This past week brought a series of explosive revelations to the world of the various Russia investigations, beginning with the New York Times reports about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting last summer with a Russian lawyer who had offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Jared Kushner and Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort also attended the meeting. After giving conflicting statements about the nature of the meeting, Trump Jr. tweeted the chain of emails about setting up the appointment, which was facilitated by a Trump family acquaintance who initially contacted Trump Jr. with the proposal. Importantly, the emails indicate that the meeting, and the promised information, was part of a Russian government-backed effort to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Aside from the written documentation of Russia’s intent with regards to the 2016 election, Trump Jr.’s eager response to the offered campaign information has a host of yet-uncertain potential consequences, including the possibility that his conduct may constitute an ‘intent to collude’ on the part of the Trump campaign, as well as a possible violation of campaign laws; for Jared Kushner, the meeting may provoke a review of his security clearance. At the moment, it is likely that special counsel Mueller’s team is looking into the correspondence, and multiple congressional committees have expressed the desire to interview Trump Jr. and the others involved as part of their Russia investigations as well. More on this below.
Trump Jr.’s Meeting
In the days since news of the meeting surfaced, multiple people have been added to the list of attendees, increasing the confusion and suspicion surrounding the event. So far, 8 people are known to have attended:
- Donald Trump, Jr. – set up meeting with Goldstone
- Paul Manafort – former Trump campaign manager
- Jared Kushner – son-in-law, current Trump adviser
- Rob Goldstone – publicist for Emin Agalarov, Russian singer and son of prominent businessman friendly with Trump family; contacted Trump Jr. to set up meeting
- Natalya Veselnitskaya – government-connected Russian lawyer
- Rinat Akhmetshin – Russain-American lobbyist, former Soviet intelligence officer
- Irakly Kaveladze – business associate of Aras Agalarov (Goldstone originally reached out to Trump Jr. on behalf of Agalarov and his son); known money launderer
- Anatoli Samochornov – translator
DoJ and special counsel
Predictably, Robert Mueller and his special counsel team have remained quiet about the proceedings and developments of their investigation. Details about their investigative process and the subjects of their inquiry are classified and generally inaccessible to the public or press, although speculation abounds. After the Trump Jr. email release, CNN reported that special counsel Mueller was looking into the matter, citing an unnamed US official with knowledge of the investigation. The NY Times then reported that Mueller’s office has already begun contacting some of the people who attended or were connected to the meeting, including Kaveladze. The special counsel also asked the White House to preserve any documents related to the meeting. Mueller’s investigation will probably include interviews with most if not all of the meeting attendees, but it is unlikely that he will publicize any information obtained. Aside from that meeting, the special counsel presumably continues to explore other connections between Trump campaign affiliates and the Russian government, among other things, as part of the investigation’s mandate. Since the investigation itself is so classified, public moves by the special counsel, such as the expansion of its physical team, are heavily scrutinized and increasingly politicized. President Trump has long been uneasy about Mueller himself, even casting doubt on his credibility and objectivity; this political agitation has extended to Mueller’s team as well, with Republican lawmakers and officials criticizing the recent additions to the special counsel team for supporting Democratic candidates–including Hillary Clinton–in the past. So far, Mueller’s team includes 15 attorneys, 7 of whom have reportedly donated to Democratic campaigns. Although to some, including the president, this shows partisanship bordering on a conflict-of-interest, many lawmakers and DoJ officials have said that past donations do not pose a threat to an attorney’s objectivity. President Trump recently warned Mueller against including Trump business history in his probe, and the White House seems to be increasingly intent on trying to find potential conflicts of interest on Mueller’s team, as well as exploring various legal options to block or undermine the potential results of the special counsel investigation, including presidential pardons of those involved. This week in an interview with the NY Times, the president also expanded his criticism to other arms of the DoJ, expressing discomfort with the special counsel, the acting DoJ leadership, Comey, and AG Jeff Sessions, whose recusal from Russia-related matters greatly upset Trump. The special counsel has not made any public statements and is not expected to directly address claims made about Mueller, the team, or the hiring process, which is ongoing.
Clearly much has been made of the lawyers on Mueller’s special counsel team. Below is a list, in no particular order, of attorneys and investigators known to be working on the investigation. The team is certainly much larger than this list, but the special counsel has not released the names of team members and many remain unknown to the press.
- Aaron Zebley – former FBI chief of staff under Mueller, former FBI agent & prosecutor
- James Quarles – former assistant special prosecutor for Watergate investigation
- Michael Dreeben – deputy solicitor general
- Andrew Weissmann – head of DoJ criminal fraud unit, former head of DoJ’s Enron Task Force
- Jeannie Rhee – former DoJ Office of Legal Counsel deputy assistant AG
- Lisa Page – trial attorney for FBI organized crime division, former trial attorney for FBI general counsel
- Elizabeth Prelogar – assistant to solicitor general, former Supreme Court clerk
- Andrew Goldstein – former head of NY Southern District public corruption unit
- Adam Jed – DoJ civil division appellate attorney
- Brandon Van Grack – DoJ national security division prosecutor
- Rush Atkinson – trial attorney for DoJ fraud division
- Zainab Ahmad – NY Eastern District assistant US attorney
- Aaron Zelinsky – District of Maryland assistant US attorney
Senate Intelligence Committee
The Senate Intelligence Committee has, like most of the other congressional committees conducting Russia investigations, called for testimony from Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort in the wake of last week’s news. The committee had already begun interviewing affiliates of the Trump campaign, transition, or early days in office last week. Jared Kushner had already volunteered to testify, and has reportedly been sent document requests along with Trump Jr. Since the Senate Intelligence Committee has been at the forefront of the congressional Russia investigations with their tenacious pursuit of documents, interviews, and high-profile public testimonies, there is a good chance that they will be the first to interview or hear from Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort. However, it may be some time before any of the 3 appear before congress. In terms of other witnesses in its Russia investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee will also reportedly interview in closed session some officials from the Obama administration, including the former president’s chief of staff Dennis McDonough, and former national security adviser Susan Rice. Although Rice and other former Obama administration officials have come under fire from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and elsewhere over allegations of improper ‘unmasking’ of civilians caught in peripheral surveillance, the Senate Intelligence Committee appears to remain more focused on determining the Obama administration’s knowledge and response to the initial threat of Russian hacking activities during the 2016 campaign.
House Intelligence Committee
The House Intelligence Committee has also been moving forward with interviews of Trump campaign officials and affiliates. Last week, former campaign aide Michael Caputo testified in closed session to the committee, and the campaign’s digital media director Brad Parscale announced that he would testify as well. Although the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff, has called for testimony from Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort, Chairman Mike Conaway has been vague about his intentions for future interviews. However, the committee is expected to interview Susan Rice this week, and also expects testimony from former Obama administration UN ambassador Samantha Power, possibly before the end of the month. As previously mentioned, these interviews will likely present a platform for the committee to probe matters unrelated to Russian intervention in the election, namely the question of unmasking. Rice’s testimony was originally scheduled for this week, but was delayed by the committee. Similarly, Roger Stone, a close ally of Trump’s who was vocal about Russian hacking and his connections to WikiLeaks during the campaign, had been scheduled to testify at the end of the month until the hearing was indefinitely delayed by the committee. Their investigation has proceeded much more slowly than their other congressional counterparts, and the House Intelligence Committee has come under fire–by Stone and others–for dragging their feet after facing a series of partisan hurdles and a leadership change in the investigation’s early stages. Chairman Conaway has called for more cooperation and coordination between his committee’s and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigations going forward.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee has also expressed interest in hearing from Trump Jr. about his meeting with the Russian lawyer, and Chairman Chuck Grassley is reportedly preparing to ask Trump Jr. to testify. The committee also anticipated testimony from Paul Manafort, but more specifically with regards to his failure to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act after working with Ukrainian and Russian-backed state actors; that hearing was expected to take place this week but may be delayed until the end of the month, given the news of Manafort’s involvement in Trump Jr.’s meeting. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a confirmation hearing for Christopher Wray, President Trump’s nominee to replace Comey as FBI director. In the hearing, Wray expressed confidence in the ongoing Russia investigations, refuting the president’s claim that they are a political ‘witch hunt’, and told the committee that he did not doubt Russia’s interference in the election. Wray is widely regarded as a practical, thoughtful, and non-partisan leader. For their part, the Senate Judiciary Committee has certainly been pressing forward with their investigation and contacting some key witnesses. Although the committee has maintained a fairly bipartisan and cooperative stance regarding their Russia investigation, there have been some conflicts in the committee leadership about varying investigative paths; Chairman Grassley, long perceived to be a nonpartisan leader, appears to be reluctant to focus on the key points of the investigation–Russian intervention and possible Trump campaign collusion–and has been pursuing somewhat far-fetched lines of inquiry on the side, slowing the investigation’s progress and irking committee Democrats, who have been sending their own letters and appeals to Grassley and potential witnesses. However, following the recent revelations and hype about the Trump campaign’s conduct leading up to the election, the entire Senate Judiciary Committee seems more keen to press forward with the investigation, and to gather documents and hear from key witnesses before their August recess.
The Obama Administration
Much has been made of former president Obama and his administration’s response–or lack thereof–to the initial intelligence reports about Russian hacking activities in the months prior to the 2016 election, and the growing evidence of Russian interference during the campaign. In a recent Washington Post story, investigative reporters laid out the variety of conflicts preventing the administration from taking immediate direct action, as well as the twisted way the story unfolded once they decided how to proceed. In early August Obama received a highly classified brief from the CIA, which revealed Russian president Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in planning and ordering a cyber attack campaign aimed at impeding and undermining the US presidential race and election process, as well as Russia’s preference for then-candidate Trump. At this point in the race, Trump had gained the GOP nomination, but was still widely seen as an extreme longshot for the presidency. Prior to Obama’s briefing, arms of the US intelligence community had been aware of some early Russian attempts to influence the election process–including not just hacking activities but also patterns of false news stories circulating on social media sites and an increase in temporary visa applications related to technical fields, all traced back to Russia–but the various intelligence agencies failed to come to an agreement on how to respond. After his briefing, Obama, along with a few close advisers and top national security and intelligence leaders, debated many different approaches to countering the security threat, including imposing sanctions on Russia and even more direct retaliation. The conclusion they eventually reached was that despite the looming threat to the electoral process, any move they made could a) provoke Russian escalation, and b) give credence to candidate Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the election would be ‘hacked’, also playing into the highly politicized perception of federal overreach and favoritism during an already slanderous election season. The secretive talks about how to respond continued for some time, with the administration eventually deciding to enact modest sanctions, which included the expulsion of several Russian operatives and bases from the US. Deliberation continued as the presidential race heated up, but it was still thought to be extremely unlikely that the Russian activity would affect the outcome of the election, even though the DNC had already been hacked and in late July stolen DNC emails–traced back to Russian operatives–were published by WikiLeaks right before the Democratic convention. The major concern of the administration and intelligence community at the time was the vulnerability of election systems and infrastructure. In the past few months, multiple intelligence officials from the Obama administration have testified to congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the election, and have given even more context to the administration’s ostensible inaction during the election. One testimony previously covered on this blog is that of former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson, who told lawmakers that he had tried to warn states about the threat to their electoral infrastructure, but his attempts to increase security were largely perceived as federal overreach. On top of this setback, congressional leadership wasn’t actually fully briefed on the hacking activities until much later in the campaign, in September, and the issue polarized lawmakers as Republicans saw any pre-election action as partisan. Congressional leaders eventually did make a bipartisan statement urging states to secure their election networks, but did not mention Russia. In late September US intelligence agencies finally reached a broader consensus that Russia was attempting to infiltrate and destabilize the US election, and that Putin was directing the operation, and Obama pushed the leaders of those agencies to issue a public statement. The statement they made, which outlined the Russian threat in broad and unclassified terms, was aired just an hour before news of the Trump Access Hollywood tape broke, and hours after that WikiLeaks released its first round of Clinton campaign emails stolen from John Podesta. Clearly, those 2 events overshadowed the Russia statement for weeks, and most of the public was left no more informed about the gravity of Russia’s activities.
Fast-forward to today, when so many different committees and agencies are investigating Russia and Trump that I write a blog entirely dedicated to keeping track of their respective inquiries and developments, it seems that the gravity of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election has still not really sunk in. The issue of electoral interference by a hostile foreign power has somehow morphed into the question of collusion between the Trump campaign and said foreign power. While certainly important, and incredibly grave if proven, there has not been any concrete evidence of collusion thus far–the closest thing is now Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting, which needs to be fully investigated before any credible claims are made. Although some kind of cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russian actors seems increasingly likely, and much communication between the two has surfaced, it remains the deliberate task of Congress, the Justice Department, and other relevant federal bodies to determine the nature of those connections based on evidence. The question of collusion, and its political ramifications, have disturbingly obscured the fact–based on a large body of nonpartisan intelligence–that the US’s sacred democratic process has been sabotaged, eroding both public and international confidence in our electoral process. This is an issue we must all face together as citizens, and one that the current President categorically refuses to seriously acknowledge. Although the various Russia investigations covered in this blog have all in some way or another been beset by partisanship and political pressure, their main function is not to argue about potential campaign espionage, but to ensure that our democracy remains secure and independent in the face of external–possibly existential–threats, now and in the future.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.