Lazy Saturday Reads: It’s Been A Very Newsy Week!Posted: February 24, 2018
This has been quite a week for the Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation. Here’s a good recap of all that has happened from NPR: The Russia Investigations: More Pleas, More Charges — Any More Preparation?
Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller broke his own record this week for guilty pleas. On Tuesday, Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan appeared in federal court and admitted he had lied to investigators about his contacts with Donald Trump’s former campaign vice chairman, Rick Gates.
On Friday, Gates himself appeared before a federal judge and confirmed that he is changing his plea to guilty. He had been fighting the case brought against him and the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, which alleged they laundered millions of dollars and broke other laws related to their work for clients in Ukraine.
That makes the fourth and fifth pleas in the Russia imbroglio — but how much closer does it bring an answer to the question about whether the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 election?
NPR points out that we still don’t know. We still haven’t seen any indictments for the hacking of DNC and Clinton campaign emails, although I’ll bet those will be coming.
Gates and Manafort have not been charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. by “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes.” That was the charge Mueller leveled at 13 Russians and three Russian companies he says did interfere with the election.
Or the special counsel’s office could be laying down one brick in a larger structure. At the very least, Gates’ future testimony against his longtime business partner raises the likelihood that Manafort could be convicted of some or all of the charges he continues fighting.
NPR also details some mild efforts by the Feds to help prepare states for what the Russians might do in the upcoming mid-term elections and asks whether anyone is going to do anything about the extensive propaganda activities that were revealed in the indictments of individual Russians and Russian companies. It’s a good summary of a busy week of Russia news.
Meanwhile, after the Gates guilty plea, Mueller filed more new charges against Manafort. NBC News:
Further squeezing Manafort, Mueller lodged new accusations in a five-count superseding indictment Friday that charges him with conspiracy, money-laundering, being an unregistered agent for a foreign entity and making false statements.
The most significant allegation is that Manafort assembled what he called a “Super VIP” group of highly influential Europeans who could push Ukraine’s agenda “without any visible relationship” with the Ukrainian government, according to an email obtained by Mueller.
Manafort paid the politicians 2 million euros from offshore accounts in 2012 and 2013 to lobby members of Congress and other U.S. officials. It’s illegal for Americans to direct foreigners to lobby the U.S. without informing the Justice Department.
The so-called “Hapsburg Group” was managed by a former European chancellor, who was not named in the indictment.
The term chancellor is used in only a small number of countries, including Germany and Austria. The Associated Press reported last year that Mercury LLC, which was involved in the Manafort lobbying effort, employed former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer as an expert.
Gusenbauer told Austrian public radio that he had never heard of the Hapsburg group and had met Manafort only twice. “I had nothing to do with the activities of Paul Manafort in Ukraine,” he said.
Manafort is still claiming he’s innocent of all charges. My guess is he is more afraid of his former Russian employers than anything Mueller can do to him. Manafort has to know a lot that could hurt Vladimir Putin and other Russian oligarchs. Those guys don’t fool around; they just poison their enemies or make it look like they had heart attacks or committed suicide.
It also looks like Jared Kushner could be in trouble. We know he can’t get a security clearance, and John Kelly is going to have to figure out what to do about it. Kelly recently set a deadline for yesterday for White House staff without permanent security clearance to be cut off from access to top secret information.
Trump was asked about Kushner’s situation yesterday.
President Donald Trump dodged questions on the status of his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s security clearance during a press conference Friday, saying it is “up to General Kelly” if Kushner will keep his access.
The widespread use of the interim clearances in the Trump White House came under scrutiny after revelations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was operating under a temporary pass amid an investigation into allegations of domestic abuse from two of his ex-wives.
The fallout led chief of staff John Kelly to issue new guidance on the use of the interim clearances, including restricting access to confidential information.
Among those White House members working under an interim clearance is Kushner, who has reportedly pushed backagainst the new rules.
“That’ll be up to General Kelly,” Trump told reporters during a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “General Kelly will make that call. I will let the general make that call.”
Shortly after Trump’s remarks yesterday, The Washington Post broke this news: Top Justice Dept. official alerted White House 2 weeks ago to ongoing issues in Kushner’s security clearance.
A top Justice Department official alerted the White House two weeks ago that significant information requiring additional investigation would further delay the security clearance process of senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to three people familiar with the discussion.
The Feb. 9 phone call from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to White House Counsel Donald McGahn came amid growing public scrutiny of a number of administration officials without final security clearances. Most prominent among them is Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who has had access to some of the nation’s most sensitive material for over a year while waiting for his background investigation to be completed….
In his phone conversation with McGahn, Rosenstein intended to give an update on the status of Kushner’s background investigation. He did not specify the source of the information that officials were examining, the three people said.
Justice Department officials said Rosenstein did not provide any details to the White House about the matters that needed to be investigated relating to Kushner.
It seems likely that Jared’s problem stems from something to do with the Russia investigation. Why else would the call have come from Rosenstein instead of Jeff Sessions, who is recused from involvement in the Mueller probe? It should also be noted that neither Ivanka Trump nor Don McGahn has a permanent security clearance yet.
The New York Times released its own story about Jared: White House Told Kushner’s Security Clearance Will Be Delayed.
The Justice Department informed the White House this month that there were substantial issues related to Jared Kushner that still needed to be investigated and would significantly delay a recommendation on whether he should receive a permanent security clearance, according to two people briefed on the matter.
The White House was not told what the issues were involving Mr. Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. But the notification led White House lawyers and aides to believe that they were more problematic than the complexity of his finances and his initial failure to disclose contacts with foreign leaders — the reasons Mr. Kushner’s lawyers have said are holding up the process, the two people said.
Doesn’t that sound like it’s probably about the Mueller investigation? The Times story also examines the ways in which this sets up big problems for John Kelly.
Mr. Kelly, who has tried to inject discipline and order into Mr. Trump’s freewheeling West Wing, has bristled from the start at Mr. Kushner’s amorphous and omnipresent role, and Mr. Kushner has been angered in turn at what he regards as challenges to his authority and access.
The strains have deepened in recent days, as Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have privately disparaged the chief of staff to Mr. Trump, faulting his handling of the scandal surrounding Mr. Porter, the staff secretary who resigned under pressure after spousal abuse allegations became public.
Mr. Kelly’s memo further inflamed the situation, essentially suggesting that Mr. Kushner might lose the high-level clearance — including to view the presidential daily brief, a summary of intelligence and other sensitive information — that he has enjoyed for more than a year.
Will Kelly be the next White House employee to get the boot from Trump?
Bernie Sanders has been on the defensive after the indictments of Russians last week included the news that Russia tried to help the Sanders campaign during the 2016 primaries, and the resemblances between Sanders and Trump are coming into focus for the press. Here’s the latest from Edward-Isaac Dovere: Sanders promoted false story on reporting Russian trolls.
Bernie Sanders is taking credit for action to combat the Russian incursion into the 2016 election that he didn’t have anything to do with — and didn’t actually happen.
Twice this week, in response to questions about whether he benefited from the Russian effort, as prosecutors allege, or did enough to stop it, Sanders said a staffer passed information to Hillary Clinton’s aides about a suspected Russian troll operation.
It turns out that the purported Sanders’ staffer who said he tried to sound the alarm was a campaign volunteer who acted on his own, without any contact or direction from the Vermont senator or his staff. When the volunteer, John Mattes of San Diego, said he communicated with the Clinton campaign in local press accounts, he was confusing it for a super PAC supportive of Clinton.
He also doesn’t know why Sanders is taking all the credit. “I’m going to send him a bill for my back pay,” Mattes joked.
Read more at the link.
So . . . what do you think? And what stories are you following?