Entry 19: Facebook & Cambridge Analytica Scandals, New Russia Sanctions, Mueller & Manafort Updates
Compiled and written by Stella Jordan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Summary of New Developments
With each week seeming to bring ever more drama to the White House and Russia investigations, recent news has brought no respite. The past two weeks have been dominated by the emerging controversy surrounding the data firm Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook user data it may have taken advantage of during the 2016 election; the new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration against Russian oligarchs and their companies; and many noteworthy moves by the special counsel, including the first sentencing in the Russia investigation: that of a Dutch attorney connected to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. Manafort’s own case has also seen some new developments, as the former Trump campaign manager explores mounting a legal defense based on FBI misconduct and alleged bias. The Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing with Department of Homeland Security and state election officials and is releasing a report on systemic electoral vulnerabilities that hostile foreign actors may try to exploit ahead of the 2018 midterms. More on all of this, and more, below.
DoJ & Special Counsel
One of the most surprising developments in the special counsel investigation over the past two weeks has been the sentencing of Alex van der Zwaan, the Manafort/Ukranian-connected Dutch lawyer. Van der Zwaan was sentenced to 30 days in prison and fined 20,000 for lying to the FBI, in the special counsel grand jury’s first sentencing. He had previously pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his conversations with Rick Gates and an unnamed person connected to Russian intelligence, whom many have speculated also plays a role in the Manafort and Gates indictments. However, it is not clear whether van der Zwaan’s case is in any way related to the election or the Trump campaign specifically. Within the broader Russia investigation, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this development fits. My best guess, purely speculatively, is that details about this case came from Rick Gates, Manafort’s partner, who is currently cooperating with the special counsel and may be providing Mueller with names and details of other people involved in the criminal activities–specifically those related to Russia–for which Gates and Manafort were charged.
Last week, news emerged of a classified memo that Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein sent to Mueller last summer, authorizing the special counsel to investiate allegations of collusion between Manafort and Russian officials to coordinate electoral interference. More broadly, the DoJ had authorized Mueller to investigate Manafort’s financial ties to Ukranian politicians, which is ultimately one of the major components of Manafort’s indictment. Although the charges against Manafort have not so far related to the election or Trump campaign, it is interesting that the DoJ saw merit in initially investigating collusion with Russians as well; it may be that Mueller found no evidence of such collusion, or that he has another path in mind for digging into that issue. Manafort, for his part, has been arguing that the special counsel overstepped its authority in his indictment, and has mounted a civil suit against the special counsel and DoJ to get his charges dropped on the grounds that they are unfair and potentially biased. Mueller recently filed an argument not to dismiss Manafort’s case, indicating that he intends to continue investigating communications and financial connections between Manafort and Russian or pro-Russian politicians and officials, both before and during the campaign, that may have resulted in collusion or other illegal behavior during the campaign.
Aside from his civil suit, Manafort is also fighting the special counsel on document evidence seized from him by the FBI. Last May, FBI agents working with the special counsel entered a storage unit owned by Manafort’s company to gather documents and other evidence. This week, Manafort’s lawyers filed a motion alleging that the unit was entered illegally without a warrant or proper consent, and that the warrant the FBI subsequently obtained to take evidence from the unit was overly general and violated Manafort’s rights; the motion calls for the evidence from the storage unit to be suppressed in court. We do not know the specifics of the evidence in question, but if the FBI obtained a warrant to seize it, it would probably have contributed to Manafort’s prosecution.
More broadly, Manafort’s legal team is reportedly debating how much to use FBI misconduct and political bias as a defense in his case. Making a solid case of federal investigative misconduct, overreach or bias could also help make a credible case for a presidential pardon, which Manafort may be angling for. However, basing his defense on an offensive against the DoJ would bring even more politicization and partisanship to his trial, and it could be risky for Manafort to question the credibility of the special counsel and prosecution before a grand jury. This is probably a risk Manafort is willing to take, given the possibility of executive intervention and the already tumultuous situation faced by the FBI and DoJ as their integrity has repeatedly come under attack over the past year. Indeed, last week the New York Times reported that recently-resigned Trump lawyer John Dowd had discussed the possibility of presidential pardons for Manafort and Flynn with their lawyers last year. The President’s legal team was reportedly worried about what information such high-level witnesses as Flynn and Manafort might give the special counsel. Mueller at the time was building cases against the two, so the possibility of pardons may have been meant to influence their cooperation or compliance in the special counsel investigation. It isn’t clear whether Dowd’s discussion of pardons constitutes obstruction of justice in Mueller’s investigation; pardons are a president’s constitutional mandate and are very hard to challenge, but the prospect of a pardon being used to influence a target’s cooperation in an investigation seems improper. It is also unclear whether Trump knew about Dowd’s discussions, although the President had reportedly asked his legal team about pardons for high-level campaign and administration officials before. Dowd and other White House lawyers denied any discussions of pardons.
Since Dowd’s resignation, Trump has been hard-pressed to find a replacement to handle the response to the Russia investigations on his legal team. Over the past two weeks many reports have indicated that the President’s offers to multiple high-profile attorneys have been turned down, including lawyers Joseph DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, who were originally reported to have been joining the team but later backed out, as well as former US attorney Dan Webb, who declined an offer to manage the White House response to the special counsel. Given the President’s reputation for refusing to follow legal advice, chafing at perceived critiques, and fostering a sense of chaos among his staff, Trump has had mounting difficulty finding a reputable and qualified attorney to represent him in the increasingly complex Russia probe.
Trump is very much still a subject of the special counsel investigation, according to recent reports: Mueller reportedly told White House attorneys that Trump is still under investigation, but is not currently a criminal target. This means that the President’s conduct is still being investigated, but investigators lack sufficient evidence to bring charges at this point. Trump reportedly viewed Mueller’s distinction as a sort of exoneration and is apparently open to an interview with the special counsel, against the counsel of his legal team. A subject of an investigation can very easily become a target, especially through their own testimony, which could incriminate them if they lied or misrepresented themselves under oath, as it is not hard to imagine Trump doing. Mueller has underscored the need to interview Trump before his probe concludes, and this issue was at the heart of the debate that prompted Dowd’s resignation, amidst arguments with other members of the legal team who thought Trump should give an interview given his vehement denial of any collusion or crime, and his condemnation of the Russia investigation itself. Mueller also reportedly told the White House legal team that the special counsel is creating a report about possible obstruction of justice and other issues during Trump’s presidency; the special counsel apparently plans to release reports on the Russia investigation’s findings in stages, with obstruction as the theme of the first report. Mueller first reports conclusions to Rosenstein, who directly oversees the special counsel investigation, and ultimately decides what should be publicly released.
The special counsel has been directing attention to Russian oligarchs of late: multiple Russian businessmen and government allies traveling into the US have been stopped and questioned–or searched–by FBI investigators, according to recent reports. Mueller’s team appears to be looking for financial ties to the Trump campaign, and potential illegal Russian-based campaign donations. This special counsel attention coincides with the recent Treasury Department sanctions, a large part of which focus directly on Russian oligarchs. This new set of sanctions–the most significant American sanctions against Russia in years–target 7 Russian individuals and 12 related companies, notably focused on close Putin allies and ultra-powerful businessmen, including Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch with former ties to Manafort. These sanctions, according to the Treasury, are in response to multiple Russian activities, including the occupation of Crimea and violence in Ukraine; support of Assad in Syria; and attempts to undermine western democracies, including cyberattacks and social manipulation in the 2016 US Presidential election. The language in the sanctions also explicitly highlights Russian corruption, and a system that consolidates power and money in the hands of a small circle of Putin insiders. These sanctions, more than past measures, are expected to discourage domestic and international financial and business interactions with the individuals and companies involved.
In other DoJ news, the office of the Inspector General recently published a press release announcing the commencement of their internal review of DoJ and FBI conduct and compliance regarding Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrants and the use of confidential sources. Presumably, the review will look specifically at some of the issues surrounding last month’s controversial House Intelligence Committee memo, which blamed the FBI for improperly seeking and obtaining a FISC warrant to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page with intelligence partially gathered from the Steele dossier. More broadly, the DoJ IG is conducting a wide-ranging review of the Department’s management of the early stages of the Russia investigation, upon which much Congressional and Presidential attention has been focused over the past few months as high-profile firings and resignations have brought increased scrutiny and politicization to the Department’s leadership and processes. Apropos DoJ leadership, Deputy AG Rosenstein has picked a new deputy to assist in the oversight of the special counsel Russia investigation. Former federal prosecutor and DoJ national security and counterterrorism official Ed O’Callaghan will become Rosenstein’s Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, a top post which entails working closely with Rosenstein on investigative oversight. The former official occupying that position, Robert Hur, left last month for a post as US attorney of Maryland.
House Intelligence Committee
Although their Russia investigation has officially concluded, the House Intelligence Committee has remained active in related affairs. At the beginning of the month Committee Chairman Devin Nunes sent a letter to the DoJ and FBI, demanding that they provide him the original FBI document summarizing the rationale for beginning the Russia investigation. Nunes asked that the document be provided by April 11, and has repeatedly threatened Rosenstein and FBI Director Wray with legal action if they fail to comply. Nunes also reportedly asked for 4 classified FISC applications related to the warrant on Carter Page, ostensibly to bolster the claims in his contentious memo. So far, Wray and Rosenstein have apparently not given Nunes any documents, and it’s not clear what–if any–legal action he would actually be able to take against them, especially with the closure of his investigation and without the support of the full House Intelligence Committee.
Senate Intelligence Committee
The Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing at the beginning of the month to discuss election security, focused on Russian attacks on electoral infrastructure in 2016, the federal response to those attacks, and the mitigation of future vulnerabilities. The Committee heard from the Department of Homeland Security as well as state election officials, many of whom highlighted the need for increased state and federal cooperation and communication in elections. The hearing underscored concerns about the upcoming midterm elections, as many states have not significantly improved their voting systems since 2016, when Russian hackers were able to breach systems in 21 states. Among the Homeland Security officials at the hearing were Kristjen Nielsen, the DHS Secretary, and former Secretary Jeh Johnson, who testified about weaknesses in current state voting systems that could still be exploited by cyberattacks, and also discussed weaknesses in communication between state election officials and the federal government, which failed to act promptly in providing information, security and resources to states whose systems had been compromised in 2016. Nielsen and Johnson also highlighted the particular vulnerability of swing states, which have disproportionate control over electoral outcomes, and are therefore larger targets for hostile state attacks. The Senate Intelligence Committee released a shortlist of recommendations following the hearing, ahead of a classified report on election vulnerabilities which is currently under review by federal intelligence agencies. The Committee called for states to secure their voting infrastructure with paper ballot machines and more secure databases, with additional funding and resources being provided by the federal government for security and threat monitoring. The recommendations backed up previous intelligence community recommendations to states regarding elections, but also urged the federal government and the White House to take a firm stand against election interference and to allocate additional resources, including information, to state officials. Congress appears poised to approve almost 700 million dollars in aid to states to secure voting infrastructure before the midterms.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has also been investigating Facebook and the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, which has again thrown the social media giant into the spotlight for its role in the 2016 election. Last week Facebook deleted hundreds of accounts associated with or controlled by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian propaganda firm that was indicted last month by the special counsel for its role in the proliferation of divisive misinformation on social media during the 2016 election. Most of the content the company removed was in Russian and was apparently aimed at influencing Russian and European users, in ways similar to those the IRA employed to influence US users during the election. Facebook also outlined a plan to make political ad purchases–and data about ad influence–more publicly transparent before the midterms. This week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before joint Senate Committees, addressing both Russian activity and influence on the platform and data privacy concerns sparked by the recent news that data from around 87 million Facebook users–according to a recently expanded estimate by Facebook–may have been illegally or improperly shared with the data firm Cambridge Analytica in 2016. Cambridge Analytica, which was founded by Steve Bannon and Stephen Mercer, a powerful Republican donor, used Facebook information to run big data analytics and create ‘psychographic profiles’ of users in order to target ads and potentially manipulative information during the election. Zuckerberg admitted that in the past decade Facebook has not adequately protected users’ data, and has allowed third parties such as apps and advertisers to use data without users’ knowledge or consent.
For its part, Cambridge Analytica has built its reputation around elections, advising political campaigns around the world using data analytics to profile and target voters and ultimately influence outcomes, sometimes also employing clandestine methods. The head of the firm, Alexander Nix, offered an undercover reporter from Britain’s Channel 4 news posing as a political client to set up rival politicians using bribery or entrapment. Other Cambridge Analytica officials were caught on tape bragging about their heavy involvement in the chaotic Kenyan presidential elections last year. The company is facing similar scrutiny in the UK, where Parliament held hearings earlier in the month to discuss Russian social media interference in the Brexit referendum and Cambridge Analytica’s potential use of Facebook user data to influence public opinion. In the US, the firm was working on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016, but has denied any improper use of Facebook data, claiming they didn’t use psychographic profiling or personality models to target ads, only data that Facebook and other companies made available to all advertisers. It was later revealed that Cambridge Analytica had at one point been in possession of Facebook user data that violated Facebook policies, but later deleted it and claimed it was never used in their Trump campaign work. The prospect of Facebook data being used by the Trump campaign without users’ knowledge or consent is a heavy one, compounding the morass already created by Russian misinformation on social media. This issue will probably remain central to the Russia investigations in the coming months, as the company meets with Congressional Committees and the special counsel to explain its actions during the election.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee, whose Russia investigation has been stalled for the past few months by a reluctant Chairman Grassley and other Republican members, has been active in recent weeks with a few Russia-related matters. Last week former Trump adviser and close ally Roger Stone agreed to hand over documents to the Committee. Stone said the request, which originally came from ranking member Diane Feinstein last fall, was ‘absurd,’ but nonetheless complied. The Committee is reportedly interested in Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange–who apparently worked with Russians in 2016 to release stolen DNC and Clinton emails during the election–as well as other Russian officials and Trump campaign members. Stone has long been a somewhat enigmatic subject of the Russia investigations, due to his closeness to Trump and alleged ties to Assange, as well as his proximity to an increasing number of other witnesses. He will likely remain in investigators’ spotlights.
The Judiciary Committee was also involved in the recent Facebook drama, hearing testimony this week from Zuckerberg in a joint hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee, where Senators probed the issues of Russian fake news and political interference, as well as data privacy. The Facebook hearing precipitated an unusually bipartisan movement in Congress to discuss regulations and necessary changes to Facebook and other companies occupying the inscrutable world of social media, as it becomes increasingly clear how easily misinformation can spread on such platforms, undermining political debate and aggravating social issues. iIlustrative of this point is the ease with which Facebook allowed user data to spread to other more nefarious operators in the past, and how easily companies like Cambride Analytica can further twist political and social narratives by using that data to target voters in specific ways for the benefit of specific political figures.