Trump and Russia Probes Recap: Week of Feb 24 – Mar 2
Welcome to all the new readers! As you may know, writing about politics is not my day job, so I’m usually pressed for time to include all the stories I want to recap. Therefore, I usually add more throughout the day. For easy identification of new additions, I will make the text italicized. Thanks for reading!
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Tidbit. The former chief of staff to White House counsel Don McGahn took “exhaustive notes” about “Trump’s behavior in the West Wing” – notes that Mueller has in his possession. These could be key to any obstruction of justice charges.
Secret loan. A Nevada company that loaned Manafort $1 million in August 2017 is fighting Mueller to keep the ultimate source of the money secret. The
- Perhaps of interest: The former managing member of Woodlawn was Joey Rappa, who “was working on a movie with Andrew Intrater, an American financier who is a cousin of Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.” Intrater is also the CEO of a company that gave $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration and paid Cohen $500,000 for “consulting.”
Sentencing. Manafort’s lawyers submitted a sentencing memo in the Virginia-based case against him, arguing he should not be sent to jail because he isn’t at risk of re-offending and has already been “personally and financially punished.” However, I’d like to note that Manafort already re-offended after promising not to in the plea agreement with Mueller. Manafort is set to be sentenced in this case March 8 and in the DC case March 13.
Trial. On Friday, Mueller’s team submitted a court filing stating they believe they only need five to eight days to present their case against Roger Stone.
Gag order. Roger Stone has been tempting Judge Amy Berman to send him to jail by repeatedly breaking the gag order she issued following his threatening
Another win. Roger Stone’s associate, Andrew Miller, lost another court battle against Mueller last week. Miller was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury last year and refused to appear, resulting in a charge of civil contempt. His lawyers appealed the decision and argued that Mueller’s appointment was not valid and, due to the immense power of a special prosecutor, should have been at the discretion of the president with confirmation by the Senate. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mueller’s appointment is valid and upheld the contempt charges. This is the third time Mueller’s appointment has been approved by a court of law. Miller may attempt to take the case to the Supreme Court.
- Miller was originally subpoenaed for evidence on Roger Stone, WikiLeaks, Assange, Guccifer 2.0, and DCLeaks.
Flynn witness. Michael Flynn is reportedly going to be a star witness in trial of his ex-lobbying partner, Bijan Rafiekian, who was charged with working illegally for the Turkish government in the US. His trial is scheduled for July, but his lawyers are currently seeking “all statements, transcripts, notes, records and memoranda” from federal prosecutors that relate to anything Flynn said to “any agent, employee, representative or elected official” of the US government. This includes statements Flynn made to Mueller.
Asking advice. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Trump administration consulted the Kremlin before meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Vietnam. While the White House has not confirmed this, Lavrov claims the US sought advice on negotiations with North Korea and asked for the Russian perspective on the Hanoi summit. Russian officials reportedly responded that the US should offer “security guarantees” for disarmament and pushed for an “action for an action” approach. Just days after asking advice, Russian state TV listed US military facilities – including the Pentagon – Moscow will target with hypersonic missiles.
- There has been criticism of Trump for placing his trust in the word of adversaries over reports from his own intelligence agencies and advisers. For instance, former FBI acting director Andrew McCabe recounted an incident where Trump said he believed North Korea did not have the capability to launch intercontinental missiles because Putin told him so. Intelligence officials “responded that that was not consistent with any of the intelligence our government possesses. To which the president replied, ‘I don’t care. I believe Putin.’”
- In another example, Trump announced the US would suspend large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea following his first summit with Kim Jong-un. The decision came as a surprise to the South Koreans and to the Pentagon, but not to Putin. Prior to the first summit, Trump met with Putin at the 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg. The Russian leader reportedly gave Trump the idea to stop joint military exercises to “help moderate Kim Jong Un’s behavior.” The Kremlin was very pleased, congratulating itself: “Putin was right,” a spokesman said. “The only possible path is one of direct dialogue.”
- As you may know, Trump made the same announcement last week after the second summit with Kim Jong-un. This is because small scale joint exercises continued, but now those will be stopped as well.
Cyber op. According to US sources, US Cyber Command undertook an operation that blocked internet access to the Internet Research Agency, aka the Russian troll factory, during the 2018 midterms. The troll factory confirmed the attack, but claimed it only disabled half of its server’s hard drives and did not stop work entirely. The Pentagon has celebrated the operation as a success. Others aren’t as sure: Thomas Rid, a strategic-studies professor at Johns Hopkins University , said that “such an operation would be more of a pinprick that is more annoying than deterring in the long run.”
Cohen’s public hearing. As we all probably know, Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee last week. This won’t be a blow-by-blow of the entire hearing (but if you want that, here’s a link). Instead, I will pull out some of the highlights of the hearing. Keep in mind that Cohen could not testify about anything Mueller is investigating, so Russian collusion was largely not discussed in public.
- Perhaps the most legally dangerous testimony was about Trump’s violations of campaign finance laws. Cohen said Trump directed him to procure a home-equity loan to make a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. To back this up, Cohen even brought documentation: a check signed by Trump, dated August 1, 2017, for $35,000. There are 10 more checks that add up to the $130,000 reimbursement. Additionally, Cohen said Trump directed him to lie and tell the public Trump had no knowledge of the hush money payments.
- Cohen told the House committee that he heard Trump on the phone with Roger Stone days before the Democratic National Convention discussing Wikileaks. Stone reportedly told Trump he talked to Julian Assange about an upcoming “massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Cohen said Trump’s response was similar to “wouldn’t that be great.” Crucially, the timing of this call was after the DNC announced it had been hacked by Russia; Trump would have known of Russia’s involvement in any hacked Democratic emails.
- Cohen admitted to lying to Congress about the end of Trump Tower Moscow negotiations with Russia. In his 2017 testimony, Cohen said negotiations ended in June 2016 when in reality Cohen say it ended in June 2016. During those six months, Cohen estimated that Trump asked him for updates on negotiations “at least a half-dozen times.” While Trump never specifically told Cohen to lie, Cohen said Trump “in his way” indicated Cohen was supposed to hide the truth. Further, Cohen testified that “Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited” his 2017 statement to Congress about the Moscow project. When asked for specific names, Cohen said he wasn’t sure of everyone who reviewed and/or edited his statement, but he named Jay Sekulow and Abbe Lowell (Ivanka and Jared’s attorney).
- The goal in Cohen’s 2017 testimony, in which he lied, “was to stay on message.” He continued, “It’s just limit the relationship whatsoever with Russia. It was short. There’s no Russian contacts. There’s no Russian collusion. There’s no Russian deals. That’s the message. That’s the message that existed well before my need to come and testify.”
- Jay Sekulow denied editing Cohen’s 2017 statement: “Today’s testimony by Michael Cohen that attorneys for the President edited or changed his statement to Congress to alter the duration of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations is completely false,” Sekulow wrote to the Washington Post.
- Cohen hinted that there is an on-going Manhattan federal investigation involving Trump. Washington Post: Asked whether there was “any other wrongdoing or illegal act that you are aware of regarding Donald Trump” that had not been discussed at the hearing, Cohen responded, “Yes, and again, those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”
- Trump routinely deflated the value of his properties to reduce his tax bill and he bragged about receiving a $10 million tax refund in 2008 from the “stupid” government after slashing his employees’ wages. Cohen hasn’t seen any proof that Trump’s tax returns are under audit, which is the reason cited for Trump not releasing them to the public. “I asked for a copy of the audit so that I could use it in terms of my statements to the press. And I was never able to obtain one,” Cohen said. Furthermore, Cohen also said Trump hasn’t released his taxes because he feared he would face an audit and tax penalties as a result.
Cohen’s private testimony. In addition to his public testimony, Cohen also testified privately to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. Behind closed doors, Cohen was able to divulge more sensitive details, including those under investigation by Mueller and/or federal prosecutors. The Washington Post reported lawmakers in both houses “pressed Cohen this week on whether he had had any discussions about a possible pardon and, if so, when and with whom those conversations took place.” The answer to this question could potentially lead to obstruction of justice charges.
Gaetz. On Tuesday, the day before Cohen testified to the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz sent a tweet threatening to reveal Cohen’s alleged marital infidelity. The implication is that if Cohen testified at the hearing, information would be revealed that could damage his marriage. If Cohen didn’t testify, that information would stay secret. This clearly appears to be witness tampering. The Florida Bar opened an investigation into Gaetz. Then, at Cohen’s hearing, Gates made sure he was seen conferring with Republican members of the committee. After the hearing, a writer for The Atlantic overheard Gaetz on a telephone conversation with Trump, during which Gaetz allegedly said: “I was happy to do it for you. You just keep killing it.”
Upcoming investigations. Rep. Elijah Cummings, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, will seek to interview many of the people Cohen mentioned during his testimony, including Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Allen Weisselberg, Trump Organization CFO. Additionally, Rep. Nadler, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday (today) his committee will issue “document requests to over 60 different people and individuals from the White House to the Department of Justice, Donald Trump, Jr., Allen Weisselberg, to begin the investigations to present the case to the American people about obstruction of justice, corruption
- The former Trump Organization executive vice president, Barbara Res, said CFO Allen Weisselberg could reveal at least 5 unknown hush money payments. “Trump would do that kind of thing, and Allen would be the guy that would draw up the check.”
Hannity. While interviewing Trump Thursday night, Fox News personality Sean Hannity volunteered information about Cohen and campaign finance violations. Hannity told Trump that Cohen told him “at least a dozen times” that “he made the decision on the payments — and he didn’t tell you… He told me that personally.” Rep. David Cicilline, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN volunteering such first-hand information made Sean Hannity liable to be subpoenaed to testify. In court proceedings last year, it was revealed the Hannity was a client of Michael Cohen.
Clearance investigation. Rep. Cummings is also opening an investigation into security clearances of White House officials. In a letter to White House lawyers, Cummings gave White House lawyers until March 4 to submit all requested documents and schedule interviews for the identified witnesses. The decision came after the NYT reported that “Trump ordered his chief of staff to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance last year, overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer.”
- Abbe Lowell issued a denial: “Mr. Lowell was not aware of nor told of any request for or action by the President to be involved in the security clearance process. Again, officials affirmed at the time that the regular process occurred without any pressure.” Former director of the US Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub ‘translated’ Lowell’s statement to mean: “Kushner not only failed to tell him of Trump’s intervention but failed to do so even after Lowell publicly vouched for the lack of presidential intervention. If Kushner knew of Lowell’s statement (how could he not?), it says volumes about his character. ”
Whitaker perjury? Two weeks ago, The New York Times revealed that Trump asked former acting AG Matthew Whitaker if his ally, SDNY attorney Geoffrey Berman, could be put in charge of the investigation into Michael Cohen. However, when Whitaker testified before the House, he said Trump never pressured him about any of the various investigations connected to Trump. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the House Judiciary Committee “believes” it has evidence that Trump did indeed ask Whitaker to put Berman in charge, thus making Whitaker’s statement to
Campaign finance. Government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a report on Trump’s campaign finance-related crimes conducted as a candidate and during his first year in office. CREW concluded that Trump potentially committed eight offenses, seven of which are felonies. Five of these violations involved the “willful direction, receipt, and concealment of unlawful contributions to his” campaign. Two of the violations were felonies resulting from the
- Excerpt from the report: “It is also significant that Trump’s potential criminal conduct continued well into his presidency. The apparent criminal conspiracy to orchestrate and cover up the hush money payments continued at least through the end of 2017, and President Trump appears to have clearly committed at least one additional criminal act—the false statement on his public financial disclosure form—in June 2017. Were President Trump an ordinary citizen, unprotected by the Department of Justice’s policy of not seeking
indictmentof a sitting president, he could well be facing the prospect of imminent criminal charges.”
- Reminder: The Southern District of New York filed a sentencing memo in their case against Michael Cohen in which prosecutors indicated Trump participated in a conspiracy with Cohen to commit campaign finance fraud – a felony. In the memo, SDNY stated: “In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1 [Trump].”
- While we are not privy to the entire body of evidence SDNY has on Cohen and Trump, Lanny Davis released a tape last year of a conversation between the two men. On the recording, Trump discussed with Cohen the best way to buy the rights to Playboy Playmate Karen MacDougal’s story from AMI. The parent company of the National Enquirer had paid MacDougal $125,000 in a ‘catch-and-kill’ scheme to keep her story secret and her quiet about the affair with Trump.
- As NBC News laid out, in order to charge Trump with a crime rather than a civil violation, the prosecutors would need to prove intent. The fact that Trump tried to cover up the hush money payments “truly dooms him.” The repeated lies would not have been necessary had he made a mistake and simply forgotten to disclose the payments. Unfortunately, Cohen has so far refused to cooperate fully with the SDNY, perhaps to protect his father-in-law, meaning his testimony cannot be used to charge Trump.
Inaugural & Qatar. A Tennessee news outlet called the Daily Memphian published an interview with billionaire Franklin Haney, who is involved in the Manhattan US attorney’s office investigation into Trump’s inaugural committee. Haney gave the committee $1 million dollars while also seeking massive funding for a nuclear power plant in Alabama. Prosecutors are investigating whether any donors, including Haney, gave money in order to curry favor with the new administration. But that was already known. Haney divulged new details of Trump’s involvement in the deal: in early 2018, Trump reportedly brought a member of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund (QIA) to Haney’s table at Mar-a-Lago, praising the nuclear project and suggesting Qatar invest.
- Shortly after the introduction to the Qatari official, Haney said Michael Cohen “inserted himself” into the deal. Cohen “was treated like royalty with the Qataris because he was the president’s lawyer,” Haney added. According to the WSJ, Haney agreed to pay Cohen $10 million if he could get all the necessary funding for the project, which included $5 billion in loans from the US government. However, Haney said Cohen was going to receive $5 million for securing an investment from the Qataris and he wasn’t paying Cohen to lock down US government funding. Haney broke off the partnership with Cohen when the FBI raided his offices in April 2018 after paying him only $200,000.
QIAhas appeared numerous times in Trump World stories. For instance, the QIAfinanced the purchase of a 99 yearlease of Kushner’s sinking property 666 Fifth Avenue. Kushner owed $1.4 billion on the building, which was due this month. Luckily for him, Brookfield Properties acquired a 100% leasehold interest in the building for 99 years. The QIAjust so happens to be a major investor in Brookfield,but claims it had no idea its money was used to bail out Kushner.
QIAis also one of the top suspects in the case of the mystery company challenging Mueller’s grand jury subpoena.
- And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Qatari investor Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, head of an internal division of
QIA, attended a meeting in December 2016 at Trump Tower with Trump transition officials. He is pictured with Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen in the lobby. This meeting occurred shortly after the QIAand Glencore agreed to jointly acquire a 19.5 percent stake in Russian oil company Rosneft.
Wikileaks: Manning. Chelsea Manning revealed that she has been subpoenaed by the Eastern District of Virginia to testify before a grand jury. She states that she plans to fight it, “arguing that it would violate her constitutional rights to force her to appear.” It is unclear what the prosecutors wanted to ask Manning, but it may be related to the sealed indictment against Julian Assange in the EDVA.
- Additionally, an assistant United States attorney in the Eastern District told Manning’s lawyers ” in vague terms that prosecutors wanted to talk to her about her past statements.” NYT: During her court-martial, Ms. Manning delivered a lengthy statement about how she came to copy archives of secret documents and send them to WikiLeaks, including her online interactions with someone who was likely Mr. Assange.
WikiLeaks: House. David House, a former Wikileaks volunteer who was also personal friends with Manning, revealed that he was subpoenaed last May and cooperated with federal investigators in exchange for immunity. The grand jury probe into Wikileaks stretches back 9 years. He said prosecutors asked him about details of discussions in meetings with Assange. The Daily Beast stated the “prosecutors seemed particularly interested in the potential for collateral damage in some of Assange’s leaks.”
• “They showed me chat logs in which I was arguing vehemently with him about releasing documents that would leave people vulnerable and put people’s lives at risk,” said House.
Pay to play. In another instance of companies currying favor with Trump by frequenting his properties, a large payday loan trade group is holding its annual conference at Trump’s south Florida golf resort. Before Trump became president, the group met in California. In 2017, they moved the conference to Trump’s resort, corresponding with the intense lobbying by payday loan companies to undo Obama-era consumer protection rules. Just weeks ago, the CFPB announced it would roll back the rules, pending a 90-day comment period. Thus, it’s no coincidence that just like in 2017, this year the trade group is again booking out Trump properties.
Too long; didn’t read (shortest possible)
The former chief of staff to White House counsel Don McGahn took “exhaustive notes” about “Trump’s behavior in the West Wing” – notes that Mueller has in his possession. A Nevada company that loaned Manafort $1 million in August 2017 is fighting Mueller to keep the ultimate source of the money secret. Manafort’s lawyers submitted a sentencing memo in the Virginia-based case against him, arguing he should not be sent to jail because he isn’t at risk of re-offending. Mueller’s team submitted a court filing stating they believe they only need five to eight days to present their case against Roger Stone. Roger Stone has been tempting Judge Amy Berman to send him to jail by repeatedly breaking the gag order against him: he didn’t tell the judge about a book about to be released and posted an image to Instagram suggesting Mueller framed him. Roger Stone’s associate, Andrew Miller, lost another court battle against Mueller last week: The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mueller’s appointment is valid and upheld the contempt charges against Miller.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Trump administration consulted the Kremlin before meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. According to US sources, US Cyber Command undertook an operation that blocked internet access to the Internet Research Agency, aka the Russian troll factory, during the 2018 midterms. The troll factory confirmed the attack, but claimed it only disabled half of its server’s hard drives and did not stop work entirely.
Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee last week. Cohen said Trump directed him to lie and tell the public Trump had no knowledge of the hush money payments to Daniels and MacDougal. Cohen said Trump knew of the Wikileaks DNC email drop in advance. Cohen said Trump had him lie about negotiations on Trump Tower Moscow and Trump’s personal lawyers edited his original ‘lying’ statement to Congress. Cohen hinted that there is an on-going Manhattan federal investigation involving Trump. Trump routinely deflated the value of his properties to reduce his tax bill and may have lied about being under audit in order to hide his tax returns.
In private hearings, lawmakers in both houses “pressed Cohen this week on whether he had had any discussions about a possible pardon and, if so, when and with whom those conversations took place.” Rep. Gaetz may have committed witness tampering by tweeted a threat to Cohen before the hearing. The Florida Bar is investigating. The House Oversight Committee will seek interviews with many of the people Cohen mentioned during his testimony, including Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Allen Weisselberg, Trump Organization CFO. The House Judiciary Committee will issue document requests to over 60 different people and individuals from the White House to the Department of Justice, Donald Trump, Jr., and Allen Weisselberg. The House Oversight Committee is also opening an investigation into security clearances of White House officials following a report that Trump personally ordered Jared Kushner be given a top-secret security clearance last year, overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer.