WTF Community

What We Learned in the Trump-Russia Investigation: Week of Mar 3 – 9, 2019


(Adrienne Cobb) #1

Too long; didn’t read (as short as possible)

Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison for bank and tax fraud; he has a second sentencing on March 13. The New York State Department of Financial Services opened an investigation into the insurance practices of the Trump Organization, issuing a broad subpoena to the organization’s insurance broker, Aon plc. The Guardian reported last week that Trump’s inauguration was given a combined $75,000 “from shell companies that masked the involvement of a foreign contributor or others with foreign ties.” A report by Bloomberg revealed that Trump was more involved in planning his inauguration than previously reported.

Attorney General William Barr decided not to recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation. On Monday, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, sent letters to 81 individuals and entities requesting a large variety of documents related to possible obstruction of justice, corruption, or abuse of power by President Trump.

Erik Prince acknowledged for the first time that he met at Trump Tower in August 2016 with Stephen Miller, George Nader, and Donald Trump Jr. He did not disclose the meeting to Congress. Cohen has testified privately before numerous congressional committees and turned over crucial documents, including documents that show Trump’s team made edits to Cohen’s 2017 false testimony. The House has requested information related to Trump’s communications with Putin.

The White House refused to comply with a request from the House Oversight Committee for information related to Jared Kushner’s security clearance. However, a White House source leaked relevant documents to the House. There was also a report that Trump had pressured then-chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn to give his daughter, Ivanka Trump, security clearance. Congressional Democrats called for a criminal investigation into Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, for allegedly making “false statements” during the application process for security clearance.

The House Ways and Means Committee is preparing to request Trump’s tax returns, perhaps as early as next week. House leaders sent a letter to the General Services Administration (GSA) demanding documents that are being withheld about the Trump administration’s decision to block the relocation of the FBI headquarters. House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, hired the former second-in-command prosecutor at SDNY’s organized crime unit to serve as the committee’s senior adviser and director of investigations.


MUELLER INVESTIGATION

Mueller: Manafort

Sentencing. As everyone likely knows, the former campaign chairman to President Trump was sentenced to 47 months in prison for bank and tax fraud. Prosecutors recommended Manafort be given at least 19 years in jail, as the sentencing guidelines state. However, Judge T.S. Ellis called the guidelines “excessive” and “out of whack” because Manafort had no prior convictions and lived “an otherwise blameless life.”

  • Many people have decried the sentence as too light. There are numerous factors that played into the 47 month sentence and the disparity between it and the sentences for other crimes. This article by the Atlantic gives a good overview of the systematic factors.
  • OPINION: I don’t have a problem with 4 years for bank and tax fraud. I have a problem with the harsher sentences for what seem to me to be crimes that are as bad if not lesser than fraud. While I disgree with Judge Ellis in many ways, I think the problem is larger than one judge. The entire justice system needs an overhaul. Instead of targeting Ellis with outrage, let’s focus on what we can do to change the system. Here’s a link to non-profits that are working to change the system.

Upcoming sentence. While the Virginia sentencing went fairly well for Manafort, the DC sentencing coming up on Wednesday is likely to be tougher. Judge Amy Berman Jackson could sentence him to an additional 10 years for conspiracy charges. Jackson sent Manafort to jail for witness tampering and ruled that he breached his plea agreement by lying to prosecutors. His history with Jackson has not been as friendly as it was with Ellis.

  • Keep in mind this story from a few weeks ago: The Manhattan DA is prepared to file criminal charges against Paul Manafort, charges that wouldn’t be susceptible to a presidential pardon.

Mueller: Stone

Gag order. Roger Stone is testing the limits of the gag order issued by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson banning him from making any public statements about Robert Mueller’s investigation. Judge Jackson gave. Stone until Monday to explain why he did not inform the court about his upcoming book, in which he attacks the special counsel as “crooked.” Stone’s lawyers claimed “it did not occur to counsel” to tell the judge about the book because it had gone to printing before the gag order was issued. Tuesday, the judge dismissed their reasoning and ordered the defense to submit a plan to come into compliance by next Monday. She further ordered Stone to submit communications about the book and information about his social media posts.

Discovery. Mueller’s office gave Roger Stone’s attorneys over 2.2 million pages of discovery materials, with over 4 terabytes of data still to come.

Mueller: Other

Mystery update. The unknown foreign-owned company fighting a grand jury subpoena from Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed a brief in an ongoing legal battle to get the Supreme Court to review, and possibly overturn, a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The lower court ruling held that the company must submit to the subpoena and will be assessed a large daily fine until it complies. In the new brief, “Country A,” which owns the mystery company, argued that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over foreign countries in criminal matters. Country A further warns that “the D.C. Circuit’s ruling will create a foreign-policy nightmare, guaranteeing reciprocal treatment for U.S. agencies and instrumentalities abroad.”

Troll factory. In the case against Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian company accused of funding the St. Petersburg troll farm, Mueller’s team argued against handing over sensitive materials in discovery. The gist of the prosecutor’s argument was that Russia could use discovery obtained through the US court system to gather intelligence on Mueller’s probe and other US investigative secrets. Concord’s lead attorney argued a defense cannot be mounted without the ability to at least discuss millions of “sensitive” documents. For now, this material is housed in the US with an independent counsel.

  • Mueller’s team has reason to be concerned, as “non-sensitive” documents turned over to Concord have already found their way online – in an altered state meant to discredit Mueller’s investigation.

RUSSIA NEWS

NK Summit. As reported in the last recap, the Trump administration asked the Kremlin for advice before meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. Following the summit, Russian state TV scorched Trump for being “weak” and praised Kim Jong Un for “forcing the head of the largest imperialist nation to negotiate with him as an equal.” The host of Russia’s main weekly news show opined that “Trump miraculously managed to worsen relations on all fronts… Nothing but failures at every turn… Trump, who calls himself the ‘master of the deal,’ left Vietnam empty-handed.”

  • In a feedback loop similar to that between the White House and Fox News, the Kremlin, Trump, and the GOP repeated the same talking points about the failure of the summit: blaming the Democrats and Michael Cohen.
    • Trump tweeted: “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important nuclear summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the ‘walk.’”
    • Russian state media: “Without a hint of conscience, Democrats scheduled these open hearings to dramatically complicate the life of Republican Trump, at the same time that he, at the other end of the world, tried to resolve the crisis around Pyongyang’s nuclear development.”

Troll strategy. Cybersecurity experts have noted that Russian trolls are attempting a different strategy, “promoting politically divisive messages through phony social media accounts instead of creating propaganda themselves.” John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye Inc. said: “Instead of creating content themselves, we see them amplifying content. Then it’s not necessarily inauthentic, and that creates an opportunity for them to hide behind somebody else.”

UK hack. The UK believes Russia’s GRU was behind a cyberattack on a British institute that aims to counter Russian fake news and disinformation. Security officials reportedly see the cyberattack as a response to Britain implicating the GRU in the Salisbury poisoning last year.

Money laundering. A group of investigative journalists revealed the existence of a $9 billion money-laundering operation called “the Troika Laundromat,” with links to politicians and Russia’s largest private investment bank, Troika Dialog. A collection of offshore shell companies was used to move billions of dollars from Russia to the west. Criminal and legitimate money was likely mixed together in the process, masking the original source and “washing” the criminal money. As Bill Browder summed up, “This is the pipe through which the proceeds of kleptocracy flow from Russia to the west.”

  • A more in-depth explainer can be found here and here.

CONGRESS

Erik Prince. Blackwater founder (and brother to Betsy Devos) Erik Prince acknowledged for the first time that he met at Trump Tower in August 2016 with Stephen Miller, George Nader, and Donald Trump Jr. Prince failed to disclose the meeting when interviewed by Congress in 2017. When asked about this, Prince suggested the transcript of his congressional appearance may have been wrong. Rep. Adam Schiff was asked about this and responded, “There’s nothing wrong with our transcript… He did not disclose that meeting to our committee.”

Pardon controversy. In Cohen’s public testimony before the House Oversight Committee, he stated under oath that he never sought a pardon from Trump. Last week, numerous media outlets published reports that Cohen’s former lawyer approached Trump’s lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, to inquire about the possibility of a pardon. Additionally, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis basically confirmed this to the WSJ, but said it was only after Trump’s team “dangled” the possibility first. Then, on Friday, Trump tweeted: “ he directly asked me for a pardon. I said NO. He lied again!”

  • Republicans have seized upon this discrepancy to refer Cohen to the DOJ for possible perjury charges.
  • Legal experts noted that by sending the above tweet, Trump made himself a key witness in both congressional and DOJ investigations into Cohen’s possible perjury. A CNN legal analyst said: “It is beyond ill-advised for the President to be tweeting about this. Republicans have demanded that DOJ conduct a perjury investigation. And Trump just identified himself as a key witness.”

Edits. Since his public testimony, Cohen has testified privately before numerous congressional committees and turned over crucial documents. On Wednesday, Cohen gave the House Intelligence Committee documents that reportedly show edits to his false 2017 written statement to congress. In his public testimony last month, Cohen said Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow made changes to his 2017 statement on Trump Tower Moscow, which was then reviewed by other Trump World lawyers like Abbe Lowell, Ivanka and Jared’s lawyer.

  • CNN legal analyst Susan Hennessey pointed out on Twitter: “This is significant regardless of the actual substance of the edits. Editing and returning a document communicates some approval that the edited document be submitted. If Trump knew the content was false, and it appears he did, then that is suborning perjury.”

Trump-Putin docs. Chairmen of the House Oversight, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs committees have demanded the White House and State Department turn over documents and witness interviews related to Trump’s communications with Putin, “including in-person meetings and telephone calls.” Any employees with knowledge of these communications are required to submit themselves for interview. The deadline for these requests is Friday, March 15. These letters follow a request for information sent Feb. 21st that the White House ignored.

  • Referring to reports that Trump went to great lengths to conceal notes created during Trump’s meetings with Putin, the chairmen wrote: “These allegations, if true, raise profound national security, counterintelligence, and foreign policy concerns, especially in light of Russia’s ongoing active measures campaign to improperly influence American elections.”

Security Clearance oversigh. The White House refused to comply with a request from the House Oversight Committee for information related to Jared Kushner’s security clearance, calling the demand “overly intrusive.” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said complying would “concede the Executive’s constitutional prerogatives” and “allow the Committee to jeopardize the individual privacy rights of current and former Executive Branch employees.” Cipollone agreed, though, to brief the committee on general White House security clearance processes.

  • Chairman Elijah Cummings responded in defense of the powers of oversight held by Congress and is considering his next step, which could possibly include issuing subpoenas.

Kushner’s clearance. Congressional Democrats called for a criminal investigation into Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, for allegedly making “false statements” during the application process for security clearance. In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, Reps. Ted Lieu and Don Beyer stated, “Mr. Kushner omitted contacts with more than one hundred foreign persons on his clearance forms – including the Russian Ambassador.” The congressmen also reference a recent report from the New York Times that President Trump “ordered” then-chief of staff John Kelly to grant Kushner a top-secret clearance, “overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials” and White House counsel Don McGahn.

  • Excerpt from the letter: “Lying on one’s SF-86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions, however, is a federal crime under 18 U.S. Code § 1001 punishable by up to five years in prison. It was previously reported that Mr. Kushner had to submit at least three separate addenda detailing over 100 omissions, including the infamous June 2016 meeting he attended in Trump Tower where Russian agents offered “dirt” on then-candidate Hillary Clinton. He also failed to report his meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak and the head of Russian-owned bank Vnesheconombank.”

Ivanka’s clearance. After Reps. Lieu and Beyer sent the letter requesting a criminal investigation into Jared Kushner, CNN published a report that President Trump had also pressured then-chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn to give his daughter, Ivanka Trump, security clearance. It is important to note that the president has the legal authority as commander in chief to decide who is given access to classified information. However, in “most instances” the decision is left up to the White House personnel security office based on FBI background checks.

  • When the personnel office determined Kushner should not receive a top-secret security clearance, the president allegedly “pushed Kelly and McGahn to make the decision on his daughter and son-in-law’s clearances so it did not appear as if he was tainting the process to favor his family… After both refused, Trump granted them their security clearances.”

Clearance leaks . Late last week, news broke that a White House source leaked documents related to Kushner’s and Ivanka’s security clearances to the House Oversight Committee. According to Axios, the documents “provide detailed information on the timeline for how Kushner’s and Trump’s security clearances were approved and who the people were involved in processing and the final decision.”

Judiciary request. On Monday, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, sent letters to 81 individuals and entities requesting a large variety of documents related to possible obstruction of justice, corruption, or abuse of power by President Trump. Recipients have two weeks to respond; failure to do so can result in legally-binding subpoenas.

  • Recipients included Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump; son-in-law Jared Kushner; Allen Weisselberg, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization; former attorney general Jeff Sessions; former communications director Hope Hicks; the Trump inaugural committee; former White House lawyer Don McGahn; and Cambridge Analytica. The full list can be found here. Note Ivanka Trump’s absence from the list. When questioned about it, Rep. Nadler said she could “quite conceivably” get a document request in the future.
  • Rep. Nadler: “Over the last several years, President Trump has evaded accountability for his near-daily attacks on our basic legal, ethical and constitutional rules and norms.”

Cooperators? Some of the individuals included in the House Judiciary Committee’s request for documents told the public whether they plan to comply… or not.

  • Longtime Trump confidant and chair of his inaugural committee, Tom Barrack, told CNBC he “will fully cooperate.” Barrack was asked to turn over documents related to numerous issues, including foreign governments “discussing, offering, or providing, or being solicited to discuss, offer, or provide, any present or emolument of any kind,” to Trump’s inaugural committee.
  • Republican strategist and former communications adviser, Michael Caputo, reportedly “informed the committee that he has no records responsive to their inquiries and he does not plan to testify in front of the panel.” Caputo told the Washington Post he has already begun to form a joint strategy to resist the Judiciary Committee’s request with four other Trump associates. “All four are reluctant to appear because they believe it’s a perjury trap designed to move toward impeachment of the president,” he said.
  • Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary, told Fox News that he plans to cooperate with the House’s probe. However, Spicer also stated that the committee’s request is a “fishing expedition” by Democrats.

Tax returns. The House Ways and Means Committee is preparing to request Trump’s tax returns, perhaps as early as next week. Rep. Bill Pascrell said they will seek 10 years of Trump’s personal tax returns but will not request his business filings at this time. A team of four attorneys have been assisting the committee in crafting an “air-tight” legal strategy with the knowledge that it will likely become a court battle. A 1924 provision in the tax code gives the chairmen of certain congressional committees the power to request any individuals’ tax return information. It must remain private, however, unless lawmakers vote to make it public.

  • Trump has reportedly made it clear to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that he is not to turn over Trump’s tax returns. Mnuchin has already stonewalled Democrats’ requests for information about Trump’s businesses. For example, Sen. Sherrod Brown has been trying since 2017 to get a list of the Trump family’s investors and business partners.

FBI HQ. House leaders sent a letter to the General Services Administration (GSA) demanding documents that are being withheld about the Trump administration’s decision to block the relocation of the FBI headquarters. Moving the headquarters would have allowed developers to acquire the current site and compete with the Trump International Hotel. The five chairs of House committees sent a request to the GSA in October 2018, but did not receive all the required documents. In the new follow up letter, the Democrats give a deadline of March 20, after which they state they “will be forced to consider alternative means to obtain compliance.”

  • The plan to relocate the FBI was in place before Trump took office. In fact, before he was elected, Trump “expressed interest in an earlier project that would have involved moving the FBI to a new site in suburban Maryland and selling its Pennsylvania Avenue location to a private developer.” Trump wanted to acquire the property for himself. After becoming president, this was out of the question so he blocked the longstanding plan. This decision will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more and accommodate thousands fewer employees.

New hire. House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, hired the former second-in-command prosecutor at SDNY’s organized crime unit to serve as the committee’s senior adviser and director of investigations. Daniel Goldman spent ten years in the Southern District of New York prosecuting Russian mob figures and obtaining convictions for money laundering, racketeering, and fraud. The hire shows Chairman Schiff is following through on his promise to focus on Donald Trump’s finances, specifically crossing Trump’s “red line” to focus on money laundering and financial leverage foreign entities may have over the president.

  • In an emailed statement, Goldman said: “Under Chairman Schiff’s leadership, we intend to run a professional investigation designed to uncover the facts and the truth.”

OTHER INVESTIGATIONS

More subpoenas. The New York State Department of Financial Services opened an investigation into the insurance practices of the Trump Organization, issuing a broad subpoena to the organization’s insurance broker, Aon plc. The Department of Financial Services has the ability to refer any illegal activity to prosecutors. The subpoena comes after Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, testified that President Trump inflated his assets to insurance companies.

  • According to the New York Times, the subpoena “seeks copies of all communications between Aon and Trump and the Trump Organization, as well as all internal Aon documents relating to Trump and the company.” In addition, regulators are interested in “compensation for the current and former Aon employees who handled the Trump Organization account, seeking information about their incentives, bonus payments or commissions. They are seeking similar contracts and agreements between Aon and Trump.”

Inaugural donations. The Guardian reported last week that Trump’s inauguration was given a combined $75,000 “from shell companies that masked the involvement of a foreign contributor or others with foreign ties.” At least one the contributors is not eligible to make political donations in the US. The three shell companies masked a wealthy Indian financier based in London; a lobbyist for the Taiwanese government & funded by Chinese investors; an Israeli real estate developer who claims to have a green card.

Trump’s involvement. A report by Bloomberg revealed that Trump was more involved in planning his inauguration than previously reported. The chairman of the inaugural committee, Tom Barrack, “would frequently call Trump so he could weigh in” when questions arose in planning meetings. According to multiple sources, Trump “wanted to know everything about the inauguration’s finances.” This is important because the White House has denied Trump’s involvement, claiming that the various federal investigations into the inauguration have nothing to do with Trump.

  • White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in December when asked about the investigations: “That doesn’t have anything to do with the president or the first lady. The biggest thing the president did, his engagement in the inauguration, was to come here and raise his hand and take the oath of office. The president was focused on the transition during that time and not on any of the planning for the inauguration.”
  • Federal prosecutors in New York and AGs in New Jersey and DC are investigating Trump’s inauguration. Additionally, Tom Barrack was contacted by the House Judiciary Committee for documents related to the inaugural committee’s work.

DOJ NEWS

Barr update. Attorney General William Barr decided not to recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation. A Department of Justice spokesman said he conferred with ethics officials who advised him a recusal was not necessary.

DOJ nomination. The Trump administration reportedly plans to nominate current US attorney for DC, Jessie Liu, to serve as US Associate Attorney General – the third-ranking DOJ official that oversees all civil litigation in the DOJ. Of concern, however, is who may be nominated to replace her as the head federal prosecutor in DC, the office that is involved in key aspects of Mueller’s investigation like the prosecution of Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Maria Butina, and Sam Patten.

  • Liu was part of Trump’s transition team, which was raised as a conflict of interest in her confirmation for her current role in DC. In the hearings, she also acknowledged that she had an in-person interview with Trump for the job, “a departure from standard practice.”

MISC. NEWS

Showered with presents. The State Department released its annual list of gifts given by foreign leaders to federal employees, including the Trump family and administration. The list shows that in 2017, foreign leaders gave Trump’s family over $140,000 in gifts. China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Arab states gifted the most lavishly. As the New York Times concluded, “flattery was a major theme of the gifts that Mr. Trump received.” When the first family receives a gift, they have to turn them over to the National Archives.

  • The two most expensive gifts were given by China’s president: an ornate calligraphy display and presentation box worth $14,400 and a porcelain dinnerware set that includes plates imprinted with the pink house at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort worth $16,250. Presents from the Saudis and Gulf Arab states accounted for at least $24,120.
  • It’s hard not to notice that the world leaders Trump has treated the worst also gave some of the least expensive gifts. For instance, Germany’s Merkel gave “Mont Blanc pens and paper worth $5,264; Macron a map from 1783 of the United States worth $1,100 and Trudeau a sandstone statue of a male lion wearing a crown valued at $450.”

Addition: Cindy Yang, the owner of a chain of Florida massage parlors, sold Chinese business executives access to Trump and his family at Mar-a-Lago. Yang first came to the public’s attention when one of the massage parlors she had founded was involved in a large sex trafficking bust that included Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Yang has posted many pictures of herself mingling with the Trump family and GOP leaders on her company’s website. Targeting Chinese power players, her company provides “access to presidential dinners and roundtables, White House events, photo opportunities and VIP activities including the ‘opportunity to interact with the president, the Minister of Commerce and other political figures.’”

“Guess who else has 100% known about this from the beginning?” tweeted Susan Hennessey, a Brookings Institution fellow who previously worked as a National Security Agency lawyer. “Chinese intelligence services.”

Finally, I’d like to point out that the Steele dossier included this interesting passage:

Trump associates did not fear “the negative media publicity surrounding alleged Russian interference”, because it distracted attention from his “business dealings in China and other emerging markets”, which involved “large bribes and kickbacks” that could be devastating if revealed.


About the What We Learned in the Trump-Russia Investigation category