Trump and Russia Probes Recap: Week of March 10 – 16
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Sentencing delay. Mueller’s office told the court that Michael Flynn’s cooperation with the special counsel’s investigation is complete. Flynn’s team, however, asked for an additional 90 days before their client is sentenced so he could continue to cooperate with other investigations. One of these is the prosecution of his former business partner, Bijan Rafiekian, who faces charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign government agent for Turkey. Mueller’s office recommended Flynn receive the “low end” of the zero to six months prison time sentencing guideline.
Sentencing. At his DC sentencing last week, Paul Manafort was sentenced to an additional 43 months of jail time for conspiracy and obstruction charges. Combined with the 47-month sentence from Virginia, Manafort will spend a little under 7 years in jail (due to the 9 months he’s already served), possibly less with good behavior. Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s comments were strikingly different from those made by Judge Ellis the week prior: “It is hard to overstate the number of lies and the amount of fraud and the amount of money involved,” she said. “There is no question that this defendant knew better and he knew what he was doing.”
- Manafort also struck a different tone from his earlier sentencing, attempting to appear more remorseful for his crimes. “I am sorry for what I have done and for all the activities that have gotten us here today,” Manafort said. Judge Jackson didn’t buy it, replying, “Saying I’m sorry I got caught is not an inspiring plea for leniency.”
- Throughout the trial, and especially in the final defense sentencing memo, Manafort brought up the ‘no Russian collusion’ refrain. Judge Jackson noticed and called the defense out, saying: “The ‘no collusion’ refrain that runs through the entire defense memorandum is unrelated to matters at hand. The ‘no collusion’ mantra is simply a non sequitur… The ‘no collusion’ mantra is also not accurate, because the investigation is still ongoing.” Further, the judge added the ‘no collusion’ assertions were “just one more thing that’s inconsistent with the notion of any genuine acceptance of responsibility.”
- Immediately after sentencing, Manafort’s attorney Kevin Downing addressed the media in front of the courthouse: “For anyone who was in the courtroom today, what I’m about to say will not be a surprise: Judge Jackson conceded that there was absolutely no evidence of any Russian collusion in this case.” Protestors outside yelled back, “liar, that’s not what she said.” Which is true, neither Judge Jackson nor Judge Ellis exonerated the Trump campaign of collusion. Both judges said the collusion question was not presented in Manafort’s two trials; there was no decision or ruling either way.
- After Manafort’s first sentencing, Trump had also taken the judge’s statement and twisted it inaccurately when he tweeted: “Both the Judge and the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia. But the Witch Hunt Hoax continues as you now add these statements to House & Senate Intelligence & Senator Burr. So bad for our Country!”
- Also immediately after Manafort’s sentencing, New York state charges against him were unsealed, revealing a Manhattan grand jury had indicted Manafort on 16 charges related to mortgage fraud and conspiracy. This will be further discussed in the “Other Investigations” section below.
Trump’s response. After Manafort’s sentencing, Trump was asked about the possibility of pardoning his former campaign manager. His response: “I have not even given it a thought as of this moment,” Trump said. “It’s not something that’s right now on my mind. I do feel
Manafort done? So was that the last we see of Manafort in Mueller’s probe? Not necessarily. Natasha Bertrand of the Atlantic interviewed former prosecutors who believe Mueller is likely to bring up Manafort again, potentially in additional charges for conspiracy with Russia. We know there is an important aspect of Manafort’s crimes that
- Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who specialized in organized crime: “My money is on Mueller including the Manafort efforts as part of the ‘case’ alleging Trump campaign collaboration with the Russians. The question then is, what is the best way to make that case? For myself, I believe a RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] indictment would be the appropriate vehicle to bring such a case: charge the campaign as the ‘racketeering enterprise’ and name Trump, Manafort and the rest of the gang as members of the enterprise … straight out of the mob prosecution playbook.”
- However: The former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer agreed that Mueller could bring a conspiracy case and name Manafort and others as unindicted co-conspirators—but if the evidence doesn’t rise to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, it will likely just be outlined in the report.
Trial set. Roger Stone appeared in court on Thursday to set a trial date: November 5, 2019. Judge Amy Berman Jackson did not discuss Stone’s gag order and whether the re-release of his book may violate it. She stated she will take it “under advisement,” but did not give an indication of when we can expect a decision. Prosecutors updated the court on discovery progress, saying over nine terabytes of data have been turned over to Stone.
- Other dates in Stone’s case were set: defense motion to dismiss the trial due April 12, government’s opposition due May 3, defense reply due May 17; defense motion to suppress evidence due May 10, government opposition due May 31, and defense reply due June 14.
- While Judge Jackson did not decide on the gag order issue, she still admonished the defense for not telling her about the upcoming book because it would have been “awkward”: “The last thing you should worry about is whether telling the court would be an uncomfortable experience… There is no exception for awkward.”
Gates update. Mueller’s office informed the judge in Rick Gates’ case that he is not yet ready to be sentenced because he is still cooperating in “several ongoing investigations.” For that reason, the next status report has been pushed back to no later than May 14th. As Trump’s campaign deputy chairman in 2016, Gates is in a position to know about key issues such as possible Russian collusion, softening of Russian sanctions, inaugural spending, and more. Remember, Gates was reportedly present when Manafort met Konstantin Kilimnik to hand over internal polling data.
Russian Mar-a-Lago. A Russian real estate investor wanted for tax fraud, Sergey Danilochkin, appeared in a YouTube video taken at Mar-a-Lago last year. Danilochkin fled Moscow in 2010 after being investigated in connection with the Magnitsky corruption scandal. Now, he lives in South Florida where he owns at least 50 residential properties. On the Mar-a-Lago video, he commented on how “interesting” it is that many Russian-speaking people were at the party.
- Side note: Who else was at this same party, called the Safari Night fundraiser? Li “Cindy” Yang, the former owner the massage parlor that offered prostitution services to clients like Robert Kraft. Yang’s second business involved selling Chinese clients access to President Trump and his advisers. One way she did this was by bringing them to Mar-a-Lago parties.
Webzilla. The Steele dossier reported that Webzilla, a company owned by Russian entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev, used “botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” Newly unsealed documents from Gubarev’s lawsuit against Buzzfeed provided more details: A report by a former F.B.I. cyberexpert suggests Russian agents used networks operated by Gubarev to start their hacking operation in 2016. The FBI expert did not go as far as the dossier, however; there is currently no evidence that Gubarev knowingly assisted the Russian hackers.
Cuts. The Trump administration is proposing a 10% cut to the European Deterrence Initiative, which serves a critical function countering Russian aggression in Europe. The initiative supports American and allied operations, including troops in the Baltics. The fund that’s designated to provide weapons to the Ukrainian military did not see its funding level altered, however.
Sanctions. Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska sued the U.S. Treasury Department and Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week in an effort to get the sanctions against him lifted. He argues the sanctions are based on unproven allegations and are unjustly harming his global business. Bloomberg reported: In his complaint, the magnate said he is “the latest victim” of “political infighting and ongoing reaction to Russia’s purported interference” with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
- As NYT reporter Kenneth Vogel pointed out, Deripaska’s lawyer leaves a lot of room in the denial that his client was involved in the 2016 election interference. From the lawsuit: “It appears to be the case that there is simply no evidence Deripaska is involved in the Russian Government’s activities nor in any activity satisfying the criteria.”
Cyber review. The head of US Cyber Command, Army General Paul Nakasone, testified before a House subcommittee that
Threat assessment. The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service is releasing a 70-page report on the threat of Russian intelligence services. Estonia warns that Russia will try to influence European parliamentary elections, set to begin in May, and will likely focus on larger EU states like Germany, France, and Italy. The goal will be to “secure as many seats as possible for pro-Russian or
- The report notes that Putin continues to focus on Belarus: “If anything unexpected should happen to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka personally or to his regime, there will be a great risk of swift military action by Russia to prevent Belarus from becoming a pro-Western democracy.”
Suspicious death. The autopsy of former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin was released last week. Lesin was found dead in a DC hotel room in 2015. Officials had ruled the death an accident, saying he died alone in his room due to drunken falls that resulted in blunt-force trauma to the head, neck, torso, upper and lower extremities. The newly released autopsy shows a curious finding, though: Lesin’s hyoid bone, in the neck, was fractured “at or near the time” of death.
- Last year, Buzzfeed News reported that Christopher Steele gave the FBI a report indicating Lesin was actually beaten to death by Putin’s thugs. Buzzfeed: Three other people, acting independently from Steele, said they also told the FBI that Lesin had been bludgeoned to death by enforcers working for the same oligarch named by Steele.
- It’s important to note that Lesin died the day before he was meant to give an interview to the Department of Justice on the inner workings of RT – Russian state media.
Hush money probe. The White House is refusing to comply with the House Oversight Committee’s request to interview two individuals regarding Trump’s failure to report the hush money payments as campaign expenditures. Rep. Cummings sought to interview former White House attorney Stefan Passantino and Trump’s personal lawyer, Sheri
- Rep. Cummings: “The Committee is bending over backwards to act in good faith, but the White House has refused to produce a single piece of paper or a single witness to date.”
- Stefan Passantino was hired by the Trump Organization after leaving the White House to “handle inquiries from the Democrat-led House.” Though he plans to recuse himself from any issues that conflict with the duties he performed at the White House, the large amount of overlap between Trump’s personal businesses and decisions made by the White House is likely to bring additional scrutiny to Passantino’s role.
Pardons. Rep. Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the House is “investigating reports that Trump and his legal team privately dangled pardons to obstruct investigations.” After making that statement, CNN reported that an attorney connected to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, reassured Michael Cohen in a 2018 email that Cohen could “sleep well tonight” because he had “friends in high places.” Cohen gave the email to Congress during his private testimony weeks ago. [Federal investigators requested these emails, see “Other investigations” section below]
- CNN: But the attorney who wrote those emails, Robert Costello, told CNN that Cohen’s interpretation of events is “utter nonsense.” Costello said that Cohen asked him to raise the issue of a pardon with Giuliani.
- The Daily Beast reported that Costello claimed “he was referencing a song by music star Garth Brooks in an attempt to comfort a ‘suicidal’ Cohen.”
- CNN: A source with knowledge of Cohen’s thinking at the time disputes Costello’s version of events and insists it was Costello who was pushing his relationship with Giuliani. Another source familiar with the emails said that Trump’s legal team was trying to keep Cohen in the fold as a way to keep him quiet, hinting that a pardon could be in the mix at some point.
Mueller report. Rep. Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he is open to calling Mueller to testify if the Justice Department “either attempts to conceal the Mueller report or the underlying evidence.”
Ivanka probe. The House Judiciary Committee is taking a subtle approach to investigating Ivanka Trump – not directly asking her directly for documents, but instead asking other individuals for documents related to the president’s daughter. The NYT reported that 52 of the 81 document requests included material related to Ivanka. For instance, Trump’s longtime personal assistant Rhona Graff was asked about foreign governments providing gifts and money to Ivanka or her businesses. Former attorney general Jeff Sessions was asked for documents related to loans or investments from Russians directed to Ivanka.
Whitaker returns. Former acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker returned to Congress last week to clarify the answers he gave at his first hearing. Rep. Jerrold Nadler told the media that Whitaker “did not deny” that he had spoken to Trump about the New York-based investigation into Trump and Cohen. Nadler also said Whitaker was involved in conversations about the possible firing of US attorneys. This means that it’s likely Trump told Whitaker he wanted an ally put in charge of SDNY and thus the case against Cohen.
Simona. On Monday, Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos testified privately before the Senate Intelligence Committee. She was reportedly asked about Joseph Mifsud – the London-based professor who employed both Simona and George. She told WaPo that more questions focused on her knowledge of Mifsud, rather than her husband’s activities.
Cohen perjury? Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, stated the committee will not open a new investigation into Michael Cohen to determine if he again lied to Congress. However, Cummings kept open the possibility if new evidence of perjury emerges.
NY Manafort charges. Just minutes after Manafort’s sentencing wrapped up, New York prosecutors unveiled 16 criminal charges related to mortgage fraud and conspiracy. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced a grand jury decided there was enough evidence to indict Manafort of falsifying business records to illegally obtain millions of dollars as part of the yearlong mortgage fraud scam. If convicted on all counts, Manafort could potentially face 8 to 25 years in prison. The president does not have the ability to pardon such state crimes.
- There is a significant amount of uncertainty around many of these charges, however, due to double jeopardy laws. It appears that up to 12 of the charges are for the same crimes and/or against the same victim (Lender #1) as Manafort was already convicted for at the federal level. This means that these charges can, possibly, be thrown out. While there are some exceptions to New York state’s double jeopardy rule, they do not seem to apply to Manafort’s charges. So, this is why some have begun to argue that D.A. Vance should not have filed these charges and should drop them to preserve the legitimacy of the other charges that will still be enough to prevent Manafort’s release in the case of a pardon.
- For a more thorough breakdown, Jed Shugerman wrote a great piece for Slate.
- Let’s not forget, either, that the hold out juror in Manafort’s Virginia trial managed to get 10 charges dropped… charges which could be brought back at the state level. Specifically, the option remains for California and Illinois prosecutors to file bank fraud charges against Manafort.
NY Trump probe. New York Attorney General Letitia James issued subpoenas to two banks for records relating to major Trump organization projects and Trump’s attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills. From Deutsche Bank, investigators requested loan applications, mortgages, and financing transactions related to the Trump International Hotel in Washington; the Trump National Doral outside Miami; and the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. The subpoena also lists the financial statements Trump gave Deutsche Bank in 2014 when he planned to bid on the Bills. From Investor Bank, investigators asked for records related to the Trump Park Avenue project it backed.
Pardon probe. Federal prosecutors in the Manhattan US attorney’s office requested Robert Costello’s communications with Michael Cohen last week. This was in part prompted copies of the emails Cohen gave to Congress, which was reported by CNN last week. [see “Congress” section above]
Malaysian funds? The Justice Department is investigating whether a Malaysian fugitive donated $100,000 to a Trump re-election fund called Trump Victory. The fugitive, Low Taek Jho, aka Jho Low, is wanted in Malaysia for embezzling billions of dollars from a Malaysian state fund. He was indicted by the DOJ last year for conspiring to launder illegal proceeds and paying millions in bribes.
- Jho Low has ties to many Trumpworld figures. He hired a legal team that included Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor; Marc Kasowitz, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers; and Bobby Burchfield, who advised Mr. Trump on ethics matters. According to the Wall Street Journal, Jho Low also met with Erik Prince last year to discuss the case in Hong Kong.
Stormy’s lawyer. The former attorney for Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, Keith Davidson, spoke to ABC News about the hush money payments and Michael Cohen. Davidson contradicted Trump’s claim that he didn’t violate campaign finance laws, saying the Access Hollywood tape went “hand in hand” with the hush money payments, which were “done for political reasons.” Davidson also contradicted Cohen’s claim, under oath, that he didn’t want a position in the White House.
Too long; didn’t read (as short as possible)
Flynn’s cooperation with the special counsel’s investigation is complete, but his sentencing is delayed for 90 days so he can continue to cooperate with other investigations. Paul Manafort was sentenced to an additional 43 months of jail time for conspiracy and obstruction charges, adding up to about 7 years in prison. Trump did not rule out the possibility of pardoning Manafort. Roger Stone’s trial date was set for Nov 5. Mueller’s office informed the judge in Rick Gates’ case that he is not yet ready to be sentenced because he is still cooperating in “several ongoing investigations.”
A Russian real estate investor wanted for tax fraud, Sergey Danilochkin, appeared in a YouTube video taken at Mar-a-Lago last year. The Trump administration is proposing a 10% cut to the European Deterrence Initiative, which serves a critical function countering Russian aggression in Europe. Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska sued the U.S. Treasury Department and Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week in an effort to get the sanctions against him lifted. Estonia warns that Russia will try to influence European parliamentary elections. The autopsy of former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin revealed he suffered a broken hyoid bone (in the neck) at or near the time of death, which may call into question the official ruling that his death was an accident.
The White House is refusing to comply with the House Oversight Committee’s request to interview two individuals regarding Trump’s failure to report the hush money payments as campaign expenditures. The House is investigating reports that Trump and his legal team privately dangled pardons to obstruct investigations. Cohen gave Congress an email in which an attorney connected to Rudy Giuliani reassured Cohen that he could “sleep well tonight” because he had “friends in high places.” Federal prosecutors also requested this and related emails.
Schiff said he is open to calling Mueller to testify if the Justice Department “either attempts to conceal the Mueller report or the underlying evidence.” 52 of the 81 document requests sent by the House Judiciary Committee included material related to Ivanka Trump. Former acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker returned to Congress and “did not deny” that he had spoken to Trump about the New York-based investigation into Trump and Cohen. Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos testified privately before the Senate Intelligence Committee. She was reportedly asked about Joseph Mifsud
New York prosecutors unveiled 16 criminal charges against Manafort related to mortgage fraud and conspiracy. The NY Attorney General issued subpoenas to two banks (Deutsche Bank & Investor Bank) for records relating to major Trump organization projects and Trump’s attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills. The Justice Department is investigating whether a Malaysian fugitive donated $100,000 to a Trump re-election fund called Trump Victory.