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What We Learned in the Trump-Russia Investigation: Week of Feb 10 – 16, 2019

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(Adrienne Cobb) #1

Too long; didn’t read

Late last year, Mueller’s team interviewed White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Mueller wrote in a filing that through search warrants on Russian hackers, Mueller uncovered communications between Stone and Wikileaks. This means that Mueller has evidence linking Stone to Wikileaks, and both to the Russian operatives (likely through Guccifer 2.0) responsible for hacking the DNC and John Podesta. A federal judge ruled that Manafort lied to Mueller’s investigators after signing a plea deal; Mueller’s team argued Manafort should serve 19.5 to 24.5 years behind bars. On August 2, 2016, Manafort, Gates, & Kilimnik met at the Havana Room, where Mueller believes Manafort and Kilimnik exchanged significant information regarding Russia and Trump’s campaign.

Mueller defeated Concord Management and Consulting, alleged to have funded the Russian troll farm, in court last week after Concord tried to gain access to additional discovery materials. Mueller subpoenaed and questioned former business development director of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser. Mueller’s office is looking into a Swiss financial-services group called Salix Services AG for its connections to the Israeli social manipulation firm Psy Group. DHS officials say two important federal task forces meant to protect our elections have been “dramatically downsized.”

A judge ordered the release of the autopsy records of former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin, who was found dead in a DC hotel room under suspicious circumstances in late 2015. Security experts believe the 207 Equifax hack was likely conducted by a nation state like Russia or China. Paul Erickson, boyfriend of admitted Russian agent Maria Butina, wrote in an email to then-incoming NRA President Pete Brownell boasting of Butina’s manipulation of the FSB. In another instance of Trump trusting Putin over US intelligence agencies, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe wrote in his new book that Trump believed Putin that North Korea did not have the capability to launch intercontinental missiles.

According to House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, his committee has received information indicating Trump’s personal lawyers “may have provided false information” to federal ethics officials related to the hush-money payments to women Trump had affairs with. The chairmen of the Intelligence Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee told Politico they have been discussing the best way to force Trump to turn over information related to Trump’s private meetings with Putin.

Andrew McCabe said that the investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice was begun on his orders to preserve the probes into Russian election meddling. McCabe further stated that he had a brief discussion with Rod Rosenstein about the possibility of employing the 25th Amendment. The Qatari government is now trying to claim ignorance of their role in the massive bailout of the Kushner family’s troubled 666 Fifth Avenue tower.


MUELLER INVESTIGATION

Mueller: Trumpworld

Sanders interviewed. CNN reported that late last year, Mueller’s team interviewed White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. While she did not give details, it is likely at least some of the questions were related to public statements she made defending Trump. For instance, one topic of interest could have been about Sanders’ statements regarding Trump’s crafting of Don Jr.’s version of the Trump Tower meeting.

New Stone evidence. Roger Stone was attempting to get his case transferred to a different judge, arguing it was unrelated to Mueller’s pursuit of Russian hackers. In response, Mueller wrote in a filing that through search warrants on Russian hackers, Mueller uncovered communications between Stone and Wikileaks. This means that Mueller has evidence linking Stone to Wikileaks, and both to the Russian operatives (likely through Guccifer 2.0) responsible for hacking the DNC and John Podesta. The filing can be read here.

Stone gag. On Friday, a federal judge issued a gag order against Roger Stone, though it is limited in scope. Stone will be allowed to speak about the case publicly, just not anywhere near the federal courthouse. The order applies to everyone involved in his case.

Mueller: Manafort

Manafort ruling. On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that Manafort lied to Mueller’s investigators after signing a plea deal, thus absolving Mueller’s office from having to support a lower sentence, as outlined in the plea deal. The judge determined Manafort demonstrably lied about his communications with Russian intelligence-connected Konstantin Kilimnik, an unknown separate DOJ investigation, and a payment Manafort made to a law firm.

  • Buzzfeed News: Jackson’s decision could also affect the sentence Manafort receives in the other case that Mueller’s office filed against him in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. US District Judge T.S. Ellis III put sentencing there on hold until the plea deal breach issue is resolved in Manafort’s DC case.

Manafort sentence? With Manafort judged to have breached his plea deal with Mueller, the special counsel essentially argued Manafort should spend the rest of his life in prison. For his conviction on eight counts of financial crimes, Mueller’s team stated Manafort should serve 19.5 to 24.5 years behind bars. While there is a separate Virginia federal case, Manafort’s sentencing for the DC case is set for March 13.

Kilimnik update. In newly released court transcripts of a Feb 4. hearing, it was revealed that Manafort’s Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, had “communications with former high-level State Department officials.” Due to the redactions, it is unclear what these communications entailed. Manafort’s attorney also referenced an interview of Kilimnik, suggesting he may have been interviewed by FBI agents. The FBI has previously determined that Kilimnik is connected to Russian intelligence. In addition to being indicted on witness tampering charges, Kilimnik has been referred to as being at “the heart” of Mueller’s investigation due to his involvement with Manafort (see below).

Havana Room. Also revealed in court transcripts, Mueller’s interest in a key meeting between Manafort, Gates, and Kilimnik at the Grand Havana Room, just a few blocks from Trump Tower. The meeting, which occurred on August 2, 2016, was when Mueller believes Manafort and Kilimnik exchanged significant information regarding Russia and Trump’s campaign. Mueller’s prosecutor at the hearing said the meeting goes “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.” The participants allegedly discussed a plan to end the conflict in Ukraine, which would have brought about the end of sanctions on Russia. There could also have been a second meeting in which Manafort gave Kilimnik internal polling data from Trump’s campaign.

  • Note, the Havana Room is located in the building at 666 Fifth Avenue, owned by Jared Kushner’s family (see “Other” below). According to the New Yorker, Rudy Giuliani “is on the Grand Havana’s board of directors and is a regular presence at the club.”

Manafort-linked PAC. A super PAC Mueller has been investigating for possibly receiving foreign money, Rebuilding America Now PAC, failed to disclose a $1 million contribution it received just before the 2016 election. The FEC sent the PAC a letter last week requesting more information on the contribution, including why it was not reported for two years. Two associates of Paul Manafort ran the PAC and Manafort himself lied to Mueller’s team about a $125,000 payment tied to it. Mueller’s team reportedly thought the payment could have been “a kickback to Mr. Manafort from associates who ran the PAC.”

  • Trump friend Tom Barrack, who was also the chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, ran the PAC’s fundraising efforts. Manafort’s associates, Ken McKay and Laurence Gay, ran the PAC’s operations. McKay and Gay ignored a mandatory 120-day cooling-off period required by campaign finance law, leaving the Trump campaign and immediately joining the PAC. Additionally, Talking Points Memo explains: “Further blurring the legal lines prohibiting coordination between the two entities, the PAC even scored an explicit endorsement from vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence… Barrack told federal prosecutors that Manafort saw little distinction between the campaign and PAC.”

Mueller: Foreign interference

2020 prep. According to multiple former and current Department of Homeland Security officials, two important federal task forces meant to protect our elections have been “dramatically downsized.” As the Daily Beast recounts, one task force is half the size it was months ago and “there’s no indication that DHS senior political leadership will staff it up or sustain it.” The other task force was diminished right before the midterms, “before its members produced a thorough assessment of what happened during the 2018 elections.”

  • “Inside DHS, staffers are frustrated that emphasis on election security has dwindled as the focus on border security has exploded… A member of the DHS Advisory Council… told The Daily Beast that the calls with Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen over the past six months have focused on the migrant caravan and the need for increased border security.”

Russian troll case. Mueller defeated Concord Management and Consulting, alleged to have funded the Russian troll farm, in court last week after Concord tried to gain access to additional discovery materials. The company said it required the evidence to prove it has been targeted for being Russian, pointing to how law firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom was treated by Mueller in contrast. The judge, however, ruled that Skadden’s misconduct “is not similar in nature or scope to the conspiracy charged” against Concord.

  • The main reason Mueller fought against giving Concord access to sensitive discovery materials: non-sensitive discovery material previously given to the company to prepare a defense was altered and leaked online last year in an apparent disinformation campaign meant to harm Mueller’s investigation.

Mueller: Other

Patten update. In a case referred to US prosecutors by Mueller, GOP consultant Sam Patten is continuing to cooperate with authorities. Though the details remain under seal, over the past few weeks numerous files have been added under seal to the docket. His sentencing date was also set last week – April 12 – for failing to register as a foreign lobbyist. In his plea deal, Patten admitted to buying tickets to Trump’s inauguration for Ukrainian oligarch Serhiy Lyovochkin using a US citizen to mask the sale. It is believed that Manafort gave internal Trump campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik to pass on to Lyovochkin.

Cambridge. Mueller subpoenaed and questioned former business development director of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser. Her lawyer said she is also cooperating with US congressional and legal investigations. A member of parliament said “[Kaiser’s] work connected her to WikiLeaks, Cambridge Analytica and [its parent company] SCL, the Trump campaign, Leave.EU and Arron Banks”. Note, Sam Patten made a plea deal with Mueller; he worked for Cambridge Analytica as well.

  • The Guardian: In October 2017, it was revealed that Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, had contacted Assange in August 2016 to try to obtain emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – which indictments from Mueller’s team say were obtained by Russian military intelligence – to use in Donald Trump’s campaign. When Kaiser gave evidence to parliament last year, she was asked about her relationship with Assange and WikiLeaks but failed to reveal that she had met Assange.

Psy Group. Mueller’s office is looking into a Swiss financial-services group called Salix Services AG for its connections to the Israeli social manipulation firm Psy Group. The owner of Psy Group, Joel Zamel, “holds his shares” in “a complex web of companies with connections to Zamel that point to Salix.” George Nader, envoy for the Saudi and Emirate crown princes, made numerous offers of assistance to the Trump campaign and held meetings with officials and associates into the transition. After the election, Nader paid Zamel $2 million, but we don’t know why or where it went. Investigating Salix could reveal the answers.

  • Daily Beast: In August 2016, Zamel met with former Blackwater founder Erik Prince, Donald Trump Jr., and Nader to discuss ideas that could potentially help Trump win the election.
  • The New Yorker also ran a story on Psy Group last week, in which it was revealed that “shortly after the election Zamel bragged to Nader that he had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory… Zamel showed Nader several analytical reports, including one that described the role of avatars, bots, fake news, and unattributed Web sites in assisting Trump.” Could this be what the $2 million payment was for? Zamel’s representative told the New Yorker Zamel never intervened to help Trump.

RUSSIA NEWS

Follow the trail… In response to FOIA lawsuits, a Washington DC judge ordered the release of the autopsy records of former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin, who was found dead in a DC hotel room in late 2015. The initial coroner’s report noted the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head, though he also sustained blunt force injuries to his neck, torso, and extremities. The final report stated his death was an accident, the result of a series of drunken falls alone in his hotel room. Case closed. Note, Lesin was instrumental in bringing Russia Today under state control.

  • Following Lesin’s death, Christopher Steele “provided a secret report to the FBI asserting that RT founder Mikhail Lesin was bludgeoned to death by thugs hired by an oligarch close to Putin. Three other sources independently told the FBI the same basic story, contradicting the government’s finding that Lesin’s death was accidental.”
  • Around the 2016 presidential election, dozens of Russian officials died around the world, many in suspicious circumstances. There are three more of particular interest that died in the US, as I detailed here.

Equifax hack. CNBC interviewed eight security experts about the 2017 Equifax hack that resulted in the theft of data on over 140 million people. The prevailing consensus appeared to be that a foreign government was behind the cyberattack and the data was used “to try to identify and recruit spies.” The two leading suspect nation states are Russia and China. As a former senior intelligence official familiar with the Equifax investigation explained, the foreign government is likely combining the Equifax information with other stolen data to figure out who is a current spy for the US or might become one.

  • Additionally, “credit reporting data provides compromising information that can be used to turn valuable people into agents of a foreign government, influencers or, for lower-level employees, data thieves or informants. In particular, the credit information can be used to identify people in key positions who have significant financial problems and could be compromised by bribes or high-paying jobs.”
  • The fact that the stolen information has not been found for sale online, even on the dark web, has led many to believe a criminal looking to financially profit off the data was not responsible for the hack. The longer a criminal waits, the more the data gets altered or flagged, making a large percentage of it useless for committing crimes like fraud.

Butina’s FSB. Paul Erickson, boyfriend of admitted Russian agent Maria Butina, wrote in an email to then-incoming NRA President Pete Brownell boasting of Butina’s manipulation of the FSB. In an email giving Brownwell the details of the NRA trip to Moscow, Erickson wrote that “Miss Butina has (apparently) moved heaven and earth and manipulated the Russian FSB (the current incarnation of the old KGB) and gotten you cleared for a tour of one (1) Russian arms factory… She found a way to shrink a normally 3-week process into about 3-days (probably because most of the FSB agents ‘assigned’ to her want to marry her).”

NK missile. In another instance of Trump trusting Putin over US intelligence agencies, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe wrote in his new book that Trump believed Putin that North Korea did not have the capability to launch intercontinental missiles. In July 2017, after being informed by US intelligence that North Korea test fired such a missile, Trump dismissed the intel reports as a “hoax.” McCabe wrote, “He said he knew this because Vladimir Putin had told him so.” During his 60 minutes appearance, McCabe elaborated, saying Trump told US officials “I don’t care, I believe Putin.” (see the “Department of Justice” section below for more on McCabe)

  • “To spend the time and effort and energy that we all do in the intelligence community to produce products that will help decision makers and the ultimate decision maker, the President of the United States— make policy decisions, and to be confronted with an absolute disbelief in those efforts and a unwillingness to learn the true state of affairs that he has to deal with every day was just shocking,” he said.

American arrested. A Moscow-based US investor was arrested and charged with fraud, along with three other employees. Michael Calvey runs a private equity firm, Baring Vostok Capital Partners, in Russia. His company said Russian authorities detained Calvey “as a result of a shareholder dispute at a bank, Orient Express, in which the firm holds a stake.” Russian news agencies reported authorities accused Calvey of embezzling over 2.5 billion rubles ($37.5 million).

  • Some high profile Russians have spoken out in Calvey’s defense. WaPo: Herman Gref, chief executive of state-owned Sberbank, said that he knew Calvey as a decent person and that he hoped his detention would turn out to stem from a misunderstanding. Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund and also a close Putin ally, issued a statement describing Calvey as “committed to the highest ethical standards accepted in the investment community.”

Skripal sanctions. The Trump administration has failed to consult with Congress as required on imposing tougher sanctions against Russia for the Skripal attack and not allowing inspectors to certify it is no longer using chemical weapons.

  • CNN: “State’s consultations thus far have been acknowledging that they’re now well past the deadline and telling us they’re working on it,” a senior Democratic Hill aide said. A senior Senate staffer said that “there has been zero” engagement with Congress on the issue beyond the notification in November that Russia had failed to certify that it was not using chemical weapons.

Measles. Researchers are looking into the impact Russian trolls have had on rising rates of measles infections due to people opting out of vaccinations. A George Washington University professor has documented Russian trolls pretending to be real people on social media to spread misinformation and debate vaccines “as part of their strategy to promote political polarization.”

  • Radio Free Europe: One anti-vaccination tweet by a confirmed Russian troll account declared that “mandatory #vaccines infringe on constitutionally protected religious freedoms.” Another played up the idea that the U.S. government cannot be trusted by asking, “Did you know there was a secret government database of #vaccine-damaged children?”
  • The professor’s research can be read here.

CONGRESS

House

False statements. According to House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, his committee has received information indicating Trump’s personal lawyers “may have provided false information” to federal ethics officials related to the hush-money payments to women Trump had affairs with. In a letter to the lawyers, Sheri Dillon and Stefan Passantino, Cummings points to their “evolving stories” to adjust to newly published facts. For instance, Dillon told federal officials repeatedly that Trump “never owed any money” to Cohen. Then Giuliani stated in an interview that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payments; Dillon changed her story accordingly.

  • CNN: In a separate letter to Trump Organization attorney Alan Futerfas, Cummings warns that his panel may subpoena the Trump Organization for documents related to the payments made by Michael Cohen.

Interpreter’s testimony. The chairmen of the Intelligence Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee told Politico they have been discussing the best way to force Trump to turn over information related to Trump’s private meetings with Putin. Rep. Adam Schiff: “I had a meeting with the general counsel to discuss this and determine the best way to find out what took place in those private meetings — whether it’s by seeking the interpreter’s testimony, the interpreter’s notes, or other means.”

Whitaker’s hearing. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Nadler wrote a letter to the former acting AG Whitaker, suggesting he misled the committee and threatening to formally depose him if he does not clarify his responses. According to Nadler, Whitaker claimed Trump never angrily called him to complain about Cohen’s guilty plea. In the letter, Nadler states that “the Committee has identified several individuals with direct knowledge of the phone calls you denied receiving from the White House.” Further, Nadler wrote that Whitaker contradicted himself during his testimony, claiming at first that he did not share his opinions about Mueller’s investigation with White House officials, but later admitting to it while interviewing for a White House legal position.

  • The article written on this topic was published before William Barr was confirmed and sworn in as attorney general. I am not sure if the House Judiciary Cmte. will continue pursuing Whitaker’s responses as outlined in Nadler’s letter. Perhaps the fact that Whitaker is staying in the DOJ, as a senior counselor in the associate AG’s office, will mean the House will still seek his answers.

Cohen update. Despite Michael Cohen postponing his scheduled testimony before the Senate last week, his lawyer insists Cohen will still appear on Feb. 28th before the House Intelligence Committee in a closed session and before the House Oversight Committee in a public session at an unknown date. Cohen is set to report to prison on March 6.

Senate

Cohen testimony. Michael Cohen was set to testify before the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday, after being subpoenaed by Sens. Burr and Warner, but postponed it due to “post-surgery medical needs.” Once receiving this news, Chairman Burr said the panel no longer has “any goodwill” toward Cohen after being “stiffed” by him. While Cohen’s attorney disputed that characterization, Burr pointed to tweets from reporters showing Cohen “having a wild night” out in New York just days earlier as evidence that he “didn’t seem to have any physical limitations.”

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

McCabe. In an interview with 60 Minutes, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe said that the investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice was begun on his orders to preserve the probes into Russian election meddling in case someone, including Trump, tried to terminate them. The firing of James Comey made the FBI officials wonder if there was “an inappropriate relationship” between Trump and the Kremlin. McCabe further stated that he had a brief discussion with Rod Rosenstein about the possibility of employing the 25th Amendment. While it wasn’t an “extended discussion,” McCabe said the two thought about “how many other cabinet officials might support” the 25th Amendment.

  • McCabe told 60 Minutes that he believes he was fired because he “ opened a case against the president of the United States.”
  • In response to McCabe’s media appearances, Trump tweeted a two-part attack on McCabe, his wife, Comey, and Clinton. In part, it read: Disgraced FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe pretends to be a “poor little Angel” when in fact he was a big part of the Crooked Hillary Scandal & the Russia Hoax – a puppet for Leakin’ James Comey.
  • Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham plans to investigate what he called “an administrative coup” by McCabe and Rosenstein.

Dep. AG pick. New AG William Barr’s top pick to replace Deputy AG Rosenstein is Jeffrey Rosen, a transportation department official with no DOJ experience.

OTHERS

Qatar bailout. The Qatari government is now trying to claim ignorance of their role in the massive bailout of the Kushner family’s troubled 666 Fifth Avenue tower. Jared Kushner bought the building for $1.8 billion in 2007 and has struggled to sell it for over two years now, as they could not afford the $1.4 billion due on the mortgage. Just six months before that amount was due, a Canadian-asset company in part funded by the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) took on a 99-year lease on the property. Taking into account Jared’s support for the blockade of Qatar, which coincidentally occurred after Qatar’s finance minister declined to invest in the Fifth Ave. tower, it appears as if Qatar is trying to buy the Trump administration’s favor.

  • Why is Qatar now claiming they didn’t know their money was used to bailout Kushner? It’s unlikely they didn’t know, it was in the New York Times weeks before the deal was closed. One option is that they waited until the deal closed to now claim ignorance in defense. Another option, put forth by law professor Jed Shugerman (see Vanity Fair), is that Qatar knows they could be implicated in Mueller’s ‘Gulf state’ phase of investigation and is building their defense immediately.

Inaugural subpoena. The New Jersey AG issued a civil subpoena against Trump’s inaugural committee, as part of an investigation by the state’s Consumer Protection Division. This is the second subpoena the committee has received; the first was a criminal subpoena from SDNY.