Trump and Russia Probes Recap: Week of Feb 17 – 23
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Final report. Despite media outlets claiming Mueller’s final report was to be submitted this week, a DOJ official has assured everyone that the report is, in fact, not expected yet. The Daily Beast put together a list of all the times the media hyped an upcoming Mueller report that never appeared. Bottom line: Only Mueller knows.
- The AP put together a great narrative of “the public Mueller report” as revealed through court records. It really is worth a read.
Pardon-proof. New York District Attorney Vance has assembled a variety of criminal charges against Paul Manafort that are ready to be quickly filed if Trump decides to pardon him. These state crimes are likely to include evasion of NY taxes and “violations of state laws requiring companies to keep accurate books and records.” Vance’s office has been conscious of double jeopardy laws which make prosecuting pardoned individuals more difficult.
Upcoming dates. Paul Manafort is scheduled to be sentenced on March 8 in the Virginia case against him. Then, a week later, Manafort will be sentenced in the DC case on March 13. In just the Virginia case alone, Manafort is facing up to 24 years in prison, with prosecutors recommending a minimum of 19.5 years.
Crosshair incident. Last Monday, Roger Stone posted a picture on Instagram of the judge presiding over his case, Amy Berman Jackson, with crosshairs beside her head. The text accompanying the image read in part: “Through legal trickery Deep State hitman Robert Mueller had guaranteed that my upcoming show trial is before Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointed Judge who dismissed the Benghazi charges against Hillary Clinton and incarcerated Paul Manafort prior to his conviction for any crime.” After widespread media attention for what has been perceived as an attack on a federal judge, Stone deleted the post and filed a ‘notice of apology’ with the court.
Crosshair hearing. In response to Roger Stone’s Instagram post, Judge Jackson ordered him to appear before the court on Thursday. Stone’s lawyers called the decision to put the image on his account “indefensible,” but ensured the judge that Stone had learned his lesson. Deciding that Stone “couldn’t keep his story straight on the stand,” Jackson increased the scope of the gag order against him; he cannot speak publicly about the case or its participants except to raise funds for his defense and maintain his innocence.
- To explain his actions, Stone took the stand. He said he “didn’t think they were crosshairs” on the photo and said he was “hurtfully sorry for [his] own stupidity.” However, Stone claimed he couldn’t remember who selected the image or even the names of all “five or six” of the volunteers who work for him.
- Jackson warned Stone this was his last chance and failure to abide by her order will result in jail until trial. “This is not baseball,” she said. “There will be no third chance. If you cannot abide by this, I will be forced to change your surroundings so you have no temptations.”
Nuclear deal. Numerous whistleblowers came forward to report that top Trump officials have continued to pursue a plan, originally spearheaded by Michael Flynn, to supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear power plants. Despite warnings and objections from experts, White House lawyers, and National Security Council (NSC) officials, the Trump administration has persisted. In fact, just two weeks ago Energy Secretary Rick Perry, NSC, and State Department representatives met with a dozen nuclear industry executives to discuss the deal. This meeting was reportedly organized by the same company that collaborated with Flynn.
- Additionally, “one of the nuclear companies, Westinghouse Electric, is owned by a firm that also bought a stake in a troubled Manhattan skyscraper owned by Jared Kushner’s family company.” The owner, Brookfield Business Partners, is funded in part by the Qatari Investment Authority (which is believed by many to be the mystery company fighting against Mueller’s grand jury subpoena). Kushner is about to depart on a tour of the Middle East ending in Saudi Arabia where he is set to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman again.
- The House Oversight Committee and House Intelligence Committee pledged to investigate these proposed deals. A report detailing the whistleblowers’ accounts stated: “Multiple whistleblowers came forward to warn about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation” of federal law.
McCabe interviewed. Former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe confirmed that he has been interview by Mueller. Appearing on The View, he said: “The information I have, including the memos that I wrote, I’ve given all that to the special counsel team.”
- In a different media appearance last week, McCabe said “it’s possible” Trump is a Russian asset. “I think that’s why we started our investigation, and I’m really anxious to see where (special counsel Robert) Mueller concludes that,” he added.
2020. According to data reviewed by Politico, a “wide-ranging” and “ongoing” disinformation campaign targeting Democratic 2020 front-runners is already underway. While the main drive of the propaganda appears to be undermining candidates like Harris, Warren, Sanders, and O’Rourke, many of the social media posts are divisive and attempt to sow discord and chaos within the Democratic party in general. Analysts have noted similarities to the 2016 efforts by Russia’s Internet Research Agency and to the efforts to influence the 2018 midterms. A state actor is most likely behind the coordinated propaganda, but so far no one has been able to conclusively say whether it is Russia, North Korea, Iran, China, or another adversary.
- An analyst who has been studying the evolution of these disinformation campaigns noted that the tactics being employed now are more sophisticated than those that began in 2016. Politico: “Some of the accounts are believed to be highly sophisticated synthetic accounts operated by people attempting to influence conversations, while others are coordinated in some way by actors who have identified real individuals already tweeting out a desired message. Tens of thousands of other accounts then work in concert to amplify the core group through mentions and retweets to drive what appears, on the surface, to be organic virality.”
More hacking. Last week, Microsoft announced the detection of another hacking attempt of think-tanks that have been critical of Putin and the Kremlin. Over 100 accounts were targeted belonging to employees of the German Council on Foreign Relations, the German Marshall Fund, and the Aspen Institute affiliates in Europe. According to Microsoft, the perpetrators were the Russian GRU unit known as Fancy Bear, which was also behind the 2016 DNC spear phishing attacks.
- This is the second cyber attack on think tanks in the past six months. Last August, Microsoft reported Russian hackers targeted two American think tanks and US Senators. The common element among the victims, again, was criticism of Russia.
Pledging. Every 2020 candidate has pledged not to knowingly use hacked or stolen material during the campaign… except Trump. According to The Daily Beast, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said: “We’re not in the business of taking pledges invented by the liberal online media.”
Missile threats. Last Wednesday, Vladimir Putin gave a state-of-the-union speech to Russia, during which “he made some of his most explicit threats ever.” Following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Putin blamed to US for starting an arms race and threatened to aim weapons at the US if American missiles are placed in Europe. He said, “Let them [the ruling class in the US] first calculate the range and speed of our advanced weapons systems, and then make decisions on the threats against our country.” Despite Trump pulling out of the INF treaty, Putin didn’t criticize him; instead, Putin blamed a secret “deep state” for holding Trump back and working against him.
- The INF treaty “prohibited land-based cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 311 miles and 3,420 miles. It did not cover air- or sea-launched weapons.” In 2014, the Obama administration “accused Russia of violating the treaty by deploying prohibited tactical nuclear weapons designed to intimidate Europe and the former Soviet states that have aligned with the West.” Russian officials maintain there is and has been no violation. But, “American officials say Moscow is all but openly deploying a prohibited missile that the West calls the SSC-8, a land-based cruise missile that could be threatening to European nations.”
RU treason. The prosecution of a former FSB cybersecurity officer and a Kaspersky Lab manager accused of treason has slowly been moving forward since their arrest shortly after the 2016 election. Russian officials allege the two men were compromised by US intelligence and ask for 20 years in prison when they are sentenced Feb. 26. There have been suggestions that their arrests were linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election, but the Kremlin denies the allegation. Some have also questioned whether the arrested individuals were anonymous sources in the Steele dossier.
Italian meddling. An Italian media outlet reported that a leader of the
- This story is included here because of the parallels with the alleged Trump-Russia collusion. It also adds to evidence of Putin’s meddling in the politics of Western nations. For instance, in France, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen received a $12.2 million load from a Russian bank. In Britain, Brexit financier Aaron Banks was offered at least three “potentially lucrative” business opportunities in Russian-owner gold or diamond mines.
Cohen update. Michael Cohen is set to testify this Wednesday, Feb. 27, before the House Oversight Committee in a public hearing (at 10 am eastern). The announcement came just hours after a federal judge agreed to delay Cohen’s deadline to report to jail by 60 days; he is now required to surrender on May 6.
- While Cohen will not talk about any Russia-related matters in public session, Cohen will reportedly answer questions regarding: Trump’s debts and payments related to efforts to influence the 2016 election, compliance with financial disclosure requirements and campaign finance and tax laws, possible conflicts of interests, business practices, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., the accuracy of the president’s public statements, the Trump Foundation, and Cohen’s allegations that Trump has tried to intimidate Cohen by threatening him and his family.
- The next day, Feb. 28, Cohen will give testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in a closed door session.
NRA probe. Reps. Ted Lieu and Kathleen Rice announced an investigation into the NRA’s ties to the Kremlin. In a letter to the NRA, they said they “are disturbed by the lack of transparency” the organization had demonstrated and suggested NRA officials are covering up evidence of the full extent of its relationship to Russia. As ABC News summed up, “Lieu and Rice ultimately questioned whether the Kremlin might have used the NRA to funnel foreign money into the U.S. election system.”
- The trip in question took place in
2015,when a high profile party of NRA and conservative members met with senior Kremlin officials in Moscow. The attendants included: “former NRA president David Keene, future NRA president Pete Brownell, NRA fundraiser Joe Gregory, NRA benefactor Dr. Arnold Goldschlager and his daughter Hilary, Outdoor Channel CEO Jim Liberatore, and prominent NRA advocate and Trump campaign surrogate David Clarke.” At the end of January 2019, after the trip received intense media attention, the NRA’s outside counsel tried to downplay the NRA’s official role, saying CEO Wayne LaPierre “was opposed to the trip” and didn’t want staff members to participate.
- Based on emails sent by NRA officials, ABC News reported that the organization was more involved in planning and financing the trip than they portrayed.
- For instance, ABC states “emails suggest that the NRA would pay for travel expenses for two delegation members and provide formal NRA “gifts” for the delegation to present to their Russian hosts” Further, a Facebook post tagging Butina, Clarke and Liberatore said: “The delegation of the world’s largest social organization for supporters of weapons, the National Rifle Association USA (The NRA) made an official visit to Moscow and met with supporters of the movement, Right to Arms.”
Nunes the mole? The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand conducted an interview with former Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. She tweeted a key statement that was cut from the printed interview: that McCabe believes Rep. Devin Nunes was (is?) acting as mole for Trump. McCabe reportedly said that when he presented his decision to open an investigation into Trump (after the Comey firing) to the Gang of Eight, Nunes “very quickly” informed the White House of the investigation. Nunes attended the meeting because he was the Chairman of the House Intelligence Cmte. at the time.
- Bertrand’s tweets:  We had to cut this for length, but McCabe told me that his guess is that the White House “immediately knew the steps I took after Jim got fired, and the cases I opened” because of Nunes. “When I was surprised to see Nunes at the briefing, I knew it would happen very quickly.”  And here is what McCabe says about this in the book: “Now that the Gang of Eight was a crowd of two dozen in the room, I thought, the chance of this not getting back to the president was basically zero. Then Devin Nunes walked in, and the chance was less than zero.”
- McCabe’s suspicions are supported by Nunes’ past behavior. For example, the House Ethics Committee investigated him in 2017 for making “unauthorized disclosures of classified information… during a press conference where he announced that intelligence agencies incidentally collected information about associates of President Trump.” Despite Nunes’ claims that the committee completely cleared him, insiders stated the panel “was never able to obtain or review the classified information at the heart of the inquiry,” leading to the closure of the investigation. In another breach, Nunes allegedly leaked Sen. Mark Warner’s text messages to Fox News, according to a complaint by watchdog Campaign for Accountability.
1990s Moscow. The Senate Intelligence Committee has been interviewing witnesses about Trump’s ties to American businessman, based in Moscow, David Geovanis. In the late 1990s, Trump was attempting to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, even going as far as to personally visit the proposed site himself. Geovanis organized the 1996 trip and showed him around Moscow, making introductions to key Russian officials. More recently, Geovanis worked for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
- One of the witnesses gave the Senate written testimony alleging that Geovanis may be key to the question of Russian kompromat (blackmail) on Trump. Two other witnesses told CNN the Senate showed them a picture of Geovanis with three scantily clad women posed in front of a portrait of Joseph Stalin. It’s unclear why the Senate has this photo or why it may be important.
Cohen update. On Tuesday, Feb. 26, Cohen is set to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
New info. Last month, Michael Cohen gave Manhattan federal prosecutors more information on “possible irregularities within the president’s family business and about a donor to the inaugural committee.” The donor is reportedly Imaad Zuberi, who gave $900,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee and wrote Cohen “a substantial check” after trying to hire him. A possible motivation for Cohen here is to build goodwill with the prosecutors and reduce his jail sentence.
Rosenstein’s replacement. Numerous outlets reported last week that Deputy Attorney General (DAG) Rod Rosenstein plans to leave the DOJ in mid-March, citing an unnamed Justice Dept. official. While Rosenstein has previously announced his intention to leave, the exact time frame is likely still fluid. Current deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, Jeffrey Rosen, is going to be nominated to take over Rosenstein’s job.
- There are many skeptics of Rosen’s nomination, as he has never worked in the Justice Dept. and has no prosecutorial experience. As PBS explained, “a background in
federalprosecution is important tofor the deputy attorney general in particular because some of the key duties of the position include authorizing searches and electronic surveillance.”
- Politico published a detailed piece by Julie Rodin Zebrak, an 18 year veteran of the DOJ, on how ill-suited for the job Rosen actually is, saying “the deputy role is widely known as the hardest job at DOJ…the deputy is known as the
- Zebrak continued: “What should give the Senate pause in evaluating his nomination is that the head of the Criminal Division, the head of the National Security Division, the director of the FBI, the administrator of the DEA and all of the U.S. attorneys will report directly to a potential DAG Rosen who, if confirmed, will lack any meaningful experience over the subject matter for which they are seeking his approval and guidance… In effect, Rosen will be learning how to fly a plane while actually flying the plane, but with one arm tied behind his back.”
- Finally, the key part of
Zebrak’spiece: “While Rosen may be capable and smart, placing someone with no institutional knowledge and without the experience related to DOJ’s core mission, represents yet another assault on the Justice Department as an institution.”
Backup plan. The Associated Press confirmed former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe’s report that after Comey’s firing, the FBI created a plan to protect evidence should Trump attempt to fire other senior officials and end the Russia investigation. AP: “The plan was crafted in the chaotic days after Comey was fired, when the FBI began investigating whether President Donald Trump had obstructed justice and whether he might be, wittingly or not, in league with the Russians.”
Whitaker’s perjury? It would appear that former acting AG Matthew Whitaker lied to Congress when he said Trump never pressured him about any of the various investigations surrounding the president. In a wide-ranging article by the New York Times, it was revealed that Trump asked Whitaker if his ally, SDNY attorney Geoffrey Berman, could be put in charge of the investigation into hush payments during the 2016 election. According to several sources, Whitaker told Trump he couldn’t do that because Berman already recused himself, leading Trump to become frustrated and disappointed with Whitaker’s “inability to…make the president’s many legal problems go away.”
- Trump denied the claims made in the NYT piece, saying “No, I don’t know who gave you that, that’s more fake news.” A DOJ spokeswoman also said the incident never occurred.
Maine’s Emoluments. A local Maine news outlet obtained documents that show former governor LePage spent at least $22,000 of Maine taxpayer money at Trump’s International Hotel in DC. According to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, “the spending levels at the Trump hotel were so high that they were flagged by a worker in the state controller’s office.” In addition to paying hundreds to thousands of dollars on rooms, LePage and his associates spent hundreds on expensive menu items at the hotel. The reason for the trips were simply to meet with Trump and/or lawmakers.
- The LePage administration refused to provide his travel records for over a year, despite continuing requests from the press. It wasn’t until LePage left office that the documents were released. From 2017 through part of 2019, LePage and his administration charged taxpayers “about $170,000 in out-of-state travel by LePage and staff members.”
Too long; didn’t read (shortest possible)
A DOJ official has assured everyone that Mueller’s report is not, in fact, expected this week. The NY District Attorney has assembled a variety of criminal charges against Paul Manafort that are ready to be quickly filed if Trump decides to pardon him. Manafort is scheduled to be sentenced on March 8 in the Virginia case against him. Then, a week later, Manafort will be sentenced in the DC case on March 13. Roger Stone posted a picture on Instagram of the judge presiding over his case, Amy Berman Jackson, with crosshairs beside her head. In response, the judge ordered him to court to explain himself; she expanded the gag order, prohibiting Stone from speaking publicly about the case or its participants except to raise funds for his defense and maintain his innocence.
Numerous whistleblowers came forward to report that top Trump officials have continued to pursue a plan, originally spearheaded by Michael Flynn, to supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear power plants. One of the nuclear companies is owned by a firm that also bought a stake in a troubled Manhattan skyscraper owned by Jared Kushner’s family company. Former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe confirmed that he has been interview by Mueller.
A “wide-ranging” and “ongoing” disinformation campaign targeting Democratic 2020 front-runners is already underway. Microsoft announced the detection of another hacking attempt of think-tanks that have been critical of Putin and the Kremlin. Every 2020 candidate has pledged not to knowingly use hacked or stolen material during the campaign… except Trump. In a speech last week, Putin blamed to US for starting an arms race and threatened to aim weapons at the US if American missiles are placed in Europe. Despite Trump pulling out of the INF treaty, Putin didn’t criticize him; instead, Putin blamed a secret “deep state” for holding Trump back and working against him.
Michael Cohen is set to testify this Wednesday, Feb. 27, before the House Oversight Committee in a public hearing (at 10 am eastern). The announcement came just hours after a federal judge agreed to delay Cohen’s deadline to report to jail by 60 days. Reps. Ted Lieu and Kathleen Rice announced an investigation into the NRA’s ties to the Kremlin.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has been interviewing witnesses about Trump’s ties to American businessman, based in Moscow, David Geovanis. Geovanis organized Trump’s 1996 trip to Moscow and showed him around the proposed site of Trump Tower Moscow. Last month, Michael Cohen gave Manhattan federal prosecutors more information on “possible irregularities within the president’s family business and about a donor to the inaugural committee.” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein plans to leave the DOJ in mid-March; his replacement is deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, Jeffrey Rosen. Trump asked Whitaker if his ally, SDNY attorney Geoffrey Berman, could be put in charge of the investigation into hush payments during the 2016 election.