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Rod Rosenstein’s Unfortunate Vocabulary: Defining a Criminal Investigation by “Links” and “Collusion”

Rod Rosenstein is the very unlikely hero of the Mueller investigation. “Rod is a survivor,” Jim Comey said after getting fired. “And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises.”

Yet here we are, 22 months after he appointed Robert Mueller to investigate an investigation Trump tried to kill by firing Comey, awaiting the results of that investigation.

At times, I think Rosenstein didn’t imagine (and doesn’t now acknowledge) the damage his bend-don’t-break has done along the way. While based off the very sound precedent that existed until Comey’s declination speech about Hillary, it seems ridiculous for him to claim that the full results of the Mueller investigation can’t be shared with Congress, as he’s now claiming, given how he has provided unprecedented disclosure to Congress about the investigation already, including the first ever unsealed probable cause FISA application.

It will take some years to measure whether Rosenstein chose the best or perhaps only the least worst approach to the last several years.

But there’s one thing he did that really makes me uncomfortable, today, as we all await the results of the Mueller report: his mandate to Mueller.

As has been noted countless times in the last 22 months, Rosenstein asked Mueller to investigate:

    • any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and
    • any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation;
    • any other matters with the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).
  • if the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.

We actually know the answer to the first bullet, in part: As I laid out here, during five key interactions pertaining to the question of a possible conspiracy between Trump’s associates and Russia, there was direct contact between someone the government has deemed an agent of Russia and the Trump campaign:

  1. January 20, 2016, when Michael Cohen told Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant that Trump would be willing to work with a GRU-tied broker and (soft and hard) sanctioned banks in pursuit of a $300 million Trump Tower deal in Russia.
  2. June 9, 2016, when Don Jr, knowing that currying favor with Russia could mean $300 million to the family, took a meeting offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of  Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” At the end of the meeting, per the testimony of at least four attendees, Don Jr said they’d revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his dad won.
  3. August 2, 2016, when Paul Manafort and Rick Gates had a clandestine meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik at which Trump’s campaign manager walked Kilimnik through highly detailed poll data and the two discussed a “peace” plan for Ukraine understood to amount to sanctions relief.
  4. December 29, 2016, when (working on instructions relayed by KT McFarland, who was at Mar-a-Lago with Trump) Mike Flynn said something to Sergey Kislyak that led Putin not to respond to Obama’s election-related sanctions.
  5. January 11, 2017, when Erik Prince, acting as a back channel for Trump, met with sanctioned sovereign wealth fund Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev.

That Peskov’s assistant (and whatever representative from Putin’s office that called Felix Sater the next day), Sergey Kislyak, and Kirill Dmitriev are agents of Russia is clear. With the indictment of Natalia Veselnitskaya in December, the government deemed her to be working as an agent of Russia during the same time period she pitched sanctions relief to Trump’s campaign. And while the government hasn’t proven it beyond quoting Rick Gates acknowledging he knew of Konstantin Kilimnik’s past with the GRU and FBI’s belief that he continues to have ties, the government certainly maintains that Kilimnik does have ties to Russian intelligence.

Those are links. It’d be useful to have an official report on them. But since Mueller hasn’t charged them as a conspiracy, we may only learn what we’ve seen in plea agreements or official testimony to Congress.

Likewise Rosenstein’s invocation of “collusion” in the unredacted parts of his memo describing the scope of the investigation as it existed in August 2017 (it expanded and contracted after that point, so there are like different memos).

Allegations that Paul Manafort:

  • committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law;

Here, unlike in the initial mandate, Rosenstein at least noted that Mueller was assessing whether crimes were committed in using that squishy language. But he used the word “collusion,” which started to be politicized by March 2017, when Comey tried to correct it once and for all.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

[snip]

Collusion is not a legal term. It is not one I have used today. I said we are investigating to see if there is any coordination between people associated with the campaign– [my emphasis]

Sure, “collusion” might be understood to incorporate a bunch of possible crimes, and so appropriately didn’t limit Mueller to one specific crime as he investigated Manafort (but then, so did the term, “coordination”). But I nevertheless think that using the word has confused the issue of what Rosenstein intended Mueller to be able to reveal, which would instead be conspiracy and a bunch of other crimes covering up evidence of coordination that Mueller has found necessary and appropriate to charge, and not whether there was “collusion.”

All the while, people on both sides of this debate have taken “collusion” to mean whatever minimalist or maximalist interpretation of wrong-doing that best serves their side.

There are two things at issue: whether Trump and his aides coordinated in a way that is criminal, which would be a conspiracy, and whether Trump has coordinated with Russia in a way that would be an abuse of power and/or puts the nation at risk.

Both are legitimate questions. And while Rosenstein says only crimes that are indicted are appropriate to reveal (and he may well be right about that, as a principle), he did ask Mueller to conduct an investigation of that other stuff, and Congress has deferred to Mueller even while that other stuff is squarely within their mandate.

Ideally, this weeks focus on Mueller’s discoveries would be on what the actual evidence showed, which we know to include, at a minimum, the following:

  • Trump pursued a ridiculously lucrative $300 million real estate deal even though the deal would use sanctioned banks, involve a former GRU officer as a broker, and require Putin’s personal involvement at least through July 2016.
  • The Russians chose to alert the campaign that they planned to dump Hillary emails, again packaging it with the promise of a meeting with Putin.
  • After the Russians had offered those emails and at a time when the family was pursuing that $300 million real estate deal, Don Jr took a meeting offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” At the end (per the sworn testimony of four people at the meeting) he said his father would revisit Magnitsky sanctions relief if he won. Contrary to the claim made in a statement authored by Trump, there was some effort to follow up on Jr’s assurances after the election.
  • The campaign asked rat-fucker Roger Stone to optimize the WikiLeaks releases and according to Jerome Corsi he had some success doing so.
  • In what Andrew Weissmann called a win-win (presumably meaning it could help Trump’s campaign or lead to a future business gig for him), Manafort provided Konstantin Kilimnik with polling data that got shared with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs. At the same meeting, he discussed a “peace” plan for Ukraine that would amount to sanctions relief.
  • Trump undercut Obama’s response to the Russian hacks in December 2016, in part because he believed retaliation for the hacks devalued his victory. Either for that reason, to pay off Russia, and/or to pursue his preferred policy, Trump tried to mitigate any sanctions, an attempt that has (with the notable exception of those targeting Oleg Deripaska) been thwarted by Congress.

Instead, however, we’re still arguing about a word — collusion — that was stripped of all meaning years ago, with the result that Mueller’s presumably very measured assessment of what happened cannot serve as the arbiter of truth we need.

Rosenstein may well be the unlikely hero of preserving some semblance of rule of law in this country. But along the way, his choice of language has unfortunately twice fostered the confusion about where the line between crime and misconduct is.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Art of the Get-Screwed-in-Your-Russian-Quid-Pro-Quo Deal

Donald J. Trump, self-proclaimed Master of the Deal, just got his ass handed to him in a high stakes nuclear negotiation by Kim Jong-Un, at a time when Trump had the full power of the United States and hundreds of experts available to help him.

And yet Russian conspiracy denialists believe that any conspiracy between said deal-maker and Vladimir Putin must show evidence that Trump came away with a big win over anything but the 2016 election. They believe this, even though Trump made any such deal at a time when he was desperate to avoid a humiliating loss, relying on negotiators like his feckless son Don Jr, his attention-craving personal lawyer Michael Cohen, and his financially exposed campaign manager Paul Manafort.

That’s what I learned last night when I walked Aaron Maté through the process of first claiming the Trump Tower deal went nowhere because Cohen and Felix Sater disagreed in December 2015, then admitting that Cohen and Sater were still at it in May and June 2016. By the end, Maté was dismissing Rudy Giuliani’s admission that the deal went through the election (which is itself a limited hangout designed to hide that a Trump Tower deal was pursued in two different forms after the election, as well as abundant evidence that other financial payoffs were dangled if not made) by pointing to Dmitry Peskov’s stories, which have changed right along with Michael Cohen’s evolving story.

Because there’s no shiny tower in Moscow with Trump’s name on it, Maté appears to believe, it is proof that when Don Jr took a meeting in June 2016 at which he (according to the sworn testimony of four people who attended) committed to revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his dad got elected, the possibility of a $300 million payoff didn’t factor in to Junior’s willingness to sign away American policy considerations on behalf of his father.

That’s not how criminal conspiracy law works.

If you sign up for a deal and take steps to make good on it — as Don Jr did on June 9, 2016 and Paul Manafort appears to have done on August 2, 2016 and Mike Flynn appears to have done, on Trump’s behalf, on December 29, 2016 — then it doesn’t matter if the partner to that deal fucks you over later in the process. And, after all, the Russians did continue to supply Trump with a steady supply of dirt on Hillary Clinton all through the election. They got Trump elected, or at least did what they could to help, even if that payoff wasn’t the one Trump was most interested in.

Do you think Oleg Deripaska, a key player in both the deal-making and likely in the cover-up of it, gives a shit if Paul Manafort — who had screwed Deripaska over years earlier — had his life ruined as part of the process of compromising a President and getting sanctions relief? My suspicion is we’ll learn that Deripaska actually magnified Manafort’s hurt, once he had gotten him to compromise himself and the campaign.

Do you think Putin really cares whether Trump — to say nothing of the United States — benefits from the stupid choices Trump made during the election? Putin — a far better “deal” maker than Trump — got a win-win either way: Either Trump succeeded in compromising America’s rule of law in an effort to squelch any investigation into what happened, robbing the United States of the claim to idealism that so irks the master kleptocrat, Putin, or Trump would spend his Administration desperately trying to find a way out, all the while Putin connives Trump into dismantling the alliances that keep Russia in check.

And, too, Putin’s election year operation exacerbated the polarization between Democrats and Republicans such that most Republicans and a goodly number of Democrats have been unable to step back and say, holy shit, this country got attacked and we need to come together to do something about it. Trump’s win got Republicans to fear Trump’s base so much that they care more about those fevered hordes than doing what is right for this country. And Democrats rightly want to punish Trump for cheating, but haven’t thought about what a least-damaging off-ramp for that cheater might look like.

Putin doesn’t care if Trump benefits from all this — though he is happy to keep toying with Trump like a cat plays before he eviscerates his mouse. He cares about whether he and his cronies win. And there are multiple ways for him to get a win out of this, whether or not Trump manages to eke out any kind of real payoff past the election.

And let’s be honest, Putin isn’t the only one playing this game. Certainly, Mohammed bin Salman feels the same way, even if his record of ruthless dealmaking is shorter and sloppier than Putin’s. The truth is that Donald Trump and Jared Kushner are easy marks for a whole range of skilled operators willing to stroke their egos and dangle loot, and over and over again they’ve let themselves be bested in foreign policy negotiations, to the detriment of the interests of the United States. That they are so bad at deal making in no way disproves their culpability.

There is no Trump Tower in Moscow. But there never had to be. All that was needed was the promise of a ridiculously lucrative narcissism-stroking deal for the Trump family to agree to shit that would hurt this country. And all the evidence suggests that they did, and continue to do so.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Did Mueller Ask Manafort Any Questions about His Early May 2016 Meeting with Kilimnik?

I’ll be honest with you. The reason I did this post — showing that the polling data Paul Manafort shared with Konstantin Kilimnik on August 2, 2016 amounted to at least 75 pages — (and a whole lot of background work not shown) was because I wanted to puzzle through the NYT’s latest story on what Manafort shared with Kilimnik when. Ken Vogel (who bylined both the other stories repeating the cover story someone fed them in January), perhaps faced with mounting evidence they got lied to, now says Manafort shared polling data with Kilimnik twice, once at the May meeting they had, and again at the August one.

And around the same time that he was passing through Washington nearly three years ago — just as Mr. Trump was clinching the Republican presidential nomination — he first received polling data about the 2016 election from two top Trump campaign officials, Mr. Manafort and Rick Gates, as Russia was beginning a social media operation intended to help Mr. Trump’s campaign.

[snip]

Around the time of Mr. Kilimnik’s trip to the United States in spring 2016, Mr. Manafort directed Mr. Gates to transfer some polling data to Mr. Kilimnik, including public polling and some developed by a private polling company working for the campaign, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement.

Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov, the person said. Representatives for both Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov said they neither requested nor received the data, and would have had no use for it.

Mr. Mueller’s team has focused on what appears to have been another discussion about polling data in New York on Aug. 2, 2016. A partly redacted court transcript suggests that Mr. Gates, who entered a plea agreement with the special counsel that requires his cooperation, may have told prosecutors that Mr. Manafort had walked Mr. Kilimnik through detailed polling data at a meeting that day in the cigar lounge of the Grand Havana Room in Manhattan.

The meeting also included a conversation about one Ukrainian “peace plan,” according to court filings.

I think if Vogel were more confident about this, it’d be the lede. BREAKING: suspected Russian asset got Trump’s polling data over and over.

Instead, Vogel tries to finesse the earlier report — which this coverage unambiguously marks as an error — so as to pretend that when the NYT reported that a court filing referred to Manafort sharing polling data with Kilimnik, the court filing meant that had happened in spring, not August. The court dispute — as Vogel’s reference to Mueller’s team’s focus now concedes — all pertains to August.

The publication history of the NYT “correction”

Side note: the publishing history of the original January 8 NYT article is of particular interest, especially since the Newsdiffs site apparently didn’t track this article, According to the Internet archive, the original story (bylined by Sharon LaFraniere and Ken Vogel) posted by 20:22 on January 8. The only description of the polling data comes in the lede:

Paul Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with an associate tied to Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign, prosecutors alleged, according to a court filing unsealed on Tuesday.

The first version of the story to include more detail posted at 3:51 on January 9. This is the first version that includes Maggie Haberman on the byline (and Scott Shane and Andrew Kramer as contributors). This is the version that said Manafort knew Kilimnik was going to share the data with Oleg Deripaska. But it also introduces two things that are inaccurate: the timing, and that the data was public.

As a top official in President Trump’s campaign, Paul Manafort shared political polling data with a business associate tied to Russian intelligence, according to a court filing unsealed on Tuesday. The document provided the clearest evidence to date that the Trump campaign may have tried to coordinate with Russians during the 2016 presidential race.

[snip]

The document gave no indication of whether Mr. Trump was aware of the data transfer or how Mr. Kilimnik might have used the information. But from March to August 2016, when Mr. Manafort worked for the Trump campaign, Russia was engaged in a full-fledged operation using social media, stolen emails and other tactics to boost Mr. Trump, attack Mrs. Clinton and play on divisive issues such as race and guns. Polling data could conceivably have helped Russia hone those messages and target audiences to help swing votes to Mr. Trump.

Both Mr. Manafort and Rick Gates, the deputy campaign manager, transferred the data to Mr. Kilimnik in the spring of 2016 as Mr. Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, according to a person knowledgeable about the situation. Most of the data was public, but some of it was developed by a private polling firm working for the campaign, according to the person.

Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to the Kremlin and who has claimed that Mr. Manafort owed him money from a failed business venture, the person said. It is unclear whether Mr. Manafort was acting at the campaign’s behest or independently, trying to gain favor with someone to whom he was deeply in debt. [my emphasis]

So at that point, the story was:

  • Byline includes Maggie for the first time
  • Shared in spring
  • Mostly public
  • Intended for Deripaska

The story posts in a “corrected” form sometime before 19:23 on January 9. It retains the timing and public data claims, but changes the recipient with a “correction,” even while retaining an earlier paragraph about Deripaska that (particularly given the August handoff) should disprove the “correction.” It also adds a paragraph effectively admitting that it isn’t as obvious why two Ukrainian oligarchs would want the polling data in the way that Deripaska would have an obvious use for it.

About the same time, Mr. Manafort was also trying to curry favor with Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian billionaire close to the Kremlin and an associate of Mr. Kilimnik. In July 2016, Mr. Manafort, then the Trump campaign chairman, told Mr. Kilimnik that he could offer Mr. Deripaska “private briefings,” according to emails reported by The Washington Post. Mr. Deripaska had claimed Mr. Manafort owed him millions from a failed business venture, and Mr. Manafort may have been trying to use his status in the campaign to hold him at bay.

[snip]

Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to two Ukrainian oligarchs, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov, the person said. The oligarchs, neither of whom responded to requests for comment, had financed Russian-aligned Ukrainian political parties that had hired Mr. Manafort as a political consultant.

Why Mr. Manafort wanted them to see American polling data is unclear. He might have hoped that any proof that he was managing a winning candidate would help him collect money he claimed to be owed for his work on behalf of the Ukrainian parties.

[snip]

A previous version of this article misidentified the people to whom Paul Manafort wanted a Russian associate to send polling data. Mr. Manafort wanted the data sent to two Ukrainian oligarchs, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov, not Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin.

There’s a part of me that wonders whether NYT was not so obstinate on the issue of this data being public and shared in spring because they’ve seen lawyers notes or even the 302 of Manafort’s testimony that Amy Berman Jackson has since ruled to be a lie. They’re still sourcing the claim to one individual in the know, which seems like pretty shaky sourcing to ignore after the plain language of the official court transcript of the February 4 hearing made it clear this was an August hand-off. So it may be they’ve got a non-public document that leads them to believe this is the case, even if that non-public document is just a record of Manafort lying.

Weissmann may have corrected the NYT in the breach determination hearing

But we know that after the NYT story, with its prominent Deripaska claim followed by its “correction,” the government submitted a declaration on January 15 in which most of the discussion of polling data was entirely redacted, then argued the point at length on February 4. In addition to Richard Westling’s comments that make it clear this wasn’t mostly public data, Andrew Weissmann argued (in passage that was mistakenly attributed to Westling in the transcript), that Manafort knew the data would be shared with two entities.

As noted, the last redaction in this passage would fit neither of the Ukrainian oligarchs named but would fit Deripaska, though that’s just one possibility. That said, given that the meeting was on August 2, in the context of Manafort “getting whole” with Deripaska, it would be inconceivable that Kilimnik would share the data only with the Ukrainians.

In addition to saying that Manafort was telling the lies he told in a bid to sustain hopes for a pardon, Weissmann also makes a reference to a lie told “three weeks ago.” Given the redaction fail, we can be certain that nothing in the Manafort filing (which was technically more than three weeks before the hearing) could be that lie. But the “correction” to the NYT could be.

Weissmann also moves directly from that discussion to an assertion that the question of sharing polling data went straight to the heart of Mueller’s mandate — investigating “witting or unwitting” coordination with Russia.

MR. WEISSMANN: So — so, first, in terms of the what it is that the special counsel is tasked with doing, as the Court knows from having that case litigated before you, is that there are different aspects to what we have to look at, and one is Russian efforts to interfere with the election, and the other is contacts, witting or unwitting, by Americans with Russia, and then whether there was — those contacts were more intentional or not. And for us, the issue of [2.5 lines redacted] is in the core of what it is that the special counsel is supposed to be investigating.

And we know from Amy Berman Jackson’s breach determination ruling that she found this was indeed a link with Russia — not Russian backed oligarchs, but Russia.

That’s circumstantial, but it seems that Weissmann was rebutting the notion that Manafort intended Kilimnik to share this information exclusively with Ukrainians, and not Russians. Whatever the case, ABJ has ruled that the sharing of this data did entail a link with the Russian government.

Manafort invokes some earlier meeting as a last ditch ploy in his final filing

Which brings me to ABJ’s mention of a totally new argument that Manafort apparently raised in their final brief.

Some background to this brief. During the debate over the polling data on February 4, Manafort’s lawyers tried to rebut the claim first by Richard Westling spinning the data, then by Kevin Downing claiming that Rick Gates had no credibility, as proven (he claimed) by Gates’ flop before the EDVA jury. ABJ then, on her own, gets the public report from a juror on the EDVA jury to prove Downing’s attacks are overblown. Through it all, the possibility that Gates might be called in to testify on this issue (which of course would allow ABJ to decide that he’s way more credible than Manafort, but then most people are). Ultimately, Manafort’s lawyers say they don’t want that to happen, but say they’ll submit one more brief.

That’s the one I cited in this post, referencing the polling data and Kilimnik’s emails about them. According to ABJ in her judgment hearing, after the entire breach determination was done, Manafort’s team tried to make a totally new argument about what Manafort was saying when he told Gates to print out the polling data.

More important to me, there’s other corroboration. There’s Exhibit 233, an [redacted — remember, this exhibit is the email with polling data attached] Now, I was told on February 8th, for the first time, in the third pleading that was filed in response to these allegations and after the hearing was over, that when Mr. Manafort said [3 lines redacted] There’s nothing provided to substantiate that, but there’s also nothing in the record to indicate one way or the other that the two men had met previously [redacted]

All Gates said to the FBI in Exhibit 236 on January 30th was that [redacted]. Is that text alone definitive? Am I relying on that solely? No. But is it corroborative of Gates’s statement that [redacted] Yes.

This seems to be an effort to suggest that the first three times Gates claimed Manafort shared polling data in proffer sessions in January and February 2018 he was saying something different than what he was saying in what they claim was a brand new claim on September 28, in testimony parallel to Manafort’s own. There’s nothing in the unredacted passages of that filing that explain this argument (though it does reference data from “prior to the Republican Convention and the start of the General Election,” which could be July 15 or could be May 2.

Ultimately, the ploy doesn’t work. ABJ goes through two different Gates 302s from January and another (which may be the stuff that had been ex parte at the February 4 hearing) from February 7, 2018 that all corroborate that Manafort ordered Gates to print out the polling data to be shared at that August 2 meeting.

I’m interested in this for two reasons. First, this new argument, made a month after someone first gave a false story to the NYT, seems to be referencing an earlier meeting between … somebody. Maybe Gates and Kilimnik?

But I do find that to be an interesting detail for two reasons. First, as noted, the NYT story, without correcting their initial outright error that the court dispute pertained to the August 2 meeting, now claims that Manafort directed Gates to deal poll data twice, once in May and once in August.

And around the same time that he was passing through Washington nearly three years ago — just as Mr. Trump was clinching the Republican presidential nomination — he first received polling data about the 2016 election from two top Trump campaign officials, Mr. Manafort and Rick Gates, as Russia was beginning a social media operation intended to help Mr. Trump’s campaign.

[snip]

Around the time of Mr. Kilimnik’s trip to the United States in spring 2016, Mr. Manafort directed Mr. Gates to transfer some polling data to Mr. Kilimnik, including public polling and some developed by a private polling company working for the campaign, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement.

Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov, the person said. Representatives for both Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov said they neither requested nor received the data, and would have had no use for it.

Is that what Manafort’s team invented at this late date? A claim that the reference in the August 2 email to sharing data with Kilimnik was about a meeting that had transpired three months earlier?!?!

The May Kilimnik meeting never shows up in the breach determination

But it does raise some interesting questions. Notably, it’s not clear whether the May 2016 meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik came up at all during his cooperation.

The government’s January 15 declaration sets a start date on Manafort’s lies, “Beginning on August 2, 2016, and continuing until March 2018, Manafort and Kilimnik communicated about a [peace deal],” but that seems to relate exclusively to that peace deal. It doesn’t rule out a discussion of that earlier meeting (though it does seem to rule out Mueller knowing that Ukrainian sanctions came up, which actually is a good thing for Trump given the stink around the Ukrainian language in the Republican platform in July). 

Which leaves three possibilities, apart from Manafort’s efforts to separate the sharing of polling data from the discussions about a Ukraine peace deal.

  • Prosecutors didn’t discuss the May meeting at all with Manafort during his cooperation
  • Prosecutors discussed the May meeting with Manafort (which may have included a meeting with Trump) and he told the truth about it
  • Manafort lied about the May meeting, but prosecutors didn’t want to lay out what they really know about it

All would be interesting. I mean, even aside from the possibility that Trump met Kilimnik, the early May meeting should be of significant interest because at least two other events closely coincide with it:

  • On May 4, Ivan Timofeev tells George Papadopoulos he has been cleared to start negotiations with Papadopoulos, which leads him to forward an email discussing such an offer to multiple people on the campaign, including (on May 21), Manafort
  • After their discussions about a Trump Tower had moved to Dust between January and May, Felix Sater sends Michael Cohen texts moving to set up his and Trump’s trips to Moscow.

In other words, May 4 or thereabouts, just a week after the Russians first dangled the emails to Papadopoulos, the plot appears to start up again. That coinkydink of significant events would seem to be something prosecutors would want to discuss with Manafort.

If they did, they’re not telling us whether he told the truth.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Quid Pro Quo Redux, Part One: The Trump Tower Dangle

Last May, I wrote a series using the questions (as imagined by Jay Sekulow) Mueller had posed to Trump to lay out what theory of investigation Mueller might be pursuing — and what details we know about it. We’ve learned a lot more about the investigation and confirmed that the investigation focusing on Trump personally includes both a criminal and a counterintelligence component. I wanted to update the series. Because we know so much more about both sides of this quid pro quo, the organization of the series will be somewhat different.

November 9, 2013: During a 2013 Trip To Russia, What Communication and Relationships Did You Have with the Agalarovs and Russian Government Officials?

On November 9, 2013, Aras Agalorov helped Trump put on Miss Universe in Moscow; Trump Tower meeting attendees Rob Goldstone and Ike Kaveladze were both involved, as were Don Jr, Michael Cohen, and Keith Schiller. If the pee tape — or any kompromat involving “golden showers,” as Jim Comey claims Trump called it — exists, it was made on November 8, 2013.

The prior trip set up the 2016 quid pro quo in several ways. First, it deepened Trump’s desire for a Moscow Trump Tower — an effort the Agalrovs and Trumps pursued for years after the meeting. It established Trump’s enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin — though Putin reportedly disappointed Trump’s desire for a meeting on that prior occasion. It also introduced Trump to a bunch of other oligarchs.

Just after Trump kicked off his presidential bid, Emin invited Trump to his father’s birthday party in Moscow on November 8 (PDF 17), the first of a series of outreaches during Trump’s campaign which would continue through the election. The Agalarovs would remain the key handlers of the Trump family until shortly after the election, when first Sergei Kislyak, then Putin himself, would take over interacting with Trump and his family.

September 25, 2015 to November 2016: What Communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater, and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign

By September 25, 2015, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen already had a Moscow design study completed for a Trump Tower in Moscow. Days later, Andrey Rozov was promising to build Donald Trump the tallest tower in Europe. In October 2015, Felix Sater (whose actions in brokering this deal seemed designed to ensure that Trump’s willingness to work with Russian military intelligence and sanctioned banks would leave a digital paper trail) started pitching the centrality of Putin to the deal. On October 28, at a time when his presidential bid was meeting unexpected success, Trump signed a Letter of Intent on a deal that stood to make him a fantastic sum of $300 million.

In the days after getting the signed letter of intent and in response to Trump publicly complimenting Putin at a press conference, Sater bizarrely tied the deal to getting Trump elected. He claimed to believe that if Putin complimented Trump’s deal-making prowess at a press conference tied to a then hypothetical Trump trip to Moscow, it would help Trump’s election chances.

Michael my next steps are very sensitive with Putins very very close people, we can pull this off. Michael lets go. 2 boys from Brooklyn getting a USA president elected.

Sater first tried to get commitments for both Cohen and Trump to travel to Moscow (with the documents to prove it) in December 2015. While Cohen was willing to share his passport, he held off on Trump’s. Perhaps as a result of Cohen’s increasing impatience with Sater’s swapping out a lightly sanctioned bank for a more compromising one, Cohen said he wanted to take more control. That led to him to reach out to Dmitry Peskov directly (who had been involved in Trump’s efforts to meet Putin in 2013), which in turn led him to have a 20 minute call with Peskov’s personal assistant on January 21, 2016. Over the course of that conversation, she would have taken notes recording Cohen committing to Trump’s willingness to work through a former GRU officer and with sanctioned banks to get his $300 million deal. By the next day, Putin’s office had that in hand, the first of many receipts he would obtain on Trump, making him susceptible to compromise regardless of what happened.

Cohen smartly shifted negotiations to the encrypted communication app Dust for a time. But when Sater renewed discussions about a trip to Russia to make this happen in May 2016, he did so on texts that would be accessible to law enforcement. And Cohen made it clear Trump had to seal the nomination before he would risk making his coziness with Putin public, making it crystal clear that the election and the Trump Tower deal remained linked in his brain.

Both Trump and Don Jr were thoroughly briefed on these negotiations. That means when Don Jr accepted a meeting offering dirt on Hillary as part of Russia’s support for Trump, he would have known that a $300 million real estate deal might depend on taking the meeting. Don Jr took the June 9, 2016 meeting and — per four sworn witnesses’ statements — agreed to revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his father won.

At almost exactly the moment that meeting broke up, Felix Sater texted Cohen to take the next step on a deal, a trip for him to St. Petersburg, potentially to meet with Putin personally. Oleg Deripaska and Sergei Millian (the latter of whom Cohen had also worked with in the past) would also have been at the event.

In the days after the Trump Tower meeting, Sater and Cohen were scrambling to put together the trip to St. Petersburg at the last minute. But they looked like they would pull it off, only to have the WaPo report, on June 14, 2016, that Russia hacked the DNC postpone the plans for the trip.

That said, Cohen only said, “he would not be traveling at that time.” The news that Russia hacked Trump’s opponent didn’t kill the deal. It just made it more difficult.

On July 22, 2016 — the day that WikiLeaks released the DNC emails — George Papadopoulos (possibly with the coaching of Ivan Timofeev) and Sergei Millian seem to have picked up keeping discussions of a deal alive from Cohen and Sater.

According to the President’s current teevee lawyer, Trump answered Mueller’s questions on this topic to allow for the possibility that the Russian deal remained active through November. He’s just not committing to any story about how long the deal remained (or remains) active.

One thing to remember about this Trump Tower deal. The deal was too good to be true (and to some degree that’s the point!). But it fed all of Trump’s character weaknesses. The promise of having the tallest tower in Europe would feed Trump’s narcissism. The fairly ridiculous claim Trump Organization stood to make $300 million off of it would have been irresistible to the highly indebted family.

And in exchange for that, Trump showed repeated and sustained willingness to deal with GRU-tied individuals and sanctioned banks. And at the June 9 meeting, his spawn made it clear he’d trade policy considerations to get the deal.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn 302

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Mike Flynn cooperation addendum

Peter Strzok 302 (describing Flynn’s interview)

Michael Cohen statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

GRU indictment

Senate Judiciary Committee materials on June 9 meeting

BuzzFeed documents on Trump Tower deal

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

The WaPo Scoop on the DNC Hack (Temporarily) Killed the Trump Tower Deal

On June 14, 2016, Felix Sater was getting stressed about putting together Michael Cohen’s trip to St. Petersburg at which, on June 17, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer might meet Vladimir Putin, which would in turn lead to a $300 million real estate deal. He bugged Cohen in the morning to get back to him.

At 10:24 AM, Sater sent Cohen the invitation he would need to get a Russian visa in one day’s time.

At around 11:35 AM, the Washington Post reported that Russian hackers had hacked the DNC.

Things still seemed to be ready to go at 12:06 PM. Sater texted Cohen, “you are radio silent, please respond.” Cohen called him just after noon.

But by 2:41 PM, when Sater showed up at Trump Tower to get the paperwork, Cohen wouldn’t let him come upstairs. Instead, he met him downstairs in the snack bar.

Three days before Donald Trump’s personal lawyer would have met with Vladimir Putin to advance a $300 million Tower deal, he instead met his fixer in the lobby and told him, “he would not be traveling at that time.”

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Felix Sater Promised a Putin Meeting with Michael Cohen Minutes after Don Jr Promised to Revisit Magnitsky Sanctions

BuzzFeed has posted the documents showing Michael Cohen and Felix Sater organizing a Trump Tower deal until June 14, literally as the news of the DNC hack broke. The documents show how closely those negotiations interacted with the June 9 meeting.

The Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr and Russians promising dirt was scheduled for 4PM (Rob Goldstone posted on Facebook that he was at Trump Tower at 3:57). Natalia Veselnitskaya ran a bit late, but they would have started the meeting by 4:10PM.

Four witnesses to the meeting (the four whose responses weren’t coached by Trump Organization lawyers) said that the meeting ended with Don Jr saying that his father might or would revisit Magnitsky sanctions if he became President.

Natalia Veselnitskaya said Don Jr said they’d revisit the topic.

Mr. Trump, Jr. politely wound up the meeting with meaningless phrases about somewhat as follows: can do nothing about it, “if’ or “when” we come to power, we may return to this strange and confusing story.

Ike Kaveladze said that Don Jr said they might revisit the issue if his father won.

There was no request, but as I said, it was a suggestion that if Trump campaign wins, they might get back to the Magnitsky Act topic in the future.

Rinat Akhmetshin said that Don Jr said they would revisit Magnitsky when they won.

A. I don’t remember exact words which were said, but I remember at the end, Donald, Jr., said, you know, “Come back see us again when we win.” Not “if we win,” but “when we win.” And I kind of thought to myself like, “Yeah, right.” But it happened, so — but that’s something, see, he’s very kind of positive about, “When we win, come back and see us again.” Something to that effect, I guess.

Anatoli Samochornov, Veselnitskaya’s translator, who is the most independent witness and the only one who didn’t compare his story with others, said that Don Jr said they would revisit the issue if Trump won.

A. Like I described, I remember, not verbatim, the closing that Mr. Donald Trump, Jr., provided, but that’s all that I recall being said from the other side.

MR. PRIVOR: That closing being that Donald Trump, Jr., suggested —

MR. SAMOCHORNOV: If or when yes, and I do not remember if or when, but if or when my father becomes President, we will revisit this issue.

The meeting lasted somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes.

At about that time, Trump tweeted out a reference to Hillary’s emails, invoking 823 staffers, which was a good ballpark estimate for how many staffers (including unpaid advisors) she really had at the time.

At that same time, Felix Sater texted Michael Cohen to tell him he was working on setting up Cohen’s trip to St. Petersburg.

At that point, Sater told Cohen there was a “very strong chance” he would meet Russia’s President, which Cohen and Don Jr would have both believed meant that the Trump Organization could make $300 million by lending Trump’s name to the tallest tower in Europe.

Quid pro quo, all executed on social media.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Compromise: Before Trump Won His First Primary, Putin Collected His First Receipt

In this post, I noted that, while important, the Buzzfeed story on Trump’s role in Michael Cohen’s lies to Congress did not advance our understanding of  how the Trump Tower deal fits into the larger Trump conspiracy with Russia.

It doesn’t include a number of details that would be more important for understanding how the Trump Tower deal relates to other parts of Trump’s conspiracy with Russians: who (if not Trump himself or Don Jr) was the senior campaign official who knew of Cohen’s negotiations, precisely what Don Jr knew of the negotiations on June 3 when he took a meeting described to be “part of  Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” and whether the timing of Cohen’s plans for a trip to St. Petersburg — which started on June 9 and ended on June 14 — related somehow to the June 9 Trump Tower meeting and the June 14 revelation that Russians had hacked the DNC. It’d also be useful to know whether Cohen had any 2016 dealings with Ike Kaveladze, who knew of Cohen from the 2013 business dealings between Trump and the Agalarovs, and who had a curious reaction to a video of him in the wake of the June 9 meeting story breaking. Those are the details that would advance the story of how the Trump Tower deal relates to Russia’s efforts to hack the election.

But there is a piece of the Cohen statement of the offense the significance of which hasn’t gotten sufficient attention. That’s the detail that Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant took detailed notes from a 20-minute January 20, 2016 phone call with Cohen, which led to Putin’s office contacting Felix Sater the next day.

On or about January 16, 2016, COHEN emailed [Peskov]’s office again, said he was trying to reach another high-level Russian official, and asked for someone who spoke English to contact him.

On or about January 20, 2016 , COHEN received an email from the personal assistant to [Peskov] (“Assistant 1 “), stating that she had been trying to reach COHEN and requesting that he call her using a Moscow-based phone number she provided.

Shortly after receiving the email, COHEN called Assistant 1 and spoke to her for approximately 20 minutes. On that call, COHEN described his position at the Company and outlined the proposed Moscow Project, including the Russian development company with which the Company had partnered. COHEN requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction. Assistant 1 asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would follow up with others in Russia.

The day after COHEN’s call with Assistant 1, [Sater] contacted him, asking for a call. Individual 2 wrote to COHEN, “It’s about [the President of Russia] they called today.”

Cohen had lied about this, claiming that he had emailed Peskov’s public comment line just once, but gotten no response.

This language is important not just because it shows that Cohen lied.  It’s important because of what Cohen would have said to Peskov’s assistant. And it’s important because a written record of what Cohen said got handed on to Putin’s office, if not Putin himself.

BuzzFeed’s piece from May reveals that Cohen would have been in discussions with one of two banks in January 2016: VTB or GenBank.

Their surrogates in Moscow would be meeting with Putin and a “top deputy” just two days later, and they had financing: VTB Bank President and Chairman Andrey Kostin was on board to fund the project, Sater said in an email.

The bank was a dicey choice. VTB was under US sanctions at the time, with American citizens and companies forbidden to do business with it. Asked by congressional investigators if he knew the bank was blacklisted, Sater responded: “Of course. I wasn’t seeking funding, the local development partner would have. Trump Organization never gets financing from local partners.”

[snip]

New Year’s Eve 2015, he sent Cohen an image of a letter from GenBank — not VTB Bank, as they had earlier discussed — inviting the men to Moscow for a visit.

Just nine days earlier, the US Treasury Department had sanctioned GenBank for operating in Crimea after the disputed Russian takeover. GenBank became the first Russian financial institution to move into the Crimean peninsula.

Both were sanctioned. While Sater (who seems to have knowingly set this trap) dismissed the import of the sanctions, Cohen clearly knew — and left record that he knew in communications with Sater — that they were the intended funders.

A former GRU officer contact of Sater’s was key to obtaining funding from VTB.

This friend is a former member of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit that the US intelligence community believes interfered during the 2016 election.

[snip]

[On December 19], Sater told Cohen that their invitations and visas were being arranged by VTB Bank, and that Kostin, the bank’s powerful president and chairman, would meet Cohen in Moscow. Key to getting VTB on board was the former GRU spy; Sater told congressional and special counsel investigators that the former spy said he had a source at VTB Bank who would support the deal.

Obtaining funding from GenBank would have relied on Putin and Peskov.

Sater told Cohen that GenBank operates “through Putin’s administration and nothing gets done there without approval from the top. The meetings in Moscow will be with ministers — in US, that’s cabinet-level and with Putin’s top administration people. This likely will include Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. To discuss goals, meeting agenda and meeting time between Putin and Trump.”

The BuzzFeed article makes it clear that Sater’s GRU contact got back involved after Cohen’s conversation with Peskov’s assistant.

All of which is to say that when Cohen called Peskov’s assistant, he would have told her that he was speaking on behalf of Donald Trump, that Trump remained interested in a Trump Tower in Moscow (as he had been in 2013, the last time Putin had dangled a personal meeting with Trump), and that on Trump’s behalf Cohen was willing to discuss making a deal involving both a sanctioned bank (whichever one it was) and a former GRU officer.

So it’s not just that Trump was pursuing a real estate deal while running for President. He was pursuing a real estate deal involving a sanctioned  bank — possibly one sanctioned for its involvement in Crimea — and involving someone with ties to the intelligence agency that was preparing to hack Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

Cohen told Peskov’s assistant Trump was willing to negotiate that deal while running for President. The assistant wrote all that down (how Mueller knows this is an interesting question on its own right). And then she or Peskov passed on at least the content of the notes to get Putin’s office to contact Sater.

And all that happened before Trump performed unexpectedly well in the Iowa caucuses on February 1.

Last year, I argued that — pee tape or no — the kompromat Putin has on Trump consists of a series of receipts of Trump formally communicating his willingness to enter into a conspiracy with Russia, receipts that would be devastating if Putin released them.

Trump and the Russians were engaged in a call-and-response, a call-and-response that appears in the Papadopoulos plea and (as Lawfare notes) the GRU indictment, one that ultimately did deal dirt and got at least efforts to undermine US sanctions (to say nothing of the Syria effort that Trump was implementing less than 14 hours after polls closed, an effort that has been a key part of both Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn’s claims about the Russian interactions).

At each stage of this romance with Russia, Russia got a Trump flunkie (first, Papadopoulos) or Trump himself to publicly engage in the call-and-response. All of that led up to the point where, on July 16, 2018, after Rod Rosenstein loaded Trump up with a carefully crafted indictment showing Putin that Mueller knew certain things that Trump wouldn’t fully understand, Trump came out of a meeting with Putin looking like he had been thoroughly owned and stood before the entire world and spoke from Putin’s script in defiance of what the US intelligence community has said.

People are looking in the entirely wrong place for the kompromat that Putin has on Trump, and missing all the evidence of it right in front of their faces.

Vladimir Putin obtained receipts at each stage of this romance of Trump’s willing engagement in a conspiracy with Russians for help getting elected. Putin knows what each of those receipts mean.

What Cohen’s plea deal makes clear is that Putin pocketed the first of those receipts — a receipt showing Trump’s willingness to work with both sanctioned banks and the GRU — even before the first vote was cast. Even before GRU hacked its first Democratic target (though APT 29 had been spying on the Democrats since the previous summer).

Discussing a real estate deal is not, as Trump has repeated, illegal. If that’s all this were about, Trump and Cohen might not have lied about it.

But it’s not. Even before the GRU hacked John Podesta, even before Don Jr told his June 9 visitors that his dad would consider lifting sanctions if he got elected, Michael Cohen let a key Putin deputy know that Trump would be happy to discuss real estate deals that involved both partnering with the GRU and with sanctioned banks.

And Putin has been sitting on that receipt ever since.

Update: 22-paragraphs into a 1400-word story on the latest developments in the Trump Tower Moscow story yesterday, the NYT revealed the name of the officer, without explaining why the connection is important to the larger story of a GRU-led operation targeting the US election.

One of the people Mr. Sater contacted was Evgeny Shmykov, a former general in Russian military intelligence who once worked with anti-Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Mr. Sater appears to have seen Mr. Shmykov as a conduit to get Russian government approval for the Trump project.

According to emails reviewed by The Times, Mr. Sater sent an urgent message to Mr. Cohen in late 2015 saying that Mr. Shmykov was on the phone and he needed passport information for Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump so they could receive visas.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Oleg Deripaska Met Sergei Millian at the St. Petersburg Forum Michael Cohen Would Have Met Putin

In a piece puzzling through why Oleg Deripaska — who wrote a deceptive op-ed that was published at his outlet — would get polling data from Trump’s campaign manager [Note, NYT has updated reporting to specify that Manafort sent the data to Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov], Chuck Ross mentions something that has entirely new meaning given recent disclosures. Oleg Deripaska met with Sergei Millian at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2016.

Deripaska has denied through intermediaries being a source for Steele, though he was spotted in June 2016 at an economic forum in St. Petersburg with Sergei Millian, an alleged source for the dossier.

Here’s a photo of the meeting, which Wendy Siegelman found.

Of course, Ross mostly cares about all this because Millian was allegedly a source for the Christopher Steele dossier, not for all the other events this one intersects with.

Consider the timeline of some key events below.

It shows that the email hacks paralleled Manafort’s increased responsibility on the campaign.

But even as Russia’s operation to release dirt on Hillary was proceeding (and Russians were reaching out to George Papadopoulos to dangle emails as well), Michael Cohen was negotiating a Trump Tower deal, via Felix Sater, which was premised on a meeting between him — and then later, Trump — and Vladimir Putin. On June 9 — the same day that Don Jr told Aras Agalarov’s representatives that the Trumps would revisit sanctions if Trump was elected — Cohen even started to book his travel for that meeting. He canceled those plans, however, on the same day Russia’s role in hacking the DNC became public.

But two key figures in the operation did meet at the St. Petersburg Forum: Deripaska and Millian. And Millian would pick up the Trump Tower deal after the RNC Convention, laundering it, at that point, through a junior staffer who had proven to be a useful go-between for the Russians.

We don’t know whether Deripaska, whom Steele was pitching as a viable partner to counter Russian organized crime, was a source for Steele’s dossier. We do know that Manafort is the one who pushed Trump to discredit the Russian investigation by attacking the dossier.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Timeline

January 12, 2016: Steele writes Bruce Ohr to say Oleg Deripaska may obtain a visa for later that year

January 20: Michael Cohen speaks with Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant for 20 minutes about Trump Tower deal

January 21: Putin’s office contacts Felix Sater about Trump Tower deal

February 21: Steele sends Ohr Orbis reporting claiming Deripaska was not a tool of the Kremlin

February 29: Manafort drafts proposal to work for “free” for Trump

March 19: GRU hacks John Podesta

March 29: After the intervention of Roger Stone and Tom Barrack, Manafort joins the Trump campaign, initially only as Convention Chair

April: Manafort asks Kilimnik,”How do we use to get whole?”

April 18: GRU hacks into DNC via DCCC

April 26: George Papadopoulos learns Russians are offering election assistance in form of leaked emails

April 27: In first foreign policy speech Papadopoulos includes signal to Russians to meet

May 4: Cohen tells Sater he’ll do a trip to Russia before the Convention; Trump will do one after

May 5: Sater passes on Peskov invite to Cohen to attend St. Petersburg Forum to meet Putin or Medvedev

May 19: Manafort formally named campaign chair

May 21: Manafort forwards request for Trump meeting to Rick Gates, warning against sending a signal

June 3: Rob Golstone starts arranging meeting with Don Jr.

June 7: Manafort meets with Trump and Trump announces he’ll have an announcement about Hillary

June 8: GRU releases first emails via dcleaks

June 9: Trump Tower meeting presents dirt for sanctions relief; Cohen makes plans for trip to St. Petersburg Forum

June 14: WaPo reveals Russia hacked DNC; Cohen cancels plan for St. Petersburg trip

June 15: Guccifer 2.0 created

June 16-19: St. Petersburg forum (Putin does attend)

June 20: First Steele report, allegedly relying on Millian as one source

July 7: Manafort tells Kilimnik he’s willing to provide Deripaska private briefings; Ohr call with Steele about Deripaska

Week of July 15: Trump campaign prevents change making platform more belligerent to Ukraine

July 21: Sater visits Trump Tower

July 22: George Papadopoulos asks Ivan Timofeev to help prep for a meeting with Sergei Millian; Millian would eventually pitch Papadopoulos on Trump Tower Moscow deal

August 3: Manafort and Kilimnik meet in New York

August 17: Manafort fired from campaign

August: Manafort and Tom Barrack take boat trip, meet Kilimnik

October 18: Steele and Ohr discuss dispute between Ukraine and RUSAL

January 11 or 12, 2017: Manafort contacts Reince Priebus to tell him how to use the Steele dossier to discredit Russian investigation (remember, Manafort insists he didn’t lie about meeting with Trump officials, because those meetings happened before inauguration)

January 27: Papadopoulos agrees to meet FBI without a lawyer, in part in hopes of sustaining possibility of a job with Trump Admin and possibly a deal with Millian

January or February 2017: Manafort meets Kilimnik in Madrid

Someone Has Already Been Charged for Most of the Actions the Steele Dossier Attributes to Michael Cohen

Because of a McClatchy story claiming two new details corroborating a Steele dossier claim that Michael Cohen had a meeting with people serving the interests of Putin’s Administration, people have gotten themselves into a tizzy again about what a smoking gun it would be if the allegations in the Steele dossier were proven true.

It’s an utterly bizarre tizzy, both because the allegations in the Steele dossier not only don’t match some more damning allegations Cohen has already pled guilty to, but because Mueller has already charged other people for some of the allegations about Cohen made in the dossier. In other words, the McClatchy story has people excited about the wrong allegations, rather than focusing on the damning things Cohen (and others) have already been charged with.

Indeed, most functional allegations made in the Steele dossier have already been publicly explained in either court filings or sworn testimony. That doesn’t rule out that Cohen had a role in some of them, however. Indeed, one detail from Cohen’s SDNY plea — that among the things Trump Organization reimbursed Cohen for in January 2017 was a $50,000 payment to a tech services company — actually could confirm a detail made in the dossier. But generally, Mueller and other entities have already explained away many of the allegations made against Cohen in the dossier.

I’ve put the substantive claims the Steele dossier made about Cohen below. I’ll take each and show public reporting that explains who did something attributed to Cohen in the dossier.

Cohen met with Russian Presidential Administration Legal Department officials

The central allegation involving Cohen is that he met with people from Putin’s Presidential Administration’s legal department or, in a later version, someone acting on their behalf.

By the time that allegedly happened in August or maybe September, however, Cohen had already established a paper trail with someone more central than some anonymous lawyers. Cohen’s Mueller plea describes Cohen receiving an email on January 20, 2016 from Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant and shortly thereafter calling her. Somehow Mueller knows that the assistant “asked detailed questions and took notes.” The day after Cohen spoke with the personal assistant, someone from Putin’s office called Felix Sater.

Given that Cohen made reservations to travel to St. Petersburg (for a possible meeting directly with Putin) on June 9, then canceled those reservations on June 14 (after Russia’s role in the DNC hack was made public), those communications about a Trump Tower deal surely tie to the hack-and-leak operation.

It’s certainly possible that, later in the summer (or in the fall, during Cohen’s known trips to London), Cohen would attempt to reschedule that meeting, though the purpose was originally and probably would remain more central to a quid pro quo trading a Trump Tower and election assistance for sanctions relief and policy considerations. But having already exchanged easily collectable communications directly with Peskov’s office (whom the dossier calls “the main protagonist” in the operation), it’s not clear how helpful using Rossotrudnichestvo would be to hide the Trump role. Furthermore, there are other known cut-outs for related matters, including Steele dossier source Sergei Millian and the Agalrovs.

Cohen aimed to contain the Paul Manafort scandal

The three Cohen reports in October all claim that Cohen got involved to tamp down scandals connecting Trump to Russia. That’s not, at all, far-fetched. After all, Cohen was Trump’s fixer and he told a bunch of lies to Congress in an effort to hide Trump’s Moscow Project.

That said, a filing explaining why Mueller might have to mention the Trump campaign in Manafort’s aborted DC trial and a filing in Alex Van der Zwaan’s prosecution show that Manafort and Rick Gates themselves — with the direct involvement of Oleg Deripaska associate Konstantin Kilimnik — worked to contain this scandal.

As Mueller laid out in numerous ways, the Manafort-Gates-Kilimnik team went on a crime spree in the fall trying to cover up their past activities with Russian-backed oligarchs.

Indeed, that a claim that Cohen managed this pushback (and its timing) appeared in the dossier is particularly tantalizing for two reasons. First, one of the things Manafort reportedly lied about after agreeing to cooperate with Mueller pertained a boat trip he took with Tom Barrack; Mueller seems to know that Kilimnik joined the two men. If that happened, then it would show that someone did indeed hold a meeting in August to contain the damage of Manafort’s burgeoning scandals, but that meeting would have been between a key Trump funder, Manafort himself, and someone suspected of ongoing ties with GRU, the agency that conducted the DNC hack.

More intriguing still, as I noted above, Kilimnik was Manafort’s go-between with Oleg Deripaska. That’s interesting because in 2016, Christopher Steele was attempting to convince DOJ’s Bruce Ohr that Deripaska could be a useful source on Russian organized crime. If Steele thought Deripaska would be a useful source for DOJ, he may well have been relying on Deripaska himself. If so, the report that Cohen (who in fact did have communications with Peskov!) was containing the damage of Manafort’s ties to Russian oligarchs might be an attempt to distract from the way that a Russian oligarch was actually working through his handler, Kilimnik, to minimize that damage himself.

Cohen aimed to contain the Carter Page scandal

It likewise seems unlikely that Cohen was the one to try to contain the Carter Page scandal. While he shouldn’t be relied on for anything, several claims in Page’s testimony to HPSCI provide an alternate explanation about who was containing the scandal tied to him.

Page denied ever speaking to Cohen.

But he did describe Keith Kellogg discussing the allegations with him. And he did describe Steve Bannon, both by himself and with the assistance of Trump’s election lawfirm, Jones Day, trying to minimize the Page scandal.

That’s consistent with a number of on-the-record claims from the campaign in the days following Page’s resignation in September. Which is to say, minimizing the Page scandal fell to the campaign itself.

The people who carried out the information operation had been paid by Russia and Trump

The three initial reports on Cohen came, in suspiciously quick succession, in October, after the number of reporters briefed on the Steele dossier started to expand.

The one other report implicating Cohen was the December 13 report, based on intelligence Steele claimed he obtained for “free.”

The report is most notable for the legal battle it caused. The allegations most clearly resemble what Adrian Chen had identified and attributed to the Internet Research Agency year earlier and there had been extensive reporting on it all through the campaign. But instead of blaming Internet Research Agency, the report blames all that on Webzilla. And Webzilla’s owner, Aleksei Gubarev was sufficiently comfortable facing the prospect of discovery to sue BuzzFeed right away (though he lost his lawsuit a few weeks back).

There’s another reference in the report to a long debunked claim made by the Russians — that a Romanian hacker was involved, presumably an allusion to Guccifer 2.0’s half-hearted claim to be Romanian.

Still, much of that last report instead presented the most inflammatory claim in the entire dossier: that Trump’s campaign had helped pay for the information operation targeting Hillary.

On its face, that claim makes zero sense. The scenario as a whole assumes that the hack was done by independent hackers coerced to work for the FSB — perhaps people like Yevgeniy Nikulin, who had already been arrested in Prague by this point. As far as Mueller has shown publicly, however, the information operation was instead done by two entities: Russians in the employ of Putin crony Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency and officers in the employ of Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU. In indictments of both conspirators, Mueller provided details about how the money was handled.

So we’ve already got explanations for how the information operation was funded: by Prigozhin and the Russian state, using a range of money laundering techniques to hide Russia’s role. We even have evidence that — contrary to the claim about information warriors’ loyalty to Sergei Ivanov — Prighozhin’s employees even sucked up to him in one of their dry runs getting Americans to perform IRL actions.

Cohen arranged deniable cash payments to hackers working in Europe against the Clinton campaign

As noted, the December report involving Cohen made the most incendiary claim of all: that the Trump organization planned to pay for some of the hackers that targeted Hillary.

In spite of the fact that Mueller has already explained how the two main groups of participants in the information operation got funded, this allegation gets more interesting given details laid out in Cohen’s SDNY plea. Several of his SDNY crimes, after all, involving making deniable payments, in that case to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.

That shows Cohen’s modus operandi for paying off Trump’s illicit debts. Mind you, it shows that he didn’t use cash. He laundered the funds using more sophisticated money laundering. But it does show that Cohen was the guy who did that kind of thing.

Which makes this detail included — but not explained — in the same plea document intriguing.

Cohen paid some tech company $50,000 in connection with the campaign.

That’s not a whole lot of money, in any case. And if it went to pay off part of the information operation, it would have to have involved some part of the operation not yet publicly identified. Even the one known instance of Trump supporters reaching out to hackers in Europe — Peter Smith’s reported consultation of Weev — is known to have been paid for by other means (in that case, Smith’s own fundraising).

Still, it’s certainly possible that that $50,000 went to some still unidentified entity that played a role in the information operation that, for some reason, didn’t get paid for by Putin’s cronies or the Russian state.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.


18 October

Speaking separately to the same compatriot in mid-October 2016, a Kremlin insider with direct access to the leadership confirmed that a key role in the secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin was being played by the Republican candidates personal lawyer Michael COHEN. [redacted line]

19 October

1. Speaking in confidence to a longstanding compatriot friend in mid-October 2016, a Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of Republican presidential candidate Donald TRUMP’s lawyer, Michael COHEN, in the ongoing secret liaison relationship between the New York tycoon’s campaign and the Russian leadership. COHEN’s role had grown following the departure of Paul MANNAFORT as campaign manager in August 2016. Prior to that MANNAFORT had led for the TRUMP side.

2. According to the Kremlin insider, COHEN now was heavily engaged in a cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of relationship with Russia being exposed. In pursuit of this aim, COHEN had met secretly with several Russian Presidential Administration (PA) Legal Department officials in an EU country in August 2016. The immediate issues had been to contain further scandals involving MANNAFORT’s commercial and political role in Russia/Ukraine and to limit the damage arising from exposure of former TRUMP foreign policy advisor, Carter PAGE’s secret meetings with Russian leadership figures in Moscow the previous month. The overall objective had been to “to sweep it all under the carpet and make sure no connections could be fully established or proven”

3. Things had become even “hotter” since August on the TRUMP-Russia track. According to the Kremlin insider, this had meant that direct contact between the TRUMP team and Russia had been farmed out by the Kremlin to trusted agents of influence working in pro-government policy institutes like that of Law and Comparative Jurisprudence. COHEN however continued to lead for the TRUMP team.

[snip]

The Kremlin insider was unsure of the identities of the PA officials with whom COHEN met secretly in August, or the exact date/s and locations of the meeting/s. There were significant internal security barriers being erected in the PA as the TRUMP issue became more controversial and damaging. However s/he continued to try to obtain these.

20 October

1. Speaking to a compatriot and friend on 19 October 2016, a Kremlin insider provided further details of reported clandestine meeting/s between Republican presidential candidate, Donald lawyer Michael COHEN and Kremlin representatives in August 2016. Although the communication between them had to be cryptic for security reasons, the Kremlin insider clearly indicated to his/her friend that the reported contact/s took place in Prague, Czech Republic.

2. Continuing on this theme, the Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of the Russian parastatal organisation, Rossotrudnichestvo, in this contact between TRUMP campaign representative/3 and Kremlin officials. Rossotrudnichestvo was being used as cover for this relationship and its office in Prague may well have been used to host the COHEN Russian Presidential Administration (PA) meeting/s. It was considered a “plausibly deniable” vehicle for this, whilst remaining entirely under Kremlin control.

3. The Kremlin insider went on to identify leading pro-PUTIN Duma figure, Konstantin KOSACHEV (Head of the Foreign Relations Committee) as an important figure in the TRUMP campaign-Kremlin liaison operation. KOSACHEV, also “plausibly deniable” being part of the Russian legislature rather than executive, had facilitated the contact in Prague and by implication, may have attended the meeting/s with COHEN there in August.

Company Comment

We reported previously, in our Company Intelligence Report 2016/135 of 19 October 2016 from the same source, that COHEN met officials from the PA Legal Department clandestinely in an EU country in August 2016. This was in order to clean up the mess left behind by western media revelations of TRUMP ex-campaign manager corrupt relationship with the former pro-Russian YANUKOVYCH regime in Ukraine and TRUMP foreign policy advisor, Carter secret meetings in Moscow with senior regime figures in July 2016. According to the Kremlin advisor, these meeting/s were originally scheduled for COHEN in Moscow but shifted to what was considered an operationally “soft” EU country when it was judged too compromising for him to travel to the Russian capital.

13 December

1. We reported previously (2016/135 and /136) on secret meeting/s held in Prague, Czech Republic in August 2016 between then Republican presidential candidate Donald TRUMP’s representative, Michael COHEN and his interlocutors from the Kremlin working under cover of Russian ‘NGO’ Rossotrudnichestvo.

2. [two lines redacted] provided further details of these meeting/s and associated anti- CLINTON/Democratic Party operations. COHEN had been accompanied to Prague by 3 colleagues and the timing of the visit was either in the last week of August or the first week of September. One of their main Russian interlocutors was Oleg SOLODUKHIN operating under Rossotrudnichestvo cover. According to [redacted] the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.

3. [redacted] reported that over the period March-September 2016 a company called XBT/Webzilla and its affiliates had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct “altering operations” against the Democratic Party leadership. Entities linked to one Aleksei GUBAROV were involved and he and another hacking expert, both recruited under duress by the FSB, Seva KAPSUGOVICH, were significant players in this operation. In Prague, COHEN agreed contingency plans for various scenarios to protect the Operation, but in particular what was to be done in the event that Hillary CLINTON won the presidency. It was important in this event that all cash payments owed were made quickly and discreetly and that cyber and other operators were stood down/able to go effectively to ground to cover their traces. (We reported earlier that the involvement of political operatives Paul MANAFORT and Carter PAGE in the secret TRUMP-Kremlin liaison had been exposed in the media in the run-up to Prague and that damage limitation of these also was discussed by COHEN with the Kremlin representatives).

In terms of practical measures to be taken, it was agreed by the two sides in Prague to stand down various “Romanian hackers” (presumably based in their homeland or neighboring eastern Europe) and that other operatives should head for a bolt-hole in Plovdiv, Bulgaria where they should “lay low”. On payments, IVANOV’s associate said that the operatives involved had been paid by both TRUMP’s team and the Kremlin, though their orders and ultimately loyalty lay with IVANOV, as Head of the PA and thus ultimately responsible for the operation, and his designator successor/s after he was dismissed by president PUTIN in connection with the anti-CLINTON operation in mid August.

Cohen’s Cooperation Seems to Focus on Obstruction

Both sentencing memoranda for Michael Cohen are out: SDNY’s memo is fairly damning (for both Cohen and Trump), whereas Mueller’s is more moderate. Here’s the Manafort breach filing; the government also submitted a sealed version.  

I’m going to focus on the Mueller Cohen one here. It describes the substance of his cooperation in four paragraphs. The first two relate to outreach from Russia. 

The defendant’s assistance has been useful in four significant respects. First, the defendant provided information about his own contacts with Russian interests during the campaign and discussions with others in the course of making those contacts. For example, and as described above, the defendant provided a detailed account of his involvement and the involvement of others in the Moscow Project, and also corrected the record concerning his outreach to the Russian government during the week of the United Nations General Assembly. The defendant also provided information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign. For example, in or around November 2015, Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.” The defendant recalled that this person repeatedly proposed a meeting between Individual 1 and the President of Russia. The person told Cohen that such a meeting could have a “phenomenal” impact “not only in political but in a business dimension as well,” referring to the Moscow Project, because there is “no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [the President of Russia].” Cohen, however, did not follow up on this invitation.3

Second, Cohen provided the SCO with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during the campaign. 

Those are pretty vague, but this footnote makes it clear that even before Russians started dialing up the candidate’s fixer, Trump had okayed Cohen’s efforts to reach out. 

The defendant, without prompting by the SCO, also corrected other false and misleading statements that he had made concerning his outreach to and contacts with Russian officials during the course of the campaign. For example, in a radio interview in September 2015, the defendant suggested that Individual 1 meet with the President of Russia in New York City during his visit for the United Nations General Assembly. When asked previously about these events, the defendant claimed his public comments had been spontaneous and had not been discussed within the campaign or the Company. During his proffer sessions, the defendant admitted that this account was false and that he had in fact conferred with Individual 1 about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting. The meeting ultimately did not take place.

That, plus the early focus on Trump Tower deals, makes it clear where Trump’s focus at that point was: real estate. 

The very short third and fourth paragraphs are even more oblique. 

Third, Cohen provided relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017–2018 time period.

Fourth, Cohen described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it.

These seem to point to obstruction more than the conspiracy with Russia (contrary to what I’ve seen elsewhere). Indeed, the language in the fourth paragraph talking about how Cohen “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it” seems to address a point I raised in this post: he could not have crafted that lie alone; it had to have been coordinated with Trump Org and Felix Sater, at a minimum. So while he admits that he’s responsible for his own lies, he appears to have explained how everyone made sure they were on the same page with those lies. 

And the reference to his communications with the White House in 2018 probably pertains, in significant part, to pardons.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.