Trump and Russia Probes Recap: Week of Mar 24 – Apr 1
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Mueller: The Report
As you all probably know, we still don’t have the Mueller report. What we have is a letter from AG William Barr that is a summary, but also not a summary according to his second letter. I’m not going to dedicate much space to this section because we should not make up our minds about Mueller’s investigation and findings without reading *the actual Mueller report.* All the information we have derives either from Barr’s three letters to Congress and/or from anonymous sources who claim to have knowledge of Mueller’s report. I’ll focus on Barr’s letters here:
- Barr’s first letter to Congress, was just a notification that he received Mueller’s report.
- The second letter, released last Sunday, can be read here. In it, Barr purports to “summarize the principal conclusions” of the report “and the results of [Mueller’s] investigation.” This consisted of three parts: the Russians definitively interfered in the 2016 election; the Trump campaign did not conspire or coordinate with Russia; Mueller laid out evidence for and evidence against charges of obstruction of justice for Trump. Strangely, Deputy AG Rosenstein and Barr independently made a decision not to charge Trump with obstruction.
- The problem with Barr’s decision not to charge Trump is that it was not his decision to make – it was Congress’s decision. Legal experts also question the rationale Barr provided, which was that the “underlying crime related to Russian election interference” had to be present in order to press obstruction charges. A former federal prosecutor told the Washington Post that “the existence of an underlying crime is not an essential element of the crime of obstruction. End of story.”
- Barr’s decision is also suspect in light of his past statements on obstruction of justice. Last year, Barr wrote an unsolicited memo to the DOJ in which he called Mueller’s investigation “fatally misconceived” and argued that as president, Trump was within his rights to ask Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn and later fire Comey. Trump then nominated Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as AG. At Barr’s confirmation hearing, Barr said at least three times that a person who committed the same actions as Trump would be committing a crime. He stated it’s obstruction of justice for a president to dangle pardons, for a person to attempt to persuade another to commit perjury, and for a president to tell a witness not to cooperate with investigators.
- Finally, I’d like to point out the definition of “coordination” Barr cites is very specific: an “agreement – tacit or express – between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference.” That means there could have been collusion with non-government Russian individuals/entities, non-Russian entities (governmental or otherwise), and/or collusion with the Russian government on matters not related to the election.
- Barr sent a third letter to Congress on Friday, stating that he is in the progress of redacting Mueller’s report and expects it to be available to Congress and the public “by mid-April, if not sooner.” This means it will not meet the Democrat’s deadline for the report, April 2nd. Barr further stated that the report is “nearly 400 pages long,” not counting the tables and appendices. Oddly, he also claimed his second “summary” letter was not really a summary after all. Of course, this was after the media spent a week casting Barr’s claims as summarizing – and this accurately representing – Mueller’s findings (more here). The letter concludes with Barr’s confirmation to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1st and the House Judiciary Committee on May 2nd.
- What is Barr redacting? He claims Mueller is assisting him to redact: details of ongoing investigations, information about the grand jury proceedings, information about intelligence sources and methods, and material related to “peripheral third parties.” It is unclear why Barr is redacting this information for the version to be sent to Congress, as certain congressional committees have the clearance to view it. The one exception is details about the grand jury, but with a court order this information can also be shown to congressional committees. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is petitioning the court to authorize the public release of the grand jury information.
- Chairman of the House Judiciary Cmte. Jerrold Nadler: “There is ample precedent for the Department of Justice sharing all of the information that the Attorney General proposes to redact to the appropriate congressional committees,” Nadler wrote. “Again, Congress must see the full report.”
- For more discussion of Barr’s letters, and specifically what is wrong with them, see Renato Mariotti’s article for Politico here. For a fantastic legal discussion of the obstruction of justice decision, read this piece on Lawfare.
To further illustrate why it’s important to wait until we see the full report, consider how many of Mueller’s words were used in Barr’s second “summary” letter. Let’s say “just under 400 pages” means 380 pages. If double-spaced, this means Barr showed us (through quotes) only 0.1% of the actual Mueller report. If single-spaced, Barr showed us 0.05% of the Mueller report.
Congress’ actions in relation to the report are in the “Congress” section below.
Judge Ellis. Ethics complaints against the judge who presided over Manafort’s Virginia trial, Judge T.S. Ellis III, were dismissed at the end of last month. According to documents viewed by Buzzfeed News, the complaints “alleged that Ellis violated judicial ethics rules by losing his temper, accusing prosecutors of misconduct, making inappropriate comments in front of the jury, and engaging in partisanship by being hostile toward the government.” The judge who dismissed the complaints wrote that though “one might say that the judge may have been injudicious in his tone or choice of words,” Ellis’ comments did not constitute misconduct.
Mystery company. The Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal brought by an unknown foreign-owned company seeking to overturn a subpoena and associated contempt charges. The company has been fighting the subpoena from Mueller’s grand jury since last fall. The lower court contempt ruling, which now stands, placed a $50k a day fine on the company until it hands over information to the grand jury. The total amount of fines is growing beyond $3 million.
- The US Attorney’s office in DC is taking over the case. An assistant U.S. attorney stated the grand jury is “continuing robustly.”
- The DC district court decided yesterday to unseal additional documents in the case, redacted to protect information about the grand jury proceedings. The judge ruled, however, that the government was not required to reveal the identity of the unknown company.
Sater lawsuit. A lawsuit has been filed against Felix Sater, claiming that he tried to use the Trump Tower Moscow project to launder money stolen from a Kazakh bank. Sater partnered with a Kazakh businessman whose father-in-law stole $4 billion from BTA bank 10 years ago. The lawsuit alleges Sater laundered the money through other means in the US when the Trump Tower Moscow project fell through. Sater released a statement saying the bank’s claims are “baseless” and only a “sleazy attempt to avoid paying” contractually owed money to his company.
Pardon plea. In a little-noticed move, George Papadopoulos’ lawyer told the Washington Post that she already submitted an application for a presidential pardon for her client. Papadopoulos told the press that he is considering withdrawing his guilty plea, despite the fact that he admitted in court to lying to the FBI.
- Yahoo News: Papadopoulos now acknowledges that even his own lawyers at the time “just never really bought into my story” that he was set up as part of a deep state conspiracy and urged him to “just plead out” in order to avoid the time and expense of fighting the government’s case against him.
Butina sentencing. Maria Butina’s sentencing has been set for April 26. The DOJ has asked the court to deport her back to Russia after her sentence is complete. It is possible that she will get credit for time served and be deported immediately. As part of her plea, she has agreed not to return to the US for 10 years.
- We also learned that Mueller’s team “briefly questioned” Butina in January, “but she did not appear to be central to their investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.”
FBI fail. According to an AP investigation, the FBI did not notify “scores” of US officials that Russian hackers were attempting to access their personal Gmail accounts, despite knowing for at least a year that the officials were being targeted. Out of 80 individuals targeted by Russian hacker group Fancy Bear, only two were alerted by the FBI. According to the report, “even senior policymakers discovered they were targets only when the AP told them, a situation some described as bizarre and dispiriting.”
Russia’s reaction. Following the release of Barr’s second “summary” letter, the Kremlin called on Washington to formally recognize that there was no collusion and expressed Putin’s interest in improving ties with the US now that Mueller is done. Russia ignored the part of Barr’s letter stating Mueller found evidence that it interfered in the US election; the Kremlin repeated its denial. The Kremlin’s spokesman stated about improving relations: “In this case, the ball is absolutely in their court. It was given to Trump in Helsinki.”
Golan Heights. Last week, Trump recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory, a decision that will likely have implications for US relations with Russia. Israel seized the Golan Height region from Syria in 1967 and officially annexed it in 1981. As diplomats and foreign policy experts quickly pointed out, Trump’s decision “undercuts five years of NATO condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.” The Kremlin responded by having a spokesman condemn Trump’s move, but arguing through state TV that the US can no longer speak on their right to Crimea.
- Axios: Three European ambassadors (from France, Germany, and the UK) “told the White House and State Department officials that Trump’s move could legitimize the Russian annexation of Crimea. The U.S. officials answered that the Golan and Crimea were totally different cases. They said the Golan was captured by Israel during a war that was forced upon it, while Russia was not in a state of war with Ukraine when it invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014.”
- Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “After Trump’s Golan statement, any demagoguery about Crimea is groundless.”
- Additionally, two Russian diplomats reportedly told Al-Monitor that Trump’s decision positively affects Russia’s position as a world leader: “Trump’s move gives Moscow an opportunity to both take another hit at his ‘deal of the century’ and consolidate Russia’s own image of a more just, consistent and law-abiding mediator in the region.”
Subpoena the report. The House Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Wednesday to authorize Chairman Nadler to issue subpoenas to obtain the full Mueller report. It is not clear when the subpoenas will be issued, however. Democrats set an April 2 deadline for Barr to release the report to
- The House Judiciary will also authorize subpoenas for Don McGahn, Steve Bannon, Hope Hicks, Reince Priebus and Ann Donaldson.
Schiff. Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee called on Chairman Adam Schiff to resign from his post last week for, they claim, falsely accusing Trump of collusion. Last week, Schiff angrily responded, arguing the Republicans are ignoring the evidence that’s already public knowledge. His entire statement can be read online, but it really must be seen and heard to get the full impact. Watch the video in the article here.
Clearance subpoena. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee released a summary of a private interview with a whistleblower inside the White House’s Personnel Security Office. Tricia Newbold told the panel that she and other career staffers denied security clearances for 25 Trump administration officials, most of which were overturned by senior Trump officials. Chairman Cummings sent a letter to White House counsel announcing his committee will begin authorizing subpoenas Tuesday, beginning with the person in charge of the WH Personnel Security Office, Carl Kline.
- In two instances, background checks revealed “significant disqualifying factors” including “foreign influence and outside activities.” Yet the Director of the WH Personnel Security Office, Carl Kline, granted the clearances anyway.
- Newbold also stated the WH Security Office stopped conducting credit checks on applicants, which prevents the office from identifying “if employees of the president could be susceptible to blackmail.” She told the committee she came forward because the current security clearance procedure is a risk to national security.
- Newbold claimed she was punished by Kline for speaking out about the clearances.
- The information previously requested from Kline included any documents related to the security clearances of Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Michael Flynn, John Bolton, John McEntee, K.T. McFarland, Robert Porter, and others.
GOP response. The Republican members of the House Oversight Committee released their own memo on Newbold’s private interview, in which they minimized her concerns and countered her arguments. They made the curious claim that because Kline “only” overturned “five clearance adjudications with very serious concerns,” it is no big deal. Finally, the memo called Chairman Cumming’s investigation into WH clearances “partisan” and said he made a “reckless decision to release cherry-picked excerpts.”
Editing testimony. You may remember Michael Cohen testifying that Trump attorneys edited his original 2017 testimony that was proven to be false. He then gave the House Oversight Committee documents that he claimed proved that his 2017 testimony was edited. Last week, Vanity Fair reviewed one of those documents: an email exchange between Cohen and his then-attorney, discussing changes to the testimony that Ivanka and Jared’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, asked them to make. The purpose of the requested changes was to distance Ivanka from the Trump Tower Moscow deal. Ivanka has told the press that she knew “literally almost nothing” about the deal.
Inflated value. Both Congressional and New York state investigators are using Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House to guide their investigation(s) into Trump’s real estate, businesses, and finances. In a detailed piece on Trump’s manipulation of his net worth and assets, the Washington Post published documents Trump sent to lenders called “Statements of Financial Condition.” In these, he omitted properties that carried large debts, overvalued assets, and lied about key numbers. The House Oversight Committee has requested 10 years of these statements.
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questions led to some particularly important responses, like who could prove Trump inflated his assets for insurance and deflated them for tax purposes: “Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman, and Matthew Calamari,” Cohen answered.
Kushner. Jared Kushner was seen leaving the Capitol Hill after a closed-door interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is the second time Kushner is known to have been interviewed by the panel.
The list. Depending on how you count them, there are between 12-18 investigations that involve Trump. According to the New York Times, at least six of them are being conducted by the US attorney’s office in Manhattan (SDNY). These include the investigations into campaign finance violations and Trump’s inaugural committee. In addition to SDNY, Mueller passed on parts of his probe to the Brooklyn, DC, and EDVA US attorney’s offices.
- SDNY is handling “some of the most sensitive spinoffs” from Mueller. Prosecutors have already implicated Trump in the hush money investigation, saying he directed Cohen to violate campaign finance laws. According to the NYT, prosecutors could charge Trump after he leaves office. The investigation into the inaugural committee includes whether it made false FEC filings and “received illegal donations from foreign nationals.” The SDNY is also thinking about charging an officer of a bank Manafort defrauded and looking into three law firms that worked with Manafort.
- Brooklyn attorney’s office is known to be examining donations to Trump’s inaugural committee and the chairman, Thomas Barrack’s, connections to the Middle East. The DC attorney’s office is taking over Roger Stone’s prosecution, the case against Concord Management, and the mystery company case.
- California federal investigators out of LA have joined the DOJ in investigating Elliott Broidy, a top Trump fundraiser involved in the inauguration.
- NY state authorities are looking into a mortgage fraud case against Manafort, civil inquiries into the Trump Organization’s insurance practices and real estate practices, and the Trump Foundation’s tax law violations.
Psy Group. A new article by Scott Stedman revealed more details about the parent company of Psy Group and called into question whether Joel Zamel is the ultimate owner. Stedman reported that days after Zamel visited Russia in search of funding, “the ownership of Psy Group changed to a Russian-connected shell company in the British Virgin Islands” called
- According to the NYT, George Nader maintains he paid Zamel $2 million after the election for helping influence the 2016 election via social media manipulation. Zamel denies the payment was for this purpose.
- You may remember Erik Prince attended the August 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Zamel and Nader, as well as Trump Jr. Mueller questioned Prince and searched his electronic devices. Stedman reported last week that two former business partners of Prince stated federal investigators in DC have an open investigation into Prince.
Too long; didn’t read (as short as possible)
In Barr’s second letter to Congress, Barr independently made a decision not to charge Trump with obstruction, despite it being Congress’s decision to make. In Barr’s third letter to Congress, he stated the report is just under 400 pages long and he is in the process of redacting it for release mid-April. He also claimed his second “summary” letter was not really a summary after all.
Ethics complaints against the judge who presided over Manafort’s Virginia trial, Judge T.S. Ellis III, for criticizing prosecutors before the jury were dismissed. The Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal brought by an unknown foreign-owned company; the DC district court decided yesterday to unseal additional documents in the case. A lawsuit has been filed against Felix Sater, claiming that he tried to use the Trump Tower Moscow project to launder money stolen from a Kazakh bank. George Papadopoulos submitted an application for a presidential pardon and is considering withdrawing his guilty plea, despite the fact that he admitted in court to lying to the FBI.
Maria Butina’s sentencing has been set for April 26. The DOJ has asked the court to deport her back to Russia after her sentence is complete. According to an AP investigation, the FBI did not notify “scores” of US officials that Russian hackers were attempting to access their personal Gmail accounts. Trump’s recognition of Golan Heights as Israeli territory has legitimized Russia’s claim to Crimea.
The House Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Wednesday to authorize Chairman Nadler to issue subpoenas to obtain the full Mueller report. The House Judiciary will also authorize subpoenas for Don McGahn, Steve Bannon, Hope Hicks, Reince Priebus and Ann Donaldson. A whistleblower inside the White House’s Personnel Security Office told the House Oversight Cmte. that Trump officials gave at least 25 people security clearances despite initially being denied due to significant disqualifying factors. The panel will begin authorizing subpoenas Tuesday, starting with the person in charge of the WH Personnel Security Office, Carl Kline.
An email exchange revealed that Ivanka and Jared’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, asked Cohen to make changes to his 2017 testimony to distance Ivanka from the Trump Tower Moscow deal. Both Congressional and New York state investigators are using Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House to guide their investigation(s) into Trump’s real estate, businesses, and finances. Depending on how you count them, there are between 12-18 investigations that involve Trump.