Last week in one sentence: The servers of Russia's Alfa Bank, the Trump Organization, and Spectrum Health (DeVos family) were likely intentionally communicating after all; Mueller is investigating the Trump campaign's connections with an Israeli intelligence firm, Psy-Group, which provided social media influence and opposition-research campaigns to defeat Republican opponents and Hillary Clinton; Mueller warned that Russian intelligence services still have active "interference operations" into U.S. elections; Mueller is also reportedly allowing Trump's legal team to submit written answers to questions regarding collusion with Russia during the 2016 election; Richard Pinedo, a California man charged with identity fraud for providing fake bank accounts to Russians, has been sentenced to 6 months in prison; GOP operative Peter Smith, who was searching for Hillary Clinton's "lost" emails until his death last year, had a relationship with Michael Flynn as early as 2015; Trump spoke with Jeff Sessions' own chief of staff about replacing Sessions as attorney general; Trump's lawyers argued that exploiting stolen information, like hacked emails, is protected by free speech; bipartisan senators introduced legislation to block "any persons from foreign adversaries" from owning or having an interest in vendors that administer U.S. elections; Julian Assange has had his internet partially restored by the Ecuadorian embassy in London in which he has sought refuge.
Alfa Bank server. It appears that the connection between the computer servers of the Trump Organization, Alfa Bank, and Spectrum Health (a Devos family company) was deemed innocuous by the media too soon. The New Yorker interviewed experts who analyzed the evidence, concluding that the servers were communicating intentionally. While we don't know what was being communicated, Jean Camp of Indiana University suggested perhaps personal data taken from Facebook was being transferred to the Russian government, " to help guide its targeting of American voters before the election."
- The New Yorker piece is very thorough and detailed; I recommend everyone read the whole thing. I'll try to briefly sum up the main points here.
- In June 2016, a group of computer scientists noticed a pair of servers owned by Alfa Bank, one of Russia's largest banks, was looking up the address of a server belonging to the Trump Organization nearly every day. "Between May and September, Alfa Bank looked up the Trump Organization's domain more than two thousand times." There was only one other server reaching out to the Trump domain at a similar frequency: Spectrum Health, closely linked to the DeVos family (Betsy DeVos is the Secretary of Education and her brother, Erik Prince, is a Trump associate who tried to set up a back channel with Russia for Trump).
- New Yorker: Why was the Trump Organization's domain, set up to send mass-marketing e-mails, conducting such meagre activity? And why were computers at Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health trying to reach a server that didn't seem to be doing anything? After analyzing the data, Max [a computer scientist] said, "We decided this was a covert communication channel."
- The computer scientists turned over their data to Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times. After consulting with experts, Lichtblau "became increasingly convinced that the data suggested a substantive connection." However, NYT's editor watered down the story, resulting in it eventually running with the headline: "Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia." The same day, Slate ran a story that was more aggressive in arguing for the possibility of a covert link between Trump and Alfa Bank.
- Perhaps the most damning evidence? Just two days after a Washington lobbying firm representing Alfa Bank was alerted of the investigations, but before the NYT contacted Trump, the Trump domain vanished from the internet. "For four days, the servers at Alfa Bank kept trying to look up the Trump domain. Then, ten minutes after the last attempt, one of them looked up another domain, which had been configured to lead to the same Trump Organization server."
- What does this mean? "That shows a human interaction," Max concluded. "Certain actions leave fingerprints." He reasoned that someone representing Alfa Bank had alerted the Trump Organization, which shut down the domain, set up another one, and then informed Alfa Bank of the new address.
- While Lichtblau was drafting the NYT article, the FBI called him in for an interview, where he was told "they were looking into potential Russian interference in the election." The New Yorker states " the Bureau had intelligence from informants suggesting a possible connection between the Trump Organization and Russian banks, but no data."
Social media manipulation. Mueller is investigating the Trump campaign's connections with an Israeli intelligence firm, Psy-Group. Early in 2016, Trump official Rick Gates requested proposals from Psy-Group for social-media influence and opposition-research campaigns to defeat Republican opponents and Hillary Clinton.
- According to NYT, "it appears that Trump campaign officials declined to accept any of the proposals," but Psy-Group's owner, Joel Zamel, met in August 2016 at Trump Tower with Don Jr., where he pitched the company's services. George Nader and Erik Prince also attended.
- Crucially, Nader contradicts Zamel's claims that Psy-Group never followed through with proposals. After Trump's election, Nader paid Zamel $2 million for an undisclosed reason.
- Three proposals were assembled: the first used fake online personas to "target and sway 5,000 delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention by attacking" Trump's main opponent in early 2016, Ted Cruz; the second involved opposition research and "complementary intelligence activities" on Hillary Clinton and her team; the third "sketched out a monthslong plan to help Mr. Trump by using social media to help expose or amplify division among rival campaigns and factions."
Smith and Flynn. The WSJ reported that GOP operative Peter Smith, who was searching for Hillary Clinton's "lost" emails until his death last year, had a relationship with Michael Flynn as early as 2015. During the 2016 campaign, Smith told associates he was using Flynn's connections to help him find Clinton's emails. He died from what was deemed a suicide just weeks after telling friends he had finally obtained the emails, and 10 days after talking to the WSJ about his efforts.
- Mueller has added to his team a lawyer well known for her work on violent crimes, Kathryn Rakoczy, leading some to speculate Mueller is investigating Smith's death as a murder. My personal opinion: Who writes a "suicide note" saying "NO FOUL PLAY WHATSOEVER." That's suspicious.
Protecting evidence. In court documents filed last week, Mueller asked a federal judge to protect evidence sought by the Russian firm Concord Management and Consulting, one of the companies charged with election meddling. Mueller warned that Russian intelligence services still have active "interference operations" into U.S. elections and that turning over certain evidence could compromise ongoing investigations.
- "Prosecutors have uncovered evidence of other individuals and entities who are 'continuing to engage'" in election meddling. Concord is controlled by Russian national Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka Putin's chef, who also runs the Internet Research Agency. Revealing to him sensitive sources and methods of US intelligence would almost guarantee the information also reaches the Kremlin.
- Concord claims it cannot mount a defense without access to the evidence against them, which is generally a valid claim. As a compromise, Mueller proposes any foreign national who wants to disclose sensitive materials would have to go through a "firewall counsel" for the government, which would be separate from the prosecution team. The firewall counsel would essentially filter out any sensitive information. The federal judge has not ruled on this issue.
Hacked email lawsuit. Lawyers representing Trump have argued in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that exploiting stolen information, like hacked emails, is protected by free speech. The lawsuit, which has been brought by two donors and one former DNC employee, accuses Trump's campaign of illegally conspiring with Russia agents to disseminate stolen emails. Also named in the lawsuit is Roger Stone and Wikileaks.
- The plaintiffs argue their privacy was violated by dissemination of the hacked emails. Trump's lawyers say the right to free speech supersedes the right to privacy, citing portions of the Citizens United case for support.
- Despite Mike Pompeo designating WikiLeaks a "non-state hostile intelligence service" for providing Russia a platform to interfere in the election, Trump's lawyers defend WikiLeaks in their brief: "'Wikileaks cannot be held liable for the publication' of the hacked DNC emails because it was merely an intermediary, and not liable for the Russians' hack-and-dump scheme, they wrote."
- The result of this case has implications for Mueller's case because, as the plaintiffs' lawyer states: Trump's brief "seems like the technical legal version of the more political argument the Trump team has been floating, and will make in earnest, should Robert Mueller eventually find that the campaign engaged in a conspiracy like the one we allege, which seems very possible given how the indictments he's already brought line up with the complaint in this case."
Mueller's questions. Mueller is reportedly allowing Trump's legal team to submit written answers to questions regarding collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. While the legal team has begun preparing their responses, it is not clear if there is a deadline. CNN also cautions that there may be more rounds of questioning and negotiations for Trump to interview in person still have not been resolved.
- Why would Mueller allow written questions and drop the obstruction issues (for now, at least)? Marcy Wheeler suggests Mueller is just getting "Trump on record in some form or other" before the midterms. After the midterms, with Trump's answers recorded, it will be easier and quicker to roll out indictment s Mueller has been working on. Further, not pushing Trump on obstruction could signal Mueller has those charges in the bag. He already has Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort, cooperating after all. If Trump offered them pardons to protect him, that "is the most slam dunk instance of obstruction even considered," according to Wheeler.
Freezing Deripaska. The US has frozen assets of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, including two "massive" mansions in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. Deripaska and his companies are sanction by the US for his alleged involvement in murder, money-laundering, bribery, and racketeering.
- Deripaska employed Paul Manafort in the 2000s, even loaning him $10 million. By the time Manafort joined Trump's campaign, Deripaska claimed in court documents Manafort owed him nearly $20 million. Manafort also offered to give Deripaska "private briefings" about Trump's campaign, perhaps in an effort to repay his debts.
Rosenstein. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein accompanied Trump on Air Force One on Monday, their first meeting since the New York Times reported third-party information that Rosenstein discussed secretly recording Trump and suggested invoking the 25th amendment. Rosenstein denies ever making such statements. A spokesman reported Trump and Rosenstein spoke for about 30 minutes and Trump described it as "great." For now, Rosenstein looks likely to keep his job until midterms.
Replacing Sessions. The Washington Post reported that Trump spoke with Matthew Whitaker, Jeff Sessions' own chief of staff, about replacing Sessions as attorney general. The conversation reportedly occurred around the time when Rosenstein offered to resign/was about to be fired. The plan to fill Rosenstein's job at the time offers a look at possible replacements for Sessions and Rosenstein after the midterms: Whitaker could possibly take over as AG and Noel Francisco, the solicitor general, would possibly take over Rosenstein's job. Of course, logically Francisco has more experience and would be better suited as AG, so I could see the pair reversing roles.
- Last year, Whitaker wrote a column in which he called Mueller's investigation a "Witch hunt," and argued that Mueller should not be allowed to probe Trump's finances. He also urged Rosenstein "to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel." In an appearance on CNN, Whitaker defended Trump Jr. taking the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Clinton. Finally, in a tweet last year, Whitaker urged Trump's lawyers not to cooperate with "Mueller lynch mob."
Sentencing. Richard Pinedo, a California man charged with identity fraud, has been sentenced to 6 months in prison. Pinedo sold fake bank account numbers to Russian companies and individuals, who used them to finance their election interference efforts. Mueller did not say Pinedo knew of the Russians' plans, however.
More Russian connections
Troll factory fire. An unknown individual broke a window in offices of Russia's troll farm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), and threw a Molotov cocktail inside. The building was set alight, requiring firefighters, but I am unable to find information on the final condition of the offices. It appears from one Russian language source that only "part of the editorial offices was burned" (Google Translate).
- After being charged in Mueller's indictment, the IRA rebranded itself as a media conglomerate called the Federal News Agency (FAN). The chief editor of FAN's website stated he believes the arson "is tied to FAN's activities." Someone had previously attempted to light the building on fire in March, before the presidential election in Russia.
Election vendors. Thursday, legislation was introduced to the Senate that would block "any persons from foreign adversaries" from owning or having an interest in vendors that administer US elections. The bill, introduced by Senators Van Hollen (D-Md.), Cardin (D-Md.), and Collins (R-Maine), requires vendors to disclose any foreign ownership or control to the government. Not doing so would result in a $10,000 fine.
- The legislation also requires state and local governments to conduct annual audits of election vendors to ensure sole U.S. ownership. However, there is an exemption for "election service providers created or organized under the laws of our Five Eyes allies – Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand."
Kemp update. You might remember last week reading about Brian Kemp, who is running for governor of Georgia, blocked 53,000 voter registration applications in his current role as secretary of state. Nearly 7-in-10 of the applications belong to African-Americans, despite the fact that Georgia's population is only 32% black. His opponent, Stacey Abrams, is now demanding he resign as secretary of state.
- During his time as secretary of state, his office has canceled more than 1.4 million voter registrations. Kemp also proposed to close 3/4s of voting locations in a rural county made up of majority black voters, but was forced to back down. As a whole, however, nearly 8% of Georgia's polling places have closed since 2012. In what could have been viewed as an effort to intimidate minority voters, Kemp launched a criminal investigation into Abrams' New Georgia Project for alleged registration fraud. Abrams and her organization were cleared of all charges.
Wikileaks update. Julian Assange has had his internet partially restored by the Ecuadorian embassy in London in which he has sought refuge.
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