After a lull in coverage roughly coinciding with Congress’ summer recess, the past two weeks have brought a flurry of reporting and speculation about various aspects of the federal and congressional Russia investigations. Special counsel Robert Mueller is again in the spotlight as his investigation progresses and new leads are being reported.
DoJ and Special Counsel
Much has been made of the recent activities of Mueller and his team. It is always worth noting that in the current media climate, small–and sometimes unverified–details tend to be overanalyzed, and overly enthusiastic reports may lead us to fallacious conclusions; this is particularly important to remember when looking at highly classified investigations and activities, since aside from leaks the DoJ will never volunteer information or verification on aspects of ongoing investigations subject to media attention. That said, there have been many recent reports on important details of the special counsel investigation, which are valuable to go through, albeit critically.
One of the most central characters in Mueller’s investigation has been former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. After last month’s reports about Mueller’s FBI raid on Manafort’s home, recent coverage indicates that Manafort is still very much in Mueller’s sights: Politico recently published a story outlining Mueller’s expanded angle of inquiry into Manafort and his finances. After seizing documents from Manafort’s home, Mueller began working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate Manafort’s financial transactions and connections. Mueller and Schneiderman’s teams are reportedly sharing evidence and information regarding those finances; although he has not been charged or formally accused of anything, Manafort is being investigated for money laundering in addition to his central role in the Trump campaign and connections to Russia. Schneiderman’s involvement in Mueller’s investigation is significant because as NY AG, he works on behalf of the state, and a president does not have the power to pardon state crimes–this means Mueller could potentially use the threat of a Schneiderman financial indictment to encourage Manafort to cooperate–perhaps even with information on former colleagues–in the Trump-Russia probe.
Another important update on Mueller’s investigation is his reported desire to interview at least 6 White House aides in connection with various discussions they attended which are relevant to the special counsel probe. The Washington Post reported that Mueller informed the White House of his intention to speak with the following people in the near future:
- Reince Priebus – former White House chief of staff
- Sean Spicer – former press secretary
- Hope Hicks – close adviser, current White House communications director
- Don McGahn – White House counsel
- James Burnham – deputy to McGahn
- Josh Raffle – White House spokesman, Kushner aide
The incidents and conversations about which Mueller seeks information include Donald Trump Jr’s initial statement about his meeting with a Russian lawyer for information on Hillary Clinton, the President’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, and early warnings about former national security adviser Michael Flynn from the DoJ. McGahn and Burnham were briefed by former deputy AG Sally Yates after the inauguration about the DoJ and FBI’s concern that Flynn was withholding information about his connections to Russia, and could potentially be compromised by Russian intelligence. The White House took a long time to act on these warnings; by the time Flynn resigned, information had already been made public about his misleading Vice President Mike Pence and failing to disclose important information regarding his security clearances and connections to Russian interests. Sean Spicer was implicated in the Flynn matter after responding to questions about Flynn’s communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Reince Priebus was present for some of the interactions between Trump and Comey before Comey’s dismissal, and Hicks and Raffle were present for the crafting of Donald Jr’s first statement about his Trump Tower meeting. That statement was apparently dictated by President Trump, and claimed that the meeting was about Russian adoptions. The meeting and initial White House response has become an important part of Mueller’s investigation, because of the possibility that the President knew what the meeting was actually about–obtaining damaging information on the Clinton campaign–and intentionally sought to mislead the public by personally crafting his son’s response, which Trump Jr later amended.
Mueller’s interviews with these staffers have not yet been scheduled, and the special counsel team is reportedly still looking over relevant documents provided by the White House and potentially awaiting more. The special counsel is also expected to seek interviews with more people close to the President in the near future, including son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who has already been interviewed by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.
Another special counsel update is Facebook’s recent revelation that an internal investigation found evidence of a widespread Russian-led campaign to disseminate politically divisive ads before and during the 2016 campaign. Facebook shared with Mueller information it found indicating that Russian interests likely spent about $100,000 on advertisements ostensibly intended to influence the US political climate and possibly the outcome of the election. The ads weren’t necessarily aimed at either candidate, but instead targeted highly controversial political and social issues. Facebook stated that over a period of about 2 years before and during the election around 3,000 separate ads were purchased by Russian operatives, and they also found a large number of fake accounts and pages connected to those ads. This evidence supports earlier US intelligence reports outlining the important role that the spread of false information on social media sites played in swaying public opinion and shifting the political climate prior to the election. Facebook has since taken steps to stop the spread of fake news, spam, and click bait. The information they gave Mueller reportedly includes details about the individuals who bought the ads in question.
Finally, in other DoJ news, new FBI director Christopher Wray recently gave a statement of confidence in Mueller’s investigation and its independent progression, as well as in the conclusions reached by the rest of the intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the election, which the President has repeatedly refuted.
House Intelligence Committee
At the end of August, the House Intelligence Committee issued identical subpoenas to the FBI and DoJ requesting documents related to the infamous–and so far unverified–dossier about Trump and his alleged deep connections to the Russian government. The subpoenas apparently came from Committee chairman Devin Nunes, who recused himself from the Russia investigation but appears to remain heavily involved in certain lines of inquiry. The subpoenas had a deadline for the 1st of September but received no response from either agency; after extending their deadline by 2 weeks, last Tuesday the Committee subpoenaed FBI director Wray and AG Jeff Sessions to testify about their refusal to comply with the initial document subpoenas. Nunes also unilaterally threatened to compel Wray and Sessions to testify, and even to hold them in contempt of Congress if they do not comply with the Committee’s request. House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff later told MSNBC that the decision to subpoena the DoJ officials was not a collective one, and came as a surprise to the Democrats because they had not yet even requested voluntary disclosures from either agency. Schiff and other Democrats have decried their Republican colleagues’ fixation on the controversial dossier as being a politically motivated attempt to discredit, rather than investigate, the dossier’s contents.
Senate Judiciary Committee
Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee privately interviewed Donald Trump Jr about his pre-election Trump Tower meeting. Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley had threatened to subpoena Trump Jr, which reportedly prompted his cooperation. In his opening statement, Trump Jr denied any campaign collusion and told senators that he attended the meeting mainly to gather information on Hillary Clinton’s ‘qualifications’ for president. The interview lasted 5 hours, and Trump Jr also reportedly denied his father’s involvement in the drafting of his initial statement about the meeting. He maintained the rest of his other earlier statements about the meeting, and since the interview took place behind closed doors not much else is known about his responses. Before the Committee’s interview chairman Grassley received a call from President Trump, who pledged his support for ethanol, a key campaign issue for Grassley’s constituents. The Senate Intelligence Committee is also expected to interview Trump Jr in the near future, after hearing from others who attended the July 2016 meeting.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.