26/18 the Trump administration announced it would 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.
- In an unusual move, President Donald Trump called out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name on 4/9/18 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 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.
- The Trump administration confirmed plans on 12/19/18 to lift sanctions on companies owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska after he significantly reduced his ownership stake in them. The Treasury Department announced that it would lift financial sanctions on Deripaska’s aluminum company, United Co. Rusal, as well as En+ Group plc and JSC EuroSibEnergo in 30 days, after Deripaska agreed to reduce his ownership stake in each of the companies to below 50 percent. On 1/9/19 Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin agreed to provide House lawmakers with a classified briefing on the administration’s plan to ease sanctions against three companies controlled by Deripaska. The Senate moved on 1/15/19 to begin debate on a measure overruling the administration on reducing sanctions. On 1/17/19 there was a 57-42 vote to end the debate, which left it three votes short of the amount needed to overcome an expected Republican filibuster. The House meanwhile voted 262-53 to disapprove the lifting of sanctions, with 130 Republicans breaking with Trump and backing the Democratic measure. On 1/27/19 the White House formally lifted the sanctions. Mere days after sanctions were lifted, Deripaska’s company EN announced that Christopher Burnham, who served on Trump’s State Department transition team and previously worked as an executive at Deutsche Bank, was joining its board of directors.
- On 3/12/19 the House passed a series of bills meant to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for his country’s actions, including a measure condemning the Russian leader and his government for their alleged roles in covering up the 2015 assassination of Putin political opponent Boris Nemtsov.The package of legislation, all aimed at adding scrutiny on the Russian government, largely passed by voice vote. The bill concerning Nemtsov’s assassination overwhelmingly passed, with only one lawmaker dissenting.
- Bloomberg reported on 4/15/19 that Russia’s largest aluminum maker is investing in a Kentucky aluminum rolling mill just months after sanctions against the company were lifted According to the Bloomberg report, United Co. Rusal, whose largest shareholder is billionaire Oleg Deripaska, reportedly intends to invest $200 million into the plant being built by Braidy Industries Co.
- On 4/24/19 the New York Times reported that former Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen had attempted to put together a working group on Russian election interference, but was discouraged from doing so. The report cites a former senior official (likely Nielsen herself) who indicates that White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney discouraged the action, based on the fact that any discussion of Russian election interference upsets the presdient, who regards it as an attack on his legitimacy.
In more personal terms, Trump’s words and deeds as President regarding Putin and Russia often indicate a great deal of deference:
- In a pre-Superbowl interview with Bill O’Reilly on 2/5/17, 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.
- 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 revealed the week of 7/17/18 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.
- 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?” 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.
- In a similar vein, 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.”
- 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.
- 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 announced on 4/2/18 that Trump had invited Putin to the White House. If the meeting had occured, it would be the first time the Russian President had a White House meeting since a 2005 meeting with George W. Bush.
- 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.” 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 had spoken on the phone eight times since Trump took office in January 2017.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- The Washington post reported on 1/12/19 that there are no detailed records of five personal meetings President Donald Trump has had with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The report, citing US officials, said that Trump had gone to what the Post described as “extraordinary lengths” to keep the specifics of his conversations with his Russian counterpart under wraps. Current and former US officials told the paper that Trump’s efforts include confiscating the notes from his interpreter and not allowing them to discuss the details of the meetings with other officials in his administration. The Post notes that this behavior by Trump is not usual per past presidential standards. On 1/13/19 new House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff floated the possibility of renewing his demand to subpoena the translator present during a July 2018 meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Last year, we sought to obtain the interpreter’s notes or testimony, from the private meeting between Trump and Putin. The Republicans on our committee voted us down. Will they join us now?”
- The Financial Times reported on 1/29/19 that President Trump sat with Putin without a translator or aide from his administration present on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November 2018 after an evening event. Trump was joined by his wife, but there was no note-taker or translator from the U.S. at the meeting. Putin was reportedly accompanied by a translator, with all four at a table. A Russian government official told the Financial Times that the talk lasted about 15 minutes and included discussions about the Syrian conflict and a clash days earlier between Russian forces and the Ukrainian navy. Trump and Putin also talked about the potential for a formal meeting, the official said.
- Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s memoir included a report that when US intelligence officials informed President Donald Trump that North Korea had tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, he reportedly refused to believe them.
Instead, he relied on questionable information given to him by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump reportedly dismissed the supposed launch of an ICBM as a “hoax,” McCabe said in his book, “The Threat”. “He thought that North Korea did not have the capability to launch such missiles. He said he knew this because Vladimir Putin had told him so.”
Russian media coverage and government statements regarding Trump and U.S. relations also provides further, sometimes contradictory, indications:
- Shifts in Russian media coverage of Trump following Flynn’s February 2017 resignation led some to wonder if Russia is souring on Trump. Such media coverage is thought to usually takes its cues from Putin. This came as Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson, and Vice President Mike Pence all made statements criticizing Russia and/or re-affirming support for NATO and Ukrainian independence.
- 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.
- Russian media criticisms of the Trump administration escalated in mid-April, a further indication that Russia may be souring on Trump. 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 8/21/17 Russia announced that Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Antonov would 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Observers of U.S.-Russia relations took notice of Russia’s 12/19/18 praise for the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of Syria, and the 1/15/19 reporting that President Trump had discussed the possibility of the U.S. pulling out of NATO with aides numerous times in 2018.
- Putin meanwhile suggested in his annual state of the nation speech on 2/21/19 that there is a “deep state” in the U.S. government working against President Trump, echoing one of the favorite talking points of the President and Conservative media.
It can be easily seen in the above that, while there are contradictory indications in all categories, what most stands out is a decided tilt by the U.S. to being more solicitous toward Russia and its interests under the Trump administration. The deference with which the President personally treats Russian Presdient Vladimir Putin is especially striking.
<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). However, McClatchy DC reported on 12/27/18 that cell phone signal records indicated Cohen was in the vicinity of Prague at the time of the alleged meeting, and that intelligence intercepts also indicated that Russian parties were discussing an imminent meeting with him at that time.
On another Dossier-related front, 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 12/19/18 it was confirmed that, despite denials from his legal team as recently as the day before, Trump had in fact signed a letter of intent for the Moscow project during the campaign.
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.
This seemed to be confirmed by a 1/17/19 article in Buzzfeed staing that Mueller’s investigation had multiple streams of firm evidence showing that Trump had instructed Cohen to lie to Congress. While the fact that the reporters involved have done previous high-quality reporting on the Moscow Trump Tower project would tend to lend credence to the story, on 1/18/19 a spokesman from Mueller’s office took the unprecedented step of issuing a public statement that the report was not accurate. Buzzfeed’s editor countered by re-affirming his faith in the sources and reporting team, and asking Mueller’s office to be specific about what details it was disputing. Security blogger Marcy Wheeler has speculated that the evidence in question may have come from the SDNY case against Cohen and not Mueller, and may also involve Cohen having been indirectly encouraged to lie rather than directly ordered, hence the refuattion from Mueller’s office. For his part, investigative reporter Ronan Farrow offered that he had passed on reporting the same story due to, “a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.” Subsequent reporting also made clear that Buzzfeed had given Mueller’s office advanced warning that the story was coming out, but not that they were attribuitng the evidence to the Special Counsel’s office.
Rudy Giuliani clarified absolutely nothing on 1/20/19 by offering that Trump may have been talking to Cohen about the deal up until the election (and then saying he was just “speculating” the next day, despite the day before saying that Trump had told him talks on Trump Tower Moscow were, “going on from the day I announced to the day I won”), but that Trump had not told Cohen to lie about it. Meanwhile, on 1/23/19, Cohen announced that he was putting planned Congressional testimony on hold due to repeated threats from Trump and Giuliani implying further legal action against him and his family members. For good measure, on 1/24/19 Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis called for opening a Federal investigation against Giuliani for witness tampering. Meanwhile, on the same date the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a formal subpoena for Cohen to testify. On 2/6/19 the House Intelligence Committee postponed Cohen’s closed-door testimony until later in the month. “In the interests of the investigation, Michael Cohen’s testimony has been postponed until February 28th,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in a brief statement Wednesday morning. Cohen also delayed his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, claiming recovery from surgery. After he was subsequently seen socializing with friends and his wife, an angry Chairman Richard said Stone would be required to appear before entering prison.
Cohen finally obliged with testimony before Congress the last week of February. His Tuesday testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee (which reportedly included an apology to the Committee for lying to them in previous testimony) and Thursday testimony before the House Intelligence Committee were private, so the main event was Wednesday public testimony before the House Oversight Committee. Even before it began Republic House member made news by (subsequently deleted) Twitter posts mentioning Cohen’s wife and alleged girlfriends that seem to have been intended to intimidate him before his testimony. Cohen, for his part publicly released an opening statement with several items relevant to the Russia investigation, which were expanded upon in his testimony. Highlights included:
- Cohen overheard discusions between Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Sr. indicating Trump Sr. knew about the Trump Tower meeting in advance.
- Cohen was present for a call in which Roger Stone informed Trump that he had communicated with Julian Assange about the e-mails the Russians hacked well before they were publicly revealed.
- Although Trump did not directly order Cohen to lie to Congress, he used coded language that made clear to Cohen this is what he expected.
- His statement to Congress in which he lied to them was edited by Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow.
- Trump never expected to win, and so pursued the potential payday of the Trump Tower Moscow project throughout the campaign.
- Despite their statements denying it, Cohen frequently updated Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump on the status of the Moscow negotiations.
- Despite Trump’s denials about ever really knowing Russian mob-connected Felix Sater, Cohen said that Trump knew him very well and Sater had a rent-free office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, directly next to Trump’s own office.
- Under questioning, Cohen stuck to his story that he had never been to Prague, and had not participated in ameeting there with Russian parties, as alleged by the Steele Dossier.
Following the conclusion of his testimony, Congressional Republicans Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mark Meadows (R-NC) responded by… issuing a letter asking the DOJ to investigate Cohen for making false statements (a call that Trump-lawyer Rudy Giuliani echoed on 3/1/19). House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that the panel will seek to interview several of the people that Cohen mentioned during his testimony, including President Trump’s children Don Jr. and Ivanka, as well as Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. And following his Thursday testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Cohen reported that he would return for further testimony before the Committee the following week.
One subject that the committees are interested in probing further is whether Cohen had discussions about a possible pardon from Trump. Subsequent reporting indicated that this might indeed be the case. President Trump’s response to the hearings included a sweaty two-hour speech at CPAC including rants against the investigation , and statements like “I am an innocent man being persecuted by some very bad, conflicted & corrupt people in a Witch Hunt that is illegal.” Cohen apparently also has strong feelings about Trump, as on 3/7/19 he sued the Trump Organization for $1.9 million in legal fees incurred after the Organization stopped covering his fees when he began to cooperate with Mueller. For his part, Sekulow denied Cohen’s allegations that he altered Cohen’s prepared comments before Congress in 2017. In response, Cohen provided Congress with further documents to back up his allegation.
Speaking of documents, on 3/19/19 redacted documents related to the search warrants carried out during the April 2018 raid on Cohen were released by order of a federal judge. The documents show that active financial investigations involving Cohen appear to be ongoing, and that the FBI sought and obtained a warrant for his email in July 2017, far earlier than publicly known. Independent journalist Marcy Wheeler notes that part of the basis for the warrants relates to Cohen’s failure to register under the lobbying law FARA, a violation that could be related to Cohen’s consulting work for foreign companies seeking to gain access to the Trump administration. Wheeler also notes that a second foreign agent crime listed in the warrants — 18 USC §§ 951 — may not be related to his consulting work. As Lawfare outlines, 951 is a “non-political” foreign agents statute that requires the person to “act as an agent of a government, not of some other entity.” it is unknown if this involves the Russian investigation, but it is the same statute under which suspected Russian spy Maria Butina was charged.
Cohen also made one more stab at getting legal leniency. In a 4/4/19 statement in response to letters sent by members of the House Oversight and Intelligence Committees, Michael Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis indicated that Cohen “has recently obtained a hard drive with 14 million files from his computers and phones over the past 10 years” and that he should have his entence delayed to allow further tetstimony. His team also provided new documents to Congress. They mostly followed the lines of the documents provided with his earlier testimony, but stated more strongly that Trump “encouraged Cohen to lie and say all Moscow Tower project contacts ended as of January 31, 2016 using ‘code’ language — telling Cohen during various conversations that there was ‘no collusion, no Russian contacts, nothing about Russia’ after the start of the campaign.’”
<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 several warnings, and also been led toward truthful answers, which he balked at giving. The sentencing judge also made clear to Flynn that his crimes were serious, and his lies deliberate, and indicated he was likely to receive time in jail unless he cooperated further. Based on this, Flynn requested a delay in sentencing on 12/18/18.
On 3/12/19 Mueller’s team said in the required three-month follow-up that Flynn’s cooperation was complete. In the same joint status report, Flynn’s lawyers asked for a 90-day delay in their client’s sentencing so he could continue to cooperate with the government in his former business partner’s upcoming trial in Alexandria, Va. Flynn expects to testify in the mid-July trial against Bijan Rafiekian, who faces charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign government agent for Turkey.
<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’s main 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.” Subsequent reporting indicates that Manfort offered this as a quid-pro-quo to work off the debts he owed to Deripaska, and court filings as part of the Mueller investigation indicate that Manfort shared internal campaign polling data with Deripaska’s deputy (and alleged Russian intelligence agent) Konstantin Kilimnik.
- 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.
Beginning in early August 2016, while Manafort was still running Trump’s campaign, and continuing into 2018, Manafort and Kilimnik repeatedly communicated about a peace plan for Ukraine. Mueller’s investigation has been very interested in this, as indicated in a transcript of a February 2019 closed-door hearing. A close look at the transcript shows that the prosecutors have been keenly focused on discussions the two men had about a plan to end the conflict that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Persuading the United States to ease or end the American-led sanctions imposed to punish Moscow for its aggression has been a primary goal of Russian foreign policy.
- 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 President’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. Time followed with a 12/28/18 report on how Manafort had explicitly offered inside campaign information to Oleg Deripaska’s enforcer, former intelligence agent Victor Boyarkin, in order to work off debts owed to Deripaska. To add insult to injury, Manafort’s own team made a 1/8/19 filing rejecting Mueller’s charges in which, in the latest in a series of technology blunders on Manafort’s part, portions they intended to redact were still readable. Among other things, the filing revealed that Manafort had shared (and lied about sharing) internal polling data from the Trump campaign with Kilimnik. Trump subsequently denied knowing Manafort had done so. Mueller followed up with a 1/15/19 31-page filing (and additional 157 pages of supporting material) documenting how and when Manafort had lied to investigators.
On 2/15/19, Mueller’s office filed a recommendation in the Virginia court that Manfort be sentenced to between 19 and 29 years on the charges he had been found guilty of now that his cooperation agreement has been abrogated. Seperately, the judge for Manafort’s scheduled Washington DC trial on 2/13/19 declared Manafort’s plea deal to be voided, leaving him susceptible to being sentenced on those charges as well. Mueller’s team relesed a heavily redacted sentencing memo on 2/23/19, indicating the existence of several ongoing investigations that may involve information gathered from Manafort. The 25-page memo came with over 570 pages of exhibits, and carefully avoids tipping the government’s hand about ongoing cases, but reveals prosecution interest in Manafort’s activities going back to the 1980s. In related legal matters, on 1/17/19, New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom admitted to misleading the Justice Department about its work with Paul Manafort on behalf of the Ukrainian government. The firm agreed to hand over nearly $4.7 million in settlement payments. It was reported on 4/10/19 that Skadden partner Gregory Craig, a prominent corporate lawyer and former adviser to Democratic presidents, was expected to be indicted on charges arising from his work for the former pro-Russian government of Ukraine.
In a 3/7/19 filing, Manafort’s team argued that the recommended sentence was excessive, and that he had exhibited remorse and taken full responsibility for his crimes. In a counter-filing, Mueller’s team argued that Manafort was not taking resposnibility for his actions. Federal judge T.S. Ellis apparently leaned more toward Manafort’s side of the argument, and, noting his “otherwise exemplary life” sentenced him to serve 47 months in prison. Manafort is expected to serve only 38 more months of the 47-month sentence because of time he has already spent incarcerated. In addition to the sentence, Ellis ordered Manafort to pay a $50,000 fine, the lowest fine provided for by guidelines that recommended a fine between $50,000 and $24 million. On 3/14/19, D.C. Judge Amy Berman Jackson completed Manafort’s sentencing. Jackson ordered Manafort to serve an additional 43 months on federal conspiracy and obstruction charges, on top of a 47-month sentence he already received for financial convictions from a jury in Virginia. “There was no question this defendant knew better and he knew exactly what he was doing,” Jackson said in the final minutes in court with Manafort. it turns out Manafort wasn’t quite down with the law, though, as the Manhattan District Attorney’s office unsealed an indictment the same day. According to the indictment, Manafort was charged with a total of 16 counts in the state of New York, including residential mortgage fraud and other state crimes, and if convicted on all charges could face between just over eight years and 25 years in prison, according to New York state law.
With Manafort there always seems to be one more shady activity, though. On 3/24/19 prosecutors indicated Manafort might be trying to secretly claw back about a million dollars he agreed to hand over to the government for his financial crimes — and he could be using the same type of shell company at the core of his legal problems to fake a loan. A mysterious shell company named Woodlawn LLC — which formed in the middle of special cousel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Manafort in August 2017 — claimed in court that it deserves $1 million from Manafort’s forfeiture proceeding. The company says Manafort, who was Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman, still owes that amount to pay back a 2017 mortgage loan. In a court filing Saturday, the prosecutor said he could not tell if the Nevada-registered corporation’s $1 million loan to Manafort was “a real or sham transaction.”
<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.”
- While appearing before the House Oversight Committee, former Trump-fixer Michael Cohen testified that he heard via speakerphone a 6/22/16 call in which Stone told then-presidential candidate Donald Trump that “he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange,” who told him that “within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” According to Mr. Cohen, the president expressed happiness about the prospect “to the effect of ‘Wouldn’t that be great.’”
- 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.
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.
On the Mueller side, 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. It is worth noting that Miller appealed this, and hi challenge remains live, still pending a decision as of February 2019. 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. On 1/18/19 The Senate Intelligence Committee subpeonead Corsi to testify before them.
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. Stone has even used this promise in online fundraising to cover his legal expenses. This promise was theoretical for many months, but on 1/25/19 the Special Counsel’s investigation formally indicted Stone, following which the FBI took him in to custody and conducted a pre-dawn raid on his apartment.
The indictment brings seven charges against Stone involving one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false statements, and one count of witness tampering. Much of this centers on lying to Congress about seeking stolen emails from WikiLeaks that could damage Trump’s opponents while in coordination with senior Trump campaign officials, and encouraging one of the figures he worked with to lie to Congress about their activities (aka witness tampering). In typical Mueller fashion, this is established through voluminous and specific evidence composed from Stone’s correspondence with figures not directly named in the indictment, but known from other reporting to include Steve Bannon, Jerome Corsi and Randy Credico. The indictment also mentions that “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information Organization 1 [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” Who the direction came from is unknown, but it points very high in the campaign.
Stone pled not guilty during his 1/29/19 arraignment. He also repeated during public statements that he would not testify against Trump, although he did allow that if anybody involved broke any laws (which he doesn’t think anybody did), he might cooperate with Mueller’s inverstigation into them. Not-quite-named in the indictment Jerome Corsi also, while maintaining that the document proves he didn’t do anything wrong, stated that he would cooperate with the investigation. If the case goes to trial, Stone will be facing Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who was one of the two judges in Paul Manafort’s trial, and developed a reputation for being skpetical of the defense and sympathetic with the prosecution. On 1/31/19, Mueller’s team requested an extension of the usual requirement that trail be helf within 70 days, citing the “voluminous and complex” nature of the data acquired in the raid. Per Mueller, the evidence includes “multiple hard drives containing several terabytes of information consisting of, among other things, FBI case reports, search warrant applications and results (e.g., Apple iCloud accounts and email accounts), bank and financial records, and the contents of numerous physical devices (e.g., cellular phones, computers, and hard drives).” On the other side of the investigation, White House Press Secreatry Sarah Huckabee Sanders hedged on the question of whether Trump would consider pardoning Stone.
Stone’s team filed a request that the trial be moved to a new venue, arguing that there was no evidence it was related to other cases by the Special Counsel that were under Judge Berman Jackson’s jurisdiction. On 2/15/19 Mueller’s office countered with a filing maintaining that the case was directly related to previous indictments, and that, among other thing, they had as yet unreported communciations between Stone and both Guciffer 2.0 and WikiLeaks. Stone’s response included posting, and then deleting, an Instagram rant against the judge that included an image of a target next to her head. Stone later filed a formal apology, after earlier in the day maintaining, “What some say are crosshairs are in fact the logo of the organization that originally posted it something called corruption central. They use the logo in many photos.” The Judge was apparently not placated, and issued a full gag order aginst Stone on 2/21/19. He was forbidden from discussing the case via any media, and subject to detention if he violates the order.
He almost immediately ran afoul of this order, as the judge asked him on 2/27/19 to explain why an imminently to-be-released book by Stone was never mentioned in previous appearances. If that doesn’t get him, a 3/3/19 Instagram post claiming Mueller framed him may, especially since Mueller’s investigation helpful brought it and the book to the judge’s attention in a 3/4/19 filing. Prosecutors for special counsel Robert Mueller also indicated in 3/1/19 court documents that they expect to need from five to eight days, including the defense’s cross-examination of government witnesses, for Stone’s trial. Given that the focus of interest in Stone invovles his interaction with WikiLeaks, the 4/11/19 seizure of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy by British police, and pending extradition to the United States, may lead to further legal action involving the case.
<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 interviews with NBC and MSNBC Veselnitskaya calls herself an “informant” for the Russian government, an admission that goes further than her previous claims of just being a private attorney. On 1/8/19 a court filing in a non-Trump-related money laundering case in the Southern District of New York further confirmed that Veselnitskaya has had close ties to Russian officials.
- 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 soliciting 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 President’s travel and public appearances the next day.
Trump Jr. seems to have picked up some additional potential trouble in relation to the Trump Tower Moscow project. In September 2017 Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, he had said he knew very little about the project and had only been peripherally aware of it. Reporting emerged in January 2019 indicating that Michael Cohen had in fact provided Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump with frequent, detailed updates on his work on the project. If true, this opens Trump Jr. to possible charges of lying to Congress. There was also additional news in February 2019 about another aspect of the Trump Tower meeting, with reporting that Senate investigators had obtained new information showing Donald Trump Jr.’s mysterious phone calls ahead of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting were not with his father. We may know the exact details eventually, as Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee announced they were preparing to issue a subpoena to obtain the phone records.
<End “Donald Trump Jr.” Section>
The Steele Dossier
The Steele Dossier is the name given to a 35-page series of memeos summarizing the research former Russia-based MI6 official Christopher Steele conducted on the Trump campaign while working for research and intelligence firm Fusion GPS. The research behind the memo originally began in September 2015 as part of opposition research by Republican opponents of Trump. Steele was hired by Fusion GPS in June 2016 after Russian interference allegations surfaced. His research 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. It does not contain analysis or synthesis of the information, or judgements on it by Steele, but is simply raw reporting of intelligence he gathered. 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, and it became public shortly thereafter.
The Steele Dossier has been published in full by Buzzfeed. You can find a link to the document and a description of some of the controversy around it here. The document’s general allegations are as follows:
- Russia has been cultivating ties with Trump for years.
- Part of this cultivation involved financial incentives promised to him and his associates should he become President and lift sanctions against Russia.
- There were extensive ties and cooperation between multiple Trump campaign figures and Russian intelligence. Cooperation was at first spearheaded by Paul Manafort, using Carter Page as an intermeidary, and was subsequently led by Michael Cohen after Manafort’s departure from the campaign.
- Russian intelligence agencies have compromising material on Trump that leaves him vulnerable to blackmail.
One of the ways we can evaluate the dossier’s contents is looking at Steele’s credentials. Multiple sources in British intelligence describe Steele as an experienced and professional asset, whose work was usually of very high quality. In another 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. Veteran journalist Howard Blum wrote a March 2017 article for Vanity Fair revealing in detail the story of how Steele went about using his contacts in Russia putting together the information in his dossier. Reports also emerged in October 2017 that Mueller’s team was reviewing the Steele Dossier as part of its investigation. Follow-up reports later in the week indicated that Steele himself had been interviewed as part of the inquiry. The Guardian also ran an 11/15/17 story on the background of Christopher Steele.
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 Marc E. Elias, a lawyer representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained Fusion GPS. The firm subsequently 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 its findings in September 2016, but the allegations did not enter the public sphere until Buzzfeed broke the story in January 2017.
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 piece 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 meeting 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.”
More recently, in March 2018 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.
The other way to evaluate the memo is to see what the track record for verifying its contents has been. Several significant confirmations include:
- In December 2016, the Russian government sold a 19.5% share of the state oil company, Rosneft, facilitated by finance companies in Qatar and Singapore, and involving a Cayman Island holding-company. 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.
- 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.
- Trump had initially denied having stayed in Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe Pagent, which is when the Dossier alleges that Russian intelligence obtained compromising video of Trump and prostitutes. However, repeatedly confronted with evidence, he eventually conceeded that he had. 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. 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 dossier also mentioned payments to Paul Manafort from former Ukranian leader Yanukovych well before they were publicly known.
- And, while the dossier’s allegations against Carter Page are so far unproven, it is worth noting that, per the House Intelligence Committee’s release of the FISA warrants against Page, the FBI had information “obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting” with respect to Page.
It is also important to note that 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. And some details in the memos have been proven incorrect. These mostly involve misspellings and minor details. The most prominent detail that appeared to have been invalidated was the dossier’s allegation that Trump fixer Michael Cohen had attended a 2016 meeting in Prague with Russian intelligence agents. Cohen has provided copies of his passport, showing no entries to the Czech Republic. Some had noted he had been in Italy around the time of the alleged meeting, and thus could have visited Prague without going through passport control due to the EU’s common border. Despite this, no proof of Cohen’s visit has been provided. However, McClatchy DC reported on 12/27/18 that cell phone signal records indicated Cohen was in the vicinity of Prague at the time of the alleged meeting, and that intelligence intercepts also indicated that Russian parties were discussing an imminent meeting with him at that time. But in 2/27/19 Congressional testimony, Cohen repeated under oath that he had never been to the Czech Republic, and had not attended a Prague meeting.
As much as its contents, a key part of the story about the Steele Dossier is the attacks on it (and Steele and Fusion GPS) by Republicans who feel it was improperly assembled or used. In August 2017 it was reported that two Republican House Intelligence Committee staffers traveled to London earlier in the summer to track down Christopher Steele. 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. In October 2017, after revelations that funding for its research came from the Clinton campaign at a certain point, Fusion GPS announced it had come to an agreement with the House Intelligence Committee on releasing its financial records. Republicans objected to the idea that the (eventually) Clinton-funded dossier was the justification for the Russian investigation, thus (in their minds) invalidating the entire investigation.
However, Robert Litt, former General Counsel to the Director of National Intelligence under Obama, wrote an October 2017 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.” In the same vein, in a Janaury 2018 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.
Undeterred, in January 2018 the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended its first charges in the Russian investigation- against Christopher Steele, 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 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 did not comment on the referral, but Committee Democrats were critical of the focus on discrediting the document’s author, rather than seeking to verify its contents. Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson 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.
As the Congressional and Right-leaning media whispering campaign against Fusion GPS escalated, the company’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 supported the move, but the Republican 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.
In October 2018 Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson announced that he intended 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.
The Dossier also became a source of lawsuits against Fusion GPS, Steele, and the outlet that first publicly released it, Buzzfeed. In January 2018, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen filed suit against Fusion GPS and Buzzfeed for defamation. Most legal experts regarded 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. After federal investigators seized documents and electronic records from Michael Cohen’s home, office and hotel room in April 2018, Cohen announced he was dropping his libel suits against BuzzFeed and Fusion GPS over publication of the Steele dossier. “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 prevented them from resulting in discovery that could complicate any other cases he faces.
The suits were not only domestic. It was also reported in February 2018 that Buzzfeed had hired Anthony Ferrante, a former top FBI investigator, to investigate the dossier’s claims. Ferrante and a team of experts spent six months tracking down leads, according to Foreign Policy. BuzzFeed’s interest in verifying the document was not editorial, rather it was in response to a libel suit against the company by 37-year-old Russian tech executive Aleksej Gubarev. In September 2018, 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 Gubarev’s lawsuit. 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 (who were also interested in it) would have to move forward in formal channels and “advise the court why it would be appropriate to require the production of these depositions.”
Separately, in August 2018, 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”.
<End “Steele Dossier” Section>
Unconfirmed (use with extreme caution)
When I first launched this blog, I had three categories- “Confirmed”, “Looking Likely”, and “Uncomfirmed”. Evenetually the volume of information benefited from a more topical arrangement, but I kept “Unconfirmed” as a parking lot for intriguing emerging news and informed speculation. When something is proven false, I remove it, and when it is confirmed, I move it up into its appropriate section. What I can say after more than two years of doing this is that I have very often seen something start out in this section and eventually end up above. I have very rarely seen anything move in the opposite direction.
So, with all appropriate grains of salt taken, welcome to the realm of The Uncomfirmed…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 potential sites, like Alexandria or New York City, would not be any more likely to produce Trump-friendly juries.
- 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 a 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.
- 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.
- 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. Security Blogger Marcy Wheeler has pointed out plausible timing that could also connect Nikulin to Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s alleged 2016 Prague trip to meet with Russian intelligence.
- 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…
- On 7/10/18 Trump supporter and legal maven Alan Dershowitz