Compiled and written by Stella Jordan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Developments in the Investigations
The world of the Russia investigations over the past few weeks has been reeling from a whirlwind of surprising developments, including the conclusion of one of the most public investigations: Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee announced last week that the investigative portion of their probe was over, and released a preliminary report denying any evidence of collusion on behalf of the Trump campaign, and even refuting some of the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election; the report delighted the President, who tweeted its highlights immediately. Democrats on the Committee vehemently disagreed with the majority’s conclusions, and released their own report in dissent. Prior to the conclusion of their investigation, the House Intelligence Committee interviewed a handful of noncompliant high-profile administration affiliates, about which there was much speculation. All this amidst multiple accusations of leaks of witness testimony and classified evidence, supposedly emanating from House Intelligence leadership.
Other investigation-related shakeups include Trump’s firing of retiring former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, and the resignation of the President’s special counsel investigation lawyer, John Dowd, amidst more speculation about a potential impending meeting between Trump and Mueller. Dowd and Trump had seemingly been at odds for some time over the White House response–and Trump’s spontaneous responses–to the Russia investigation, with Dowd cautioning cooperation in an increasingly aggressive climate. The White House legal team seems poised to replace Dowd with a new lawyer, Joseph DiGenova, amidst speculation that the President is heading down a more antagonistic path apropos the special counsel investigation, which Trump has been doubling down on his efforts to undermine.
Last week the Trump administration announced a series of sanctions on Russian actors in response to 2016 political interference and related cyberattacks. This is a singular move in an administration uniquely sympathetic towards Russia; such sanctions would likely have been imposed summarily and much sooner by other presidents, and were imposed by Trump only after Congressional legislation and increasing international pressure obliged it. These new sanctions echo the special counsel’s indictment last month, directed at the same organizations and individuals, in addition to a number of other actors involved in unrelated cyberattacks in 2016, including attacks on US infrastructure. Many of the new sanctions simply reinforced previous sanctions imposed by Trump and his predecessor, and seem unlikely to have much impact on future Russian activity.
Since his indictments of Russian nationals and businesses last month, special counsel Robert Mueller has continued to generate headlines and speculation about progress in and targets of his Russia investigation. Recent developments include his subpoena for Russia-related documents from the Trump Organization, which casts a wide net and implicates many of Trump’s close associates and family members, and suggests that the special counsel is also interested in potential improprieties related to the President’s business and foreign financial ties. Mueller has also been investigating a secret meeting in the Seychelles last January between a prominent American businessman and Trump ally, and a prominent Russian businessman with Kremlin connections, allegedly intended to establish a backchannel between the US and Russian governments. Mueller also interviewed former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, who had very publicly refused to comply with a special counsel subpoena before changing course. All of this in more detail below.
In addition to all that, the special counsel is reportedly looking into the President’s questioning of Mueller’s witnesses–White House counsel Don McGahn and former chief of staff Reince Priebus–about the content of their interviews. Although legally this does not necessarily constitute witness tampering, it could play into the larger probe of obstruction of justice, and could also be a concern if Trump has his own interview with Mueller and has knowledge of what other witnesses already told the special counsel. White House lawyers have been negotiating with the special counsel about a possible interview with the President, and are reportedly seeking to negotiate a deal in which Trump would appear for questioning in exchange for Mueller setting a prompt date to end his Russia investigation.
DoJ & Special Counsel
The latest to fall in the ongoing battle between the President and the Justice Department, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, was fired by Trump last week. McCabe was about to officially retire after a long career at the FBI, marked by two of the bureau’s most politically controversial cases into both of the 2016 Presidential nominees, which ultimately ushered in his downfall. The DoJ is currently conducting a large internal investigation, probing how the FBI managed–and is managing–the Clinton email investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation, among other things. McCabe oversaw both investigations, and what apparently sparked his improbable dismissal was AG Jeff Sessions’ accusations that McCabe had “lacked candor” when questioned by the Inspector General as part of the internal probe. Although Sessions said that other FBI officials, including director Christopher Wray, had recommended McCabe’s dismissal and claimed that the move was not politically motivated, the President had been attacking McCabe on Twitter for months and had publicly harangued Sessions for not replacing him sooner. Trump’s animosity towards McCabe seems to stem both from McCabe’s affiliation with former FBI director James Comey, and Clinton-affiliated campaign donations to McCabe’s wife for an unsuccessful bid for state senate. McCabe was also involved in the FBI’s Russia investigation from the very start, and kept memos of his conversations with both Comey and Trump, which could prove very useful to the special counsel investigation; McCabe is reportedly concerned that his firing is part of a broader White House play to undermine his credibility as a possible witness and to discredit the special counsel investigation by association. The DoJ Inspector General’s report on the FBI, including the specific allegations against McCabe, is expected to be released this spring.
The Seychelles meeting that the special counsel is currently investigating is a complicated event further obscured by rather unreliable and at times conflicting accounts of the people involved. It seems that Mueller was tipped off to the meeting by a businessman and foreign political consultant who helped set it up; George Nader, who appears to have close ties to Trump and reportedly has visited the White House several times over the past year, is also an adviser to the ruler of the United Arab Emirates and a potential lobbyist on that country’s behalf. Nader had come under special counsel scrutiny due to his UEA-backed lobbying efforts, and was apparently being interviewed about the possibility of the UEA having tried to buy political influence in Washington through indirect donations to Trump’s campaign when he told Mueller about the meeting. This of course ties into a larger issue under investigation: the trail of foreign money and influence on the Trump administration. Nader has apparently been involved in lobbying Trump directly on behalf of UEA interests and in conjunction with US business interests, prominently including military and private security contractors seeking Middle East deals. Nader has been advising the UEA’s crown prince and acting military-political leader, and seems to have provided a gateway for US business in the UEA, as well as advocating US foreign policy beneficial to the UEA. Indeed, Trump has been supportive of UEA interests and leadership, breaking with prior US policy and reportedly ignoring his national security advisers in supporting the Emirates’ blockade of Qatar and other regional power bids.
So what does the Seychelles meeting have to do with all of this? Nader, who has since testified before a grand jury and met with special counsel investigators multiple times, was apparently the meeting’s organizer or facilitator, although it is unclear exactly whose interests he was working to facilitate. He reportedly told the special counsel that the meeting’s purpose was to discuss future US-Russia relations and a potential communications backchannel. The meeting’s main attendees were Erik Prince, a large Trump donor and the founder of the military contracting company Blackwater, and Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Both men appear to have ties to their countries’ respective leaders. The issue is further complicated by an interview Prince gave last fall to the House Intelligence Committee, which appears to have contradicted Nader’s account of the meeting. Prince told the Committee that the meeting had been informal and was organized last-minute by a UEA official, which reportedly conflicts with Nader’s testimony about the meeting’s inception. All of this is important to the special counsel from the broader lens of foreign influence on the Trump campaign and administration, and what impact all of these business and financial relationships had on Trump. Mueller’s recent subpoena of documents and records from the Trump Organization may also help shed more light on such relationships and transactions.
Another highly public development in the special counsel’s investigation is the grand jury testimony last week of Sam Nunberg, an ex-Trump campaign aide who was fired early on over problematic social media posts. Nunberg’s testimony, along with document and communication record requests, had been subpoenaed by the special counsel, and earlier in the week Nunberg had surprised and provoked the media by calling into multiple shows to declare his refusal to comply with the subpoena. In his media circuit, Nunberg denounced Mueller and his investigation, but also attacked Trump and other members of the administration. He told reporters that he thought Mueller had evidence against Trump, based on his previous private interview with special counsel investigators, and said that the special counsel had tried to flip him on Roger Stone over collusion with Russia. Nunberg, who is often called a protégé of Stone’s, told the Washington Post that Mueller’s subpoena had specifically requested his communication records with Stone, Steve Bannon, Michael Cohen, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks, and Paul Manafort. By all accounts Nunberg’s media blitz seemed angry, doubtful and almost unhinged, and shortly after declaring his intention to refuse the subpoena he told the AP that he was considering cooperating after all. Nunberg was a relatively minor player in the campaign, whose tenure with Trump was short-lived, and in my opinion much gratuitous and unnecessary coverage was given to his media antics. However, in revealing some of the details of his subpoena, Nunberg did provide an interesting glimpse into what Mueller is looking for; Bannon, Cohen and Stone, along with the other administration officials the subpoena mentioned, are or were extremely close to Trump and important to the campaign, and thus far all have denied any connections to Russia or knowledge of collusion.
Finally, recent reports have dredged up former Trump campaign aide George Papadopolous, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI about his Russia-related communications during the campaign and began cooperating with the special counsel investigation. Information connected to Papadopolous actually sparked the initial FBI investigation into Russian interference in the election; he had received information about thousands of stolen Democratic emails which apparently contained ‘dirt’ on Clinton in the spring of 2016–apparently before the DNC realized it had been hacked–about which he told an Australian diplomat in the UK. That diplomat eventually alerted the US after WikiLeaks began to publish the emails months later, which set off the FBI’s probe. Papadopolous received the information about the emails from an enigmatic Maltese professor and former diplomat with connections to the Russian government and intelligence community, Joseph Mifsud. Mifsud had apparently learned of the emails on a trip to Russia. In January Papadopolous’ girlfriend–now his wife–told the FBI that Mifsud had fed Papadopoulos information during the campaign and encouraged him to try to set up meetings between campaign officials and the Russian government; Mifsud appears to have facilitated many of Papadopoulos’ foreign contacts.
Newly released emails reportedly indicate that Papadopoulos had more extensive contact with senior Trump campaign officials regarding his Russia forays than was previously thought, and had campaign approval for at least some of his Russia-related communications. During the campaign Papadopolous was contacted by a Russian news agency to give an interview, and his campaign superiors encouraged him to accept, and to emphasize Trump’s openness to building a better US-Russia relationship, underscoring cooperation in Syria and other international conflicts. The emails also show that Papadopoulos had communicated with such senior campaign officials as Flynn and Bannon, and prior to the election worked with Bannon to set up a meeting between Trump and the President of Egypt; Papadopolous seemingly grew into a sort of middleman role, facilitating contact between foreign governments and the Trump campaign, and reportedly continued to do so even after the election.
According to Papadopoulos, Trump himself apparently expressed interest when Papadopolous brought up the possibility of setting up a pre-election meeting with Putin, although this idea was shot down by Manafort and other top campaign officials. However, Papadopolous, with the at least tacit encouragement of other superiors on the campaign, continued networking and exploring the possibility of other meetings with Russian government affiliates. It is still unclear what, if anything, the Trump campaign may have gained from Papadopoulos’ attempts to establish contact with the Russian government, but if Papadopoulos knew about the DNC hacks prior to the release of the emails, it does seem more likely that other members of the Trump campaign may also have been aware that Russia had information that would damage the Clinton campaign prior to the explicit offer of such ‘dirt’ at the Trump Tower meeting.
House Intelligence Committee
The House Intelligence Committee’s Republican leadership has terminated the investigative stage of their Russia probe, and released a summary of their final report. The conclusions are unsurprising insofar as the report refutes not only any evidence of collusion on the part of the Trump campaign with regards to Russian interference in the election, but also disputes the unanimous intelligence community conclusion that Russia acted in support of candidate Trump. The summary also indicates that the final report, when made public, will include discussion of both the Steele dossier and intelligence leaks, or “problematic contacts” between the intelligence community and the media, bolstering Trump and his supporters’ claims that the DoJ is biased against the President and that the broader DoJ Russia investigation is somehow tainted by extension. The findings and conclusion of the summary echo Committee chairman Devin Nunes’ various focuses throughout the investigation, many of which seemed like poorly veiled efforts to protect the President and undermine the rest of the intelligence community’s investigations of him. Throughout the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation, Democrats accused Republicans of bending to executive pressure and not taking the inquiry seriously, and called the investigation’s conclusion “premature” and irresponsible. Committee Democrats published their own 21-page report outlining the most important aspects of the investigation that were left unfinished, including interviews, documents, and unresolved subpoenas relevant to the Committee’s earlier lines of inquiry and important to any subsequent conclusions.
Despite Democratic dissent, this week the Committee voted to release the full final report on their Russia investigation. Democrats are expected to release their own conclusions alongside the majority’s findings, and reportedly plan to continue the investigation on their own, although without majority backing they will be unable to issue subpoenas and will likely face mounting obstacles to collecting information. The Committee’s final report will now go to intelligence leaders for declassification, and will probably be released to the public in the next few weeks.
The House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation ended with testimony from a few final major witnesses, including former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former White House communications director Hope Hicks. Lewandowski appeared voluntarily for a second interview with the Committee last week to address questions about his knowledge of the campaign after he had left it, which at first he had declined to discuss. However, according to Committee Democrats Lewandowski still refused to answer certain questions related to his knowledge of the Comey firing and potential conversations he had with the President about the special counsel. Hope Hicks, who announced her resignation the day after her interview with the Committee, made media waves after her interview with the admission that she had sometimes been obliged to tell ‘white lies’ on behalf of Trump, although she reportedly claimed that those had not included issues related to the Russia investigations. Hicks apparently did not formally invoke executive privilege when speaking with the Committee, but did refuse to answer many of the investigators’ questions about her time in the White House and presidential transition. Hicks had previously been interviewed by the special counsel and the Senate Intelligence Committee as well.
Unfortunately for Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, hopes for the subpoenas they had called for to compel at least three major witnesses to answer their questions were dashed when Republicans closed the investigation. As the minority argued in their response to the Republicans’ final report, there are still many important witnesses the Committee should interview, as well as subpoenas it should issue and enforce after many of their witnesses refused to answer specific questions about the campaign and the White House. Perhaps the most important subpoena lost was that of Steve Bannon, who appeared before the Committee last month and was mostly silent in response to interviewers’ questions; in rare bipartisan agreement the Committee issued a subpoena for a second interview. When Bannon returned later in the month, however, he brought with him 25 questions dictated by the White House–which did not fully meet the criteria of the subpoena–and refused to provide answers to anything else. Exasperated Committee members on both sides wanted to hold Bannon in contempt of congress, a bureaucratic legal measure which would have needed approval from the entire House and ratification by Speaker Paul Ryan. The heart of the contempt issue was executive privilege and its limits: Bannon did not invoke executive privilege per se, but told lawmakers that he was remaining silent in order to protect the President’s right to use that privilege in the future, which seems not to be a sound legal basis for refusal to comply with a subpoena. The contempt idea obviously melted away after Republicans first announced their intention to wrap up the investigation.
Incidentally, a recent Politico report suggests that Bannon may have been picked up in the FBI’s surveillance of former campaign aide Carter Page last year. That surveillance, sanctioned by the controversial FISA warrant which was the subject of the Committee’s memo drama last month, covered Page’s electronic communications; Page told the House Intelligence Committee in the fall that he had spoken with Bannon on the phone about Russia and the Steele dossier last January, which was during the time he was being surveilled. This call with Bannon has not been independently verified, but could be of importance to the FBI if Bannon was in fact recorded discussing Russia and dossier-related matters, which he had previously denied doing.
In perhaps one of the final scandals to beset the House Intelligence Committee, recent reports suggest that classified information related to a witness’ testimony was leaked to none other than Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, via Cohen’s own attorney. The testimony in question was from a private December interview with David Kramer, an associate of senator John McCain who had met with Christopher Steele last year and subsequently warned McCain about the gravity of the dossier’s contents. Kramer’s attorney accused Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee of leaking information about Kramer’s testimony to Cohen’s attorney, after the testimony was brought up in conversation between the two attorneys. Leaking witness testimony or contents of an interview is obviously against Committee rules; in response to Kramers’ demand for an explanation, Nunes took the bizarre action of subpoenaing Kramer to appear before the Committee again on short notice. The most important part about these allegations is that the ultimate recipient of the leaked information seems to be Cohen, who was personally implicated in the Steele dossier, and could have potentially passed on the information to Trump, which could in turn have undermined other witness interviews later in the investigation. Mike Conaway denied the allegations of any witness testimony being leaked by the Committee.
Senate Intelligence Committee
In yet another apparent leak scandal leading back to the House Intelligence Committee, the New York Times reported earlier in the month that leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee–chairman Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner–had concluded that Republicans on their House counterpart had leaked private text messages between Warner and a Russian-connected Washington lawyer, Adam Waldman. The texts outline Warner’s attempts to set up a meeting with Christopher Steele, whom the Senate Intelligence Committee views as an important witness who could provide key information to their investigation. Waldman, who also has ties to Oleg Deripaska–the Russian oligarch made infamous for his connections in the Manafort case–knew Steele and apparently had offered to serve as an intermediary. The texts were leaked shortly after House Republicans released Nunes’ controversial memo last month, and according to the Times report the leak was extremely troubling for Burr and Warner, raising doubts about the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation and intentions; the two subsequently called a unique meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan to present their findings and concerns. Burr later refuted the Times’ account that he and Warner had reached the conclusion that the texts were leaked by the House Intelligence Committee, and claimed that they had met with Ryan just to give an update on their investigation. It does seem, however, that Burr and Warner may have raised concerns during that meeting about Nunes and his staff’s conduct in the House’s investigation.
Ultimately it seems that Warner’s attempts to talk to Steele were unsuccessful, and the leaking of the texts was little more than political spin; after the leak Burr and Warner issued a joint statement and other Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee also told reporters that Warner had disclosed the communications to the entire committee at the outset, and no one had seen any impropriety in Warner’s outreach. Unlike their House counterparts, whose Russia investigation has been incessantly beset with partisanship and media frenzy, the Senate Intelligence Committee has been praised for its unbiased and cooperative approach, and Burr and Warner appear to have been closely collaborating to maintain both integrity and confidentiality in their investigation.
In other Senate Intelligence Committee news, investigators held a hearing last week on reforming the security clearance process–an important feature of the investigations into the Trump administration, given many officials’ failures to properly fill out security clearance forms and attempts to conceal information that would affect their ability to gain clearance. This problem has especially plagued Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose temporary top clearance was recently downgraded after repeated nondisclosures of foreign and financial ties. The director of the National Background Investigation Bureau, which handles security clearance applications, told the Committee that concealments of ties to foreign governments–something which has plagued many Trump administration officials–is an especially significant impediment to a security clearance approval.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is also preparing a report on election vulnerabilities, which they hope to release by the end of the month in anticipation of the upcoming midterm elections. The report is part of their larger effort not just to investigate Russia’s 2016 election intervention, but also to educate the voting public and try to prevent future foreign electoral interference. This will be the Committee’s first publicly released report in their Russia investigation, and is expected to highlight existing problems in domestic electoral systems, rather than discuss the specifics of their ongoing investigation into Russia and collusion.