The past week has seen a flurry of activity–or at least revelatory media reports–in almost all of the federal and congressional investigations into Russia and President Trump. Most notable have been a new wave of reports on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has long been a central subject of the Russia investigations. Recent reports indicate that Manafort was under FBI surveillance prior to the 2016 campaign, and had additional and previously unreported contact with Russian operatives during the campaign. He has been aggressively pursued by the special counsel all summer. In addition to Manafort, there have been important disclosures on Facebook’s role in the special counsel’s investigation, as well as internal disputes within the White House legal team about how to respond to the special counsel’s extensive document requests. Finally, a handful of reports about the various congressional committees conducting Russia investigations suggest that at least some of those committees are clashing with the special counsel’s team and the DoJ at large over access to certain witnesses and documents.
DoJ and Special Counsel
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has of course been the source of much speculation over the past few months, as more and more important pieces of evidence and lines of questioning are identified by the media and made public. Manafort has been in Mueller’s sights for months now, and we are learning more details about the special counsel’s supposed intentions and tactics regarding the Manafort investigation. Earlier in the summer, we learned about the FBI raid Mueller had ordered by search warrant on Manafort’s home; recently, the New York Times reported that during that raid agents told Manafort that Mueller intended to indict him. This move was read by many legal experts as an attempt by Mueller to ‘set a tone’ for the investigation, to ensure that witnesses cooperate and tell the truth. In a broader context, Mueller’s actions seem to indicate tactics of aggression and persuasion in handling central and high-level witnesses such as Manafort–essentially gathering enough incriminating evidence to intimidate or compel them into giving additional information, potentially about other subjects of the investigation.
Another surprising revelation regarding the Manafort investigation is the recent report that while chairing the Trump campaign, Manafort offered a private briefing on the presidential race–via an aide’s email–to a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, who is known to have close ties to Putin. Thus far no evidence points to any meetings actually having taken place, and the criminality of Manafort’s offer is yet to be determined.
Yet another bombshell report from the past week about Mueller’s investigation of Manafort was a Washington Post report revealing that Manafort had been under investigation by the FBI since 2014, and had been under surveillance for the past 3 years, potentially during and after his tenure as Trump’s campaign chairman. Prior to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, the FBI had obtained multiple FISA warrants to surveil Manafort’s communications, although it is unclear exactly when and for how long the warrants were issued, and what specific types of intelligence-gathering they covered. The surveillance reportedly continued on into this year and covered at least some of the time during which Manafort communicated closely with Trump; it’s also not clear whether specific conversations between the two were picked up. What is most important about these revelations is what the process of reaching them indicates: to obtain FISA warrants–which deal with surveillance in connection to foreign agents and espionage–the DoJ had to prove that Manafort was engaging knowingly in activities relating to foreign intelligence and foreign operatives. According to the Post article, DoJ investigators were concerned by some of the intel they gathered, which reportedly indicated that Manafort had ‘encouraged’ Russian operatives to help with the Trump campaign. As special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation, Mueller undoubtedly received this prior DoJ intelligence and has probably incorporated some of the FBI’s findings into his own investigation of Manafort.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has also been a longtime key figure in the special counsel investigation, and recent reports suggest that his son, Michael G Flynn, is now under investigation as well. Flynn Jr seems to have played an important role at Flynn Intel Group, Flynn’s lobbying firm, including working closely with his father and accompanying him on several business trips to Russia, and potentially communicating with Russian state operatives. Many speculate that Mueller is using Flynn’s son to pressure him into cooperating more in the investigation. Two Democratic congressmen from the House Oversight and House Foreign Affairs Committees are also reportedly giving the special counsel documents they obtained from Flynn’s former business partners, after accusing Flynn of concealing even more information from investigators and on background and security checks over the past two years, related to Russian projects and foreign trips.
Aside from Manafort and Flynn, the special counsel has been looking at Facebook–more specifically, social media’s role in disseminating false and misleading articles and advertisements, funded by Russian interests, aimed at creating divisive social and political currents and potentially influencing public opinion before and during the election. In the past few weeks, Mueller obtained a warrant to gather Facebook data and information about the Russian-backed ads and accounts in question, including information about their buyers and the targeting criteria used to circulate the ads. Again, the way the special counsel was able to obtain this information is important: to get the Facebook warrant, Mueller had to present compelling evidence to a federal judge that a crime had occurred in connection with the foreign purchases of ads, which were probably intended to influence the outcome of the election. This warrant also represents a new–or at least previously unreported–arm of Mueller’s probe, digging into the question of specific instances of Russian electoral interference. The news prompted many reporters to speculate that the special counsel is coming closer to questioning and charging specific foreign individuals for their role in trying to influence the outcome of the election.
Another update on the special counsel’s investigation is the recently released news that Mueller interviewed deputy AG Rod Rosenstein earlier in the summer about his role in and knowledge of the firing of former FBI director James Comey. Since AG Jeff Sessions’ recusal from Russia-related matters, Rosenstein has directly overseen all DoJ activity involving the Russia investigation, including the special counsel probe; the fact that he was interviewed by Mueller and hasn’t recused himself seems to indicate that he isn’t seen as a key witness in the probe.
Mueller and his team continue to request and review White House documents related to Trump’s actions in office, including Comey’s dismissal, issues surrounding Michael Flynn, and the president’s reported crafting of his son’s misleading response to news of the infamous Donald Jr-Trump Tower meeting. In addition to those matters, the special counsel has reportedly requested White House internal communications regarding former campaign associates including Manafort, and Trump’s original foreign policy team. Mueller’s team has also been looking over a letter drafted by Trump and an aide, Stephen Miller, giving Trump’s initial reasons for firing Comey. The President had reportedly been increasingly angered that Comey wouldn’t publicly state that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation, and that was included as reasoning for his dismissal in the draft letter. The letter was never sent after strong objections from White House counsel Don McGahn and other aides. Eventually, the White House released a letter signed by deputy AG Rosenstein, which cited Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation as the main reason for his firing.
The White House response to Mueller’s extensive document requests has been fraught with disagreement and internal bickering. A New York Times reporter recently overheard two leading White House lawyers discussing the legal team’s discordant response to the special counsel’s requests. Those two lawyers were Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer responsible for responding to the Russia investigations, and John Dowd, Trump’s personal lawyer, who took over from Marc Kasowitz–who was pushed aside earlier in the year over internal disagreements. (See my previous post for a full–if now slightly dated–list of the White House legal team). Cobb and Dowd were talking about how to respond to Mueller’s document requests–and the differing opinion of White House counsel Don McGahn on the matter. Their discussion exposed a deep disagreement between Cobb and McGahn: Cobb advocates handing over everything requested by the DoJ as quickly as possible in order to avoid subpoenas and try to show innocence through transparency, while McGahn is concerned that giving too much would limit the President’s ability to invoke executive privilege in the future. The Times reporter overheard Cobb venting that McGahn was being too withholding of documents and evidence. After the story broke, McGahn reportedly exploded at Cobb, who then gave a conciliatory interview. The special counsel had previously asked McGahn for an interview, which complicates his position on handing over documents; he is reportedly awaiting the President’s decision on whether to invoke attorney-client privilege, although an appeals court ruled during President Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal that attorney-client privilege covered government lawyers differently, and that they could in certain cases be compelled by prosecutors to testify. Tensions within the White House legal team have been high for months, and any decisions by Trump or Mueller are sure to spark more conflict.
Finally, there have been two recent changes to Mueller’s team: a new prosecutor, Kyle Freeny, recently joined the special counsel investigation after transferring from the DoJ’s money laundering unit. Lisa Page, an attorney who had been part of the team, reportedly left earlier in the summer to return to her position at the FBI general counsel’s office. (Again, here’s a previous post with a now slightly dated list of the attorneys working on the special counsel probe).
Senate Intelligence Committee
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation has some notable updates, including the Committee’s intentions to speak with President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. The committee had planned a closed-door interview with Cohen, but postponed it after Cohen released a public statement vehemently denying any type of collusion or involvement with Russia regarding the election. Much of Cohen’s statement addressed contents of the controversial and yet-unverified Steele dossier, which alleges that Cohen met with Russian and Ukranian operatives and was heavily involved in dealmaking on behalf of the Trump campaign prior to the election. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr told reporters that after Jared Kushner released a public statement addressing his closed-door interview the Committee changed their policy on witness statements, since when interviews are conducted privately it is in order to protect sensitive information, and public statements only tell one side of the story. Hours after postponing Cohen’s interview, the Senate Intelligence Committee canceled it altogether and instead invited him to testify at a public hearing, which is yet to be determined.
Another person the Committee seeks to interview is Michael Flynn, who recently refused a new Senate request. Earlier in the year, Flynn had invoked the 5th amendment to decline the Committee’s prior requests. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees both subpoenaed Flynn earlier in the summer for his business records–not covered by the 5th amendment–after he refused their personal requests; Flynn did give the Senate Intelligence Committee substantial documents in response to the subpoena, but has not cooperated further. Flynn originally offered to testify to both intelligence committees in exchange for immunity, but both declined.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is also going after Facebook for information on social media’s role in the Russian electoral interference. Reports suggest that the Committee plans to hold a hearing at some point to gather testimony from Facebook. The special counsel already obtained a warrant for access to Facebook’s information, and the company recently announced that they would voluntarily share information about Russian-bought ads with congressional investigators. The Senate Intelligence Committee wants to look deeper into the question of whether the false stories and ads placed by Russian operatives had a measurable impact on voters in the 2016 election.
At the beginning of the week, the Senate Intelligence Committee reportedly held a private interview with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Politico reported that Podesta was seen leaving a Senate Intelligence Committee room, but neither he nor the Committee would comment on his appearance. Podesta’s personal emails were among those hacked during the campaign by suspected Russian operatives, and later released online by WikiLeaks, ostensibly in an attempt to damage the Clinton campaign.
House Intelligence Committee
The House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation has been a rollercoaster of intrigue, dispute, and deception from the start, which has to a great extent prevented the Committee from gathering credible information and pressing forward cooperatively with their probe. This week a few significant updates to the investigation were reported, including news that former Trump adviser and longtime political ally Roger Stone will meet Committee members for a voluntary closed-door interview next week. Stone has repeatedly asked to testify publicly, and has tried to publicize his cooperation with congressional requests, but the Committee has been firm about interviewing certain key witnesses in private. Stone has been an extremely controversial figure in Trump’s network, and his interview is set for September 26th.
Like its Senate counterpart, the House Intelligence Committee is also eager to hear from Facebook, although consensus within the Committee on such intel-gathering is unclear. Ranking member Adam Schiff has called for representatives from Facebook and Twitter to appear either privately or publicly before the Committee to address Russian activity on social media before and during the election, but it’s not yet clear whether the Committee will request data from Facebook.
A new and already controversial figure is joining the staff of the House Intelligence Committee. Ousted National Security Council official Derek Harvey was originally appointed to the NSC by Michael Flynn, and was removed earlier in the summer by national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee has had a busy few weeks, and as their Russia investigation progresses they find themselves butting heads with the special counsel probe on multiple fronts, including witness interviews and document requests. The Committee has been trying to interview two senior FBI officials, Carl Ghattas and James Rybicki, about Comey’s firing, but the DoJ recently denied the Committee’s interview requests on the grounds of potential interference with the special counsel investigation. The DoJ’s refusal suggests that Mueller is still probably investigating Comey’s firing and interviewing departmental witnesses, and wants to avoid congressional interference which could publicize sensitive information. Committee chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Diane Feinstein are reportedly annoyed with the DoJ’s reluctance to cooperate with their requests, which they see as ‘stonewalling’. The Committee views witness testimony as a key part of their investigation, and according to a recent New York Times report it is considering subpoenas to compel the DoJ officials to testify, even with objections from the department and the special counsel. Feinstein hasn’t been explicit about issuing subpoenas, which she would have to sign off on, but has stated her frustration with DoJ-related delays in the investigation. In addition to Ghattas and Rybicki, the Senate Judiciary Committee is interested in interviewing Paul Manafort, who agreed to testify earlier in the summer after being subpoenaed, but has reportedly refused to communicate with committee requests since the FBI raided his home. Aside from the struggle for witness interviews, the Committee has been going over documents including transcripts from their closed door interviews with Donald Trump Jr and Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS–the firm that produced the Steele dossier. In a sign of broader tensions with the special counsel, the Committee reportedly has not yet given Mueller full access to the Donald Trump Jr transcript. Trump Jr is also expected to testify in a public Senate Judiciary hearing at some point later in the fall. Much of the Committee’s frustration seems to stem from the view that since they are the direct congressional oversight body for the DoJ and FBI, their investigation should have jurisdictional access to information regarding the Comey firing, which is now being withheld due to Mueller’s investigation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled two important hearings in the near future: one an annual DoJ oversight hearing with AG Jeff Sessions, and the other a hearing on the role of special counsels, at which senators plan to bring up bills proposing to make it more difficult for the White House or DoJ to fire Mueller (or any special counsel in the future). These bills come in the midst of the Committee’s clashes with Mueller over evidence, but indicate that even with their disagreements the Committee is taking a broader view of the Russia investigations in general and acknowledging the importance of allowing an impartial special counsel investigation to run its course; last month a Republican congressman proposed cutting funding to the special counsel probe to 6 months and limiting its scope. The DoJ/AG oversight hearing is scheduled for October 18th, and is an annual event unrelated to the Judiciary Committee’s Russia investigation. However, Committee members are reportedly eager to question Sessions about a range of issues, including both his recusal after failing to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearing, and his role in or knowledge of Comey’s firing. This hearing will be Sessions’ first appearance before the Committee since his confirmation hearing.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.