Trump and Russia Probes Recap: Week of March 17 – 23
I’ll likely add some more stories later this morning. Those will be italicized for easy identification.
Everyone take a deep breath, it’s all going to be okay.
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Mueller: The Report
As everyone is probably aware, Mueller has finished his investigation and Attorney General Barr now has the final report. It will likely take days for Barr to review the report and decide what will be released. There is a great deal of speculation about what will and won’t be included. I’m not going to summarize it here because no one really knows for sure. This recap is about facts, not speculation. If you have any questions, please feel free to message me (using the contact form or on
- Sunday, AG William Barr submitted a summary of Mueller’s report to Congress. He stated Mueller’s report did not find Trump participated in collusion with
Russia,but does not exonerate him either. Barr further stated that Mueller did not make a decision on obstruction charges; instead, Barr and Rosenstein made the decision not to charge Trump. There are many issues with this letter, not least that we don’t know if we can trust Barr’s characterization of Mueller’s evidence. I wrote down my initial thoughts in a comment – note it is opinion, which is why I didn’t include it here.
- Late edition: A source with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Daily Beast that Mueller intended to make a case to Congress, believing that legislators, and not the DOJ, are “empowered to weigh the lawfulness of a president’s conduct.” I think this may explain why Mueller did not reach a conclusion on the obstruction of justice aspect of the investigation – I’ll make an exception on speculation here, just please note it is speculation until we see the full report. If, as Barr described, Mueller laid out the case for obstruction charges and against obstruction charges, it seems Mueller wanted the public and our representatives in congress to decide. Again, we don’t know until we see the full report!
Loan fight. Prosecutors believe Manafort may be trying to essentially get $1 million back from the $11 million he forfeited to the government in his sentence. A shell company called Woodlawn LLC was formed in August 2017, when Mueller was investigating Manafort. It now claims that it gave a loan to Manafort that year – a loan it now wants back from the forfeited money. However, Woodlawn won’t reveal where the money for in the loan came from or who owns the company. The prosecutor says more evidence collection “is necessary because the United States lacks information to be able to discern whether Woodlawn is a person other than the defendant,” the court filing said.
- There’s an interesting connection between Woodlawn and Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg and Michael Cohen. The manager of Woodlawn at one point was working on a movie with Andrew Intrater, an American financier who is a cousin of Vekselberg. Intrater
is chief executive officer of Columbus Nova, which paid Cohen over half a million dollars for “consulting.”
Prague trip? Michael Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague in 2016 returned to the spotlight last week when a Czech magazine published a piece about Russian hackers in Prague. In a long investigative article, it was reported that Czech counterintelligence services shut down two hacking networks the FSB was running in Prague for several years. Both the Steele dossier and McClatchy have alleged that Cohen went to Prague in the summer of 2016. Cohen, however, denied ever having been to Prague or the Czech Republic in his public testimony to
- The Steele dossier conveys a report from a source that Cohen went to Prague to meet with Russian government officials and the hackers they employed to discuss “how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers in Europe who had worked under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.” Note, Steele’s source stated Cohen went with three colleagues.
- McClatchy has published two reports about Cohen’s alleged trip. There are three main claims. First, that Mueller has evidence Cohen flew to Germany in August-September 2016 and then traveled to the Czech Republic – which would not have required a passport stamp. Second, investigators have evidence that a phone belonging to Cohen pinged cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016. Third, during the same time frame, Eastern European Intelligence agencies collected surveillance of a Russian conversation that included a remark about Cohen being in Prague at the time.
- Cohen himself called his own testimony into question. In November or December of 2016, Cohen reportedly told Mother Jones journalist David Corn that he had been to Prague – just not recently. From Corn’s notes, Cohen said: “I haven’t been to Prague in 14 years. I was in Prague for one afternoon 14 years ago.”
- [WARNING] Opinion: With so many reports, it’s hard to ignore the idea that someone in Trump’s circle went to Prague. We have a cell phone connected to Cohen in the area and we have a motive, provided by Steele, with the opportunity provided by the Czech report. McClatchy is a very respected outlet; it’s hard to imagine they’d publish two reports without being confident in the allegations. I believe they had reputable sources, but perhaps some details were off.
Search warrants. On Tuesday, a SDNY judge released hundreds of pages of redacted search warrants used in Michael Cohen’s case. From what wasn’t redacted, it was revealed Mueller began investigating Cohen at least as early as July 2017. After examining his emails, the FBI began to suspect Cohen was working as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, due to payments from various foreign entities. Most significantly, the 19-page section about an “illegal campaign contribution scheme” was redacted in full, indicating it is likely still an open investigation.
Mystery company. The Supreme Court met behind closed doors Friday to decide whether to take the appeal filed by a mystery company fighting a subpoena issued by Mueller’s grand jury. According to Marcy Wheeler, they may announce their decision today (Monday). If the Supreme Court denies the case, the lower court ruling will stand – meaning the company must continue to pay the large $50,000 daily fine until it complies with the subpoena. EDIT: Update Monday morning – SCOTUS will not consider overturning the appeal of the mystery company fighting a grand jury subpoena. This means the company will continue to be fined $50k a day until it complies with the subpoena.
- The company is wholly owned by an unnamed foreign state. It argues that it is immune from prosecution under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The lower court, however, did not agree and stated the US must be able to hold commercial enterprises operating within the states accountable.
- Finally, the most recent brief filed by the company’s lawyers told the justices the lower court ruling would “create chaos in the international community… all but guaranteeing that American agencies and instrumentalities will (despite their protestations) face criminal proceedings abroad.”
Butina update. The mysterious backer of Maria Butina, paying her legal bills was revealed to be an NGO partly funded by the Kremlin. The founder of the NGO, which is called Anti-Globalization Movement, is a 30 year old Russian lobbyist named Alexander Ionov with ties to the Kremlin. The NGO has ties to Russia’s far-right party and is funded in part by the Russian government. It’s aim is to, essentially, divide the West. Butina is expected to be sentenced and given credit for time served, then deported to Russia.
Undercover. A Russian journalist went undercover at the Russian troll factory in Saint Petersburg for two and a half months. She found “hundreds of mostly younger Russians working as paid trolls in rotating shifts.” There were numerous “departments,” including a “news division,” the “social media seeders,” and a group dedicated to producing visual memes known as “demotivators.” In her investigation, she determined what Mueller also concluded: The troll farm was a Kremlin project, run by “Putin’s chef” Evgeny Prigozhin.
Coming up. This week, Felix Sater is scheduled to testify publicly before the House Intelligence Cmte. on Wednesday. Thursday, Sater testifies to the House Judiciary Cmte. behind closed doors. Also Thursday, the House has scheduled a hearing on “Putin’s Playbook: The Kremlin’s Use of Oligarchs, Money
Non-compliance. The White House is refusing to cooperate with the request from House Democrats for a large variety of documents. Lead White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sent letters to the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight chairmen stating that
81 requests. Despite the White House’s refusal, House Judiciary Chairman Nadler said he was “encouraged by the responses” he received in response to the 81 individuals and entities his committee contacted weeks ago. The number of documents that have been already been received, or are to be sent, “already number in the tens of thousands.”
- I’m assembling a list of the status of all the people who received requests. Hopefully I will post it this week. We found out last week that Rick Gates is not cooperating due to his ongoing participation in investigations and Michael Flynn and his lobbying group are cooperating. Additionally, Steve Bannon and Hope Hicks are also cooperating.
But their emails? The House Oversight Committee uncovered evidence that many Trump appointees in the White House have been using personal emails and messaging accounts to conduct official business, without saving any copies – a violation of the Presidential Records Act and White House policy. Chairman Cummings gave a few examples. Most strikingly, Jared Kushner “has been using WhatsApp as a part of his official duties in the White House” and Ivanka Trump “continues to receive official emails on her personal email account and she does not forward the emails to her official account.”
- Additionally, former Deputy National Security Advisor, K.T. McFarland, and former White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, “conducted official business on their personal email accounts relating to transfer of sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.”
- A letter to White House counsel requests documents by April 4th and concludes: If you continue to withhold these documents from the Committee, we will be forced to consider alternative means to obtain compliance.
- This makes a total of seven members of Trump’s administration that are known to have used private email accounts for government business: Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Miller, Cohn, Bannon, McFarland,
Chinese influence. The Democratic heads of both the Senate and House committees on Intelligence and the Judiciary have requested the FBI “conduct criminal and counterintelligence investigations” into Li “Cindy” Yang, the founder of massage parlors involved in a high profile prostitution bust. Yang also ran a business that sold access to the president, his family, and his advisors, mainly to Chinese nationals. For this reason, Democrats called for an investigation into human trafficking, unlawful foreign lobbying, and campaign finance violations.
- The watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints with the FEC and the DOJ, asking for investigations into Yang and whether she operated a “straw donor” scheme to funnel illegal donations to Trump.
Trump’s bank. Deutsche Bank is expected to begin giving House committees “extensive internal documents and communications” about Trump next month. Last week, the New York Times published a long report on Deutsche Bank’s relationship with Trump, revealing the bank had given bankruptcy-ridden Trump $2 billion over two decades. Despite knowing that Trump inflated his net worth by over 380% and he worked with people connected to organized crime, certain executives determined it was worth the risk for largely unknown reasons.
- The report also supported Michael Cohen’s claim that Trump routinely overvalued his properties: when evaluating a $100 million loan Trump wanted to purchase the Doral Golf Resort and Spa, bankers determined he was overvaluing some real-estate assets by 70%.
- Trump took out a $48 million personal loan to pay back a loan from the investment banking division. The NYT stated, even by Wall Street standards, borrowing money from one part of a bank to pay off a loan from another division within the same bank was an extraordinary act of financial chutzpah.”
- An intriguing tidbit: “The bank recruited a handful of Goldman Sachs traders to lead a push into commercial real estate. One was Justin Kennedy, the son of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy… Over the next few years, the commercial real estate group, with Mr. Kennedy now in a senior role, kept lending to Mr. Trump, including to buy the General Motors building in Manhattan. Occasionally, Justice Kennedy stopped by Deutsche Bank’s offices to say hello to the team, executives recalled.”
Broidy case. ProPublica obtained a sealed search warrant the FBI used to raid the office of Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy last summer. The warrant indicates that the DOJ is investigating Broidy for conspiracy, money laundering, and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign entity. The scope of material was reportedly very broad, including “evidence related to a list of dozens of people, countries and corporate entities.” The UAE, George Nader, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Rick Gates, China, and Malaysian financier Jho Low were all on the list.
- See my recap from last week for more details on Jho Low and Broidy.
Emoluments. The attorneys general of Maryland and DC argued their case should not be dismissed against Trump for allegedly violating the emoluments clauses of the Constitution. The three judges on the panel in the Fourth Circuit case are all Republican appointees, including one installed by Trump himself. The judges appeared to be skeptical of the states’ argument; the senior jurist suggested the lawsuit sought to penalize Trump for being a successful business executive. While no ruling has been issued yet, it’s important to note the consequences of the Senate GOP’s aggressive installation of hardline conservative judges in the court system.
- Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin: Even if the courts deflect suits trying to stop the flow of foreign emoluments into the Trump coffers, Congress has every intention of picking up the slack. And remember that the Constitution gives Congress the power to approve or deny emoluments. At some point, the House might vote to disallow Trump’s receipt of foreign monies. Whether Congress could then seek to enforce its ruling (e.g. by demanding divestiture) in court is an open question.
Cambridge Analytica. Court-appointed administrators meant to work independently to run Cambridge Analytica after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy deliberately misled a judge to hide their links to
- A lawyer for the man suing Cambridge Analytica said:
“With their legal fees funded by Emerdata, the administrators have treated this as hostile litigation between themselves and Mr. Carroll, making their lack of independence abundantly clear.”
Self-rent. Trump has charged his own reelection campaign $1.3 million for rent and expenses since his inauguration. This essentially means Trump has transferred $1.3 million of donor money to his own pocket. It is not clear if charges can be brought against him, however, because FEC rules only require
Too long; didn’t read (as short as possible)
Mueller finished his investigation and gave his final report to Barr. Barr released a summary of Mueller’s report, but did not consult with Mueller in writing it. It is important we see the full report.
Prosecutors believe Manafort may be trying to get $1 million back from the $11 million he forfeited to the government by setting up a sham shell company. A judge released hundreds of pages of redacted search warrants used in Michael Cohen’s case, revealing the FBI suspected Cohen was working as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. 19 pages related to campaign finance violations were completely redacted. The Supreme Court met behind closed doors Friday to decide whether to take the appeal filed by a mystery company fighting a subpoena issued by Mueller’s grand jury.
Czech counterintelligence services shut down two hacking networks the FSB was running in Prague for several years. The mysterious backer of Maria Butina, paying her legal bills was revealed to be an NGO partly funded by the Kremlin.
Felix Sater is scheduled to testify publicly Wednesday. Thursday, the House has scheduled a hearing on “Putin’s Playbook: The Kremlin’s Use of Oligarchs, Money and Intelligence in 2016 and Beyond.” The White House is refusing to cooperate with the request from House Democrats for a large variety of documents, including those relating to Trump’s conversations with Putin. The House Judiciary Cmte. has nevertheless received “tens of thousands” of documents from witnesses.
The House Oversight Committee uncovered evidence that many Trump appointees in the White House have been using personal emails and messaging accounts to conduct official business, without saving any copies. This includes Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Steve Bannon, & K.T. McFarland. Deutsche Bank is expected to begin giving House committees “extensive internal documents and communications” about Trump next month. The DOJ is investigating Elliott Broidy for conspiracy, money laundering, and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign entity. The attorneys general of Maryland and DC argued their case should not be dismissed against Trump for allegedly violating the emoluments clauses of the Constitution.