Last week, national news was dominated by the explosive revelations of new indictments and developments in special counsel Mueller’s investigation. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his close business associate Rick Gates were indicted on 12 counts related to their financial connections and work lobbying for foreign entities–including Russian-allied former Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovich–for which they received large sums of money which were allegedly laundered through a network of offshore accounts to avoid taxation and hide the international business connections. The indictments include conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, and failure to register as foreign lobbyists, among other charges. Following the indictments, Manafort and Gates surrendered to the FBI and pleaded not guilty, and are both currently under house arrest on multi-million-dollar bonds.
Despite the outcry it caused, Manafort’s indictment was no surprise to those following the Russia investigations; last month reports revealed that when the FBI raided Manafort’s home over the summer investigators had told Manafort to expect an indictment–the raid itself found evidence Manafort had withheld from the DoJ–and what little is known about Mueller’s aggressive pursuit of documents up to now certainly indicated that he had been closing in on Manafort. Aside from being an expected development in the special counsel’s investigation, it is important to note that the indictments target Manafort and Gates’ business activities prior to the 2016 election and do not directly relate to Manafort’s work on Trump’s campaign, or to the question of collusion between campaign officials and Russia–a point the White House has emphatically underscored.
However, just hours after news of the indictments broke, another bombshell, much more damaging to the presidency, was released by the special counsel: the news that George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, had pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI and had reportedly been cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. Papadopoulos’ plea involved communications he had with people acting on behalf of the Russian government during the campaign, which he concealed from the FBI when first questioned. In April Papadopoulos had been offered, via email, allegedly damaging information about Hillary Clinton from someone he thought was close to Putin. He tried repeatedly to set up a meeting between campaign officials and Russian representatives, even reportedly suggesting that Trump meet with Putin prior to the election. Although the White House has said that Papadopoulos was only a low-level volunteer, he revealed in his plea that he did attend at least one important campaign foreign policy meeting with Trump and now-AG Jeff Sessions, among others, at which he brought up the possibility of connecting with Russian intermediaries to obtain information, and was rebuked by Sessions. So far it seems that Papadopoulos’ attempts to set up a meeting were unsuccessful, although Salon reported that after Papadopoulos began cooperating with investigators an email of his was found from right before the Republican convention, in which he said the campaign had approved a pre-election meeting with Russian officials. This information was not part of his plea, which suggests that prosecutors either thought it was false or wanted to look deeper.
Other campaign officials were also aware of Papadopoulos’ attempts to communicate with Russians; his supervisor was national co-chairman Sam Clovis, whose presidential nomination for chief scientist at the USDA was withdrawn after the recent news. Perhaps most importantly, the meeting Papadopoulos detailed in his plea–at which he tried to bring up the possibility of communicating directly with Russian officials–was also attended by Jeff Sessions, which puts Sessions in an awkward position with regards to what he had previously told lawmakers about his knowledge of campaign communications with Russia: nothing. Congressional investigators are now calling on Sessions to testify again.
The FBI obtained Papadopoulos’ communications with Russian contacts, ensnaring him in a previous lie, and arrested him the day after they raided Manafort’s home at Mueller’s behest. Papadopoulos’ plea–combined with the information known about Donald Trump Jr’s infamous Trump Tower meeting–clearly indicates that Russian operatives, seemingly acting directly on behalf of the Kremlin, had offered help in the form of opposition information to multiple Trump campaign officials, at least some of whom took the bait. It’s not yet clear if and how the campaign actually received or used any information from Russia, but the more we learn the more conceivable the question of collusion becomes.
Aside from the headline-grabbing Manafort and Papadopoulos news, the past 2 weeks have seen many other important developments in the Russia investigations: the Senate Judiciary, Senate Intelligence, and House Intelligence Committees all held highly anticipated public hearings last week for representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google–the tech giants whose platforms were used by Russian propagandists to deepen social and political divisions among voters during the 2016 election. The hearings centered on the question of how far the false and divisive posts spread and what impact they may have had on voters, and the issue of regulating political advertising on social media and the companies’ failures to promptly identify and address the Russian activity on their platforms. More on these hearings below.
DoJ & Special Counsel
In the wake of the indictments and plea news, there has been much speculation about Mueller’s intentions, what other information he has, and where he and his team plan to go next. Little is known about the extent of Papadopoulos’ cooperation with the special counsel, although it has been widely theorized–with no evidence–that the DoJ had him wear a wire while he was still in contact with campaign officials. The White House has also apparently voluntarily given all of Papadopoulos’ campaign emails to the special counsel. Whatever information Papadopoulos has about who else in the campaign was aware of his communications and attempts to set up a meeting with Russian officials is undoubtedly important to Mueller’s case, and perhaps the key question is whether the campaign actually obtained any concrete information from Russian contacts and if so how it was used and by whom. Many analysts believe that Mueller deliberately timed the release of the Manafort indictments and shortly afterward the news of Papadopoulos’ plea in order to catch other campaign and administration officials off guard, and to indicate that cooperation with the DoJ (like Papadopoulos’) is pragmatic, while obstruction (like Manafort’s) is met with swift indictments. Furthermore, the case against Manafort and Gates does not directly relate to the Trump campaign, while Papadopolous’ plea implicates senior campaign officials and even Trump himself–which leads to further speculation that Mueller may still be trying to get more information out of Manafort regarding his work on the campaign and potentially even implicate other campaign officials. Even if Manafort and Gates were to receive a presidential pardon, the case Mueller has built against them–primarily financial–could easily be taken up and prosecuted by state attorneys, who aren’t subject to federal pardons. It is unlikely that this is the last we will hear of Manafort in the world of the Russia investigations.
The reaction to the special counsel’s investigative developments was swift and partisan. Democrats lauded the news about Manafort and Papadopoulos as important indicators of campaign criminality and unleashed a flurry of unfounded speculation about the particulars of the special counsel’s case. Republicans reached again for the familiar scapegoat of Hillary Clinton, dredging up an old and unsubstantiated conspiracy about an Obama-era uranium deal–irrelevant to the Russia investigations–and seizing on last week’s revelations about the DNC’s funding of the Steele Dossier, with White House chief of staff John Kelly even calling for the appointment of a separate special counsel to investigate Clinton and the DNC.
There is some relevance to the Steele dossier’s background, and the dossier itself remains an intriguing and potentially important part of the Russia investigations, although the timing of the Republican outcry over the dossier’s funding seems rather opportunistic. Last month we learned that the dossier was originally commissioned as opposition research, first by a Republican Trump opponent, and after the nomination by Democrats. Last week the details became more clear after Fusion GPS, the firm that produced the dossier, was forced to release client information: the research was originally funded by a conservative/libertarian news site which opposed Trump’s candidacy, and the bill was later picked up by the DNC, who paid indirectly via a proxy law firm. Clinton was reportedly unaware of the DNC contributions to Fusion GPS, and other top Democrats apparently didn’t know about the dossier until after the election. Before its public release, Steele’s research was of interest to the FBI in their investigation about the Russian hacking of the DNC; the concerns about the dossier’s funding are legitimate insofar as they relate to the DoJ’s use of information funded by a political party to build cases against that party’s opponents–one example raised by Republicans is the FBI’s use (while Obama was still in office) of Steele’s research to obtain a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign national security adviser Carter Page. However, the US intelligence community had separately echoed the dossier’s main findings in their own report–that Putin had deliberately ordered a campaign to interfere with and influence the 2016 election through a variety of means including social media, for the purpose of destabilizing our electoral process and undermining public faith in our democracy, with a clear intent to damage Clinton’s campaign and a preference for candidate Trump. The dossier also alleges that the Russian government fed information to Trump’s campaign, and although this has not been otherwise verified, emails from Papadopoulos and Donald Trump Jr indicate that at the very least attempts were made.
Another recently reported development in the special counsel’s investigation is an NBC story alleging that Mueller is poised to bring charges in the Michael Flynn investigation, according to 3 sources “familiar with the investigation.” Flynn has long been a key character in the Russia investigations due to his work on behalf of foreign governments and his short and controversial tenure as Trump’s national security adviser. Mueller has reportedly been interviewing Flynn’s former colleagues and associates, as well as investigating Flynn’s son, who played an important role in the family’s business dealings. Many speculate that Mueller is using Flynn Jr as bait to compel the elder Flynn’s cooperation.
Another important character in the Russia investigations is Jared Kushner, who Mueller’s team has reportedly been investigating for his role in and knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting and Comey’s firing. Kushner, who had already provided documents to congressional investigators, has reportedly been turning over documents voluntarily to the special counsel over the past few weeks.
With so much public attention on the special counsel’s investigation following last week’s news, some Republican lawmakers have renewed their calls for Mueller to resign, over alleged ‘conflicts of interest.’ House Speaker Paul Ryan pledged that Congress wouldn’t interfere in Mueller’s investigation, and the White House has also said it will not try to remove the special counsel. There are currently bipartisan bills being proposed in both chambers to protect the special counsel from executive interference.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee was the first congressional committee to hold a hearing for Facebook, Twitter, and Google representatives last Tuesday, via their Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, which has been spearheading the Committee’s Russia investigation. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees heard from the tech companies the following day. The extent of the Russian activity on social media is astounding, and investigators are still trying to understand the breadth and depth of the online interference. During the Judiciary Committee’s hearing, Facebook told investigators that Russian content on its platform reached around 126 million Americans, and Twitter revealed that in just 2.5 months leading up to the election around 1.4 million tweets were generated by Russian bots. Hundreds of millions of Americans across all 3 social and search platforms could have been exposed to Russian content prior to the election. The companies’ testimony also revealed that Russian activity–at least on Facebook–continued long after Trump’s election, with a shift from highlighting divisive issues to trying to delegitimize the presidency and sow further discord among voters.
The hearings didn’t really satisfy lawmakers; it has proved almost impossible for the companies and the investigators to determine the extent of Russian influence through social media on voter perceptions and on the ultimate outcome of the election, and Committee members were especially frustrated by the tech firms’ failure to identify potential threats leading up to the election, and their delayed reaction even after. However, given the size and power of the three companies in question, justly policing their content seems an almost impossible task as well. The hearings highlighted the companies’ inability to truly monitor the vast amount of rapidly shifting advertisements that flow through their sites; political advertising on social media is very difficult to keep track of, given the ease with which entities–i.e. foreign governments–can set up shell corporations to pay for ads, which themselves can fly under the radar amidst the massive volume of other advertising. Beyond the technical difficulties of monitoring the sources of advertising, the companies must walk a fine line between policing potentially dangerous networks and impinging on freedom of expression–especially being perceived as taking political or partisan stances regarding content regulation. There has also been very little conversation among lawmakers and government regulators until now about supervising political advertising and activity on online platforms such as social media, which have not been subject to the same regulatory mechanisms and scrutiny as conventional media. This is sure to be an issue which will prompt more discussion regarding regulation and legislation in the future.
Senate Intelligence Committee
There’s not much more to add about this Committee’s conversation with the tech companies, which yielded similar results to the Judiciary’s. A notable update on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation is chairman Richard Burr’s revelation to reporters that his committee has also been investigating George Papadopoulos, and has had “constant contact” with Papadopoulos’ legal team since his plea deal. Burr said that the Committee is looking at different aspects of the case than Mueller’s team, and apparently hasn’t yet spoken with Papadopoulos. Manafort is also a central character in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, which has been working parallel to the special counsel’s.
House Intelligence Committee
The House Intelligence Committee held 2 important interviews last week: former Trump campaign national security adviser Carter Page, who has also been under investigation by the DoJ, was interviewed privately for almost 8 hours last Thursday, and reports indicate that later that day investigators also met with Ike Kaveladz, a Russian businessman who attended the Trump Tower meeting. Mike Conaway, who has been leading the Committee’s Russia investigation in the absence of chairman Devin Nunes, told reporters that the Committee’s interview with Page was productive, but although Page answered investigators’ questions he still hasn’t completely cooperated with the Committee’s document subpoenas and didn’t say whether he intended to. During the interview Page also told the Committee that in July 2016 he went to Russia to give a speech at a university–the trip was apparently completely unrelated to his activity on the campaign–but prior to leaving he told Jeff Sessions about the trip in passing. Although Page and Conaway both said the conversation was brief and irrelevant–then and now–to the campaign and the Russia investigations, any Trump campaign officials communicating with, doing business in, or traveling to Russia during the campaign are bound to face scrutiny from investigators, and insignificant as it may be this is yet another piece of information implicating Sessions. The Committee is still waiting for more documents from Page.
Another person the House Intelligence Committee is eager to interview is Trump’s longtime former bodyguard Keith Schiller. Schiller accompanied Trump to Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant, during which the Steele dossier alleges that Russians obtained ‘compromising information’ about Trump’s behavior. Schiller also hand-delivered the letter President Trump wrote firing James Comey, which investigators will likely also want to discuss. Schiller left the White House in September, reportedly after becoming frustrated by chief of staff John Kelly’s management style.
Evidently, the Committee–at least the GOP membership–is still very interested in the Steele dossier, and Committee Republicans are still embroiled in a legal battle with Fusion GPS. Committee chairman Devin Nunes had previously subpoenaed Fusion GPS for information regarding its clients and finances, and Committee members are reportedly still trying to subpoena the company’s financial records and client list, even after Fusion worked with clients to reveal the Steele dossier’s funders and original backers. The company sought a temporary restraining order against their bank to stop House investigators from gaining access to their financial records, saying these had nothing to do with the Committee’s Russia investigation and handing them over would compromise Fusion’s business and client relationships. The Committee claims it is looking more broadly than the dossier, although it isn’t clear how the firm that commissioned the dossier is otherwise relevant to their investigation. The judge overseeing this conflict has urged both sides to reach an agreement, reportedly saying she was very reluctant to interfere with the Committee’s investigation, but that their subpoena did seem unduly broad.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.