Following the news of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea in the special counsel’s Russia investigation, reports began to surface of text messages Flynn sent to a former business partner during President Trump’s inauguration. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee told reporters that a whistleblower from ACU Strategic Partners, a firm which Flynn had formerly advised, reached out to the Committee in June with information about the messages, which until now the special counsel had asked them to withhold. The whistleblower alleged that during the inauguration Alex Copson, a managing partner of ACU, had received and later showed associates text messages from Flynn promising that the firm’s nuclear plans–involving building reactors in the Middle East–would move forward under the new administration. Flynn allegedly told Copson that sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in response to Russian electoral interference, which would’ve affected ACU’s project, would be dismantled by Trump. House Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings released the whistleblower’s charges last week, and shortly after received a response from a senior strategist at the firm, who in a letter to Cummings denied that Copson had texted with Flynn on inauguration day. The strategist wrote that the firm had looked at Copson’s phone bill and found no evidence of any communication with Flynn, and offered to brief the committee on the issue. This offer was refused by Committee chairman Trey Gowdy, who also denied Committee Democrats’ requests to interview the whistleblower, who had also offered to meet. Gowdy has been reluctant to pursue Russia-related inquiries, which has triggered conflict within the Committee. Under previous leadership, the Committee had begun to look into Flynn in the early stages of the congressional Russia investigations, but Gowdy curbed the probe, saying it was redundant amidst the many other federal and congressional inquiries. Despite Committee support, Gowdy has categorically refused to subpoena documents from or meet with White House officials and other witnesses regarding Flynn or any other Russia-related matters.
It therefore falls to the special counsel to determine the veracity of the whistleblower’s account, and according to Committee members, Mueller has already received and gone through information provided by the whistleblower and the firm. If true, the allegations could further incriminate Flynn–and possibly by extension other administration officials–for using foreign policy to benefit certain business associates.
DoJ & Special Counsel
On the subject of Flynn and Russia sanctions, the question of influence goes much deeper than the ACU project. According to Flynn’s plea deal documents, he had spoken with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration after the election, to which Russia was expected to retaliate with additional sanctions and diplomatic expulsions against the US. Flynn had apparently asked Kislyak not to retaliate against the sanctions, promising a detente and improved diplomatic relationship with the incoming Trump administration. Russia indeed did not retaliate to those sanctions, but the Kremlin recently felt compelled to deny that Flynn’s request influenced that decision. Russia continues to deny both collusion and electoral interference.
Senate Intelligence Committee
This Wednesday the Senate Intelligence Committee held a 9-hour closed-door interview with Donald Trump Jr. This was Trump Jr’s third meeting with congressional investigators; he previously met with the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, and with the House Intelligence Committee last week. Senate Intelligence ranking member Mark Warner called for Trump Jr to return for a public hearing.
House Intelligence Committee
Last week the House Intelligence Committee also interviewed Donald Trump Jr; this meeting reportedly lasted for 7 hours and touched on Trump Jr’s contacts with Russians during the campaign, including his attendance at and response to the Trump Tower meeting and his communication with WikiLeaks prior to the site’s release of hacked DNC emails. Trump Jr denied speaking with his father about the Trump Tower meeting before talking to reporters (after news of the meeting broke earlier this year), while reports indicate that President Trump personally dictated his son’s first media response to revelations about the meeting, which was later undermined by Trump Jr’s release of emails detailing the meeting’s original purpose: obtaining damaging information about Clinton from the Russian government. Trump Jr also reportedly told the Committee that he had no knowledge of Flynn’s contact with Sergey Kislyak and other foreign officials during the transition.
Following the interview, Democratic Committee members including ranking member Adam Schiff spoke with reporters about some of the questions they had asked Trump Jr, and some of the issues he refused to discuss. Without disclosing classified details, Schiff told reporters that Trump Jr had invoked attorney-client privilege to avoid responding to investigators’ questions about his communication with President Trump regarding the Trump Tower meeting, an issue Committee investigators had been pressing. Trump Jr and his lawyers responded by accusing Schiff and other Committee members of leaking private information to the media which reflected negatively on Trump Jr. Trump Jr’s lawyer demanded that the Committee conduct an internal inquiry into the ‘leaks’ of information from Trump Jr’s interview. A spokesman for Schiff responded that it is within the congressman’s rights to tell the media when a witness refuses to cooperate or answer certain questions–barring specific details–especially when the witness says publicly that they had fully cooperated. It is unlikely that the Committee will launch an inquiry into the alleged leaks.
In other House Intelligence Committee news, this Thursday Committee chairman Devin Nunes was cleared of charges of disclosing classified information. Nunes had been under investigation by the House Ethics Committee after he told reporters–without his Committee’s knowledge–about intelligence reports detailing the ‘unmasking’ by Obama administration officials of Trump associates caught in routine foreign surveillance. This disclosure was widely seen as an attempt to provide backing to Trump’s unfounded tweet accusing the Obama administration of wiretapping his campaign. The Ethics investigation compelled Nunes to ‘temporarily recuse’ himself from the Committee’s Russia investigation, but he remained active as chairman and continued to work behind the scenes of the investigation–often seemingly attempting to undermine its work–by issuing parallel and conflicting subpoenas, document requests, and threats, without the full knowledge or backing of the Committee. Nunes consistently denied any wrongdoing regarding the Ethics investigation, and accused the probe of being politically motivated. Despite the Ethics Committee’s clearance, Mike Conaway, who took charge of the Russia investigation following Nunes’ recusal, says he will continue to lead the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe. Nunes hasn’t given any clear indications of his intentions, but if he were to resume control of the investigation it would certainly aggravate an already tensely partisan climate.
House Judiciary Committee
Normally not an active player in the Russia investigations, the House Judiciary Committee has recently entered the scene with a probe into the impartiality of the special counsel team, after two FBI lawyers’ messages criticizing Trump surfaced. The messages, which were sent during the campaign and prior to the special counsel’s appointment, were immediately seized upon by congressional Republicans as evidence of partisan bias within the special counsel team and investigation. Trump and his allies have been persistently trying to undermine the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation by alleging that the special counsel investigators, and the FBI and DoJ more broadly, are prejudiced against Trump due to political affiliation and past political donations. Mueller removed the lawyer whose messages were at issue, Peter Strzok, from the special counsel investigation. Strzok was an FBI agent at the time the messages were sent, and later joined Mueller’s investigative team. The other lawyer involved is Lisa Page, who also worked for the FBI then the special counsel, but left Mueller’s team earlier in the year. Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein–presiding over Russia-related matters for the DoJ since AG Jeff Sessions’ recusal–defended the special counsel and his investigation in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee last week. Rosenstein reminded lawmakers that the DoJ does not make discriminatory hiring decisions based on political affiliation, and also underscored the difference between a DoJ official having a personal political view, and their letting that political view influence their professional work–something Mueller has vigilantly prevented. Rosenstein told the Committee that the DoJ will continue to stand behind the special counsel and has found no cause for Mueller’s dismissal, despite mounting pressure from conservatives to discredit him and politicize his investigation.
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