The special counsel investigation into Russian electoral interference and Trump campaign collusion has taken a dramatic turn this week with the indictment and subsequent guilty plea of former national security adviser Michael Flynn on charges of lying to the FBI. Flynn had been under investigation since before Mueller’s appointment, and previous news–including his breaking ties with Trump’s legal team–had indicated that he may have been cooperating with the special counsel. A guilty plea signals the investigation’s increasing proximity to the current White House administration, which has had difficulties distancing itself from the characters who have been indicted or otherwise implicated thus far. The general perception, catalyzed by media coverage, seems to be that Mueller is zeroing in on very high-level members of the administration and transition, perhaps including Trump himself. Multiple reports suggest that the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner may be the next target in Mueller’s sights, due to his involvement in meetings between Flynn and former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, as well as his presence at and reported input on other Russia-related affairs during the campaign and transition. Aside from Kushner, Donald Trump Jr has also been under increased scrutiny for his role in meetings with Russian affiliates, and is set to appear before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and possibly the Senate Judiciary Committee in coming weeks.
DoJ & Special Counsel
Charging Flynn was certainly the most noteworthy development in the special counsel’s Russia investigation thus far, but there is much about Flynn’s guilty plea and consequent cooperation to unpack. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations he had during the presidential transition with then Russian ambassador Kislyak. Flynn was attempting to establish back channel communications to discuss policy issues including Russian sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in response to election interference, and a U.N. security council resolution on Israel (read the court documents here). Perhaps the most damning allegation is that Flynn coordinated foreign policy with Russian officials; it is illegal for Americans who do not hold political office to negotiate U.S. policy, and during the time that Flynn met with Kislyak and was in contact with other foreign officials, Trump had not yet taken office. We now know that including Flynn, multiple people involved in the Trump campaign not only communicated with Russians during the campaign and transition, but were also privy to Russian offers of campaign-related assistance, directly contradicting the administration’s steadfast insistence to the contrary.
Flynn’s indictment was not itself a surprise; the U.S. intelligence community had long known that Flynn had lied to the FBI about his foreign communications. There are many other potential crimes for which he could have been charged, so the fact that Mueller only charged him with lying to the FBI, coupled with his quick guilty plea, indicates that he had been working with the special counsel and has information Mueller views as valuable. This could include implicating other members of Trump’s inner circle; court documents indicate that Mueller is interested in one or two unnamed senior officials on the Trump transition team who directed Flynn to communicate with Kislyak about policy. Several media outlets have used anonymous sources to identify that senior official as Jared Kushner, although this has not been definitively confirmed. Last month, prior to Flynn’s plea, Kushner was questioned by the special counsel about a meeting he attended with Flynn and Kislyak during the transition, but this interview was brief and probably a procedural component of the case against Flynn. As with any important development in the Russia investigations, Flynn’s plea has caused a flurry of excited conjecture and speculation, but right now all that we can say for certain is that Flynn is giving some information to Mueller as part of his plea, which could potentially implicate other administration officials, likely by exposing their perjury related to denying knowledge of campaign communication with Russia.
In another bold move this week, Mueller subpoenaed–and received–President Trump’s personal banking information from Deutsche Bank, Trump’s biggest lender. It is unclear whether these financial records are directly related to the Russia probe, or if the special counsel is using his broad mandate to contemporaneously investigate other potential financial crimes. Trump and his business activities have a shady financial history to say the least, and Deutsche Bank is reportedly one of the only institutions that were still lending to him over the past two decades–the loans have amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year the bank itself was implicated in a Russian money laundering scheme, although investigators have found no relation between that and Trump.
This week has also brought an interesting update in the Manafort case. Special counsel prosecutors had reportedly worked out a large bail deal with Manafort, which would have released him from house arrest and monitoring, but withdrew their support for the deal amidst allegations that Manafort had secretly ghostwritten an editorial in defense of his work for pro-Russian interests in the Ukraine. He had reportedly been working on the editorial last week with an unnamed Russian colleague, whom prosecutors identified as having ties to Russian intelligence. According to the prosecutors, both the editorial itself and the contact with a Russian intel-affiliate violate a court order barring attempts to influence public opinion. The Washington Post tentatively identified the Russian colleague as Konstantin Kilimnik, who worked for Manafort during his time consulting in the Ukraine and with whom Manafort had remained in contact. Relating back to a previously reported allegation, during the campaign Manafort reportedly directed Kilimnik to reach out to Putin-allied Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska–for whom Manafort had worked as a consultant–to offer ‘private briefings’ on the Trump campaign, although both men deny this.
Senate Intelligence Committee
This week the New York Times reported that over the summer President Trump had repeatedly pressured senior Republicans in the Senate to end the Russia investigations as quickly as possible. These senators included Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as other members of the Committee, according to lawmakers and aides. Burr told reporters that Trump had contacted him and urged him to ‘move on’ to other issues. During the summer Trump was especially upset about the Russia investigations, frequently complaining publicly and venting about Jeff Sessions’ recusal, and reportedly often complained to McConnell about the probes. Chairman Burr said he did not feel pressured by the president, and other Republican lawmakers have characterized Trump’s appeals as simply political ignorance. On the other side of the aisle, some Democrats are raising questions about possible obstruction of justice, although given Burr’s response the issue is unlikely to mature.
House Intelligence Committee
The House Intelligence Committee is set to meet for a private interview with Donald Trump Jr on Wednesday. Among the topics expected to be discussed are the Trump Tower meeting Trump Jr set up on the promise of ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, and a National Rifle Association meeting he attended last year with Russian banker and Putin ally Alexander Torshin, who reportedly reached out to the Trump campaign in a Kremlin-backed attempt to set up a backchannel. Additionally, investigators are expected to question Trump Jr about Trump’s financial ties to Russia, as well as Trump Jr’s online communication with WikiLeaks during the campaign while the site was releasing hacked DNC emails. The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to interview Trump Jr about similar subjects at an unspecified time later in the month. Both interviews are voluntary, so while investigators have long lists of issues they would like to probe, it remains to be seen how forthcoming Trump Jr will be.
The House Intelligence Committee has continued to pursue questions related to the controversial Steele dossier, a compilation of intelligence about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia (see previous posts), and its author, former British spy Christopher Steele. Leading this line of questioning is recused Committee chairman Devin Nunes, who has repeatedly shown surprising and very partisan aggression on matters related to the dossier: Nunes has issued multiple subpoenas and threats to officials from Fusion GPS, the company that commissioned the dossier, as well as to the DoJ and FBI regarding intelligence related to the dossier’s allegations. Nunes’ tactics have been perceived as surprising and unnecessary by the Democratic members of his Committee, and ranking member Adam Schiff has been vocal about his misgivings with Nunes’ ongoing involvement in the investigation, implying that Nunes is most interested in creating distractions to benefit the Trump administration. Most recently, Nunes threatened to hold the DoJ and FBI in contempt of Congress for not allowing their officials to testify to the Committee. However, this week the DoJ reportedly reached a long-negotiated agreement with Nunes for Committee investigators to interview an official who was Steele’s point of contact in the FBI. Nunes has continued to publicly accuse Justice officials of ‘stonewalling’ his investigation, seemingly even after the agreement had been formalized. DoJ spokespeople have countered Nunes’ allegations, saying they have already given the House Intelligence Committee hundreds of documents related to the dossier and its funding. Additionally, CNN reported that after a tedious negotiation the FBI had agreed to brief a bipartisan group of Committee leaders about issues related to Nunes’ earlier subpoenas, but Nunes refused to attend the briefing with Committee Democrats and insisted on identical private briefings for each side. Nunes reportedly continues to fume over what he perceives as DoJ attempts to thwart or undermine his investigation, and despite their ostensible detente, he still insists on drafting a contempt of Congress citation as quickly as possible against FBI director Christopher Wray and deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, over their failure to produce certain documents the Committee had subpoenaed.
Senate Judiciary Committee
This week Diane Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NBC reporters that her Committee’s investigation is “putting together a case of obstruction of justice” against President Trump, given an already sizeable body of evidence supporting that charge, including Trump’s firing of James Comey as well as recent comments he made about Flynn. Feinstein also indicated that she thought the evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government was growing stronger. Feinstein has been at the forefront of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigative activities, but recent reports indicate that she and chairman Chuck Grassley have been butting heads over the probe’s progress. Although the Judiciary Committee’s investigation has proceeded more smoothly and expediently than some of the congressional probes, it has not been without its partisan struggles. These have included allegations of Grassley’s unwillingness to move forward with certain lines of investigation, which has been perceived by some Committee members as stalling or stonewalling. Grassley himself has seemed preoccupied by questions surrounding the Clinton email investigation, and other highly politicized issues that do not directly relate to the Russia probe. Feinstein and other Committee Democrats are pressing forward on issues of obstruction and potential collusion, and are pressing Grassley to sign on to a subpoena to compel Donald Trump Jr to testify in a public hearing before their Committee this month.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.