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What We Learned in the Trump-Russia Investigation: Week of Dec 16 – 22, 2018

russia

(Adrienne Cobb) #1

Too long; didn’t read summary

Mueller likely will not address Trump’s role until the final report is submitted. Flynn’s sentencing was delayed until at least March 2019, until Flynn is done cooperating with the government. Mueller requested and received an official transcript of Roger Stone’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, suggesting Mueller is preparing to file charges of lying to congress. Roger Stone has been fundraising off a promise not to testify against Trump in Mueller’s investigation. Mueller’s mystery court opponent was revealed to be a company owned by a foreign government. The company asked the Supreme Court to intervene after it lost an appeal in its fight against a grand jury subpoena; Chief Justice Roberts temporarily blocked the contempt order against the company until the end of the month. Mueller is preparing court filings that detail Trump’s team and his associates’ efforts to relieve sanctions on Russia.

In 2016, the Russian government was communicating with US Treasury Department officials using a network of private Gmail accounts. Russia’s financial crimes agency was asking for information on people with ties to Hillary Clinton and on enemies of the Kremlin. The US Treasury Department announced last week that it will lift sanctions on three companies linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. On Wednesday, Trump declared victory over ISIS and said the US will withdraw from Syria – a move has been widely seen as a big win for Putin, who is now the dominant military power in Syria and has the freedom to do as he pleases. In a classified report overseen by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, the intelligence community said Russia tried to influence American voters during the 2018 midterms.

Two reports on Russian influence operations during the 2016 election found that they played on racial tensions to target the black community and invested more effort in boosting Jill Stein than previously known. Rep. Adam Schiff, future Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he will use his subpoena power to force the public release of Mueller’s final report, if required.

As a result of a New York state lawsuit, the Trump Foundation charity has agreed to shut down and give away its remaining assets under court supervision. Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker ignored guidance offered by ethics officials and his own advisors, deciding not to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation. Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein in June, criticizing the Mueller’s investigation. A grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia indicted two business associates of Michael Flynn. A federal judge ruled in favor of Buzzfeed in a defamation lawsuit filed by Aleksej Gubarev, a CEO of companies named in the Steele dossier initially published by the media outlet.


MUELLER INVESTIGATION

Mueller: Trump

Final report. People close to Mueller’s investigation told Bloomberg that Mueller likely will not implicate Trump in legal filings, leaving his role unaddressed until the final report is submitted to the DOJ. A former federal prosecutor said, “Real-life cases, especially complex ones like this, rarely have one piece of irrefutable smoking-gun evidence. Real cases are built piece-by-piece and rely on evidence from various sources and common-sense inferences.”

Mueller: Flynn

Sentencing. On Tuesday, Michael Flynn appeared in court for sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to investigators about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador. For Flynn’s cooperation, Mueller recommended he receive the minimum sentence of 0-6 months in jail, giving Flynn confidence in asking for no jail time and only community service and probation. However, Judge Sullivan made it clear he was infuriated by Flynn’s conduct and could exceed the advisory maximum 6 months in prison. After being asked if he wanted to delay hearing until he was totally done cooperating with prosecutors, Flynn opted to wait. A status report is expected by March 13.

  • Flynn and his lawyers had filed a memo suggesting Flynn had been tricked into lying by the FBI. Sullivan forced Flynn to admit in court that he knew lying to federal investigators was illegal and that he was guilty of committing a crime. Even after the hearing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the FBI had “ambushed” Flynn.
  • Sullivan took Flynn to task for lying to the FBI and for acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey while part of a presidential campaign, pointing to an American flag and saying: “Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably, you sold your country out.”
  • Sullivan also asked a prosecutor on Mueller’s team if Flynn could be charged with treason. Mueller’s team said that “the government has no reason to believe that the defendant has committed treason.” Later, Judge Sullivan told spectators not to read into his questioning. Flynn was not acting in the interests of Turkey while ‘in office,’ which is an important legal point. There are other reasons his conduct does not rise to the level of treason, which can be read in the link in the bullet point.
  • Before Flynn’s hearing, Trump tweeted: “Good luck today in court to General Michael Flynn. Will be interesting to see what he has to say, despite tremendous pressure being put on him, about Russian Collusion in our great and, obviously, highly successful political campaign. There was no Collusion!”

Mueller: Stone

Transcript. Mueller requested the House Intelligence Committee send him an official transcript of Roger Stone’s testimony – a move many believe indicates prosecutors are moving to charge Stone with a crime. On Thursday, the House panel unanimously approved Mueller’s request. Stone’s lawyer demanded the committee also release the transcript (we don’t know what interview Mueller asked for) to the public.

  • The Atlantic: The House panel, for its part, has homed in on at least one area of “deep concern” about Stone’s truthfulness: a supplemental statement Stone submitted weeks after his September 2017 testimony in which he identified a New York radio host named Randy Credico as his back channel to Assange.
  • Information released since that interview suggests that it was Jerome Corsi, not Randy Credico, who acted as an intermediary to Assange.
  • Stone told NBC that he still has not had any contact with Mueller.

Donations. Roger Stone has been fundraising off a promise not to testify against Trump in Mueller’s investigation. In Ben Shapiro’s newsletter, Stone wrote that he refuses “to bear false witness against President Trump” and that he “will not be railroaded by Mueller and his legal thugs.” He asked for an “emergency contribution” of $25 to $1000 to his legal defense fund, because “Mueller’s illegal leaks” have “virtually bankrupted” him.

  • How else is Stone raising money? Well, by selling signed stones, of course! “Here’s your chance to own your very own ‘Roger’ Stone paperweight- signed by the New York Times Bestselling author, legendary political operative and Trump intimate himself,” the listing states. These are literal rocks signed by Roger Stone, being sold for $8-10 each.

Mueller: Other

Mystery opponent. Last Tuesday, the DC Court of Appeals issued a ruling on a fight over a sealed subpoena with a prosecutor thought to be Robert Mueller. The witness was described as a corporation owned by a foreign government. We now know that a prosecutor (believed to be Mueller) obtained a grand-jury subpoena for information from a corporation that is owned by a foreign government about some action abroad connected with commercial activity that caused a direct effect in the United States. The company then asked a judge to quash the subpoena, but the judge denied the request and began imposing a fine of $5,000 each week for contempt until it complied with the subpoena. The ruling released Tuesday was an appeals court reaffirming the original judge’s decision.

  • When considering the possibilities of who the mystery company is, keep this in mind: (1) it is owned at least partly by a state (so, it can’t be Deutsche bank). I would think that in order to respond in US court, the company has to have had some kind of activity in the US (which I don’t believe Rosneft has had, but I may be mistaken). The reason I think this is because they’d just ignore the subpoena if they didn’t have business of some sort within the US or with US entities – like the various Russian companies have basically just ignored Mueller.
  • Many people have speculated it is the Qatar Investment Authority, which was involved in the purchase of 14.16% of Rosneft in December 2016. The head of the QIA also met with Cohen and Flynn at Trump Tower that same month.

Mystery opponent continues. After losing the appeal, on Saturday the company asked the Supreme Court to temporarily block that ruling, thus putting a hold on the $5,000 per week fine, and appears to also be asking the Supreme Court to take up the entire appeal. If the Supreme Court takes up the case, it will be the first time in history that the SCOTUS justices hear a case that’s entirely under seal.

  • It seems that while the company is asking for a temporary hold on the latest ruling (see update below), it would first have to request an en banc review of the case before moving on to asking the SCOTUS to consider the entire case (rather than just putting a hold on the fine). An en banc review is when the arguments in the case are heard by all the judges of the appeals court. According to CNBC, if the company “is not granted en banc status, or if it loses at that stage, it could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider its case.”
  • The foreign company in question has apparently been paying the $5,000 a week fine since at least October 2018.

Mystery opponent UPDATE. Late Sunday, Chief Justice John Roberts put a temporary hold on the contempt order against the foreign company and the fine. While information is limited, it seems that the Chief Justice will decide by the end of the year on a course of action.

Sanctions report. Mueller is preparing court filings that detail Trump’s team and his associates’ efforts to relieve sanctions on Russia. The ‘report’ is expected to answer the crucial question of what specific policy changes the Kremlin hoped to get in return for its political inference and operations. Three sources told the Daily Beast that several individuals, besides Flynn, were developing their own plans to roll back sanctions on Russia.

  • A former senior DOJ official said Mueller’s “continued focus on the evidence that members of the Trump campaign discussed sanction relief with Russians shows that his evidence of a criminal violation continues to sharpen. This has to come as especially bad news for the president.”

MORE RUSSIAN NEWS

Backchannel. In 2016, the Russian government was communicating with US Treasury Department officials using a network of private Gmail accounts. Russia’s financial crimes agency was reportedly asking for information on people with ties to Hillary Clinton and people who were not on good terms with the Kremlin. The requests for documents came just weeks before the Trump Tower meeting with a Russia lawyer. Some FinCEN officials were alarmed at this backchannel “fishing expedition” and requested an investigation. However, these officials claim there was no substantive investigation into the matter.

  • Buzzfeed: In emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News, FinCEN insiders expressed shock that staff in another Treasury office had agreed to communicate with the Russians outside of normal, secure channels. FinCEN uses an encrypted portal called the Egmont Secure Web to exchange information with more than 160 other countries, including Russia, and to keep sensitive financial data out of the wrong hands. A former US intelligence official who served in Russia for many years told BuzzFeed News that the use of unsecure accounts is a major red flag for espionage activity.
  • At least ten FinCEN employees filed whistleblower complaints with the department, but say they faced retaliation for their reports. One official, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, was arrested for allegedly leaking Trump associates’ confidential bank records in the press. Edwards reportedly spoke with congressional committee staffers about her concerns that Russia was trying to access the bank records of Clinton backers. She said she reported the breaches in protocol to every relevant authority, to no avail.

Sanctions. The US Treasury Department announced last week that it will lift sanctions on three companies linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The sanctions were imposed as a response to Russian interference in the 2016 election and had a negative effect on Russia’s elite. Foreign policy analysts and Democrats worry this move shows weakness and capitulation toward Russia by removing consequences for its aggression.

Syria. On Wednesday, Trump declared victory over ISIS and said the US will withdraw from Syria, without consulting with either the Pentagon and the State Department. The move has been widely seen as a big win for Putin, who is now the dominant military power in Syria and has the freedom to do as he pleases. Russian media described the US withdrawal as “a total dream come true,” but also mocked Trump for claiming defeat of ISIS: “Trump woke up this morning, looked up – and ISIS is gone. Yesterday it was there, but today it’s gone.” For his part, Putin expressioned skepticism that the US will really pull out of Syria.

  • Interestingly, Trump first called for a withdrawal from Syria when he was pursuing the Trump Tower Moscow deal in September 2015. “Russia wants to get rid of ISIS. We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let them get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?” Trump said. Later that same month, Trump went on Bill O’Reilly and said: “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, [Putin] is getting an ‘A,’ and our president is not doing so well…Putin is now taking over what we started and he’s going into Syria, and he frankly wants to fight ISIS, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
  • As part of the withdrawal, the US is shutting down a key base in Syria that Russia has repeatedly complained about. US officials have stated the base, al-Tanf, is important not just in efforts to defeat, and ensure lasting defeat of ISIS, but also to counter Iranian influence in Syria. Buzzfeed: A Russian official earlier this month expressed “growing concern” about the “illegal occupation of the 55-km zone around the base in al-Tanf,” calling it “the basic source of destabilisation in that part of Syria.”

Midterms. In a classified report overseen by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, the intelligence community said Russia tried to influence American voters during the 2018 midterms. The report also found that, to a lesser extent, China and Iran conducted their own operations. While it is not expected to be made public, the report was delivered to the White House – meaning Trump is well aware of the continued interference.

Make Russia Great. Trump’s trade war with China has hurt America and helped Russia, according to a reading of the situation by International Economist Benn Steil. US exports to China have plummeted and US imports from China have continued to grow. Meanwhile, exports from Russia to China have risen dramatically since Trump’s tariffs were enacted. As Stein wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations (which is not a left-leaning outlet): “…in the ultimate irony, Americans are paying tariffs that boost the profits of Russian firms subject to U.S. sanctions.”

CONGRESS

Senate report. Two reports on Russian disinformation and influence operations during the 2016 election, prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee with data it collected, were released last Sunday. Their findings mostly focus on how the Internet Research Agency (IRA) played on racial tensions to target the black community, as well as on the general voter suppression conducted on Instagram and Facebook.

  • Targeting minorities: The IRA shared “authentic Black media” to raise their own profile and build trust, then using that sway to “campaign African-American voters to boycott the 2016 elections, support a third-party candidate, or use the wrong voting procedures, such as texting to vote.” After the 2016 election, Mexican-American and Latino voters have been targeted more.
  • PBS: Overall, much of the messaging deployed by Russia and detailed in the reports targeted politically conservative Americans by encouraging them to be confrontational — specifically, by provoking people to “repeat patriotic and anti-immigrant slogans” and “elicit outrage with posts about liberal appeasement of ‘others’ at the expense of US citizens.”
  • Instagram “was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation” – a detail Facebook executives failed to mention in congressional testimony
  • One aspect that hasn’t gotten enough attention according to the report and Russian expert Andrew Weiss, is Moscow’s efforts to promote Jill Stein. For instance, around the time of the 2016 election, IRA accounts tweeted “Jill Stein” over 1,000 times. An example of the messages: “The excuse that a lost Black vote for Hillary is a Trump win is bs. It could be late, but y’all might want to support Jill Stein instead,” by @woke_blacks. And another: “Grow a spine and vote Jill Stein.”

House Intel Cmte. Rep. Adam Schiff, future Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he will use his subpoena power to force the public release of Mueller’s final report, if required. There are concerns about the current acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, including the possibility that he may try to hide the Mueller report. Schiff said he will hold Whitaker accountable to the public: “We are going to scrutinize every single action by Matt Whitaker to make sure that the public knows just what he does,” Schiff said.

Steele dossier. Court documents in the case against Buzzfeed (see below) revealed that Christopher Steele, the author of the Trump Russia dossier, gave a copy of a portion of the dossier to Paul Ryan’s chief of staff in December 2016. Steele also gave a copy to GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), who is on several committees. This is important because it contributes to a timeline of when Republicans knew about the allegations and intelligence against Trump.

Blocked bill. Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, blocked a bill to protect Mueller’s investigation for the third time. McConnell has said there’s no need for legislation protecting the special counsel, calling the bill “a solution in search of a problem.”

STATES

Charity suit. As a result of a New York state lawsuit, the Trump Foundation charity has agreed to shut down and give away its remaining assets under court supervision. The New York AG, Barbara Underwood, alleged the foundation under Trump engaged in “persistently illegal conduct,” including “unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more.”

  • The treasurer of the charity was Allen Weisselberg, CFO of the Trump Organization who has been granted immunity by SDNY prosecutors in their investigation that began with Michael Cohen and campaign finance, but likely has branched into other areas of Trump’s life. Weisselberg wasn’t aware he was even on the board of the charity. When asked what the foundation’s policies were to determine whether its payments were proper, he stated: “There’s no policy, just so you understand.”
  • Underwood has reportedly asked the IRS and the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the Trump charity broke tax laws.
  • In 2007, Trump bought a portrait of himself for $20,000 of the charity’s money. After the Washington Post wrote about the portrait, it suddenly appeared as an asset on the charity’s IRS forms. Trump gave it a value of $700, but did not say where it was. Then on the 2018 tax forms, Trump listed the painting’s value as $0. No one will address why.
  • Trump tweeted in response to the agreement to dissolve: “The Trump Foundation has done great work and given away lots of money, both mine and others, to great charities over the years — with me taking NO fees, rent, salaries etc. Now, as usual, I am getting slammed by Cuomo and the Dems in a long running civil lawsuit started by sleazebag AG Eric Schneiderman, who has since resigned over horrific women abuse, when I wanted to close the Foundation so as not to be in conflict with politics.” He added, ““It goes on and on & the new AG, who is now being replaced by yet another AG (who openly campaigned on a GET TRUMP agenda), does little else but rant, rave & politic against me. Will never be treated fairly by these people – a total double standard of ‘justice.’”

Mystery doc. An SDNY docket entry in Wednesday noted that a “sealed document” in Michael Cohen’s criminal case was “placed in a vault.” Nothing else is known about it.

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

Whitaker update. Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker ignored guidance offered by ethics officials and his own advisors, deciding not to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation. In a letter from the DOJ to congress, department ethics officials wrote: “they would advise that the Acting Attorney General should recuse himself from supervision of the Special Counsel investigation because it was their view that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts likely would question the impartiality of the Acting Attorney General.”

  • Whitaker previously described the special counsel investigation as a “witch hunt” and said Mueller’s appointment was “ridiculous” and it “smells a little fishy.”

Barr’s memo. Last week it was revealed that Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein in June, criticizing the Mueller’s investigation as “grossly irresponsible” with “potentially disastrous implications.” The WSJ report on the memo does not state whether Trump knew of the memo when he chose Barr. However, it says Barr also sent the memo to “the top lawyer representing the White House in the Mueller probe,” meaning it is entirely possible Trump knew of it and chose Barr because it.

  • As the New York Magazine argues: “The worst-case scenario for Barr is that he opened a covert back channel to the administration and campaigned for the role of being Trump’s Roy Cohn. The best-case scenario is that he merely created the appearance of impropriety.” Assuming the latter scenario is true, “giving the highest law-enforcement job in the country to an extreme advocate of executive authority, who defends the president’s right to obstruct justice and to demand his own investigations as a matter of abstract ideology would be a grave risk.”

Flynn’s friends. A grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia indicted two business associates of Michael Flynn, revealed in court documents unsealed last week. The men – Bijan Kian (American) and Kamil Ekim Alptekin (Turkish) worked for Flynn’s company in a scheme to smear and ultimately expel Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They were charged with acting as agents of a foreign government and with conspiracy, for attempting to cover up the connection to Turkey.

  • Flynn’s firm was paid $600,000 for its un-registered and, thus, illegal lobbying effort, which culminated with Flynn writing an op-ed in The Hill (published Nov. 8 2016).
  • When Flynn appeared in court last week (see “Mueller: Flynn” section above), the judge stated: “You were an unregistered agent of a foreign country serving as the national security adviser to the president of the United States. Arguably this undermines everything this flag over here stands for.” He later clarified that Flynn was serving as a foreign agent during the Trump campaign, not while he was Trump’s national security adviser.

Buzzfeed. Last week, a federal judge ruled in favor of Buzzfeed in a defamation lawsuit filed by Aleksej Gubarev, a CEO of companies named in the Steele dossier initially published by the media outlet. Gubarev alleged that the dossier made false claims connecting his companies to the hacking of the Democratic party, which cost him over a hundred million dollars in business damages. The judge, however, ruled that Buzzfeed was legally allowed to publish the dossier under the “fair report privilege,” which gives news organizations the right to report official government proceedings.

  • Gubarev’s company was accused of “using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data, and ‘conduct altering operations’ against the Democratic party leadership.”

Not a good look. At least twice in the past few weeks, Trump has been “frustrated” and “lashed out at” acting AG Matt Whitaker over anger at the way Cohen’s case has played out. Sources told CNN Trump was upset that prosecutors overseen by Whitaker “filed charges that made Trump look bad.”