The Kushner-Comey Connection

The WaPo is reporting that the FBI probe into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign is looking at a person still in the White House, in addition to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort.

The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.

Further down in the article, WaPo names some people that might be this other person of interest — but just one of them is actually in the White House.

Current administration officials who have acknowledged contacts with Russian officials include President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Still further down, the WaPo covers what first got me believing Jared Kushner is the ultimate target of this probe: his meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the FSB-trained head of the sanctioned Russian bank, Vnesheconombank.

The White House also has acknowledged that Kushner met with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in late November. Kushner also has acknowledged that he met with the head of a Russian development bank, Vnesheconombank, which has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014. The president’s son-in-law initially omitted contacts with foreign leaders from a national security questionnaire, though his lawyer has said publicly he submitted the form prematurely and informed the FBI soon after that he would provide an update.

Vnesheconombank handles development for the state, and in early 2015, a man purporting to be one of its New York-based employees was arrested and accused of being an unregistered spy.

That man — Evgeny Buryakov — ultimately pleaded guilty and was eventually deported. He had been in contact with former Trump adviser Carter Page, though Page has said he shared only “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents” with the Russian. Page was the subject of a secret warrant last year issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, based on suspicions he might have been acting as an agent of the Russian government, according to people familiar with the matter. Page has denied any wrongdoing, and accused the government of violating his civil rights.

As I’ve noted since, there was a lot of smoke coming from Kushner’s direction: first, SSCI’s explicit interest in interviewing Kusher and then two competing stories about a Trump request for CIA’s Sergey Kislyak dossier that only makes sense if the audience were Kushner, not Flynn.

But there are a few more dots (in addition to people claiming to have confirmed this point) that support the idea that Kushner is the ultimate target here, and that Trump, in his clumsy attempts to protect Mike Flynn by firing Jim Comey, is actually attempt to protect the father of his grandchildren.

Back on March 2, Jim Comey’s then still secret Twitter account favorited this NYT article disclosing that Mike Flynn had a previously undisclosed face-to-face meeting with Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower. (h/t TC)

Michael T. Flynn, then Donald J. Trump’s incoming national security adviser, had a previously undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador in December to “establish a line of communication” between the new administration and the Russian government, the White House said on Thursday.

Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior adviser, also participated in the meeting at Trump Tower with Mr. Flynn and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. But among Mr. Trump’s inner circle, it is Mr. Flynn who appears to have been the main interlocutor with the Russian envoy — the two were in contact during the campaign and the transition, Mr. Kislyak and current and former American officials have said.

[snip]

They generally discussed the relationship and it made sense to establish a line of communication,” Ms. Hicks said. “Jared has had meetings with many other foreign countries and representatives — as many as two dozen other foreign countries’ leaders and representatives.”

The story was presented as White House confirmation of earlier New Yorker reporting that Kushner had the meeting, with the White House newly disclosing Flynn’s presence at it. But we now know that the representation that Kushner’s meeting with Kislyak was just one of a slew of meetings with foreign leaders wasn’t quite right. He had sent an aide to a subsequent meeting, and coming out of that meeting, he met with Gorkov, basically meeting with someone personally lobbying to get rid of Ukraine-related sanctions.

Later that month, though, Mr. Kislyak requested a second meeting, which Mr. Kushner asked a deputy to attend in his stead, officials said. At Mr. Kislyak’s request, Mr. Kushner later met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, which the United States placed on its sanctions list after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia annexed Crimea and began meddling in Ukraine.

Of course, while we only learned that fact later, when Comey favorited that story on March 2, he would have known the full details of the follow-up communications. In other words, he would recognize that story as yet another case of the White House hiding Russian communications. He would also likely already know that Kushner had not included that meeting on his security clearance form.

We only learned that story on March 27, when the NYT revealed the Senate Intelligence Committee wanted to interview Kushner about the meeting. As I noted at the time, the discussion between Gorkov and Kushner, coming before Flynn’s December 29 discussions with Kislyak, would dramatically change the connotation of Flynn’s discussions of sanctions. Because, while the immediate context of the December 29 discussions would have been the new hacking related sanctions imposed on December 28, with the prior meeting with Gorkov, they would likely also include the Ukrainian ones. That was the payoff discussed in any quid pro quo related to the election: Putin would help elect Trump, and in exchange Trump would end economic sanctions.

Of course, to make the argument that Flynn was offering to give Russia the payoff for the election-related help, you’d have to get Flynn to cooperate. If you got Flynn to cooperate, he’d be able to tell the FBI whether or not those December 29 conversations pertained just to the hacking sanctions or also to the Ukrainian ones.

The FBI has a great many things they can and will use to get Flynn to cooperate, including his undisclosed foreign payments and his lies to the FBI in his January 24 interview.

[Large section based off erroneous reading of Wittes’ post removed.]

When Trump fired Comey, he claimed that Comey had thrice told him “he” wasn’t under investigation. Even assuming Comey did, consider how Trump would understand that and how normal people would. To us, “he” would include just Trump. But to someone like Trump whose only real loyalty is to family, “he” would include his family. Including Kushner.

Trump may well think Flynn is a nice man that deserves his loyalty. More likely, though, Trump knows that Flynn could sink his son-in-law. I believe that’s why Trump had to fire Comey in an effort to undercut the Flynn investigation.

And Rod Rosenstein, the survivor, just picked a partner from the firm of Kushner and Ivanka’s lawyer Jamie Gorelick, Robert Mueller, to take over the investigation into Flynn.

Update: Sure enough, Reuters is reporting that Mueller, by design, may not be able to investigate Kushner or Paul Manafort.

Within hours of Mueller’s appointment on Wednesday, the White House began reviewing the Code of Federal Regulations, which restricts newly hired government lawyers from investigating their prior law firm’s clients for one year after their hiring, the sources said.

An executive order signed by Trump in January extended that period to two years.

Mueller’s former law firm, WilmerHale, represents Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who met with a Russian bank executive in December, and the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is a subject of a federal investigation.

Legal experts said the ethics rule can be waived by the Justice Department, which appointed Mueller. He did not represent Kushner or Manafort directly at his former law firm.

If the department did not grant a waiver, Mueller would be barred from investigating Kushner or Manafort, and this could greatly diminish the scope of the probe, experts said.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. Petey says:

    Yeah. Kushner was my guess too.

    But what I wonder is if pursuing stuff during the transition, like the March 2nd NYT article allegations, is part of the special prosecutor’s scope or not.

    The scope being:
    “…any links and/or coordination bet ween the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump…”

    So, my essential question is: do actions by folks who were campaign officials done after they became transition officials still fall under Mueller’s scope?

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice piece of work sorting out the strings in this cat’s cradle.

    Donald being Donald, threats to Kushner (or any other member of Trump’s small circle of intimates who are aware of the family secrets) would be perceived as threats to him personally. Understandably, given Trump’s apparently routine use of cut-outs for all his business.

    As for the stakes in play, they would seem to include the entire Trump empire, not just whether Trump or a Trump courtier keeps a public service job with an office in the White House. Trump has been playing a real life game of Jenga for decades. Will his tower fall? The politics are Byzantine, the defenses Trump might resort to keep his tower standing are Roman.

  3. SpaceLifeForm says:

    It appears as if Trump has never heard or fully understood an important legal phrase:

    The wheels of justice grind slow.

    Two years is nothing. Chump change in legal proceedings.

    Actually, it is profit. They are all lawyering up, and the legal teams are smiling.

    But, while the wheels do grind slowly, they most certainly grind, and grind finely.

    Into dust.

  4. GKJames says:

    Assuming that Rosenstein knew Mueller was conflicted before naming him, what was the point of the exercise?I’m also assuming, of course, that these moves are coordinated among Rosenstein, Sessions, and the president.

    • pdaly says:

      I agree. Wouldn’t Mueller have sensed a conflict of interest, too, before accepting Rosenstein’s offer to head the investigation? Are the names of prominent clients represented by Mueller’s law firm too numerous to remember? Or was the ethics rule unknown to Mueller?

    • pdaly says:

      From the Reuters article  emptywheel linked to in her update (above) here’s at least one reason for Rosenstein to choose someone with a conflict of interest to head the investigation. Even if Mueller is given the DoJ’s waiver to investigate a represented client of his law firm, :

      “…the White House has not ruled out the possibility of using the [DOJ ethics] rule to challenge Mueller’s findings in court, should the investigation lead to prosecution.”

      Nice.
      Thanks, Rosenstein.

      Nevertheless, hoping Mueller asks for the waiver and that when the time comes the courts can see past this Rosenstein political maneuver.

  5. Avattoir says:

    pdaly, I join in kudos to emptywheel for her catch articulated in her Update, but there’s at least a couple of problems with the implication Fearless Leader appears to be urging when combined with your take.

    First, Robert Mueller is not ‘just some lawyer dude’. There isn’t some array of Robert Mueller’s laying around private practice with his natsec / ex-DoJ/FBI background & cred.
    Put another way, you don’t go to war with the Robert Mueller you design, you go with the Robert Mueller that’s available.

    Second, I’m having trouble accepting the broad implications to the effect that:
    a) Mueller would decline to pursue said waiver,
    b) if pursued, Rosenstein would decline to grant any such request,
    AND THEREFORE
    c) the exploits of Kushner – and, note: Manafort as well – would go unexplored.

    Going LIFO with this list, there are already reasons to think the FBI, if not actually a sitting Grand Jury, is currently hot on Manafort’s trail. The appointment of Mueller doesn’t mean that the existing investigations are sucked into some Mueller Black Hole. There’s no reason why those investigations and proceedings already underway cannot just continue on in the form and forums in which they’ve been going so far.

    Moreover, just because there may be objections to Mueller et al going after Kushner doesn’t mean Kushner couldn’t be pursued by Dana Boente, or by a Special that’s working adjunctive to Mueuller’s mandate. Indeed, if the anticipated ‘conflict’ objection it emerges as a real problem, isn’t it more likely that Mueller would PROPOSE such a solution?

    Plus, consider the sheer power in the scandal outrage that would flow from any overall investigatory plan that excludes Kushner getting leaked. It’s not only inconsistent with Mueller’s past history as a civil servant, it’s the sort of thing that he of all Capitol critters would recognize immediately as a horrible and permanent blotch on his participation in the country’s history.

    Even recognizing Rosenstein as Ultimate Survivor (as Comey has suggested to Ben Wittes and as emptywheel has noted), what a Survivor would do is seek survival, right? And given that this has already proved to be the leakiest scandal and associated investigation imaginable, what other outcome would an exceptionally perspicacious Survivor anticipate than that leaving Kushner outside the reach of the independent DoJ/FBI investigative and prosecutorial functions would lead to historical condemnation of HIM, Rosenstein?

    I do think this was all quite important to recognize and raise, as emptywheel first and now you as commenter have done. And we should watch out for this. But all things considered I don’t see how we can justify any particular set of assumptions at this point – there remain way too many forks in the roads ahead.

  6. R.Bylaw says:

    It may be helpful to review Mueller’s scope of investigation, as defined by Rosenstein, vs. the scope that one James Comey defined for Patrick Fitzgerald for the Valerie Plame investigation. Comey specified and clarified Fitzgerald had
    PLENARY authority which was NOT limited by 28 CFR Part 600.

  7. M says:

    “Rod Rosenstein, the survivor, just picked a partner from the firm of Kushner and Ivanka’s lawyer Jamie Gorelick…”
    Gorelick: Former Dem DOJ apparatchik, as I recollect. Just a little more proof that we’re living in a de fact one-party neoliberal system.

  8. Frank G says:

    Why does (did) the head of the FBI have a secret twitter account? Why  did he”favorite” a story full of innuendo, or,  as you put it:  “… he would have known the full details of the follow-up communications. …”

    Would the FBI director have known it is NOT illegal for a citizen of the USA to meet a foreign ambassador? Perhaps there is some secret law out there? Or isn’t it obvious that this was a partisan action  by the former director?

  9. viget says:

    Yes, let’s not forget the infamous Goerlick wall memo that prior administrations have used to obfuscate intelligence sharing in counterespionage investigations… hmmmm.

    Reading Goerlick’s Wiki page is quite enlightening.  For a Dem, she certainly seems to side with a number of neoliberal causes, including the student loan lending industry.  She also seemed to have carried water for the mortgage lending industry in the years leading up to the lending crisis, and there was a $10B accounting scandal at FannieMae shortly after she left (and made almost $26M in total compensation during her time there).  She’s also on a number of corporate boards, including Defense contractor United Technologies.

  10. Procopius says:

    “That was the payoff discussed in any quid pro quo related to the election: Putin would help elect Trump, and in exchange Trump would end economic sanctions.” I don’t follow this blog as much as I should, but it’s a universal problem. I just don’t understand why any discussion of any sanctions is supposed to be prima facie evidence of impropriety. First, let me say I don’t see that the Russian “help” was effective. Even if it happened, I don’t see that it had a fraction of the effect that Comey’s July 5 statement and October 28 letter to Congress had, much less the daily drumbeat about Hillary’s emails from the NYT and WaPo. Flynn was the designated new National Security Advisor. How could he not, in establishing communications with the Russian ambassador, which would be an absolutely necessary part of his duties, discuss sanctions, both the recent one based on the DNCs hysterical accusations and the ones based on the interaction with the Ukraine. Flynn at that time had no authority or power to commit Trump or the future Secretary of State to anything. Sally Yates does not seem like the kind of person to exaggerate threats, so the real reason for Flynn’s firing must be something else, which is probably being kept secret to protect “sources and methods.” The idea that Flynn would be “compromised” by such discussions or for some reason claiming to Pence that he didn’t discuss those matters is absurd. Who cares if someone lies to the Vice President? On the other hand, Flynn has acted like somebody who was caught in the act of doing something, and panicked and showed by his behavior that he knows he’s been caught in the act. Otherwise, he would have just said, “Well, sure, I gave him my opinion about what Mr. Trump might do after the inauguration. So what?” So this constant talk about the sanctions is irrelevant and a distraction.

  11. greengiant says:

    Curious to me is why whenever sanctions or deaths in Russia are mentioned there is so much pushback. A number of different scenarios were possible. Perhaps “sanctions” were only the bait to hook Trump and friends. Assuming “Putin” was able to corrupt Flynn and others does not require assuming any goodwill on “Putin’s” part towards them. “Putin” did not necessarily need an actual “quid quo pro” only needed an assumed “quid quo pro” to own team Trump. I use “Putin” in quotes because it is distasteful to demonize a country of origin or ethnicities for the actions of a current political leadership, whether the ultimate instigator is Putin himself or a clique of oligarchs.
    The worst case scenario is that Flynn, who has left co workers in the WH and elsewhere active in social media disinformation campaigns, happened to pass through an agency that in the past has actively disrupted elections in other countries and thought it profitable to do more disruptions including in the US. One can view Flynn or team Trump not as innovators but as viral agents spreading not just a disruptive technology but a destructive one. To the extent Flynn was doing this outside the US would explain certain NATO allies’ response. The naive can buy into the cover story of big data, targeted advertising and fake news. The US has a serious history of economic and election fraud. Fraud is the simplest explanation for the 2016 election.
    I think it is ironic since like the USSR in the 80s the US is fully set on economic and political self destruction without the need of external help.

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