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What We Learned in the Trump-Russia Investigation: Week of Jan 27 – Feb 2, 2019

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(Adrienne Cobb) #1

Too long, didn’t read summary

At G20 Trump had yet another meeting with Putin in which no translator or note-taker from the U.S. side was present to record the dialogue. The calls Don Jr. made to blocked numbers before and after the Trump Tower meeting were to NASCAR CEO Brian France and real estate developer Howard Lorber; Lorber was a main player in Trump’s 1990s attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, even accompanying Trump to Russia in 1996. In the raid on Roger Stone, FBI agents seized information from Stone’s Apple iCloud accounts, email accounts, cellphones, computers, and hard drives, as well as search warrants on his home, apartment, and office. It was confirmed that Alston & Bird partner Brian Boone is representing the foreign-owned company fighting Mueller’s grand jury; Boone previously represented the RNC and three former attorneys general, including Trump’s current nominee William Barr.

Mueller alleged that Russian consulting firm Concord used non-sensitive evidence obtained during the discovery process in a disinformation campaign online, meant to discredit Mueller’s investigation. Internal communications of Wikistrat, a consulting firm founded by Joel Zamel, revealed that days after Trump announced he’d run for president, the company began examining ways a foreign government could influence the US political process. Former NRA president David Keene tried to set up a meeting with Putin in late 2015.

A trustee meant to act as a buffer between Oleg Deripaska and his main company, EN+, is actually a law firm that has worked with Deripaska for years. It was also reported that one of the seven new directors on the board of EN+, parent company of Rusal, is Christopher Burnham, who served on Trump’s State Department transition team. Belarusian escort Anastasia Vashukevich, who claimed to have 16 hours of audio and video proving Russian collusion with Trump’s campaign to influence the 2016 election, now says she has turned over the evidence to Oleg Deripaska.

House and Senate Democrats sent letters to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin seeking answers about a 2017 deal he made with an associate of Oleg Deripaska, with suspicions that it might have played a role in the Treasury’s decision to lift sanctions on Deripaska’s companies. The heads of US Intelligence Agencies said Russia and China will interfere in the 2020 elections, using it “as an opportunity to advance their interests.” Acting AG Whitaker said he’s been “fully briefed” on Mueller’s probe and implied that he will have the opportunity to review Mueller’s report before it’s released.


MUELLER INVESTIGATION

Mueller: Trumps

Secret meeting 2.0. It was reported last week that Trump had yet another meeting with Putin in which “no translator or note-taker from the U.S. side” was present to record the dialogue. This meeting occurred during G20 in November 2018, after Trump canceled plans for a formal meeting in reaction to Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships. The rendezvous was first revealed by the Kremlin last year and was later confirmed by the White House. However, people familiar with the matter now say that the conversation “appeared longer and more substantive than the White House has acknowledged.” Only Melania and Putin’s translator accompanied the two leaders.

  • As Vanity Fair pointed out: The White House has also attempted to characterize the Putin sit-down as just one of several “informal” chats Trump held with counterparts that evening, the difference being that, to our knowledge, there aren’t any questions about possible collusion between the president’s 2016 campaign and, say, Australia or Germany.

Blocked numbers. Evidence has reportedly surfaced that before and after the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, the calls Don Jr. made to blocked phone number were actually to business associates, not to his father. The two associates have been identified as NASCAR CEO Brian France and real estate developer Howard Lorber. While both men have “close ties” to Trump and supported his campaign, the more interesting of the two is Howard Lorber: Lorber was a main player in Trump’s 1990s attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, even accompanying Trump to Russia in 1996.

  • The day before the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Trump Sr. hosted Lorber at a fundraising event. Lorber donated $100,000 to Trump’s campaign.
  • One thing to note: According to CNN’s timeline, Trump was in the building during the time of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting. It would not have been necessary for Don Jr. to call his father when all he had to do was go up an elevator.

Trump says… In this edition of Trump says, I’ll just list the relevant things that Trump has said over the past week.

  • In an interview with the NYT, Trump said that deputy AG Rod Rosenstein told him he was not a target of Mueller’s investigation. Trump said Rosenstein told his personal lawyers the same thing “a number of times,” but did not say when.
  • According to Chris Christie’s book, Trump proclaimed “this Russia thing is all over now” when he fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in early 2017. Jared Kushner reportedly agreed, saying that “firing Flynn ends the whole Russia thing.”
  • In the same NYT interview above, Trump also said he never talked to Roger Stone about Wikileaks. He also denied ever directing anyone to contact Stone about Wikileaks.
  • Trump said the FBI raid and arrest of Roger Stone was a “very disappointing scene” and said “it was sad to see it. Very sad.”
  • Trump claimed he was being honest about not having any business in Moscow because the Trump Tower Moscow project “wasn’t business.” According to his rationale, because he has no money invested, “it was a nothing… I don’t consider that even business.”

Mueller: Stone, Corsi, Page

Hearing 1. Roger Stone’s case had its first day in court on Thursday, when Mueller’s team asked for more time to bring the case to trial due to the “voluminous and complex” discovery involved. Agents seized information from Stone’s Apple iCloud accounts, email accounts, cellphones, computers, and hard drives, as well as search warrants on his home, apartment, and office. The federal judge – incidentally the same that sent Manafort to jail – warned Stone against treating the charges like a book tour and is considering issuing a gag order.

  • On CNN last week, April Ryan said that “just hours prior to the raid, Roger Stone had a gathering at his home with very influential people…close to the president.” According to her source, the FBI was likely “watching” them during the meeting.

Hidden message? While Roger Stone has made a big deal in interviews that he has only been charged with so-called “process crimes,” some experts see clues in the indictment that a larger conspiracy charge may still be coming. First, there is a small note in Stone’s indictment that states Stone is involved in a “related case.” Second, Mueller seems to have chosen his words very carefully in paragraph 12, which states “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone.” Some believe the passive voice is deliberately used to omit the name or description of the person who directed Stone to contact Wikileaks. The fact that the words “another senior campaign official” aren’t used, suggests that perhaps this person may be Trump himself.

Lying defense. Last week it was revealed that Roger Stone registered the domain name for his legal defense fund the day after he testified to congress. In other words, the day after Stone was allegedly made numerous false statements under oath, Stone seemed to believe he’d need money to defend himself in court. Stone maintains that he did not know he was lying, it was not intentional. Registering his legal defense fund would seem to contradict this.

Dismissed. Carter Page’s lawsuit against the DNC, in which he represented himself, was dismissed. The judge made it clear there was no reason for the case to have been filed with his court – in Oklahoma – in the first place. Page tried to claim he was defamed by Christopher Steele’s dossier.

Mueller: Mystery Company

New details. The drip-drip-drip of information regarding the unknown foreign-owned company that’s fighting a grand jury subpoena continued last week. It was confirmed that Alston & Bird partner Brian Boone is representing the company at the Supreme Court; Boone previously represented the RNC and three former attorneys general, including Trump’s current nominee William Barr. It was also confirmed that Mueller’s team are the prosecutors in the case, as suspected. The justices are set to debate unsealing additional information on February 15.

  • According to Washington Post’s legal reporter Spencer Hsu, the foreign company’s name appears to be around 22-27 characters long. This is an approximation, but it is interesting to note. A couple potential entities fit this length, such as Qatar Investment Authority.

Mueller: Russian cases

Disinformation. In a court filing in the case against Russian company Concord Management and Consulting, Mueller alleged that Concord used non-sensitive evidence obtained during the discovery process in a disinformation campaign online. Concord is arguing they deserve access to sensitive documents Mueller is using as evidence against them. Mueller’s office, on the other hand, says the firm cannot be trusted because of their previous breach of confidence. The filing states that “certain non-sensitive discovery materials in the defense’s possession appear to have been altered and disseminated as part of a disinformation campaign aimed (apparently) at discrediting ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. political system.”

  • On October 22, 2018, a twitter account by the name @HackingRedstone, sent journalists a direct message claiming to have hacked Mueller’s database. The account later tweeted out a link to the public. Mueller said the webpage contained over 1,000 files that match those produced in discovery. However, the webpage also included numerous irreverent files made to “appear as though the irrelevant files contained on the webpage were the sum total evidence of ‘IRA and Russian collusion’ gathered by law enforcement.” In other words, the Russians were attempting to make it seem like Mueller had no evidence against the troll farm.
  • The journalists that were DM’d include ThinkProgress reporter Casey Michel and independent disinformation researcher Josh Russell. Michel told NBC: “The DM I got was ridiculous, both in terms of its syntax as well as the types of phrases it used. It reminded me of the types of language we saw on some of the fake Russian Facebook pages, like when the Russian trolls claimed they were Texas secessionists who were ‘in love with Texas shape!’”

Mueller: Other

Foreign interference. The Daily Beast reviewed internal communications of Wikistrat, a consulting firm founded by Joel Zamel, that revealed days after Trump announced he’d run for president, the company began examining ways a foreign government could influence the US political process. Zamel, who has been questioned by Mueller, gave Trump official Rick Gates a pitch for his other company, Psy Group, in April 2016. The pitch involved using thousands of fake social media accounts to influence the election in Trump’s favor. After Trump became the GOP’s nominee, Zamel met with Don Jr. to discuss the plan. It’s unclear if the plan ever went forward; some employees said it did, some say it did not.

  • Excerpts from the Wikistrat project undertaken during Trump’s campaign:
    • “The targets for these attacks are either the Democrats or the Republicans,” an analyst theorized. “The countries which sense that their [sic] is a divergence in their strategic objectives or foreign policy and therefore harbor a preference for one party or the other.”
    • “Foreign governments with a high stake in U.S. elections might be willing to hire cyber-mercenaries to influence election results,” the analyst added.
    • One analyst then chimed in, pointing out that “Ukraine and Russia already have the situation.”

NRA trip. Former NRA president David Keene tried to set up a meeting with Putin in late 2015, arranged in part by Russian spy Maria Butina’s boyfriend, Paul Erickson. In emails reviewed by the Daily Beast, Erickson wrote that the offer came from an official with the Russian Central Bank. While they reportedly did not get to meet Putin, Keene’s NRA group met with Dmitry Rogozin, a Putin deputy, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Note, former sheriff David Clarke also went on the trip.

  • The Daily Beast: Erickson’s email also said the trip could help ease relations between Russia and the U.S. by creating a way for the Kremlin to connect with a future Republican president. “As we discussed over lunch in Iowa, Russia believes that high level contacts with the NRA might be the BEST means of neutral introduction to either the next American President OR to a meaningful re-set in relations with the Congress under a (God forbid) President Clinton,” he wrote. “This simple good will trip would have enormous diplomatic consequences for a future U.S. / Russia bilateral relationship to the world.”
  • The NRA tried to distance itself from any formal involvement in the trip, saying the CEO “was opposed to the trip” and prohibited staff members from joining the delegation. However, ABC News revealed internal emails and photos taken during the trip show the NRA was more involved than they admitted. For instance, an NRA employee helped Maria Butina made travel arrangements for the NRA associates. Another emails suggests the NRA would pay for travel expenses of some attendants and would provide formal NRA gifts to present to the Russian hosts.
  • Interesting note: Maria Butina was arrested and charged as acting as an unregistered foreign agent on July 16, 2018. Later that same day, the Treasury Department under Steve Mnuchin announced a rule-change that allowed non-profits, like the NRA, to hide the names of donors who give them $5,000 or more.

RUSSIA NEWS

Deripaska sanctions. After the sanctions on oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s companies were lifted January 26, the Russian stock index reached an all-time high and shares of Rusal hit their highest since April 2017, up 9%. Additionally, aluminum prices dropped as much as 1.4% on the London Metal Exchange. Despite the Trump administration’s claims that Deripaska had sufficiently relinquished control of these companies, the New York Times revealed in combination with his family & his foundation, Deripaska still effectively controls over 50%. The rebounding of the shares that we saw last week still greatly benefited Deripaska and VTB bank, aka “Putin’s piggy bank,” which received shares worth $800 million in the sanction-lifting deal.

  • Last week, it was revealed that a trustee meant to act as a buffer between Deripaska and his main company, EN+, is actually a law firm that has worked with Deripaska for years. The law firm, Ogier Global, represented Deripaska in a 2014 case against a company run by Paul Manafort, and again in 2017 in a debt deal with China. Interestingly, Rusal is registered at the same New Jersey address as Ogier. The Treasury Department approved Ogier to act in this trustee position.
  • It was also reported that one of the seven new directors on the board of EN+, parent company of Rusal, is Christopher Burnham, who served on Trump’s State Department transition team. Burnham also served under current National Security Adviser John Bolton when he was at the UN (during the Bush II years).
  • See the “Congress” section for more on Mnuchin’s role in lifting sanctions.

Escort update. Belarusian escort Anastasia Vashukevich, who claimed to have 16 hours of audio and video proving Russian collusion with Trump’s campaign to influence the 2016 election, now says she has turned over the evidence to Oleg Deripaska. While she at first blamed Russia for her imprisonment in Thailand, last April she announced it was actually the US government persecuting her. Around the same time, Russia’s consul visited her in jail and improved her prison conditions. Vashukevich insists she didn’t cut any deals, but she admits as soon as she was back in Russia, she was told how to behave: “I was explained how I can talk about it… The official version is that I haven’t got any records and whatever records there were are gone.”

  • The backstory part 1: In February 2018, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny publicized videos of Vashukevich on Deripaska’s yacht with Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko in 2016. Navalny claimed Deripaska was the key connection between Paul Manafort and the Russian government that Mueller was looking for. Shortly after, during a trip to Thailand for a “sex-training” session, Vashukevich and her associates were arrested on charges of working without permits, which was later to prostitution charges.
  • The backstory part 2: Vashukevich taped a video while in custody proclaiming she had “missing bits of the puzzle” regarding Trump-Russia connections and asking for help from the US. It is unclear if the FBI ever got to question her. Around the time Russia’s consul visited her in jail, Vashukevich’s story changed in favor of Deripaska and Russia. On January 17, 2019 she was deported from Thailand. Her trip home to Belarus was interrupted when Russian agents arrested her in a Moscow airport for prostitution charges. She has not plainly stated what happened, but after being released she offered Deripaska a personal apology and blamed Navalny for manufacturing a scandal from nothing.

NK secret. In fall 2018, Russian officials secretly offered a nuclear power plant to North Korea, providing the country a new energy source, in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear and ballistic weapons. It’s not clear if the offer is still being negotiated or if it has affected discussions between DC and Pyongyang.

New cyberattacks. The Russian hackers responsible for many of the 2016 hacks, Fancy Bear, launched attacks last month against the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), described as “a prominent Washington, D.C. think tank heavy with ex-government officials.” CSIS is known for closely studying Russia’s influence, a feature that has put them “under consistent cyber-attack” according to their chief communications officer.

Arms control. On Friday, Trump announced the US has begun a 6-month process culminating in the official withdrawal from a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia. Trump claimed that Russia is violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, leaving the US at a disadvantage for remaining in compliance. The next day, Putin likewise announced Russia suspended its participation in the treaty and said Russia will start working on creating new missiles, including hypersonic ones.

  • Putin has been threatening to withdraw from the treaty for over a decade and repeatedly criticized its terms. It’s likely that he sees the dissolution of the INF treaty as a release from restrictive demands and perhaps a chance to negotiate a more favorable deal for Russia.

CONGRESS

Mnuchin’s role. House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Jackie Speier sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin seeking answers about a 2017 deal he made with an associate of Oleg Deripaska, with suspicions that it might have played a role in the Treasury’s decision to lift sanctions on Deripaska’s companies. Mnuchin co-owned a Hollywood film company with Ukrainian-born billionaire Leonid Blavatnik until 2017, when he divested from the company in order to be confirmed to his position in the Treasury Department. The exact details of the sale are unknown, though it was reported that he sold them to Blavatnik for up to $25 million. Bavatnik also is a major shareholder in Rusal, through a company co-owned with another sanctioned oligarch (Viktor Vekselberg), and one of his companies donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund.

  • “Blavatnik had a clear financial interest in the outcome of the Treasury action,” Speier wrote. She asks specific questions about the sale of the film company’s shares and whether Mnuchin sought ethics advice beforehand. Additionally, Speier questions whether Blavatnik tried to communicate with Mnuchin directly about the sanctions.
  • Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, also sent a letter to Mnuchin, stating: “We are seeking an explanation” on “potential conflicts of interest arising from [his] personal and professional relationships with… Len Blavatnik, a key beneficiary from your decision to delist Rusal.”

AG updates. The Senate released William Barr’s written responses to questions on Monday. Barr, who is Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, admitted to having occasional conversations with VP Mike Pence on matters including policy and personnel since spring 2017. The two also discussed Mueller’s investigation; Barr said he gave his “ views on such matters as Bob Mueller’s high integrity and various media reports.” He continued: “In these conversations, I did not provide legal advice, nor, to the best of my recollection, did he provide confidential information.” The next day, the Senate Judiciary Cmte. delayed a vote on Barr’s nomination until Feb. 7. The current acting-AG Matthew Whitaker is scheduled to be questioned about his oversight of Mueller’s probe on Feb. 8.

2020 interference. In a briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the heads of US Intelligence Agencies said Russia and China will interfere in the 2020 elections, using it “as an opportunity to advance their interests.” In a written assessment, they stated: “Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians. Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits — such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and- leak operations, or manipulating data — in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions and elections.”

  • When asked about the lack of interpreter notes from Trump’s meetings with Putin, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said he would talk to the committee in a closed session.
  • The Intel chiefs also told the Senate that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons and that ISIS is not defeated, contradicting two of Trump’s key foreign policy positions.

New members. Republican House leadership has named their members of important House committees, including the House Intelligence Committee, allowing them to begin their work. Rep. Schiff said their first order of business would be voting to release testimony transcripts of important witnesses, including Jared Kushner and Don Jr., to Mueller’s office.

Cohen update. Michael Cohen is set to testify in a closed-door session to the House Oversight Committee tentatively on February 7; to the House Intelligence Committee on February 8; to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 12.

Taxes. On February 7th, the House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hear proposals to force the release of the president’s and vice president’s tax returns.

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

Whitaker reports. Last Monday, the Justice Dept. held a press conference related to the Chinese company Huawei. Acting AG Matthew Whitaker confused many legal experts by taking the opportunity to comment on Mueller’s investigation and report that he’s been “fully briefed” on the probe. After stating he would not discuss an ongoing investigation, Whitaker continued to discuss it, saying he is “comfortable that the decisions that were made are going to be reviewed” and that he believes the investigation is “close to being completed.”

  • Sen. Coons called it “chilling” to hear Matt Whitaker say there would be a review of Mueller report. He continued: “I don’t have full confidence that the acting attorney general Whitaker intends to respect the independence of the special counsel and simply support and sustain“ the Mueller report.
  • Former solicitor general Neal Katyal: “It is absolutely unforgiveable [sic] that Whitaker is in any position to know anything about the Mueller investigation, let alone claim to be “reviewing” it. He has just about as much business doing that as a fox does in a henhouse. Unconstitutional, unwise, and will ultimately undo him”
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: “I’m not thrilled he’s been fully briefed because I don’t think he’s independent or reliable.” He added that he’s “not convinced” the probe is nearly completed. He said he thinks Whitaker may simply be delivering “administration talking points.”

OTHER

Clearance update. The White House security specialist who exposed the security clearance scandal, particularly involving Jared Kushner, was suspended without pay less than a week after the story was published by NBC News. Tricia Newbold told NBC that her supervisor, Carl Kline, approved the clearances of over 30 people, including Kushner, over the objections of career staff. Her suspension for failure to follow instructions and defiance of authority was reprisal for her whistleblowing, according to her lawyer,

  • Newbold has not faced any prior formal disciplinary action in her 18-year career. She did, however, file a discrimination complaint against Kline three months ago for allegedly moving security file to a new location too high and out of her reach. Newbold has a rare form of dwarfism. Two unidentified sources confirmed Kline moved the files out of her reach.