Russia Investigations Blog
Entry 20: Michael Cohen Investigation, Trump-Mueller Interview Prospects & Giuliani’s Legal Negotiations, House Intel Final Report
Compiled and written by Stella Jordan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Developments in the Investigations
Important developments abound this week in the Russia investigations; things, as always, seem to be moving at a breakneck pace. Last month we learned that the FBI had conducted surprise raids on Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room. Warrants for the raid were approved by a federal judge after a request from the US Attorney for the southern district of New York and a recommendation from the special counsel. The FBI apparently seized evidence mainly related to Cohen’s payoff during the campaign to adult film actress Stormy Daniels over an alleged relationship with Trump than obtaining materials related to the Russia investigation.
The President acknowledged last week that Cohen represented him in the Daniels deal, which may have violated campaign finance law. The raids could very well result in special counsel indictments for financial crimes or campaign-finance violations, putting pressure on Cohen to cooperate in the special counsel’s broader Russia investigation, much like the Manafort and Gates cases. Cohen was implicated in the Steele dossier, which alleged that he had a strong “covert relationship with Russia” and was in close contact with Russian officials during the campaign and colluded with them to undermine the Clinton campaign. These allegations have not yet been independently verified, but there has been much speculation about Cohen’s role in the Trump campaign and his communications with foreign operatives.
Cohen filed a libel suit against BuzzFeed, the first to publish the dossier, and Fusion GPS, the company that backed it, but dropped both lawsuits during the past month’s events. Cohen is also being sued by Stormy Daniels, and recently announced that he would plead the fifth in that case in order to avoid self-incrimination in his ongoing criminal case. This move likely indicates that Cohen and his attorneys are worried that the FBI and federal prosecutors could use something he says in the civil case against him in the criminal case they are building. Invoking fifth amendment rights does not necessarily imply guilt; Cohen is simply seeking to protect himself from incrimination since he does not know exactly how prosecutors will build the criminal case against him and what evidence or coercion they may try to use.
There has been much buzz in Washington over the past few weeks about whether or not Cohen will ‘flip,’ or cave under the pressure of his federal case and start cooperating with special counsel investigators. Some Trump advisers are reportedly worried about the possibility of one of the President’s closest allies flipping on him if the charges brought against Cohen are severe enough. Cohen has previously said he would “take a bullet” for Trump and “do anything to protect” him, but there has been increasing speculation about the pressure Cohen will face as investigators move ahead with his case, especially given the apparently difficult way Trump has treated his lawyer in the past. Trump himself is apparently very concerned and angry about the Cohen investigation but has said he thinks his lawyer will remain loyal, and those around him seem to be split on the destructive potential of recent developments. Cohen’s own lawyers and other White House lawyers are arguing that the raids on Cohen and subsequent document seizures constitute a violation of attorney-client privilege, as the documents taken may contain sensitive information about people Cohen had been representing. Last week Cohen and his lawyers attempted to suppress some of the seized materials from investigators through a temporary restraining order, which was denied by a federal judge who instead recommended the appointment of a ‘special master’–an independent official who would review the evidence for potential conflicts. This sparked the appointment of an ex-judge to that role, who will be tasked with deciding whether any of the evidence the FBI took in the Cohen raids contains sensitive and classified materials regarding clients. The White House, apparently trying to distance itself from Cohen of late, underscoring the point that the raids were focused on Cohen’s private business activities and had “nothing to do” with Trump, according to the President himself.
There have been some other important shakeups in the Trump legal world, centered on the recent news that Rudy Giuliani has joined the White House legal team; Giuliani, the former NYC mayor and a longtime Trump supporter, stepped into the role vacated last month by John Dowd of coordinating the White House’s legal response to the Russia investigations. Trump struggled to find lawyers willing to handle the Russia investigations, but has recently added two other attorneys to his legal team in addition to Giuliani: Jane and Marty Raskin, both former federal prosecutors. For his part, Guiliani told reporters that he had joined the team in order to “negotiate an end” to the special counsel investigation, and has been negotiating with the special counsel to arrange an interview with Trump. Giuliani reportedly met with Mueller last week to negotiate terms for a special counsel interview with the President. The special counsel is expected to release Russia investigation reports in stages, with the first focusing on obstruction of justice, and Mueller has repeatedly told Trump’s legal team that an interview is essential to concluding this first stage of the investigation. Trump was at first open to an interview, but is apparently now reluctant to speak to the special counsel.
Later in the week Giuliani did an interview with Fox News where he revealed that President Trump had reimbursed Michael Cohen from his own funds for the $130,000 paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels to ensure her silence about her affair with the President. This move apparently was a ploy to avoid Cohen or anyone else from being charged with campaign finance violations. Amazingly Trump then confirmed that he had made such a payment. However this effort was then immediately contradicted by Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels lawyer, Avenatt, who in an interview on MSNBC, claimed that he has evidence of conversations between Michael Cohen and Daniels former lawyer, Keith Davidson, during the months immediately preceding the 2016 election. In those conversations Cohen apparently emphasized the need for payments to be made as soon as possible. “How stupid to they think they are,” said Avenatti in the interview referring to Trump and Giuliani.
Last week, the questions that had been compiled by the special counsel in preparation for a potential interview with the President were leaked, and subsequently obtained by the New York Times. The questions mainly related to obstruction of justice, but seem overall to be open-ended and wide-ranging. These questions show how the special counsel is trying to understand how and what Trump was thinking during the major events that have marked the Russia investigation, such as the Comey firing and the news that Trump was considering firing Mueller, as well as more generally how the President views and has tried to influence the Russia investigations so far. According to the Times, the questions fall into four main categories: Flynn, Comey, Sessions, and campaign coordination with Russia. After the questions were leaked Trump denounced their publication, calling it “disgraceful.” The leak apparently did not come from the special counsel’s office; the questions had been given to the Trump legal team during the interview negotiations and the Times said someone outside of that circle had provided them. The speculation is that Mueller’s Office just gave the President’s team a series of talking points for the interview, and that a member of Trump’s legal team, Jay Sekulow, took Mueller’s talking points and turned them into questions. The President also falsely tweeted that there were no questions about collusion; in fact, some of the special counsel’s questions seemed aimed at uncovering more about Trump’s potential knowledge of campaign aides’–such as Manafort , Gates, Papadopoulos and others–communications with Russia during the campaign.
Other major developments in the Russia investigations include the embattled House Intelligence Committee’s final Russia investigation report, which was declassified and publicly released last week after a summary of the report’s findings last month. The 253-page report found no evidence of collusion during the Trump campaign, but did acknowledge Russian electoral interference, although not to the extent agreed upon by the rest of the intelligence community. The report also dwells on the intelligence community’s use of the Steele dossier and their alleged bias against Trump, which was a major flashpoint during the Committee’s investigation. No Committee Democrats endorsed the report, whose politicized conclusions they rebuked in a counter-report highlighting Republicans’ refusal to pursue relevant leads in the investigation. During the declassification process, parts of the Committee’s report were redacted by intelligence agencies; Committee Republicans say the redactions were excessive and are apparently working to declassify more of the report. Trump unsurprisingly greeted the report’s release with a triumphant tweet in which he claimed the report vindicated him of all accusations of collusion and called for an immediate end to the other Russia investigations.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill last week to protect the special counsel from being fired. The bill had bipartisan support in the Committee, although Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate leaders said they wouldn’t bring the bill to a full Senate vote, deeming it unnecessary. Chairman Chuck Grassley co-sponsored the bill and voted with Committee Democrats, in a departure from his usual mode of proceeding slowly and cautiously in Trump and Russia investigation-related matters and generally siding with the President’s interests. Grassley and the bill’s other supporters have argued that the legislation will provide special counsel investigations – which arise from conflicts within the executive branch to begin with – more independent accountability and congressional oversight. The bill doesn’t explicitly prohibit a President from firing a special counsel, but would put in place expedited oversight and review mechanisms to ensure any executive dismissals or changes weren’t politically motivated or obstructive.
Last week a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Manafort and his lawyers which attempted to prevent any future special counsel charges being brought against the former Trump campaign manager. Manafort’s lawyers have argued that the special counsel “overstepped his authority” and appear to be challenging Mueller as a defense tactic. The judge wrote that a civil case such as a lawsuit may not be used to interfere with or influence an ongoing criminal case, which the defendant can already legally challenge through appeals. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to multiple felony financial charges, and is also trying to get a separate tax and banking-related case dismissed in a Virginia federal court.
Finally, new revelations emerged about the Russian lawyer who attended the summer 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr and other top campaign officials to offer them “dirt” on Clinton, allegedly on behalf of the Russian government. Natalia Veselnitskaya, according to a New York Times report based on leaked emails, had repeatedly denied any ties to the Kremlin and initially described the meeting as a privately-driven event. The new emails reveal Veselnitskaya’s close relationship with the top Russian legal officer and other prominent Kremlin connections; after recent revelations she told reporters that she had acted as an “informant” for the Russian Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika, since 2013. This news raises new concerns about the Trump Tower meeting: if Veselnitskaya was representing the Russian government more directly than previously thought or proven, the meeting could have more serious implications for the Trump campaign officials who attended, as well as wider-ranging obstruction of justice implications for Veselnitskaya herself.