Tuesday Reads: Nonstop Russia News and Trump FreakoutsPosted: February 20, 2018
Robert Mueller certainly has been busy lately. Rick Gates hasn’t even pleaded guilty yet, and we’re already learning about crimes he must have talked about in his “queen for a day” interview. (By the way, I had to force myself to write “pleaded” in the previous sentence; my reflex is to use “pled,” but apparently that past-tense verb has been discarded by the powers that be.)
Does anyone else remember the old quiz show “Queen for a Day?” As a kid I loved to watch those housewives tell their sob stories. Afterwards the “applause meter” would be used to decide which woman would win new washing machines and other prizes.
But I digress. I’m really a mess this morning–either I have the flu or some other nasty virus, and my brain doesn’t seem to be working properly; plus my eyes hurt and my joints are a lot achier than usual.
Here’s what’s happening, or at least the stories that will fit into 2,000 words or so.
Alex Van Der Zwaan was charged Feb. 16 with lying to the FBI and Mueller’s office about conversations related to his work on a report prepared by his law firm on the legitimacy of the criminal prosecution of a former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Prosecutors charged Van Der Zwaan by criminal information, which typically precedes a guilty plea. He is scheduled to appear Tuesday afternoon in federal court in Washington. He didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Van Der Zwaan was an associate in the London office of Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom. “The firm terminated its employment of Alex Van Der Zwaan in 2017 and has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter,” the firm said in a statement.
Last year, Van Der Zwaan married the daughter of Russian oligarch German Khan, according to the London Tatler. Khan is a shareholder of Alfa Group, a Russian banking and investment concern, and a board member at LetterOne Holdings, the investment vehicle set up by the founders of Alfa Group.
The false statements have to do with a phone conversation that Van Der Zwaan had with Rick Gates.
Van Der Zwaan was questioned by U.S. authorities regarding his firm’s work in 2012 on behalf of the Ukraine Ministry of Justice.
Van Der Zwaan told investigators that his last contact with Gates was an innocuous text message in mid-August 2016, when they actually spoke the following month about the Tymoshenko report in a call the lawyer secretly recorded, the information says.
Prosecutors also accused Van Der Zwaan of lying about his talks with someone else, identified by the government as Person A. The lawyer told investigators he last spoke with Person A in 2014, when in fact they spoke in September 2016 during the secretly recorded call with Gates.
Who is “person A?” Is it Manafort? The call took place while Gates was working on the Trump transition.
Federal law enforcement officials have identified more than $40 million in “suspicious” financial transactions to and from companies controlled by President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort — a much larger sum than was cited in his October indictment on money laundering charges.
The vast web of transactions was unraveled mainly in 2014 and 2015 during an FBI operation to fight international kleptocracy that ultimately fizzled. The story of that failed effort — and its resurrection by special counsel Robert Mueller as he investigated whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election — has never been fully told.
But it explains how the special counsel was able to swiftly bring charges against Manafort for complex financial crimes dating as far back as 2008 — and it shows that Mueller could still wield immense leverage as he seeks to compel Manafort to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.
Go to Buzzfeed to read all the gory details. How long before Manfort gives in and flips on Trump?
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s interest in Jared Kushner has expanded beyond his contacts with Russia and now includes his efforts to secure financing for his company from foreign investors during the presidential transition, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
This is the first indication that Mueller is exploring Kushner’s discussions with potential non-Russian foreign investors, including in China.
US officials briefed on the probe had told CNN in May that points of focus related to Kushner, the White House senior adviser and son-in-law of President Donald Trump, included the Trump campaign’s 2016 data analytics operation, his relationship with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Kushner’s own contacts with Russians.
Mueller’s investigators have been asking questions, including during interviews in January and February, about Kushner’s conversations during the transition to shore up financing for 666 Fifth Avenue, a Kushner Companies-backed New York City office building reeling from financial troubles, according to people familiar with the special counsel investigation.
It’s not clear what’s behind Mueller’s specific interest in the financing discussions. Mueller’s team has not contacted Kushner Companies for information or requested interviews with its executives, according to a person familiar with the matter.
One clue might be Kushner’s private meetings with the Chinese ambassador. From NY Magazine on January 21, 2018: Report: Kushner’s Meetings With Chinese Officials Raised Red Flags.
The New Yorker reports that China has been courting Jared Kushner aggressively since President Trump’s election, and that the real-estate scion’s intimate meetings with top Chinese officials have made some U.S. officials uncomfortable.
Kushner met with Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., in New York after Trump’s victory, and then multiple times at the White House after the president’s term began.
Some of those encounters included disgraced ex–national security adviser Michael Flynn; on at least one occasion, Kushner and Cui met alone. This was a major departure from previous administrations’ protocol, which consisted of large gatherings that included China experts on the U.S. side.
Kushner’s encounters with Cui, the article reports, “made some people in the U.S. government uncomfortable.” They feared that China might have been using Kushner’s access to Trump to sway U.S. policy. (Kushner was instrumental in convincing Trump to stick with America’s “One China” policy near the beginning of his term.)
Others feared that Kushner’s total lack of relevant experience made him likely to accede to Chinese demands without pushing back.
One official said, “He went in utterly unflanked by anyone who could find Beijing on a map. It was a dream come true. They couldn’t believe he was so compliant.”
If you haven’t read the New Yorker article, you should check it out.
Naturally, Trump is freaking out. Here’s Greg Sargent on the Twitter meltdown: Trump’s unhinged Russia tweetstorm boomerangs back on Republicans.
After spending some of his “executive time” this morning watching “Fox & Friends,” President Trump thanked his favorite cable channel for airing a segment that discussed President Barack Obama’s failure to block Russian interference in our election. Trump himself cited this failure over the weekend, asking: “Why didn’t he do something?”
Trump repeated that message today, flatly alleging that Obama didn’t do enough to resist Russian sabotage because he thought Hillary Clinton would win and didn’t want to “rock the boat.” Trump is right in one sense: The indictment should open the door to a reexamination of why the previous administration failed to do enough to counter Russian meddling.
The problem for Trump is that this line of inquiry also leads right back to the conduct of his fellow Republicans in the face of this Russian effort to undermine our democracy — conduct that was undertaken on his and the GOP’s behalf.
Now that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has laid out a startlingly detailed plot by Russian nationals to influence the election, which included multiple “operations” that included “supporting” Trump’s presidential candidacy and “disparaging” his opponent’s, it presents an occasion to revisit a series of episodes in 2016 that still remain poorly understood.
It is true that the Obama administration failed in key ways to safeguard the 2016 election. But it has also been established by dogged reporting that leading congressional Republicans rebuffed top Obama officials who wanted them to show a united, bipartisan public front against that Russian sabotage. As The Post has reported, when those officials made that request of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), he refused, claiming (in The Post’s words) that “he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
Head over to the WaPo to read the rest. Will McConnell ever be forced to deal with what he did to help Russia?
In other news, Trump and his Russian robots–including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh–are attacking the teenage survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The New York Times: After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced.
One hour after news broke about the school shootingin Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.
The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting. Earlier on Wednesday, before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many of those accounts had been focused on the investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this,” said Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a company that tracks online disinformation campaigns. “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”
One of the most divisive issues in the nation is how to handle guns, pitting Second Amendment advocates against proponents of gun control. And the messages from these automated accounts, or bots, were designed to widen the divide and make compromise even more difficult.
Any news event — no matter how tragic — has become fodder to spread inflammatory messages in what is believed to be a far-reaching Russian disinformation campaign. The disinformation comes in various forms: conspiracy videos on YouTube, fake interest groups on Facebook, and armies of bot accounts that can hijack a topic or discussion on Twitter.
Read the rest at the NYT if you haven’t already.
What will the rest of the day bring? Are there more surprises in store? Please share your thoughts and links in the comment thread below.