Last Week In One Sentence: Investigators are looking into suspicious bank transactions that occurred around key dates in the Trump-Russia saga; Paul Manafort entered a plea deal with Robert Mueller in which he pledged his full cooperation; Trump signed an executive order meant to punish foreign entities for interfering in U.S. elections, but experts and lawmakers see it as inadequate and say we're still "woefully unprepared"; George Papadopoulos's wife told ABC that Mueller's team suspect she was/is a Russian spy; Britain identified two men it says tried to murder former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia; Russia is considered to be the main suspect behind the mysterious attacks on U.S. officials in Cuba and China that led to brain injuries; and 600 Russia-linked accounts collectively sent 10,000 tweets about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) between 2014 to May 2018.
Criminal payments? Investigators are looking into suspicious bank transactions that occurred around key dates in the Trump-Russia saga.
- The first took place just 11 days after the 2016 Trump Tower meeting: Aras Agalarov wired over $19.5 million from an offshore company he controlled to his account in New York.
- The second set of transactions began days after Trump was elected: Agalarov sent $1.2 million from their Russian account to one in New Jersey controlled by his son, Emis Agalarov. Bankers reported this as suspicious because the account had previously been dormant for over a year and they "found it strange that activity in Emin Agalarov's checking account surged after Trump's victory." The New Jersey account then sent money to a company controlled by Irakly "Ike" Kaveladze, a representative for the Agalarovs at the Trump Tower meeting & backer of Rob Goldstone's music business.
Manafort plea. On Friday, Paul Manafort entered a plea deal with Robert Mueller. The charges he faced at his second trial in DC were reduced to only two felonies in exchange for his cooperation. The plea agreement states that Manafort is required to "cooperate fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly" with the special counsel and any other government investigators. He is also required to give up millions of dollars in assets like real estate.
- A key part of this deal is it is essentially pardon proof. As Marcy Wheeler neatly summed up on Twitter: (1) Mueller already got the key pieces of testimony a pardon would thwart. 2) Manafort is subject to civil forfeiture; he loses $46M even w/pardon. 3) The dropped charges can be filed in states.
- As long as Manafort holds up his part of the deal, his sentence will be capped at 10 years in prison and he will serve the sentences from his previous Virginia trial and the two DC charges concurrently.
- Less than a month ago, Trump tweeted: I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. "Justice" took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to "break" - make up stories in order to get a "deal." Such respect for a brave man!
- Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani released a statement in response to the news saying: "Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason: the President did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth." But just minutes later, they seemed to think twice and "corrected" the statement to remove the part about Manafort telling the truth. The new statement ended with "the President did nothing wrong."
Junior's not scared. Aside from Trump himself, the person perhaps most worried about Manafort is Don Jr. Manafort is the first attendant of the Trump Tower meeting to cooperate with Mueller (that we know of). Don Jr. took a leading role in the meeting and claims that he didn't tell his father about it. If this was a lie, Manafort could expose him.
- Just days before Manafort flipped, Don Jr. told ABC's Good Morning America he is not afraid of going to jail due to Mueller's probe. "I'm not because I know what I did, and I'm not worried about any of that…That doesn't mean they won't try to create something, I mean, we've seen that happen with everything. But, again, I'm not."
Election interference. On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order meant to punish foreign entities for interfering in U.S. elections. Experts and lawmakers, however, see it as inadequate and say we're still "woefully unprepared."
- The executive order is limited in scope, covering tampering with voting infrastructure (e.g. voting machines) and hacking political parties and candidates. It does not cover social media or propaganda campaigns, such as the troll operation we saw in 2016 (and see today), or what Axios called "tertiary attacks that impact elections — like, for instance, a coordinated traffic jam near a polling station that could reduce the number of voters."
- The mechanisms of the executive order are as follows: the intelligence community will spend 45 days after every election assessing if any interference (as defined by the limited scope above) occurred. If it did, a report is sent to DHS and the DOJ, which then has 45 days to produce their own report. Any individuals or entities identified in the report will be sanctioned.
- Another reason critics are unhappy with the order: Trump's directive did not create any new sanctions authority — the power already existed in one of former President Barack Obama's executive orders — and one U.S. official told POLITICO that "it doesn't really do much… Most of us see it as a weak attempt to appear to do something without actually doing something on this issue."
- There is a superior bill in Congress right now sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio (R) and Chris Van Hollen (D) called the DETER Act. Politico: Van Hollen said it was "pretty clear" that the White House moved forward with the executive order because his DETER Act was "gaining momentum." As for Trump's order, Van Hollen called it "the DETER Act without the teeth," because "it doesn't have the certainty of action required, and it doesn't have the severity of response in it." He added, "I'm afraid this executive order is aimed more at deterring congressional action on the DETER Act than on deterring Putin's interference in our election."
Cohen singing. Vanity Fair reported, "it has also become common knowledge among close friends of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, that Cohen is talking to the Mueller team, according to people familiar with the situation."
Undermining Mueller. Allies of president Trump believe he will soon declassify documents regarding the surveillance of Carter Page and the investigations conducted by DOJ lawyer Bruce Ohr. As Axios states, "Republicans on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees believe the declassification will permanently taint the Trump-Russia investigation by showing the investigation was illegitimate to begin with."
Simona the spy? George Papadopoulos's wife told ABC that Mueller's team suspect she was/is a Russian spy. George added even his own family suspected this.
- Simona: "I come from a political background myself. I used to work as a diplomat at the European Parliament for a few years and this could be a red flag because many officials at European Union actually – it's a cover-up for spy jobs…Of course this connection was highly suspicious. I respect the, I always said I respect Mueller's interest in my profile because clearly it's quite alarming, the fact that I marry George Papadopoulos in the middle of this storm."
- George: "I think everyone was a little paranoid throughout this past year. And yes, you know, I think they thought that she might have been some sort of Russian spy. Of course I never believed anything like that. She's just, I don't think every beautiful blonde person necessarily has to be a Russian agent. You know, there are many blonde Italians as well."
Woodward. Bob Woodward's book Fear gives insight into Trump's reactions to various developments in Mueller's probe.
- When Trump read news reports that Mueller had subpoenaed records from Deutsche Bank, he "exploded" at his former lawyer John Dowd. Business Insider: "I know my relationships with Deutsche Bank," Trump reportedly told Dowd, with Woodward writing that the president said the bank loved him and was always paid back for its loans. "I know what I borrowed, when I borrowed, when I paid it back. I know every goddamn one." Woodward wrote that Trump added, "This is bulls—!"
- Going back further, when Trump learned that Rosenstein appointed a special counsel, Trump said: "They're out to get me. This is an injustice. This is unfair. How could this have happened? It's all Jeff Sessions' fault. This is all politically motivated. Rod Rosenstein doesn't know what the hell he is doing. He's a Democrat. He's from Maryland." (Rosenstein is a Republican.)
Just a tidbit. Vox interviewed Journalist Craig Unger about his new book, "House of Trump, House of Putin." In researching Trump's connections to Russia, Unger found about 1,300 real estate transactions Trump conducted with Russian mobsters. Unger explains there is a pattern in Trump's history where anonymous shell-companies that were fronts for criminal money-laundering operations bought properties, condos, or apartments from Trump, paying in all cash. The following is a key quote:
- "The very first episode that's been documented, to my knowledge, was in 1984 when David Bogatin — who is a Russian mobster, convicted gasoline bootlegger, and close ally of Semion Mogilevich, a major Russian mob boss — met with Trump in Trump Tower right after it opened. Bogatin came to that meeting prepared to spend $6 million, which is equivalent to about $15 million today. Bogatin bought five condos from Trump at that meeting. Those condos were later seized by the government, which claimed they were used to launder money for the Russian mob."
- The same pattern is laid out in the documentary Active Measures. It's a good one - available on Hulu for $1.99.
More Russian connections
Skripal update. Britain identified two men it says tried to murder former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. At first, Russia's story was the two names were meaningless. Last week, Putin changed his story, saying ""We know who they are. We found them. There is nothing criminal about them. They are just ordinary civilians." The two men claim to have been in Salisbury as tourists.
- The BBC reported that two different Russian men were "arrested earlier this year on suspicion of spying on a Swiss laboratory investigating the poisoning of Sergei Skripal." Swiss Intelligence reported the "two men had equipment that could have been used to break into the laboratory's computer systems," and said they worked for Russian intelligence.
Maria Butina. Emails from 2015-2016 reveal accused Russian spy Maria Butina arranged a meeting for high-level NRA members with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The meeting, which took place in December 2015, raises "the prospect of a discussion between conservative political operatives and a powerful member of Putin's inner circle in the midst of a presidential campaign…" Butina also tried to meet Trump in July 2015, nearly a year earlier than prosecutors have publicly claimed. "The early outreach illustrates Mariia Butina's intent to cultivate Trump months before most were taking him seriously."
- Reminder: Butina was very close to GOP operative Paul Erickson. In May 2016, Erickson sent an email to Rick Dearborn, an adviser on Trump's campaign team, asking for advice on arranging a Trump-Putin meeting. The email, with the subject line "Kremlin Connection," mentioned using the annual NRA convention to make "first contact." Also note sources told the New York Times that Alexander Torshin was mentioned in Erickson's emails; Torshin is alleged to have been Butina's 'handler', as well as a well-known Kremlin figure.
- Butina also shopped access to Vladimir Putin, and was paid by a television show to "pursue access to Putin." The TV show, meant to be on the Outdoor Channel, never came to fruition.
Diplomat attacks. Russia is considered to be the main suspect behind the mysterious attacks on U.S. officials in Cuba and China that led to brain injuries. NBC reports the suspicion "is backed up by evidence from communications intercepts…amassed during a lengthy and ongoing investigation involving the FBI, the CIA and other U.S. agencies."
IRA tweets. A Wall Street Journal report showed 600 Russia-linked accounts collectively sent 10,000 tweets about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) between 2014 to May 2018. Their analysis "found that 80% of the tweets had conservative-leaning political messages, often disparaging the health law."
- WSJ: Pro-ACA tweets peaked around the spring of 2016, possibly aimed at fostering division between Mrs. Clinton and her presidential primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.). Anti-ACA tweets intensified in mid-2017 as Republicans mounted their push to repeal the law, apparently seeking to capitalize on the emotions generated by that effort. "Let Obamacare crash & burn. Do not bail out insurance companies," said a tweet from an IRA-linked account called JUSMASXTRT on Aug. 28, 2017.
Trump's taxes. A nonprofit group called the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued the IRS to gain the release of Trump's tax returns last year. The U.S. District judge in that round ruled against them; last week EPIC appealed the decision.
- Central to EPIC's argument is that President Trump has made conflicting statements about whether his tax returns will show income originating in Russia. In fact, his own lawyers have indicated "multiple sources of Russian income that would appear in his 'personal returns,'" according to EPIC's brief. The court did not indicate when they'd issue a ruling.
Rohrbacher re-election. A New York Times poll found that Putin's favorite congressman, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, is tied with Dem challenger Harley Rouda in his fight for re-election in California's 48th district. Both have 45%, with 10 % undecided. However, the sample was small (only 501 people took part) and each candidate's total could be off by 5 percentage points.
Emoluments update. The Attorneys General of Maryland and DC are asking a U.S. District Court to force Trump to turn over "any communications with domestic or foreign government officials related to his Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C."
- The Hill: The attorneys general also asked for records of the hotel's business with foreign government officials, records of cash flow between the hotel and the president and records from the federal agency that leases the hotel building to the Trump business.
Space sabotage? In late August the crews of the International Space Station found a pressure leak in the orbital module of a Russian spacecraft that arrived at the station in June. The leak turned out to have been caused by a 2mm hole termed a "manufacturing defect." At first the Russians took responsibility, but then the story changed: the Russians are now blaming the Americans, saying a NASA astronaut intentionally drilled the hole.
- Arstechnica: The working theory goes something like this: one of the American crew members—there are three presently on board the station: Commander Drew Feustel, Ricky Arnold, and Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor—got ill sometime in August. To leave the station would have required the departure of three astronauts and cosmonauts, because a Soyuz cannot depart without a full crew, as this would not leave enough seats for an emergency evacuation. The motive for the sabotage seems to be that NASA did not want to pay the entire cost of a new Soyuz, probably about $85 million. Therefore, to force the evacuation but not have to pay for the cost of an additional Soyuz to fly to the station, a NASA astronaut drilled a hole in the orbital module of one of the Soyuz spacecraft.
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