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What We Learned in the Trump-Russia Investigation: Week of Feb 18 – 24, 2018

Mueller Investigation

On Tuesday, Mueller charged Alex van der Zwaan, son-in-law of a Russian oligarch, with lying to investigators about communications he had with Rick Gates. He entered a guilty plea on Tuesday (20th), but the agreement does not mention a commitment to cooperate.

  • About van der Zwaan: He was a lawyer at a powerful New York-based law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom (though he worked at the London office). He’s 33 years old and a citizen of the Netherlands. He worked on a 2012 project led by Paul Manafort and Rick Gates that created a report defending then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, while justifying the imprisonment of political rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
  • His father-in-law is German Khan, a Russian oligarch worth $10 billion and named on the Treasury Department’s list of oligarchs to be sanctioned (though sanctions have yet to be enforced). Khan is the owner of Alfa Bank, which has been on Mueller’s radar for a year now. Two servers belonging to Alfa bank repeatedly connected with a server of the Trump Organization during the months before the 2016 election. (This reddit comment explains the connection in a clear, non-technical way)
    • “‘Eighty-seven percent of the DNS lookups [by the Trump Org server] involved the two Alfa Bank servers. “It’s pretty clear that it’s not an open mail server,’ Camp told me. ‘These organizations are communicating in a way designed to block other people out.’”
  • The Steele dossier devotes a whole section to Alfa Group (misspelled “Alpha”), alleging financial ties and collusion between Putin, Trump, and Alfa Bank’s owners.
  • The court documents mention an anonymous individual, referred to as “Person A,” who had contact with van der Zwaan and Gates in late 2016. Although not confirmed, Person A is likely Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian Army-trained translator who has been described as Manafort’s Kiev-based protégé. Kilimnik was reportedly in contact with Manafort during the time that Trump was fighting out the Republican primaries, and possibly visited the United States during that time.

On Thursday, the court unsealed a superseding indictment handed down from a grand jury in Virginia, levelling 32 new charges against Gates and Manafort. The new charges included filing false tax returns and bank fraud. Unlike the previous indictments, the court filings for this newest one allege that part of Gates and Manafort’s financial scheme occurred during the time they worked with Trump – between 2015 and “at least” January 2017. Full indictment.

  • The indictment reveals that Manafort created an incriminating paper trail because he was unable to convert a PDF document to a Word document. He was trying to falsify his income, but was unable to edit the PDF document. So he emailed it to Gates asking him to do it for him. Gates emailed the converted document back to Manafort, who then edited it and emailed it to Gates to be converted back to a PDF. It was then returned to Manafort, who sent it to a lender in order to get a loan with his artificially high income.

On Friday, Rick Gates pled guilty to two charges – fraud & lying to investigators – out of the 33 leveled against him. In return, he’s promised to cooperate with Mueller’s team. He faces up to six years in jail.

  • The court documents describe that Gates lied to the FBI (during a plea deal discussion!) about a meeting he had with Manafort in 2013. Before the meeting, Manafort met with a congressman to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Subsequent reports have identified that congressman as pro-Russia lawmaker Dana Rohrabacher. Further info on Rohrabacher’s connections to the players in the Mueller probe found here.
  • His plea deal will put intense pressure on Manafort to try to cut a deal himself, as Gates was Manafort’s right hand man. He worked with Manafort for a decade, before both joined Trump’s campaign. Trump should also be concerned as Gates had many roles in the Trump world. Gates was:
    ⇒Deputy chair of Trump’s campaign
    ⇒A Trump aide even after Manafort was ousted
    ⇒Deputy chair of Trump’s inaugural committee
    ⇒Co-founder of Trump-blessed America First nonprofit
  • Gates is the fifth person to have pled guilty in Mueller’s probe. The others are Flynn for lying to investigators, Papadopoulos for lying to investigators, Pinedo for identity fraud, and Van Der Zwann for lying to investigators.
  • Manafort maintains his innocence and reaffirms his commitment to fighting Mueller’s charges against him

A new superseding indictment, handed down from a grand jury in DC, was unsealed. It accuses Manafort of secretly paying former European politicians to lobby on behalf of Ukraine. Some of the secret lobbying occurred in the U.S.

Mueller is examining “suspicious” bank transactions of $40 million from 2014 and 2015

  • The information was originally collected in the course of a 2014 FBI investigation into international kleptocracy. Manafort was on the FBI’s radar due to his relationship with then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Amazingly, however, the FBI decided Manafort’s transactions were “too petty” and never pressed charges.

Mueller is now looking into Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for his personal business ventures from foreign entities.

  • Mueller has reportedly been asking questions in interviews about conversations Kushner had during transition when he was attempting to find funding for a realty property in New York. 666 Fifth Avenue is an office building his company is backing that is in serious financial trouble.
  • Of specific interest is Kushner’s relationships with Chinese investors.

Jared Kushner is insisting that he be allowed to have access to classified materials despite not having a full security clearance. This would go against Chief of Staff John Kelly’s new rule that anyone with background checks pending since June 1st or earlier will have their clearances revoked.

Rosenstein alerted the White House two weeks ago that significant information requiring additional investigation would further delay Kushner’s security clearance

Steele Dossier

We are finding out more about the judge that refuses to recuse himself from overseeing a case against Buzzfeed for publishing the Steele Dossier. Fusion GPS has been subpoenaed to turn over their research, but they’ve objected. The judge, Trevor McFadden, was not only appointed by Trump – he also made two donations to Trump’s campaign of $1000 each, just three weeks before the election.

  • Furthermore, as a lawyer McFadden represented Mikhail Fridman, a Russian business magnate who is heavily invested in Alfa Group. Alfa Group owns Alfa Bank, whose servers were involved in an “odd” relationship with Trump Organization’s server during the 2016 election. As if that wasn’t enough, Alfa Group is also suing Fusion GPS for their research (which details connections between their company and Putin).


The Democrat’s rebuttal memo was released on Saturday. It indicates, among other things, that the Steele dossier did not play a role in opening an investigation into Carter Page; the DOJ did in fact inform the court of the origin of the Steele Dossier; the FBI verified parts of the Steele dossier with “multiple independent sources”; and Nunes of deliberately misrepresented the underlying FISA Warrant intelligence in his memo.


Matthew Masterson, the Chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission who is in charge of helping states protect elections from cyber attacks, is being replaced. Paul Ryan and the White House have decided to place own of “their own folks” in the position instead. The spokeswoman for Ryan stated that they “are going in a different direction for our nomination.” Masterson originally was picked by former Speaker John Boehner, a Republican.

Facebook insider Antonio García Martínez wrote an article detailing how Trump’s campaign had a systematic advantage in buying Facebook Ads. He states that Facebook systematically charged the Clinton campaign more for ad space than the Trump campaign, because Clinton’s ads were less “provocative.”

  • In a model based on valuing an ad’s ability to draw clicks and likes, Trump’s ads were better received than Clinton’s and so were given higher priority despite perhaps paying less money.
  • Martínez further states that the rural audiences Trump targeted cost significantly less to reach than did the dense, urban audiences Clinton needed to communicate with.

Russian military spies hacked computers at the Pyeongchang Olympics and planted false evidence to make it appear as if North Korea was the culprit. Officials are concerned they may attempt further cyber attacks during the closing ceremonies.

Syrian regime forces attacked the headquarters of a U.S. proxy in the war, the Syrian Democratic Forces, during the first week of February. There were also American advisers present in the headquarters. It is reported that in self defense, the U.S. forces killed an estimated 100 attackers. Included in the dead were Russian mercenaries working for a private military company called Wagner.

To note…

The Trump administration suddenly canceled a project to move the FBI to a better, more secure location. This comes after years of planning and millions of dollars invested. The reason for the unexpected cancellation is believed to be related to Trump properties. The old headquarters would have been converted into commercial property that could’ve competed with Trump’s D.C. hotel. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a watchdog group, is suing the GSA (General Services Administration) for failing to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request for communications related to the decision.

Instead of paying Trump and Trump Jr.’s legal bills in the Russia probe (which drew criticism), the RNC has been paying expenses of the Trump re-election campaign.

  • Specifically, the RNC is paying Trump’s company over $37,000 a month for the campaign’s office space rent in Trump Tower. Additionally, they are paying Vice President Mike Pence’s nephew, John Pence, thousands of dollars in monthly salary for serving as the Trump campaign’s deputy executive director.
  • Experts say this setup is unusual but not illegal
  • So far the RNC has spent more than $290,000 on rent since September 2017. Prior to that, the group spent $230,000 in August to Trump’s lawyers and $196,000 on Trump Jr.’s lawyers.

The RNC is also paying Keith Schiller, Trump’s former bodyguard, $15,000 a month for “consulting.” He obtained the position within weeks of leaving his job with Trump in September of 2017. If he keeps the position until 2020, he’ll make over $500,000.

Latest in emoluments lawsuits: The Attorneys general of Maryland and the D.C. have now sued Trump is a personal as well as official capacity for accepting gifts from foreign and state governments.