Introducing What We Learned in the Russia Probe, a weekly recap written by Adrienne Cobb. Let us know what you think by using the chat icon in the lower right-hand corner.


Mueller Investigation

Mueller is reportedly examining Trump’s tweets as part of the obstruction of justice case his team is investigating. Of particular interest are Trump’s tweets and “negative statements” about Jeff Sessions and James Comey.

  1. Mueller’s team has told Trump’s lawyers they “are examining the tweets under a wide-ranging obstruction-of-justice law beefed up after the Enron accounting scandal,” which is interesting because Mueller himself led the case against Enron.

In the upcoming trial of Paul Manafort, Mueller’s team has released a list of 35 potential witnesses. Here is the complete list and below is a quick rundown of some notable people. Keep in mind that this trial is about proving Manafort made millions working as a consultant in Ukraine, didn’t disclose the income nor his offshore accounts to the U.S. government, and committed fraud to get a $20 million loan. The witness list reflects this focus.

  1. Rich Gates: Manafort’s ex-business partner, who has pleaded guilty to fraud-related charges and is cooperating with Mueller. According to Bloomberg, Gates “will guide jurors through bank records and other financial documents.”

  2. Tad Devine: Political consultant who worked with Manafort in Ukraine. Also was chief strategist for Bernie Sanders. Note that Devine is “serving as a fact witness and had been assured he did not have legal exposure.”

  3. Alex Trusko: Manafort’s former personal assistant, who is cooperating with the FBI and helped them get search warrants for Manafort’s home and storage locker.

  4. Wayne Holland: real estate agent who helped Manafort buy his Alexandria condo

  5. Irfan Kirimca: director of ticket operations for the New York Yankees

  6. Five accountants and bankers who were involved in Manafort’s finances or loaned him money.

Behind on Manafort’s situation or simply need a refresher? The New York Times has a simple and straightforward FAQ about Manafort’s trial that is worth checking out.

Giuliani stated that Trump would only sit for an interview with Mueller if obstruction of justice questions were omitted. Trump’s lawyers are worried witnesses who contradict Trump’s account of events might be more believable to Mueller, leaving Trump to face perjury charges. On Monday, Giuliani said Mueller hadn’t responded yet.

Michael Cohen

Cohen claims Trump knew ahead of time of the Trump Tower meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer, contradicting the denials of Trump and Trump Jr. Further, Cohen states that Trump himself approved of the meeting.

  1. It is important to note that the sources who spoke with CNN said Cohen does not have evidence of his claims.

  2. Trump Jr. testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Trump Sr. “was not aware” of the meeting. If Cohen’s account can be corroborated, it potentially opens Trump Jr. up to perjury charges for lying to Congress.

  3. Just hours before news of Cohen’s claim broke, the AP revealed that the Russian lawyer from Trump Tower, Natalia Veselnitskaya, “worked much more closely with senior Russian government officials than she previously let on.”

The former chief financial officer and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, has been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury in the Michael Cohen investigation.

  1. Weisselberg set up a $35,000 monthly retainer from the Trump Organization to Cohen in order to pay him back for using his own finances to fund the hush payment to Stormy Daniels. Additionally, in the September 2016 audio recording of Cohen and Trump (see below), Cohen twice mentions having set up the plan to pay Karen McDougal with Weisselberg.

  2. “Mr. Weisselberg’s ties to the Trump family date back to days of working for the real-estate firm owned by Mr. Trump’s father, Fred, in the 1980s. He later came to the Trump Organization, where he reported directly to Donald Trump and worked out of an office in Trump Tower…” He “was once described by a person close to the company as ‘the most senior person in the organization that’s not a Trump.’”

On Friday, prosecutors received 12 audio tapes seized from Cohen in the raid. Trump’s legal team withdrew their objection to prosecutors listening to the audio, no longer claiming them as privileged.

  1. Trump is reportedly only heard on one recording (discussing the $150,000 hush payment to Playmate Karen McDougal). It’s not known why Trump’s team decided not to pursue the privilege claims.

On Wednesday, Cohen’s lawyer gave CNN the recording with Trump, made in September 2016. Cohen and Trump are heard deliberating about how to buy Karen McDougal’s story of her affair with Trump. The plan Cohen lays out involves setting up a company and financing to purchase the rights to the story from American Media, the publisher of the National Enquirer, which would first buy the story from McDougal. Full transcript.

  1. The main controversy surrounding the audio is that Trump suggests paying with cash, to which Cohen says “no, no” in what might be characterized as a disapproving tone. Then Trump says, “check.” This has been interpreted as Trump wanting to use cash to pay for the story because, compared to a check, it would leave no paper trail (so to speak). If Trump essentially paid McDougal hush money to keep the story from affecting the election, and then further never disclosed the payment, it would violate campaign finance laws. Paying with cash would make it much harder to prove such a payment happened.

  2. Former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade: “If this expenditure was made on behalf of the campaign and it was not disclosed, and it was done willfully, that’s a crime,” McQuade said. If Trump wanted that done in cash, McQuade continued, “it suggests an effort to conceal the payment. If you’re hiding things, prosecutors often see that as some indication that you believe you were guilty, that you knew what you were doing was illegal. Taking steps to cover it up does tend to establish that willfulness. That could be incriminating.”

Giuliani told Face the Nation that there are 183 "unique conversations" on tape, 12 of which include discussion of Trump. However, only one tape contains Trump himself speaking, according to Giuliani.

Michael Avenatti is representing three other women who claim to have been paid hush money by Donald Trump, AMI, and Michael Cohen.

More Russia Connections

Homeland Security officials announced that Russian hackers have been conducting a massive campaign against the U.S. in which they have reached the control rooms of U.S. electric utilities. Wall Street Journal: “They got to the point where they could have thrown switches” and disrupted power flows, said Jonathan Homer, chief of industrial-control-system analysis for DHS.

Putin announced that he is “ready to go to Washington…if the right conditions for work are created.” He also invited Trump to Moscow, saying Trump “has a desire to have further meetings.” The White House responded that "President Trump looks forward to having President Putin to Washington after the first of the year, and he is open to visiting Moscow upon receiving a formal invitation."

After Trump tweeted that he is “very concerned” the Kremlin “will be pushing very hard for the Democrats” in the midterm elections, news broke that Russian hackers have actually been targeting red-state Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. She is “widely considered to be among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats facing re-election.”

  1. Hackers used similar phishing techniques as was used in 2016, sending targets forged notification emails that trick them into entering their credentials on a fake website, which then collects this data.

  2. Here is a screenshot of one of the fake password change websites Senate targets have been directed to.

According to Sarah H. Sanders, Trump would like to revoke the security clearances of several former national security officials who have commented on the Russia probe in what Trump considers an ‘inappropriate’ manner. Those officials are John Brennan, James Comey, James Clapper, Susan Rice and Michael Hayden, and also former FBI official Andrew McCabe. However, Comey and McCabe no longer have security clearances.

  1. There are legitimate reasons for former officials to still have their security clearances after leaving an agency. The first: “They still have inactive clearances from their government service.” For a whole year after leaving their job, the clearance is considered inactive but can easily be reactivated should they get a new job that requires it. In that sense, they still have the clearance, but don’t use it. The second reason: Directors of intelligence agencies have unique expertise that is often called upon by their successors for guidance. This taps into the “need to know” rule of clearances; officials have to prove they need the information in order to do their job. Hypothetical: Susan Rice, for example, cannot use her security clearance to access classified UFO information when she’s working on a financial crimes case. A clearance is not an open pass to see every piece of classified intel in the United States’ history.

Russian spy Maria Butina dined with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in February 2017. Her emails reveal it was part of a plan "to arrange 'friendship and dialogue dinners' with influential Americans."

The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office has confirmed that in 2016 Russian agent Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev visited election websites in Cobb and Fulton counties. Kovalev is one of the 12 Russian officials Mueller recently indicted for interfering with the 2016 election. Georgia not only does not have a verifiable paper ballot system, it was also “one of two states nationwide that didn’t accept the federal government’s offer to scan state election networks ahead of the presidential election to look for vulnerabilities.”

The Trump administration is considering lifting sanctions on Rusal, a major Russian aluminum company founded by Putin ally and oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

Congress/FBI

Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Trump “chastising” him for ignoring a deadline to determine if Russia violated international law in poisoning ex-spy Skripal and his daughter in Britain. If Trump decides Moscow did violate the law, additional sanctions would immediately be applied.

  1. Royce “said Trump’s administration had already blown through the statutory deadline by more than a month, and gave the president a new deadline of two weeks to tell Congress of his decision.”

Other

CNN obtained the emails of a Columbus Police officer who was involved in the arrest of Stormy Daniels earlier this month. The officer was researching Daniels and the strip club in the days before the arrest, suggesting Daniels was actually targeted by the police department. This contradicts the PD’s statement that they were conducting a “long-term investigation” that just so happened to catch Daniels committing a violation. The emails also reveal the officer “sent emails to colleagues seemingly giddy about the arrest after the fact.”

A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that almost 16 million voters were removed from voter rolls in just two years, from 2014-2016. This represents a 33% increase - four million more voters - compared to the period of 2006-2008, outpacing “both population growth and the growth in total registered voters.”

  1. Additionally, the report found that the voter purges of eight states had violated either the National Voter Registration Act or “had policies that violate the law.” Included in the eight states are New York, Alabama, and Maine.

  2. “Jonathan Brater, a counsel in the nonpartisan center’s Democracy Program and a co-author of the report, said it’s hard to know how many voters were purged in error, ‘which is part of the concern’ … the Brennan Center found that as the rates of voters removed increased, so did the number of people who showed up to vote but were unable to.”

  3. Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP: “It is our belief that there is an over-representation of African American, Latino and lower and working-class individuals,” he said. “It is unfortunate that this nation has refused to honor the sacred right to vote and proactively protect that right for all citizens.”


To note…

The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed an FEC complaint alleging that the company which made a $325,000 donation to Trump Super PAC 'America First Action' is illegally masking the true source of the funds. According to CLC, the company - Global Energy Producers LLC. - "was illegally used as a pass-through entity to mask the original sources of the contributions."

  1. Global Energy Producers also donated large amounts of money to the GOP fundraising committee 'Protect the House', the re-election campaigns of Republican Reps. Pete Sessions (Texas) and Joe Wilson (SC), and the Senate campaign of Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Kazakhstan has begun a trial of the former mayor of one of their cities and his wife, accused of various crimes including using purchases in Trump Tower and Trump SoHo hotel to launder stolen money. The couple is in Switzerland, so are being tried in absentia. They reportedly have close ties to other people in Trump world, including Giuliani and Felix Sater.