TOO LONG DIDN’T READ SUMMARY
Trump’s attorneys denied a request from Mueller for an in-person interview with Trump to ask follow-up questions to his written answers. Senior administration officials reported that “several times” in 2018 Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw the US from NATO. Buzzfeed News reported that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Moscow Trump Tower. Although they said Mueller has evidence of this, Mueller disputed the accuracy of the report. Michael Cohen is reportedly questioning if he should testify before Congress as planned, fearing that Trump’s rants against him could lead to violence against him and his family. Michael Cohen paid a tech company to rig online polls in Trump’s favor before the presidential campaign.
Mueller has subpoenaed at least three new witnesses connected to Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi to testify before the grand jury, including Corsi’s stepson. Mueller is reportedly investigating Rudy Giuliani’s relationship with Russian Ukrainian mogul Pavel Fuks. Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates is assisting Mueller in the investigation into whether individuals from the Middle East worked with the campaign to influence the election. Mueller’s office and federal prosecutors are looking into a breakfast event attended by Devin Nunes, Michael Flynn, a “dozens” of foreign officials just two days before Trump’s inauguration.
The DNC said it was the target of a Russian cyberattack just one week after the midterm elections. The model/sex coach who claimed to have evidence that Russia interfered in the US elections, Anastasia Vashukevich (aka Nastya Rybka), was arrested in Moscow after being deported from Thailand. The Senate voted down a Democratic-led effort to block the Trump administration from lifting sanctions against Russian companies connected to oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Jerome Corsi was subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff is hiring a new team of investigators to restart the panel’s probe of Trump’s Russia connections.
Trump’s AG nominee, William Barr, declined to pledge to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s probe, refused to guarantee to release Mueller’s report, and expressed sympathy for Trump’s view that he’s a victim of political bias. The Inspector General of the GSA, which leased the building for the Trump International Hotel in DC, published a report that found the agency “improperly ignored” the Emoluments clause of the constitution when they reviewed the lease after the 2016 election.
Sit down interview. Trump’s attorneys denied a request from Mueller for an in-person interview with Trump to ask follow-up questions to his written answers. According to CNN’s sources, “Mueller is not satisfied” with Trump’s written responses, but the two sides are at “loggerheads.”
NATO. [I am including this in the Mueller section because it would greatly benefit Putin and it is a key part of the Steele dossier.] Senior administration officials reported to the New York Times that “several times” in 2018 Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw the US from NATO. Such a move would essentially destroy the NATO alliance – something Putin has wanted for many years. Jim Mattis and John Bolton apparently intervened to keep Trump’s desire in check and keep the mention of a withdrawal under wraps.
- “Even discussing the idea of leaving NATO — let alone actually doing so — would be the gift of the century for Putin,” Retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, said.
- National security officials are reportedly growing more worried since it was revealed that Trump has gone to great lengths to conceal the content of his meetings with Putin, even from his own officials.
- The Steele dossier stated that the aim of Putin’s “Trump operation” was “to sow discord and disunity…especially within the Transatlantic alliance which was viewed as inimical to Russia’s interest.”
Defending Putin. The New York Times published a previously unknown detail in a piece about Trump’s meetings with Putin. On the flight home from his first meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Trump “telephoned a Times reporter and argued that the Russians were falsely accused of election interference.” This was the same flight on which Trump personally dictated a false account of the Trump Tower meeting, “saying the meeting was about Russian adoptions without admitting that it was actually intended to accept Moscow’s aid for his campaign.”
Trump Tower fiasco. On Thursday, Buzzfeed News reported that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Moscow Trump Tower. Their sources were “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.” More than a day after publishing, Peter Carr, the spokesman for Mueller’s office disputed at least some details contained in the report. I’ll reproduce his statement here:
- “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” Carr said.
- The editors of Buzzfeed News continue to stand by their reporting.
- WaPo reported from “people familiar with the matter” that Carr did not comment when asked about the story pre-publishing. But: When BuzzFeed published the story hours later, it far exceeded Carr’s initial impression, people familiar with the matter said, in that the reporting alleged that Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and self-described fixer, “told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie,” and that Mueller’s office learned of the directive “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”
- While CNN reported that it was Mueller’s “idea alone to issue” the above statement, a different CNN article stated that Trump’s legal team reached out to Mueller’s office after Buzzfeed’s article was published. However, Giuliani would not provide details about what was said.
Intimidation. Michael Cohen is reportedly questioning if he should testify before Congress as planned, fearing that Trump’s rants against him could lead to violence against him and his family. For now, his Feb. 7 appearance is still on track. On Fox News, Trump called Cohen “weak,” accused him of lying, and suggested (without prompting) that he has damaging information about Cohen’s family. Cohen’s lawyer said Trump committed witness tampering and obstruction of justice by making those remarks.
Poll rigging. In early 2015, Michael Cohen paid a tech company to rig online polls in Trump’s favor before the presidential campaign. Although they had reportedly agreed to a $50,000 fee, Cohen paid the owner of RedFinch Solutions about $12,000-13,000 (allegedly in cash carried in a Walmart bag) and a boxing glove Cohen said had been worn by a Brazilian mixed-martial arts fighter. However, Cohen told the Trump organization he paid the company the full $50k and was reimbursed that amount. On Thursday, Cohen tweeted he attempted to rig the polls “at the direction of and for the sole benefit of” Trump.
- The polls Cohen tried to influence were a CNBC online poll and a 2015 Drudge Poll – both attempts were unsuccessful, as Trump ranked low. When it became clear he did not win, Trump tweeted: “The CNBC 25 poll is a joke. I was in 9th place and taken off. (Politics?) No wonder CNBC ratings are going down the tubes.”
- Cohen also paid for a Twitter account called “Women for Cohen” that praised his looks and prowess as a lawyer.
Mueller: Manafort, Corsi, Stone
Evidence filing. Mueller released almost 200 pages of evidence supporting his team’s claim that Manafort lied to them on many occasions. Due to heavy redacting, not much new information is contained in the documents. One tidbit that’s new: in January 2017, Manfort told Rick Gates that he was installing people in Trump’s administration through intermediaries. We also found out that Manafort testified to a grand jury last fall about his communications and meetings with Russian agent Konstantin Kilimnik. Remember, Manafort also shared campaign polling data with Kilimnik.
New witnesses. Mueller has subpoenaed at least three new witnesses connected to Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi to testify before the grand jury. The subpoenas “call for the retention and producing of documents, communication logs and other records involving two people: Corsi and Stone.” One of these witnesses was identified by Corsi as his stepson Andrew Stettner.
- ABC News: Corsi said that Stettner was questioned by the FBI in recent weeks because he has, on and off over the course of many years, helped fix Corsi’s computers. Of particular interest to the FBI agents, Corsi said, was a computer of his that Stettner wiped of all its contents in the weeks leading up to Corsi’s subpoena to testify before the special counsel’s grand jury in late August.
Mueller: Ukrainian/Russian cases
Ukrainian work. Mueller is reportedly investigating Rudy Giuliani’s relationship with Russian Ukrainian mogul Pavel Fuks. In 2017, Fuks hired Giuliani’s security firm to advise a Ukrainian city on security and emergency management, according to Giuliani. However, Fuks said he hired Giuliani to “create a US office for supporting investment in” the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv which is near the Russian border. Fuks was also one of many Ukrainians who attended Trump’s inauguration.
Guilty. The law firm Skadden Arps admitted last week to misleading the DOJ to cover up the full extent of its work for the Ukrainian government, part of which included a report it produced for Manafort in 2012. The firm will pay the Treasury Department $4.6 million and will register as a foreign agent.
Mystery case. On Friday, the Supreme Court discussed the case involving an unnamed foreign-owned company that is challenging a grand jury subpoena – thought to be Mueller’s grand jury. Lawyers from the company are asking to file their appeal of a lower court decision with the Supreme Court under seal. The lower courts ruled the company had to comply with the subpoena or face a $50,000 a day fine.
Middle East. Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates is assisting Mueller in the investigation into whether individuals from the Middle East worked with the campaign to influence the election. Specifically, Gates has answered questions about the Israeli social manipulation company Psy Group, owned by Joel Zamel. The FBI has interviewed former Psy Group employees about their conversations with Trump campaign staff and Republican intermediaries, like George Birnbaum.
- Daily Beast: Gates requested proposals in 2016 from Psy Group that would help Trump in his campaign for president…Those proposals included social media manipulation tactics such as creating fake avatars to engage voters and Republican campaign delegates.
Nunes link? Mueller’s office and federal prosecutors are looking into a breakfast event attended by Devin Nunes, Michael Flynn, a “dozens” of foreign officials just two days before Trump’s inauguration. Mueller is interested in the meeting as part of its investigation into foreign money in Trump’s inaugural fund and PAC. Flynn has reportedly been questioned by Mueller about the event and his interaction with foreign officials.
- Country officials invited to the breakfast included Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark, Japan, Angola and others. Former Kazakh Ambassador Kairat Umarov attended the breakfast, as did two senior Qatari officials.
- Daily Beast: Nunes’ links to Flynn are substantial. During the 24-day period when Flynn served as Trump’s national security adviser, Flynn brought one of Nunes’ senior aides, the former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Derek Harvey, onto the staff of the National Security Council. Another former aide to Nunes’ committee, Michael Ellis, went to the White House counsel’s office. Ellis and a third Flynn aide, the NSC intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, reportedly fed Nunes information that Nunes presented as deriving from intelligence whistleblowers worried about inappropriate “unmasking” of Americans’ names from surveillance intercepts, such as Flynn’s.
Phishing. The DNC said it was the target of a Russian cyberattack just one week after the midterm elections. The method, spear-phishing, as well as the timestamps “were consistent with” past Russian intelligence cyberattacks – notably, those conducted by Cozy Bear.
Sex coach detained. The model/sex coach who claimed to have evidence that Russia interfered in the US elections, Anastasia Vashukevich (aka Nastya Rybka), was detained in Moscow after being deported from Thailand. Her lawyer alleges pollice in civilian clothes “dragged” her from a transit zone in Moscow’s airport. He posted a video on his instagram that shows a group of men trying to force a woman who looks like Vashukevich into a wheelchair as she tries to break free. Curiously, the people she was in Thai prison with were apparently routed through Ukraine instead to reach Belarus.
- Vashukevich was featured in a video that showed her on a yacht with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and a Russian deputy prime minister.
- She was charged with prostitution and pleaded not guilty, but her statement in a Moscow court seemed to suggest she knows the arrest wasn’t actually about prostitution: A translation by Julia Davis on Twitter reports that Vashukevich said “she regrets that her actions have compromised #Deripaska, promises that she won’t disseminate any info about Deripaska and accepts blame for his enemies using her story against him.”
- Bill Browder: “The Nastya Rybka case is standard Putin playbook. The regime can’t have mistresses & escorts talking about what they hear while sleeping with officials & oligarchs. They will make an extreme example out of her to make sure that no other person in her position will ever talk again.”
- The FBI reportedly attempted to meet with Vashukevich in the Thai jail after she claimed to have information on the Trump-Russia investigation. The Thai officials, however, refused to allow the meeting to take place.
(AG nominee confirmation hearing covered in DOJ section)
Sanctions. The Senate voted down a Democratic-led effort to block the Trump administration from lifting sanctions against Russian companies connected to oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The vote needed 60 votes, but only received 57. Trump’s deal to lift sanctions on these companies, including aluminum-producer Rusal, was negotiated in return for Deripaska reducing his ownership share below 50%. However, Rusal installed a “Kremlin stooge” who supports Russian aggression in his place. Deripaska was sanctioned because of Russia’s occupation of Crimea – which is the very action his replacement, Jean-Pierre Thomas, has praised.
- “To me, it’s just ironic,” one Western intelligence official told The Daily Beast, discussing Thomas’ appointment to the Rusal board. “I think it’s a message, if you want to be cynical, from Deripaska’s side… It raises questions about who ultimately controls Rusal.”
Subpoena. Jerome Corsi, an associate of Roger Stone, was subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. Corsi’s lawyer said the panel is seeking both an interview and documents. He described the subpoena “overly broad” and “part of continued harassment from this committee.”
New hires. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff is hiring a new team of investigators to restart the panel’s probe of Trump’s Russia connections. So far, the Democrats have made offers to six new staffers, including a corruption expert and a former prosecutor. They are reportedly looking to hire six more people, thus increasing their staff from 11 to 24.
- The committee’s immediate known priorities include “the release to the special counsel — and subsequently to the public — of all of the committee’s Russia investigation interview transcripts; subpoenaing relevant banking and telecommunications records that Democrats have said contain information that implicates the president; and hearing – in some cases a second time – from key witnesses.”
New subcommittee. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel plans to eliminate the terrorism subcommittee and replace it with one devoted to investigating Trump. The investigation is reportedly “certain to start with the question of what, exactly, Trump agreed to in his private meeting with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, last summer” at Helsinki. Engel is also going to look into the business interests of Trump and how those interests have affected the administration’s foreign policy.
- Other issues Engel is eager to investigate include Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong Un, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the Trump family’s close ties with the Saudi crown prince, and Trump’s policy toward the war in Syria.
- Democrats generally support Engel’s decision, which essentially holds that, for now at least, Trump is a greater threat to America than terrorism. Republicans, on the other hand, have criticized it as a partisan move. They worry terrorism concerns will go ignored, but Democrats plan on assigning regional subcommittees the responsibility to oversee terrorism under their spatial purview.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
Barr’s memo. The day prior to the confirmation hearing of Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham received a letter from Barr with more information about his memo. You might recall, in June 2018 Barr sent a 19-page unsolicited memo to the DOJ criticizing Mueller’s possible interpretation of obstruction of justice. In the letter to Graham, Barr revealed he sent the memo to more people than previously known: not only Rod Rosenstein & the assistant AG Steve Engel, but also White House special counsel Emmet Flood, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, and his former Justice Department colleague Pat Cipollone who is now White House counsel. Additionally, Barr discussed the content of the memo with rump lawyers Marty and Jane Raskin and Jay Sekulow, as well as Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Jared Kushner.
- In the letter, Barr stressed that the memo analysis was “narrow in scope” and addressed “a single obstruction-of-justice theory under a specific federal statute.” However, Dianne Feinstein told Barr in a letter, “Your memorandum is not an informal opinion piece or casual commentary. Rather, it is a lengthy, detailed legal argument with pointed conclusions.”
- ACLU: The memo questions the scope of Mueller’s investigation, and it argues that Mueller should not be permitted to demand answers from the president about possible obstruction of justice based on attempts by Trump to pressure former FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation of Trump’s ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn… the memo’s legal theories advance an overly expansive view of presidential power. More specifically, the memo prompts questions about whether Barr would order Mueller to halt further inquiry into possible obstruction by the president if the Senate confirms him. It even raises questions about whether Barr deliberately sought to curry favor with Trump by taking a position favorable to him in order to secure a top government position.
- WaPo columnist: The memo contains an odd shot at James Comey for suspecting corruption when Trump asked him to “see his way clear” to stopping the investigation of the president’s national security adviser Michael Flynn. “The formulation that Comey ‘see his way clear,’ explicitly leaves the decision with Comey,” Barr wrote. “Most normal subordinates would not have found these comments obstructive.” Most normal subordinates? Does Barr consider Comey “abnormal”?
Barr’s hearing. At Barr’s confirmation hearing, he attempted to assuage the concerns of Democrats, but there were many red flags, particularly where Mueller was involved. The following is a brief summation of the hearings, focusing on Mueller-related answers.
- Despite claiming that he no plans to interfere in Mueller’s investigation, Barr refused to pledge to recuse himself if the DOJ ethics office said he should. Barr also wouldn’t guarantee that Mueller’s report would be released to the public, saying it “will be handled as a confidential document.” Barr wouldn’t even commit to telling Congress about all of the deletions he could make in the report.
- Barr committed to not firing Mueller without cause, but he did not detail what he understands “cause to mean, leaving himself wiggle room.
- Barr expressed sympathy with Trump’s view that he is a victim of political bias, defending Trump’s use of the phrase “witch hunt.” WaPo columnist: “If someone felt they were falsely accused, they would view an investigation as something like a witch hunt,” he said. Barr, you see, supports Mueller and the FBI, but has no problem with their being compared to witch hunters.
- In his memo, Barr was insistent on Mueller’s reading of the law; he seemed to have inside knowledge of how Mueller was interpreting it. Feinstein asked him how he knew this, to which Barr responded he “was speculating.” As a WaPo columnist noticed: “Mueller’s obstruction theory is novel and extravagant,” Barr wrote without hesitation. He also referred to “Mueller’s core premise,” “Mueller’s proposed regime” and “Mueller’s sweeping obstruction theory.” For someone operating “in the dark,” Barr didn’t show a smidgen of humility or restraint.
Whitaker secret. Pulitzer Prize-finalist and independent journalist Murray Waas wrote another great piece for NY Books: When Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker accepted the role of overseeing the Mueller investigation, he failed to disclose to Department of Justice ethics officers that, as head of a conservative watchdog group, he had cooperated with senior White House aides of President Trump (including Don McGahn) in finding ways to attack the work of the special counsel—in one case by filing a Federal Election Commission complaint against a critic of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who was under scrutiny by Mueller.
- Whitaker was interviewed by then-WH Counsel Don McGahn about joining Trump’s legal team. “Although Whitaker did not get the job, he and White House officials discussed how Whitaker might serve the president’s interests in a private capacity. They suggested specific arguments Whitaker could make in defense of the president. They encouraged him to attack Mueller relentlessly, and they identified other possible targets for him.”
Emoluments. The Inspector General of the GSA, which leased the building for the Trump International Hotel in DC, published a report that found the agency “improperly ignored” the Emoluments clause of the constitution when they reviewed the lease after the 2016 election. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said “GSA’s decision to not consider whether the President’s business interest in the Old Post Office lease might be unconstitutional has enabled the President to line his pockets.” Additionally, the lease states that no “elected official of the Government … shall be admitted to share any part of this Lease, or any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
Inaugural spending. ABC News reviewed internal documents that revealed Trump’s inaugural committee spent more than $1.5 million at the Trump International Hotel in DC, $130k for customized seat cushions, $10k for makeup for the servers at dinner, and $2.7 million to a company that produced a Broadway-style show for entertainment. Despite the fact that there were only three major events, the amount of money was “record-breaking,” more than double the amounts of Obama’s first inaugural.
- “Substantial spending by the inaugural committee at the Trump Hotel would raise issues of impermissible self-dealing by the committee,” campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel said.