Trump and Russia Probes Recap: Week of April 2 – 8

There are some events from yesterday that I haven’t had time to add yet. Will do so this morning. Thanks for reading!

Housekeeping:

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MUELLER INVESTIGATION

Mueller: The report

Subpoena. The House Judiciary Committee voted to authorize a subpoena for the full Mueller report and underlying evidence on Wednesday, but Chairman Nadler does not intend to immediately serve the subpoena. Instead, Nadler said he will give Barr “time to change his mind” about redacting the report before submitting it to Congress.

Testimony. Yesterday, April 8, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee proposed Mueller be invited to testify later this month. Rep. Doug Collins said Mueller should appear during the week of April 22, however it appears that Congress is not in session at that time. Chairman Nadler agreed Mueller should testify, but stated he plans to obtain Mueller’s full report first and then question Barr before bringing Mueller in. That sets Mueller’s potential testimony, assuming he agrees, to after May 2nd (when Barr testifies before the House).

Frustration. Last week the New York Times reported some members of Mueller’s team believe Barr did not adequately portray their findings, which are “more troubling” for Trump than Barr indicated. Mueller’s team wrote their own summaries of the report and feel Barr should have included more of their own words in the letter he wrote to Congress. NBC independently reported that some on Mueller’s team think the evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice is stronger than Barr suggested.

  • NBC: At least one faction within the office says their intent was to leave the legal question open for Congress and the public to examine the evidence.* Legal analyst Matthew Miller
  • Legal analyst Matthew Miller stated any members of Mueller’s team that leave the DOJ can legally talk to Congress.
  • House Judiciary Chairman Nadler told Barr he is requesting “all communications” between special counsel and department “regarding the report, including those regarding the disclosure of the report to Congress” and to the public.
  • I’d like to note that it’s curious that Barr consulted with Rod Rosenstein, a witness in the obstruction probe, to determine if Trump should be charged. Rosenstein was the catalyst for Comey being fired, which in turn led to Mueller’s appointment. How is it that two conflicted men made the decision not to charge Trump? And why did Rosenstein extend his stay at the DOJ, just to help clear Trump? Professor Jed Shugerman explained by clearing Trump, Rosenstein clears himself: “It means he’s not a witness anymore, and that he didn’t participate in criminal activity, because ‘there was none.’”

Memo-meeting. According to The Guardian, Department of Justice officials invited William Barr, then a private attorney, to meet with them on the same day the DOJ received Barr’s unsolicited memo in which he argued Mueller can’t charge Trump with obstruction. The lunch meeting occurred three weeks later; six months later Barr was nominated for attorney general. After publication, the DOJ told The Guardian that although staff were told of the meeting invitation on June 8th, the day the memo was delivered, the actual invitation to Barr had been extended on June 2. The DOJ also claimed that such lunch meetings were routine and promised to provide examples, but failed to do so.

  • The meeting was arranged by Steve Engel, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the President. In his testimony before Congress, Barr said he provided copies of his memo to Engel and Rosenstein. He further stated that he had lunch with Rosenstein in early 2018 and later separately discussed his legal views with Engel as well. However, he told Congress there was no follow-up from either man; the revelation of the new lunch meeting contradicts this.
    • Opinion: The fact that Barr not only sent the memo, but also met with the person in charge of advising Trump is particularly brazen. As if the memo wasn’t enough, these meetings further call into question Barr’s appointment as AG and his determination the Trump not be charged with obstruction.
  • A spokesperson for the DOJ claimed “the timing was coincidental and the memo was not discussed.”
  • Barr’s memo essentially argued firing Comey was not obstruction because a true act of obstruction had to involve explicit destruction of evidence. He also called Mueller’s obstruction theory “fatally misconceived” and “legally insupportable.”

Grand jury secrecy. On Friday, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a split 2-1 decision that federal district court judges cannot order the release of secret grand jury material. While this is likely to make it more difficult for the public to sue for release of the grand jury information in Mueller’s report, there is still a way congress can obtain the information: by formally starting impeachment proceedings against Trump. That seems to be the universally accepted option, but others have argued it is not the only one. A public advocacy group, for instance, believes the House Judiciary chair specifically has the right to seek the grand jury info.

Blocked. For the fifth time, Senate Republicans blocked a resolution calling for Mueller’s report to be released. Last week’s attempt to pass a simply non-binding resolution was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul.

Mueller: Other

End date. According to spokesman Peter Carr, Mueller “will be concluding his service within the coming days.” 

OTHER INVESTIGATIONS

IRS stacking. In February 2019, Trump personally asked Senate Majority Leader McConnell to push through his nominee for chief counsel of the IRS, indicating it was a higher priority than the AG nomination. Two weeks later nominee Michael J. Desmond was confirmed. Desmond advised the Trump Organization on tax issues prior to Trump taking office and, in private practice, worked alongside two current tax lawyers for the Trump Org. As IRS chief counsel, Desmond reports to both the Treasury Dept. and the IRS director, advising the latter on legal matters.

  • Trump’s IRS Commissioner, Charles Rettig, also had business ties to the president before being nominated and confirmed. Rettig owns a 50% stake in two rental units at the Waikiki Trump International Hotel and Tower. While he noted the properties, each worth $1.1 million, on his financial disclosure form, Rettig did not disclose that Trump owned the hotel. In 2016 Rettig argued that Trump shouldn’t release his tax returns.
  • See the “congress” section below for why this is relevant: Democrats are requesting Trump’s taxes from people who have conflicts of interest.

Chinese spying? The FBI and other agencies are investigating whether a Chinese woman arrested at Trump’s Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, is part of a Chinese intelligence operation. The woman, Yujing Zhang, was let into the club by staff, but Secret Service detained her after she provided conflicting accounts of her reason for being there. A search of her person turned up multiple passports, four cell phones, and a USB stick containing malware; her hotel room contained a signal detector for locating hidden cameras, nine USB drives, 5 SIM cards, and thousands of dollars in cash.

  • It is possible Zhang was trying to attend an event promoted by spa owner Li “Cindy” Yang, who is accused of selling access to Trump to Chinese nationals through Mar-a-Lago events. After questioning, Zhang mentioned a friend named “Charles” told her to travel to Palm Beach for an event held by the “United Nations Chinese American Association.” Yang had a business arrangement with a man, Charles Lee, who helped her recruit clients for her events. As Mother Jones noted, Charles Lee “also ran a group called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association—a name similar to the one cited by Zhang, the Mar-a-Lago intruder. “

Grand jury. The grand jury originally convened by Mueller met for the first time since Stone’s indictment on Friday for a little over an hour. It is now under the purview of the US attorneys office in DC.

CONGRESS

Capital One. The chairs of the House Oversight, Financial, and Intelligence committees requested documents related to Trump’s businesses from Capital One last month. The company responded that they are preserving records but require a subpoena in order to comply. Included in the request were documents related to Trump’s revocable trust, the Trump Organization and other subsidiaries of his financial empire, as well as any documents that may have been turned over to Mueller.

Tax request. On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee officially filed a request with the Treasury Department for 6 years of Trump’s personal tax returns and tax returns “for some” of Trump’s businesses. Chairman Richard Neal explained he is “certain” the committee is within it’s “legitimate legislative, legal, and oversight rights.” When told of the request, Trump expressed surprise they didn’t request 10 years and said “I guess they’re giving up.” He quickly added that he was still “under audit” and until complete, he “would not be inclined” to turn over his taxes. The deadline to comply is April 10.

  • To fight the request from Congress, Trump hired the law firm Consovoy McCarthy Park (already assisting in the emoluments case). Attorney William Consovoy wrote a letter on Friday to the general counsel of the Treasury Department, arguing that the agency should not release Trump’s tax returns. Consovoy stated complying with Chairman Neals request “would set a dangerous precedent” and “do lasting damage to our nation.”
  • If the Treasury misses the deadline to hand over Trump’s taxes, the House committee could take the matter to court. A resolution to such a case is unclear and may take years to resolve. There are differing opinions on if Chairman Neal will succeed (see here and here). According to an administration official who spoke to CNN, Trump is willing to fight the Democrats all the way to the Supreme Court.

Cohen’s appeal. Michael Cohen’s legal team wrote a memo to top congressional Democrats last week requesting a delay of his surrender date and a reduced prison sentence in exchange for his assistance investigating Trump. The memo states that Cohen recently accessed a hard drive of over 14 million files “of significant value” to congressional investigators; it is not clear if federal investigators previously had these files. Additionally, Cohen alleged that “he was, in effect, instructed to lie” by Trump in his 2017 testimony to congress regarding the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations. After delivering the false testimony, “Trump’s attorney… congratulated him” and said Trump “was happy with Cohen’s testimony.”

  • Cohen, as former deputy finance chair of the RNC, claims he has knowledge “of possible federal campaign finance violations” by the RNC. The memo alleges “possibly illegal” donations from foreign citizens, noting China in specific. This is not the first report of Republicans accepting illegal Chinese donations. The executive director of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans told Mother Jones that he can’t “rule out” the possibility that Chinese citizens illegally used American straw donors to funnel cash to the Trump campaign at fundraising events.
  • In the conclusion of the memo, it is revealed that Cohen has been sharing evidence with the New York State AG, NY state tax authorities, and continues to cooperate with SDNY since his most recent congressional testimony.
    • Excerpt: He knows additional information of possible crimes relating to fraudulent insurance claims, the mishandling or misappropriation of tens of millions of dollars contributed to the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Security clearances. The House Oversight Committee voted to authorize a subpoena for former White House Personnel Security Director Carl Kline on Tuesday in a 22-to-15 party-line vote. It was reportedly served later that day. A whistleblower accused Kline of a “systematic” pattern of abuses. He took part in approving the security clearances of at least 25 individuals whose applications were initially denied. Kline’s attorney sent a letter to Cummings after the subpoena was authorized saying it was not necessary as his client would be willing to testify voluntarily.

  • Jared Kushner was identified as one of the 25 people. His application was denied after his background investigation “raised concerns about foreign influence, outside business interests and personal conduct.”

Whistleblowers. A senior aide to House Oversight Chairman Cummings told The Atlantic that “dozens” of whistleblowers who either currently or previously worked in the Trump administration have been secretly working with the committee to report alleged wrongdoing. Committee staffers who have served for years note that the number of whistleblowers coming forward is higher than it’s been for any other president.

  • The Atlantic’s interview with a senior aide: “I’ve never seen this many whistle-blowers reporting waste, fraud, and abuse, and just general concern,” the senior Oversight Committee aide told me. “On the flip side of that, I’ve also never seen whistle-blowers so afraid of what could happen to them if somebody finds out who they are.”

More subpoenas. The House Judiciary also authorized subpoenas for former White House counsel Don McGahn; McGahn’s former chief of staff Ann Donaldson; former adviser Steve Bannon; former spokesperson Hope Hicks; and former chief of staff Reince Priebus.

RUSSIA NEWS

Russian malware. An investigation by McClatchy found that Russian accounts tweeting pro-Trump messages during the 2016 election also spread malware via shortened URLs. Many of these links were hosted on servers operated by clients of Webzilla, which was mentioned in the Steele Dossier.

  • The dossier claimed the owner of Webzilla used his tech companies to host botnets that transmitted viruses, planted bugs, and stole data. A later report by the NYT revealed Russian agents used Webzilla’s networks to start their hacking operation, but the owner might not have been aware of the activity.

Too long; didn’t read (as short as possible)

The House Judiciary Committee voted to authorize a subpoena for the full Mueller report and underlying evidence. Chairman Nadler plans to ask Mueller to testify after Barr does (on May 2). Some members of Mueller’s team believe Barr did not adequately portray their findings, which are “more troubling” for Trump than Barr indicated. Mueller’s team wrote their own summaries but Barr did not include them in his letter to Congress. DOJ officials invited William Barr, then a private attorney, to meet with them on the same day the DOJ received Barr’s unsolicited memo in which he argued Mueller can’t charge Trump with obstruction.

The FBI and other agencies are investigating whether a Chinese woman arrested at Trump’s Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, is part of a Chinese intelligence operation. The grand jury originally convened by Mueller met for the first time since Stone’s indictment on Friday for a little over an hour.

The chairs of the House Oversight, Financial, and Intelligence committees requested documents related to Trump’s businesses from Capital One. The House Ways and Means Committee officially filed a request with the Treasury Department for 6 years of Trump’s personal tax returns and tax returns “for some” of Trump’s businesses. Earlier this year, Trump personally asked Senate Majority Leader McConnell to push through his nominee for chief counsel of the IRS. Trump’s IRS Commissioner, Charles Rettig, had business ties to the president before being nominated and confirmed.

Michael Cohen’s legal team wrote a memo to top congressional Democrats last week requesting a delay of his surrender date and a reduced prison sentence in exchange for his assistance investigating Trump. The House Oversight Committee voted to authorize a subpoena for former White House Personnel Security Director Carl Kline. Dozens of whistleblowers who either currently or previously worked in the Trump administration have been secretly working with the committee to report alleged wrongdoing.

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