February 23, 2018
The special counsel dropped a bombshell in the Russia investigations last week, delivering 13 indictments of Russian nationals and organizations in relation to their online campaign to disrupt the 2016 election through promotion of fake stories and divisive narratives on social media and around the internet, as well as direct manipulation of unsuspecting Americans. Here is the public release of the official DoJ indictment, which lays out a long and extensive case against the defendants, and includes charges of conspiracy against the US, bank and wire fraud, and identity theft. The indictment does not include any explicit language on collusion, nor does it point to any evidence of American involvement in or knowledge of the Russian activity. The White House has seized on this point, also highlighting the indictment’s determination that the Russian interference had begun in 2014, prior to Trump’s candidacy.
With all the hype, it is easy to get lost in the details and reactions; in my opinion there are a few key takeaways from this recent move by Mueller. The indictments are incredibly specific about the Russians’ targeted interference in US politics, as well as their intention – directed by the Russian government – to support Trump’s candidacy and undermine Clinton’s in 2016. It is nearly impossible to determine if the Russian efforts actually did influence the election’s outcome, but to date this is the best legally-focused public indication of the scope of their operation. However, the indictment centers on cyber activity, especially social media manipulation, and financial frauds. Clearly this is not the endgame of the special counsel’s investigation; it reads more like a platform from which other related cases could be built, especially with the continued cooperation of a few key former campaign associates in Mueller’s investigation.
To my mind, there are two plausible outcomes regarding the question of collusion. Firstly, just because evidence of collusion was not included in this particular set of indictments, it does not mean that the special counsel lacks such evidence. He may be waiting for more witnesses to corroborate information, or simply choosing carefully how to lay down his cards in a highly politicized probe which has already drawn in many high-level government officials and may yet ensnare more. Such speculation is beside the point. This indictment makes clear that Russians wanted to sway the election in Trump’s favor, but no firm case has yet emerged that Trump campaign officials knew or collaborated with those efforts. What we do know is that the Russian interference was not limited to the 2016 election; it started before, and continues still, according to the US intelligence community. I think, therefore, that the other plausibility – which we should not rule out simply due to political sensibilities and suspiciously coincidental behavior by campaign officials – is that the 2016 election simply presented an ideal playing field for Russia, given its unconventional, chaotic, and already extremely divisive nature.
A final point to keep in mind regarding these indictments is that the White House has still not been moved to action on dealing with the continued threat that Russian political intervention poses. Trump’s initial reaction was to distance himself from the indictments by highlighting the lack of evidence of collusion, and he did not immediately address the serious and unique allegations the DoJ made against Russia, a political adversary, for crimes committed against the US. The White House has even tried to shift attention away from Russia by blaming Democrats and the media, as usual. Trump has always been uniquely cozy with Russia, and un-critical of Putin, but his continued refusal to acknowledge the scope and depth of the Russian intervention into American politics does seem strange, especially if his campaign was, as he claims, just an unwitting pawn in Russia’s larger game.
Unrelated to the Russia indictments but important to the Russia investigation, Mueller has also released a profusion of new charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner and former deputy campaign chair. Last fall the men were indicted for laundering money that Manafort had received working for former pro-Russian Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovich. After Yanukovich fled to Russia in 2014, Manafort and Gates seem to have devised a scheme to make more money by lying to banks about income and assets in order to secure loans and mortgages. It is this bank and tax fraud that Mueller’s new charges are based on. The new charges, like the original ones, are not directly connected to Trump or the Trump campaign, and seem to be intended to increase pressure on Manafort and Gates to cooperate with other aspects of the Russia investigation. Recent reports indicate that Gates is already cooperating with the special counsel, and may be close to a plea deal, which would put even more pressure on Manafort, whose trial is set for the spring. Gates has reportedly been in plea negotiations for about a month.
The special counsel’s recent activity has not been limited to the Russia indictments and Manafort charges. Reports indicate that Mueller has been interviewing other campaign and White House officials, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon has reportedly met with the special counsel several times over the past few weeks, stirring speculation about his cooperation with Mueller’s investigation. Bannon is also in the midst of a legal battle with the House Intelligence Committee over his refusal to testify. He had previously been subpoenaed by the special counsel and made a deal with Mueller to avoid grand jury testimony. The special counsel also interviewed former Trump legal spokesman Mark Corallo last week, and is reportedly planning to interview early Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg this week.
Reports about specific people or things that the special counsel is investigating are numerous and probably misleading; aside from knowing whom Mueller interviews and when, there is very little reliable public information about the many directions his investigation is taking. That said, over the past month he has reportedly been looking into suspicious Russian financial transactions in the US, even prior to the election; money laundering; Russian banks; and Jared Kushner’s financial ties. The Russia investigation is moving quickly and in many directions, and is certainly following the money. The special counsel also brought a new prosecutor on board: Ryan Dickey, who joined the team after leaving the DoJ’s computer crime and intellectual-property division, and specializes in prosecuting cyber crimes.
White House vs. DoJ Update
My last post focused on the escalating conflict between the White House and the Department of Justice, as the House Intelligence Committee released an inflammatory memo about the FBI, which the President used to bolster his claims that the Justice Department was biased against him and his campaign. The memo was decried by members of the intelligence community and congress, who alleged that it was intentionally misleading and omitted important circumstantial facts. After an internal battle, the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic minority released their own counter-memo, which they say provides a more complete picture of the Republicans’ charges, centered around a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court application which cited intelligence from the controversial Steele memo. However, to date the President has refused to sign off on the Democratic memo’s public release, citing security concerns stemming from a plethora of classified material. Last week Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein met with Trump to discuss the memo’s declassification, and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff met with the FBI to discuss redactions, which he said he will freely make if deemed necessary by legitimate security concerns. Schiff has argued that unlike Nunes’ memo, the Democratic one had already been seen and preliminarily vetted by the FBI and DoJ prior to being sent to the wider Committee and the President, and that Trump is suppressing it because it undermines the elements of the Nunes memo he had claimed as ‘vindication’ in the world of the Russia investigations. Republicans, on the other hand, have accused Schiff of purposefully including information he knew would need to be redacted, in order to make it seem like the White House is trying to suppress information. Regardless, the Democratic memo presents a tricky political situation for the administration, especially given their strained relationship with the Justice Department. On one hand, releasing the Democratic memo could reveal embarrassing inconsistencies in the Nunes memo and make the White House look bad for standing by it; on the other hand, the justification for releasing Nunes’ memo was public transparency, and clearly releasing only one (partisan) side of the story and suppressing the countering narrative even further politicizes the entire issue. Now that the underlying intelligence matter – the FISA warrant application and the intel it was based on – was declassified, barring specific details there seems little legal justification for not declassifying the rest of the relevant information that the Democrats and DoJ provided, and letting the public judge for themselves whether there was bias or malfeasance. Schiff has predicted the memo’s imminent release, telling reporters last week that Committee Democrats and FBI/DoJ officials are nearing an agreement on redactions. However, the President still has ultimate and wide-ranging authority over the memo’s contents, should he choose to release it, so it is not unlikely that the White House will try to use redactions to create their own narrative spin.
DoJ & FBI
Aside from the recent indictments, there has been a flurry of activity within the Justice Department as well as the special counsel investigation. Driven in large part by the outspoken criticisms from the White House, the DoJ and FBI have had a few significant staff changes in the past few weeks. One of the most notable shakeups was the resignation of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who had been the subject of Presidential recriminations for months. FBI Director Christopher Wray had reportedly been pressured by Trump to fire McCabe, and had also reportedly discussed demoting him ahead of an anticipated DoJ Inspector General report which is expected to be critical of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation in 2016, for which McCabe may have had a potential conflict of interest stemming from a donation by a Clinton ally to the earlier political campaign of McCabe’s wife. The circumstances surrounding McCabe’s resignation are confusing, but it does seem that pressure from above played a role in his departure. Hiring decisions at the FBI and DoJ have become incredibly politicized, and Wray himself is in a difficult situation with the President. An Acting Deputy, the next-in-line official at the FBI David Bowdich, has taken McCabes place.
Last month Wray also replaced two top aides: FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki and General Counsel James Baker. There had been reports circulating that Wray had also been under pressure from the White House to make some staffing changes, and Rybicki had been questioned earlier in the month by the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees about his role in the Clinton email investigation and his knowledge of the circumstances around former FBI Director James Comey’s firing. Wray stated that Rybicki had decided to leave on his own. Rybicki is succeeded by Zachary Harmon, a former prosecutorial colleague of Wray’s. The former FBI General Counsel James Baker was also involved with some of Comey’s decisions during the Clinton and Russia investigations, and was replaced by Dana Boente, who briefly served as Acting AG and Deputy AG during the Trump transition.
At the Justice Department, the third-ranking official also resigned. Associate AG Rachel Brand left the DoJ, reportedly due to uneasiness about ongoing vacancies and instability at the department. Media reports circulated that Brand also feared the possibility that she would be forced to take charge of overseeing the special counsel investigation; she and the DoJ have refuted them. Deputy AG Rosenstein, who is currently in charge of the Russia investigation, has also faced harsh criticism from Trump recently, and given the president’s record of attacks on his Justice officials, concern from the next-in-command at the DoJ would certainly be understandable.
In the midst of these shakeups, the President’s faithful Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called for a ‘fresh start’ at the FBI, citing lack of public trust in the Justice Department and intelligence institutions, aided by the White House’s attacks on their credibility. Along with the high-profile resignations, pressure has been mounting on Director Wray as well, so we can probably expect the saga of DoJ instability and White House hostility to continue.
The FBI has been playing an important and to date somewhat understated role in investigating certain aspects of Russian intervention and potential collusion. Last month reports indicated that the FBI is currently assessing a second dossier concerning the Trump-Russia connection. According to a report by The Guardian, the FBI was given a memo written by a former investigative journalist, Cody Shearer, which independently makes some of the same assertions as the infamous Steele dossier. The Bureau reportedly received Shearer’s memo in 2016 from Steele himself, after they asked him for additional documents related to his dossier. The FBI is seemingly still looking into the Shearer documents, leading to speculation that some of the information they contain corroborates parts of the Steele dossier – parts of which the FBI, in turn, had previously verified independently. The Steele dossier contains many damning allegations regarding collusion, so corroboration from additional sources and intelligence is extremely significant. Shearer is described as a “controversial political activist” and has ties to the Clinton administration. Thia could provide prime fodder for conservatives looking to undermine his research, should it be verified or brought into the broader Russia investigation, although Shearer reportedly had a substantial global network of sources as well as financial independence in pursuing his research, and there is no evidence that his memo was commissioned, sought out or used politically.
In other dossier-related news, former FBI and White House cybersecurity official Anthony Ferrante has reportedly been working for the past 6 months with a team from Buzzfeed to independently verify parts of the Steele dossier. Buzzfeed, who originally published the dossier, has been sued for libel by at least two people mentioned in the documents: Russian tech executive Alexej Gubarev, whose firm Steele alleged provided the servers Russia used to hack the DNC during the 2016 campaign; and Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who was alleged to have acted as a sort of middleman for communications with well-connected Russians. The investigation is being run by a Washington business advisory firm called FTI consulting, who is working on behalf of Buzzfeed to prove that parts of the dossier are true in order to vindicate the news company from the libel charges. Foreign Policy reported that the FTI team initially only focused on investigating the allegations related to the lawsuits, but then expanded its scope to try to confirm other parts of the dossier as well. The dossier, and the FBI, are so politicized that it’s hard to tell whether independent external verification of some of Steele’s findings would even lend the document more credibility, but if Buzzfeed is able to use FTI’s research in court it could give the dossier’s contents wide-ranging implications in the Russia probe, especially if other research backs up parts of the document as well.
Senate Intelligence Committee
Last week the Senate Intelligence Committee held an annual hearing on worldwide threats, during which they heard testimony from the nation’s top intelligence organizations. The chiefs of those organizations unanimously delivered warnings about Russia’s continued interference in US politics, and their expected targeting of the 2018 midterm elections. In presenting their global threat assessments, intelligence officials told the Committee that they expect Russia to escalate its interventions, focusing on hacking and social media manipulation. National Intelligence Director Daniel Coats warned that the US political system is increasingly threatened by Russian cyber attacks and exploitation of social and political issues on social media. The testimony from intelligence organizations highlighted the lack of inter-agency coordination and responsibility in responding to this type of threat. Democrats on the Committee underscored the need for a united governmental response, which seems unlikely if not impossible given the executive branch’s refusal to acknowledge the ongoing Russian interference and the President’s ongoing feud with the Justice Department.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.