The past week in the Russia investigations brought highly anticipated testimony from Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, mainly focused on questions of Trump campaign collusion, which were augmented by the previous week’s revelations of Kushner’s presence at a meeting held by Donald Trump Jr and attended by a variety of Russian government and business affiliates (see previous post for more information). Last Monday and Tuesday, Kushner met in back-to-back closed sessions with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and House Intelligence Committee, respectively. Prior to the sessions, he publicly released an 11-page written statement, in which he unsurprisingly denied any type of collusion or impropriety by himself or other members of the Trump campaign regarding meetings with Russian officials and actions taken by the Russian government during the campaign, election, and transition.
The meeting on everyone’s mind apropos the Russia investigations is the aforementioned Trump Tower meeting attended by Donald Trump Jr, Kushner, Manafort, a Russian attorney, and a handful of other characters; the Washington Post recently reported on President Trump’s role in directing Trump Jr’s response to the initial media coverage. Trump apparently dictated a statement for his son to give, in which the subject of the meeting was said to be US adoptions of Russian children. Following further media coverage and investigation, Trump Jr changed his story and released the email chain setting up the meeting, which showed that its initial purpose had been for Trump Jr and the Trump campaign to gain damaging information on Clinton as part of the Russian government’s support of Trump Sr in the presidential race. The implications of President Trump’s involvement in his son’s statement are complex, but could be interpreted as the president himself attempting to mislead the public about a sensitive issue relevant to the Russia investigations, which could, in turn, draw additional scrutiny from those investigations.
While Russia investigation news steadily churned and the intelligence committees unpacked Kushner’s interviews, Congress also passed by a wide margin a bill broadening and reinforcing the scope of US sanctions against Russia, largely in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The bill, which President Trump is expected to sign, also includes sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Regarding Russia, it aims to follow through with sanctions originally proposed by the Obama administration following the election, and importantly it gives congress power to veto any executive easing of those sanctions. In response to the bill’s passage, but before Trump had indicated he would sign, Russia promised harsh retaliation with preliminary countermeasures including the seizing of 2 US diplomatic facilities in Russia and a large reduction in US diplomatic staff–by 755 people, which will leave just 455, the same number as the US allows Russia to have here. Putin also promised to match any further expulsions or actions taken by the US in retaliation. Many have contrasted the recent retaliatory escalation to similar behavior by the two countries during the Cold War. Germany called for the European Commission to explore countermeasures against the US, saying the sanctions violate international law and would be harmful to the European economy. These sanctions represent an unusually unified congressional action against Russian election interference, and if the president follows through with signing the bill it could mark a major turning point in US foreign policy on Russia, which has thus far been rather equivocal given the substantial evidence of Russia’s intent to undermine American democracy.
Senate Intelligence Committee
The Senate Intelligence Committee was the first congressional committee to meet with Jared Kushner as part of its investigation into Russia’s role, and the Trump campaign’s potential involvement, in influencing the outcome of the 2016 election. Kushner met with senators from the committee in a closed-door hearing, for which he was apparently not under oath–although as lawmakers have noted, it would be a federal crime to lie to congress. Being the closest member of the Trump family and campaign to appear before congress and release a public statement so far, Kushner attempted to both shape the narrative surrounding the campaign’s connections to Russia, and distance himself from it. In his written statement, aside from firmly denying any misconduct on behalf of the Trump campaign, Kushner addressed 4 known meetings with Russian state actors including the Trump Jr meeting. About that meeting, Kushner said that he had no prior knowledge of what would be discussed or who would be attending; despite a fairly unambiguous title–“re: russia-clinton…”–Kushner claimed that he had not read the email chain forwarded to him by Trump Jr setting up the meeting. He also said that he had arrived late to the meeting and made an excuse to leave early, after realizing the topic of discussion, US adoptions of Russian children–Trump Jr’s initial explanation for the meeting which he subsequently shifted multiple times following additional media exposés–was a ‘waste of his time.’ The other meetings Kushner disclosed in his statement all concerned Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak: the first was in April 2016 during a campaign foreign policy speech when Kushner was casually introduced to Kislyak and other diplomats. The next time the two met was during the Trump transition in early December, at a meeting which former national security adviser Michael Flynn also attended, in which some form of back channel or direct communication between the transition team and Putin was allegedly discussed, although Kushner denied any suggestion of such an idea on his part and said that the main focus of establishing communications was to discuss Syria, but that nothing had come of it. The following week, Kushner reported that Kislyak made multiple attempts to set up another meeting, and finally connected Kushner, by way of an assistant, to Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, who supposedly had a ‘direct line’ to Putin. Gorkov’s bank is under US sanctions and is connected to Russian intelligence. By Kushner’s account, those meetings were part of routine foreign policy communications during a unique and turbulent transition period. However, he did not include the later meetings with Kislyak and Gorkov on certain security clearance paperwork, which he claimed was a mistake made by his staff and was later corrected. Following the talks with Senate Intelligence Committee members, in which they presumably went over the major points from Kushner’s written statement as well as other more classified issues, Democrats on the committee bemoaned the lack of an open public testimony as well as the vague nature of Kushner’s public statement, especially regarding his financial connections to Russia, and raised doubts about his sincerity.
The day after meeting with Kushner, the Senate Intelligence Committee also held a closed-door interview for Paul Manafort. The interview was not previously announced and came as a surprise given its anticipated and high-profile nature. Even less can be gleaned from Manafort’s private interview than from Kushner’s, but during his meeting he reportedly gave committee members the notes he had taken during the infamous Trump Jr meeting, although the contents of those notes have remained classified and no details have been leaked. Additionally, the past week saw the committee interviewing a handful of other high-profile members of the Obama administration: former UN ambassador Samantha Power, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former chief of staff Denis McDonough, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper, and former adviser Ben Rhodes. If the committee’s past public hearings serve as any kind of indication, these interviews probably probed the details of the Obama administration’s response to Russian meddling leading up to the election, and also likely touched on recent allegations spearheaded by the GOP of ‘unmasking’ and improper handling of classified intelligence.
Trump Jr is also expected to meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee at an undetermined time in the future, and is also expected to do so behind closed doors; following the publicized yet private nature of Kushner’s and Manafort’s interviews, many see this confidentiality as a setback in the committee’s so far resolutely transparent investigation.
House Intelligence Committee
There is little else to be said about Kushner’s meeting with the House Intelligence Committee; like the Senate’s interview, it was also held in private, and presumably also focused on probing Kushner’s written statement along with other available materials. Kushner did speak to the House committee under oath. Unsurprisingly, the meeting and its aftermath seemed to devolve into partisan bickering, a state the committee has long been mired in. Ranking Democrat Adam Schiff, in a press conference following the interview, accused high-ranking Republican committee member Trey Gowdy of sheltering or defending Kushner, a claim other Republican members vehemently rejected. For their part, Republicans on the committee accused their Democratic colleagues of stonewalling Kushner and dragging out the interview, while Democrats seemed to indicate that they thought Kushner was not being entirely forthcoming. In another vaguely inappropriate but not entirely surprising twist, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, who temporarily recused himself from the Russia investigation, most likely attended Kushner’s interview, although his presence has not been definitively confirmed. After hearing from Kushner, the House Intelligence Committee held another closed-door interview on Wednesday with former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser JD Gordon, who is credited with enhancing the campaign’s pro-Russia stance on issues such as Ukraine, and who also met with Kislyak during the campaign.
Senate Judiciary Committee
Earlier in the course of their investigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to compel Paul Manafort to testify; following his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee last Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee decided to withdraw the subpoena in anticipation of Manafort’s continued cooperation in the congressional investigations. Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein indicated that they had received preliminary documents from Manafort in response to their requests, and will continue to negotiate with him. The committee had also planned to subpoena Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, a firm that was involved in the creation of a controversial and unsubstantiated dossier released during the campaign alleging deep personal and political connections between Donald Trump and Russia. Instead of compelling Simpson to testify publicly by subpoena, Senate Judiciary Committee members reportedly interviewed him privately. The committee also interviewed international financier Bill Browder, whose attorney Sergey Magnitsky fought against Russian corruption on his behalf and died in Russian custody in 2009. Magnitsky’s death motivated Congress to pass a sanctions bill bearing his name–the Magnitsky Act–against which Russia retaliated by barring US adoptions. The Magnitsky Act became the cornerstone of the Trump family’s justification of Donald Trump Jr’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, who was ostensibly lobbying for the Magnitsky sanctions to be lifted. In his interview, Browder outlined his experience in the world of Russian business and politics, highlighting the depth and extent of corruption, and in particular Vladimir Putin’s role in controlling and perpetuating it.
Trump Legal Team
In response to the unyielding pressure of the Russia investigations, President Trump has been building–and recently reshuffling–his legal defense team. Below is a preliminary list of lawyers working for the president on Russia-related matters, and brief summaries of their roles and backgrounds, in no particular order.
- Marc Kasowitz
- Trump’s longtime personal attorney
- In charge of Russia-related legal matters since May, but recently demoted from that role
- Known for bad temper and ‘unconventional’ style
- Don McGahn
- White House Counsel and top legal adviser to Trump
- Not in charge of Russia matters due to being implicated in various scandals surrounding executive actions (both Russia-related and not)
- John Dowd
- Head of Russia-related legal team (took over from Kasowitz)
- Very recently appointed
- Significant federal legal experience–unlike most of Trump’s legal team
- Jay Sekulow
- Member of Trump’s personal legal team
- Adviser on Russia matters
- Often in the spotlight; most public of the lawyers on the team
- Michael Cohen
- Trump’s personal lawyer and spokesman
- Close personal relationship with Trump; loyal defender of the president and condemning of his critics
- Hired his own personal lawyer for Russia matters
- Michael Bowe
- Member of Trump legal team
- Longtime partner of Marc Kasowitz
- Ty Cobb
- White House Special Counsel
- Very recently appointed
- In charge of legal and media strategy regarding Russia investigations
- Experience with federal and congressional investigations and defense
Recent reports have indicated that Trump’s legal team has been exploring presidential pardoning power, seemingly in relation to increasing unease within the administration surrounding Russia investigations and possible allegations. Additionally, the Trump legal team has reportedly been looking into special counsel Mueller’s legal team in what looks like an attempt to uncover conflicts of interest that could undermine Mueller’s investigation. Congressional Democrats, including Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner, have been troubled by what they see as the president’s premature consideration of pardons for family members and allies who may yet become even more implicated in the Russia investigations.
DoJ and Special Counsel
Absent any specific or concrete news on developments in its investigation, the special counsel has undoubtedly been sharing information with the congressional Russia investigations, especially regarding closed-door interviews and confidential documents. Beyond this, Mueller’s team is likely looking into the recent reports of President Trump’s involvement in the public response to his son’s widely reported meeting. Mueller and his team continue to face criticism and condemnation from members of the administration, GOP lawmakers, and other Trump allies, who claim conflicts of interest, partisanship, and ‘fake news,’ and try to otherwise discredit the investigation.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.