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Trump and Russia probes recap: Week of Dec 30 – Jan 5
Mueller’s report. A source familiar with Trump’s legal team’s strategy told The Daily Beast that they expect “a complex, multi-faceted process to ensue after Mueller’s team drops its report—potentially involving a legal battle over executive privilege.” Giuliani stated that Trump plans to claim executive privilege on any matter related to obstruction of justice contained in the report and block Mueller from sharing it with congress and the public. However, Nancy Pelosi seems prepared for any fight and has hired veteran Department of Justice lawyer Douglas Letter to serve as general counsel of the House of Representatives in 2019. Letter has criticized Giuliani “in no uncertain terms on the subject of executive privilege,” signaling the Democrats will fight to make Mueller’s report public.
Moscow tower. On Wednesday, Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that Trump “doesn’t remember” how long discussions about building a Trump Tower Moscow went on for. According to Giuliani, Trump “says as far as he’s concerned, it could be anywhere up to November of 2016.” This means it’s possible Trump was in talks to build in Moscow up to and perhaps after he was elected president.
Mueller: Russian cases
Grand jury. Mueller’s grand jury has been granted a 6 month extension, ensuring it can continue its work into this summer. The initial 18 month term was set to expire last weekend.
Grand jury 2.0? On Thursday, Mueller’s team revealed in a court filing that there’s an ongoing grand jury investigation related to Russian social media interference in the 2016 presidential election. It’s unclear if this is an additional grand jury than the one that’s been in session for over a year now, or if it’s the same grand jury that’s taking on various aspects under Mueller’s purview.
Animal House. Lawyers for Concord Management, a Russian company founded by “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin that is accused of funded Russia’s troll operation, submitted a response to Mueller in court Friday. Concord is trying to get the court to order Mueller to turn over his evidence, while Mueller is arguing that revealing the evidence would compromise national security. In the new court documents, Concord’s lawyers use “borderline-inappropriate” reference to “Animal House,” essentially saying that Mueller’s word cannot be trusted.
- From Concord’s filing: “The Special Counsel also states that if simply trusting him that everything is just peachy is not sufficient, he can tell more ex parte secrets to the Court to support his position. The Special Counsel’s argument is reminiscent of Otter’s famous line, “Flounder, you can’t spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes! You f**cked up… you trusted us. Hey, make the best of it.”
Judge shopping. In conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi’s $350 million lawsuit against Mueller and the government (FBI, CIA, NSA, DOJ), a federal judge ruled Corsi cannot argue the case before the judge of his choosing. Corsi was attempting to pick the judge that hears his case; his team chose Judge Richard Leon because Leon had previously ruled the government was too aggressive in surveilling citizens. Leon ordered the clerk to reassign the dispute using the typical random assignment system. The case was assigned to Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.
Lost painting. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, appears to have “lost” the world’s most expensive painting: Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. As journalist Zev Shalev explained in this great piece, the painting may be key in piecing together the Trump-Russia conspiracy. I will try to summarize it here, but for the full story, please read the article.
- The Salvator Mundi was previously owned by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought it in 2013 for $127 million instead of its valued $80 million. He claims the dealer ripped him off and the two have been squabbling in court since. Side note: Rybolovlev is under investigation by Mueller for purchasing Trump’s Palm Beach mansion for $54 million more than it was worth. Since then, Rybolovlev demolished the property.
- In August 2016, Erik Prince arranged and attended a meeting at Trump Tower with Israeli Joel Zamel and George Nader, who acted as an emissary for both MBS and the Crown Prince of the UAE. Nader told Don Jr. that the Saudi and Emirati princes wanted to help Trump become president, using Zamel’s company Psy-Group to manipulate social media.
- The Salvator Mundi painting was sold at auction in November 2017 for over $300 million more than expected; MBS paid a total of $450 million for it. How did the bidding get so high? Representatives of MBS and the UAE were bidding against each other, driving the price up. While they claim it was mistake, art sales are a well known method of money laundering.
- Shalev suggests that the overpayment for the painting was the crown princes’ way to pay for the social media campaign waged on Trump’s behalf (a promise Nader allegedly made at the Trump Tower meeting). Now, the fact that the location of the Salvator Mundi is unknown and there are no plans to exhibit the artwork leads to suspicion. How does one misplace the world’s most expensive painting?
- Finally, Shalev notes that “four months after the Da Vinci auction Mueller sent investigators to Israel to ask about specific deposits to Psy-Group’s Cypriot bank accounts.” Mueller may have already untangled this mess.
Patten update. There’s been a development in a little-known aspect of Mueller’s investigation: the case against DC lobbyist W. Samuel Patten. In August 2018 Patten pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign lobbyist and admitted to lying to the Senate and funneling a Ukrainian oligarch’s money to Trump’s inaugural foundation. On Monday, Mueller’s team filed a status update on the case under seal, keeping all details private. This is in contrast the previous disclosures in Patten’s case, in which prosecutors spelled out his crimes. Experts suggest this indicates Patten is still providing significant assistance to Mueller and/or the DOJ.
- The Ukrainian oligarch was Serhiy Lovochkin, alleged to be Manafort’s main paymaster during his time in Ukraine. Patten also worked for a Russian connected to Paul Manafort: Konstantin Kilimnik, who has ties to Russian military intelligence and is named as a co-conspirator that helped Manafort hide his money in foreign bank accounts.
- Prosecutors from the Mueller investigation attended Patten’s August plea hearing, signaling interest in the case.
MORE RUSSIA NEWS
Trading spys. On December 28th, Russian authorities arrested American (and British) citizen Paul Whelan in Moscow for espionage. The Russian story is that Whelan spent years cultivating confidential sources on social media, eventually visiting Moscow where they arrested him after he allegedly received a flash drive containing a list of employees of a secret Russian agency. Whelan’s family states he is no spy and was simply in Russia to attend a friend’s wedding.
- Some experts are skeptical that Whelan was actually a spy. For one, he has a criminal past: he was dishonorably discharged from the Marines in 2008 after being court-martialed for attempting to steal over $10,000 from the U.S. government and bouncing nearly $6,000 worth of checks. An intelligence officer who served with Whelan said that “no intelligence agency would take someone with his record to be a spy.” Former CIA officer John Sipher said: It’s “highly unlikely that [Whelan] is associated with U.S. intelligence” because of the risks involved. “From my experience we would almost never send someone to Russia without diplomatic immunity.”
- So why falsely accuse Whelan of spying? Former CIA officers say that he was likely detained as payback for the US arrest of Maria Butina. Dan Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief for the CIA, told The Daily Beast: “They want to deter future U.S. actions against other private citizens.” Butina is clearly important to the Kremlin because, as the DOJ lawyers prosecuting her wrote, “the Russian government has conducted six consular visits with the defendant.”
- Whelan is being represented by Russian lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov. According to The Daily Beast, monitors and human rights defenders “were surprised to hear that Whelan accepted Zherebenkov as his attorney,” because it is likely Zherebenkov was the choice of the FSB. Zherebenkov is a former Soviet government investigator who has never before tried an espionage case involving a foreign citizen. Monitors believe he cannot be trusted.
- Zherebenkov stated his goal is to arrange a trade to bring home “at least one Russian soul.” As former CIA station chief Dan Hoffman said, this is essentially the FSB saying they want to make an exchange through the lawyer. “Based on my experience,” Hoffman added, “this looks like the Russians are fabricating a motive that doesn’t exist to suit their tactical plans.” Journalist Michael Weiss tweeted that Zherebenkov said “he wants Butina returned,” supporting the assumption that Russia intends to trade Whelan for Butina.
- It appears unlikely Whelan will be released any time soon. Zherebenkov said there’s no chance of Whelan being released until the investigation is concluded, which will take “at least six months.” Then, there would be a trial and perhaps conviction, after which a pardon could be sought from Putin. For now, the Russian court has ordered Whelan held until February 28. “There will be no miracle, I don’t think Whelan will come out on February 28,” Zherebenkov added.
Russian arrested. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the FBI arrested Russian citizen Dmitry Makarenko in the Northern Mariana Islands (in the Pacific) as he and his family landed at the airport on December 29th. Makarenko was indicted in 2017 for attempting to export US military equipment to Russia and money laundering; his co-defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 26 months in prison. The Russian embassy is seeking access to Makarenko and the ministry is demanding an explanation for the arrest.
- Some have speculated that perhaps this was retaliation by the US for Paul Whelan’s arrest, and/or maybe to offer someone else to trade for Whelan other than Maria Butina.
NASA screw up. On Tuesday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine invited the director of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, to visit Houston in October. However, as Politico describes him, Rogozin is an ultranationalist politician with a record of stark racism and homophobia who is under American sanctions” for his role in the annexation of Crimea. Bridenstine temporarily waved the sanctions to allow him entry. The outcry over this decision was so great, particularly from Democratic senators, that NASA rescinded the invitation. Sens. Menendez and Shaheen argued such an invitation undermines U.S. sanctions and would give a government-approved platform to an anti-American bigot.
USAReally. The Russian-funded English website USAReally.com had its internet security certificate pulled and is banned from getting certificates in the future. This means that Mozilla FireFox users can’t visit the website any longer, and soon Safari and Chrome users will receive warnings that the site is insecure. The site’s founder, Alexander Malkevich, is under sanctions for using USAReally as part of a Russian campaign “to interfere in political and electoral systems worldwide.”
Challenging Deripaska. Newly-empowered House Democrats are discussing strategies to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) would like to call Treasury officials to testify before the House intelligence committee and explain their decision. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have already opened up the option of enacting a resolution of disapproval. Unfortunately, such a resolution faces significant hurdles: if passed by simple majority in both the House and Senate, Trump could veto it. To override the veto, the resolution would need a ⅔ majority.
- Daily Beast: The administration has argued that the sanctions—which The Daily Beast first reported were conceived inadvertently and without following proper inter-agency protocols—were roiling international markets… In exchange for lifting the sanctions, Deripaska was required to abandon his majority ownership in EN+, the main company which has Rusal in its portfolio. Under the agreement, Deripaska must also add Americans to his corporate boards, and he will personally remain on the official U.S. list of sanctioned Russians.
AG hearing. Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, will have a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 15 and 16. If confirmed, Barr would replace acting AG Matthew Whitaker.
- Barr wrote a 20-page memo to the Justice Department last summer postulating that Trump could not be found to have obstructed justice merely by exercising his Article II powers. In addition to Barr’s previous anti-Mueller statements, there is likely to be significant controversy surrounding the hearings. The Washington Post wrote a great piece breaking down the faulty logic of the argument expressed in the memo.
Indictment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told NBC that a sitting president could potentially be indicted, despite existing DOJ guidance that states the contrary.
New interviews. Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of House Intelligence committee, suggested that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon invoked “bogus privileges” during their testimonies to avoid answering certain questions. He further stated the committee hopes to bring Kushner, Bannon, and Cohen back to re-question them about issues they had avoided. Note, the Republicans in control of the committee accepted these “bogus” reasons not to answer to the American people.
Emoluments. A Virginia federal court has set March 19-21 as tentative dates to hear Trump’s appeal of the decision to allow an emoluments lawsuit against him to proceed. The suit, brought by Maryland and DC, accuse Trump of unconstitutionally profiting off the presidency by accepting payments from foreign and domestic governments through the Trump DC hotel.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
Turkish lobbyist. Michael Flynn’s former business associate, Bijan Rafiekian, was charged last month with illegally lobbying in the US on the behalf of the Turkish government. Last week, he pleaded not guilty and his lawyer requested a federal judge delay his trial, previously set for February 11, to September 2019. Prosecutors gave the defense “terabytes” of information that they need to review, some of it evidence that was collected by Mueller’s office.
Golf club. An undocumented employee of the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey who has been speaking out against management told the New York Times that her name was removed from a list of workers to be vetted by the Secret Service when Trump was running for president. She alleges that she reminded human resources that she was in the states illegally, and they promptly removed her name (and others) from the list. Her lawyer has met with both the New York attorney general’s office and the FBI.
Ivanka. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government watchdog group, has filed a complaint with Deputy AG Rosenstein asking the DOJ to investigate Ivanka Trump’s participation in a developing a tax program that personally benefits her husband, Jared Kushner.
Strange connection. An odd story broke last week: a Raleigh (NC) man, Leonid Teyf, accused of money laundering and plotting a murder-for-hire has ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of 13 Russians indicted last February as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. US invesitgators accuse Teyf of stealing millions of dollars from the Russian government through a kickback scheme and trying to have his ex-wife’s lover deported and killed. According to a Russian media outlet (not state media), Teyf provided Prigozhin with key contracts related to the Russian military.
QAnon. A popular QAnon twitter account, believed by many believers to be JFK, Jr. in disguise, was revealed to be a failed Green Party congressional candidate from Arizona. The twitter account @TheRealRaNon was actually created by Ray Parrish, who ran for congress in 2016 and was supported by the Arizona GOP to siphon votes from Democrats. His postings “fueled the idea that JFK Jr. is somehow involved in the Q conspiracy theory.”
- While Parrish denied being behind the account, there is evidence that connects him to it: “the account was promoting conspiracy theory-related books through affiliate links, meaning a portion of the proceeds from any products sold goes back to the owner of the account. Some of the links matched with links Parrish had used to sell products on other accounts.”
Too long, didn’t read summary
Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that Trump “doesn’t remember” how long discussions about building a Trump Tower Moscow went on for – it could be anywhere up to November of 2016. Mueller’s grand jury has been granted a 6 month extension. In conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi’s $350 million lawsuit against Mueller and the government (FBI, CIA, NSA, DOJ), a federal judge ruled Corsi cannot argue the case before the judge of his choosing. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, appears to have “lost” the world’s most expensive painting: Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. This may be key to unraveling the Trump-Russia conspiracy. Mueller’s team filed a status update on the case against Sam Patten under seal, keeping all details private; this suggests Patten is more significant to Mueller/the DOJ than previously known.
On December 28th, Russian authorities arrested American (and British) citizen Paul Whelan in Moscow for espionage. Whelan’s family maintains he was not a spy and some experts believe Russia wants to trade Whelan for Maria Butina. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the FBI arrested Russian citizen Dmitry Makarenko in the Northern Mariana Islands on charges of attempting to export US military equipment to Russia and money laundering. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine rescinded his invitation to the director of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, to visit Houston in October; Rogozin is under US sanctions for his role in the Crimea annexation. The Russian-funded English website USAReally.com had its internet security certificate pulled and is banned from getting certificates in the future.
Newly-empowered House Democrats are discussing strategies to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, will have a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 15 and 16. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told NBC that a sitting president could potentially be indicted, despite existing DOJ guidance that states the contrary.
A Virginia federal court has set March 19-21 as tentative dates to hear Trump’s appeal of the decision to allow an emoluments lawsuit against him to proceed. Michael Flynn’s former business associate, Bijan Rafiekian, pleaded not guilty and his lawyer requested a federal judge delay his trial. A government watchdog group filed a complaint asking the DOJ to investigate Ivanka Trump’s participation in a tax program that personally benefits her husband, Jared Kushner.