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If the Government Obtains the Full Manafort Forfeiture, the Mueller Investigation Will Have Netted Almost $21 Million

The Special Counsel’s Office has released their latest expenditures report.

Thus far, here’s how the SCO spending breaks down (as the reports make clear, SCO is not legally obligated to track the indirect expenses that DOJ would spend otherwise, but they have been asked to do so).

Period

Direct

Indirect

Total

May 17, 2017 to September 30, 2017

$3,213,695

$3,546,000

$6,759,695

October 1, 2017 through March 31, 2018

$4,506,624

 $5,476,000

$9,982,624

April 1, 2018 through September 30, 2018

$4,567,533

 $3,906,000

$8,473,533

Total

$12,287,852

$12,928,000

$25,215,852

 

As a reminder, as part of his plea deal, Paul Manafort has to forfeit as much of the $46 million he can scrape together of the ill-gotten gains he earned from his crimes.

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of entities — most amazingly Steven Calk’s bank — contesting Manafort’s claims to actually own a number of the financial and real estate holdings that he said he did.

Still, if the US government can find enough assets to squeeze out of Manafort, the Mueller investigation will have — through October 1 — netted $20,784,148 million for the US Treasury. And that’s before the $500,000 Michael Cohen will have to pay, as well as any forfeiture Sam Patten will pay when he is sentenced for his sleazy influence peddling, in cases referred by Mueller to other US Attorney’s offices.

The Benefits and Pitfalls of Having Former FEC Commissioner Don McGahn as Your Campaign Lawyer

Of all the posts I’ve written about Roger Stone, I’m only aware of two that he responded to directly. One was this post from September 5, laying out how stupid Stone was for using Jerome Corsi’s August 31 report as a cover story for his August 21 “time in the barrel” tweet. We now know that the very next day, Jerome Corsi would tell material lies to Mueller’s team in an attempt to sustain a cover story that started with that August 31 report. Indeed, we also know that 16 days after I wrote that post, Corsi would testify to the grand jury that the August 31 report was written entirely to offer cover for that August 21 tweet (and, I suspect, Stone’s August 15 one).

Perhaps before this is over I’ll get the opportunity to play poker with Roger Stone.

The other post Stone reacted against — and he reacted even more aggressively — was this post focusing on Don McGahn’s history of helping Trump’s people get out of campaign finance pickles.

To be fair to rat-fucker Roger, the post actually laid out how Don McGahn has been covering for Trump’s campaign finance problems for seven years, not just Roger’s.

Of significant import, that history started in the follow-up to events from 2011, when Trump’s then-fixer, a guy named Michael Cohen, set up a presidential exploratory committee using Trump Organization funds. Democrats on the FEC believed that violated campaign finance law, but a guy named Don McGahn weighed in to say that FEC couldn’t use public reporting to assess complaints.

During McGahn’s FEC tenure, one of those he helped save from enforcement action was Trump himself. In 2011, when the future president-elect was engaged in a high-profile process of considering whether to enter the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump was formally accused in an FEC complaint of violating agency regulations. The case was dismissed on a deadlocked vote of the FEC commissioners.

A four-page complaint filed by Shawn Thompson of Tampa, Fla., accused Trump of illegally funneling corporate money from his Trump Organization into an organization called ShouldTrumpRun.com. McGahn and fellow FEC Republicans Caroline Hunter and Matthew Petersen voted to block FEC staff recommendations that Trump be investigated in the matter—designated Matter Under Review (MUR) 6462.

Ultimately, Trump opted not to run for president in 2012. Nonetheless, FEC staff attorneys concluded his activities before that decision may have violated campaign finance rules regarding money raised to “test the waters” for a candidacy. A staff report from the FEC Office of General Counsel, based largely on news articles and other documents about Trump’s flirtation with running for president—including Trump’s own quoted statements— recommended that the commissioners authorize a full FEC investigation backed by subpoena power.

FEC Democrats voted to pursue the recommended probe, but the votes of McGahn and the other FEC Republicans precluded the required four-vote majority needed for the commission to act.

McGahn and Hunter issued a “ statement of reasons” explaining their votes in the Trump matter in 2013. The 11-page statement blasted FEC staff attorneys in the Office of General Counsel for reviewing volumes of published information regarding Trump’s potential 2012 candidacy in order to determine whether to recommend that the FEC commissioners vote to authorize a full investigation. McGahn and Hunter argued that the FEC counsel’s office was prohibited from examining information other than what was contained in the formal complaint submitted in the case.

The Office of General Counsel shouldn’t be allowed to pursue an “unwritten, standardless process whereby OGC can review whatever articles and other documents not contained in the complaint that they wish, and send whatever they wish to the respondent for comment,” the Republican commissioners wrote.

In the context of rat-fucking Roger, in 2016, McGahn succeeded in getting a bunch of Democrats’ lawsuits against Stone’s voter suppression efforts in swing states thrown out.

But the history these sleazeballs all share is relevant for a reason explicitly raised in the SDNY Cohen filing last night. In the middle of the most shrill passage in the entire shrill filing (one that also uses language that might be more appropriate in — and is likely to eventually show up in — a ConFraudUs charge), SDNY notes that Cohen can’t play dumb about campaign finance law because of his 2011 run-in with the law.

Cohen’s commission of two campaign finance crimes on the eve of the 2016 election for President of the United States struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows. He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs with Individual-1. In the process, Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election.

It is this type of harm that Congress sought to prevent when it imposed limits on individual contributions to candidates. To promote transparency and prevent wealthy individuals like Cohen from circumventing these limits, Congress prohibited individuals from making expenditures on behalf of and coordinated with candidates. Cohen clouded a process that Congress has painstakingly sought to keep transparent. The sentence imposed should reflect the seriousness of Cohen’s brazen violations of the election laws and attempt to counter the public cynicism that may arise when individuals like Cohen act as if the political process belongs to the rich and powerful.

Cohen’s submission suggests that this was but a brief error in judgment. Not so. Cohen knew exactly where the line was, and he chose deliberately and repeatedly to cross it. Indeed, he was a licensed attorney with significant political experience and a history of campaign donations, and who was well-aware of the election laws. 11 In fact, Cohen publicly and privately took credit for Individual-1’s political success, claiming – in a conversation that he secretly recorded – that he “started the whole thing . . . started the whole campaign” in 2012 when Individual-1 expressed an interest in running for President. Moreover, not only was Cohen well aware of what he was doing, but he used sophisticated tactics to conceal his misconduct.

11 Cohen was previously the subject of an FEC complaint for making unlawful contributions to Donald Trump’s nascent campaign for the 2012 presidency. The complaint was dismissed for jurisdictional reasons, but it certainly put Cohen on notice of the applicable campaign finance regulations. See In the Matter of Donald J. Trump, Michael Cohen, et al., MUR 6462 (Sept. 18, 2013). [my emphasis]

To the extent that Cohen and his sole client, Individual-1, committed campaign finance crimes in 2016 — especially the corporate funding of campaign activities — they can’t claim to be ignorant, because they only narrowly avoided proceedings on precisely this point in 2013.

That’s all the more true given that that very same FEC commissioner was their campaign lawyer.

Now, any discussion about Cohen’s knowledge of campaign finance law in this instance is one thing if you’re talking whether SDNY will charge Trump and his company with conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws because Cohen bought off several women. But then there’s the matter of SuperPACs that illegally coordinated with Trump Org, and other dark money groups — including Stone’s — that coordinated with the campaign. Given that the donation Manafort lied about to Mueller is reportedly from Tom Barrack’s SuperPAC (along with his lies about whether he and Barrack met with Konstantin Kilimnik right after he got fired), that may be a campaign finance problem as well. Kilimnik partner Sam Patten has already pled guilty for using a straw donor to hide the foreign oligarchs ponying up to attend Trump’s inauguration, so that’s a second campaign finance guilty plea from people close to Trump and his aides, in addition to Cohen’s.

And all that’s before you get to the big one, Russia’s direct assistance to the campaign as part of a quid pro quo, and the stakes of whether any of the players can be said to know campaign finance law go up.

In short, Trump’s campaign was a serial campaign finance disaster in 2016, even in spite of having former FEC commissioner Don McGahn at their legal helm. And even if they weren’t running these legal questions by McGahn, Individual-1 and his fixer, at least, were also (as the government has already now alleged) “on notice of the applicable campaign finance regulations.”

Remember: After meeting with prosecutors for 20 hours late last year, McGahn had something around another 10 quality hours with Mueller’s prosecutors. The assumption has always been that those interviews were exclusively about the cover-up (though this May AP story on Tom Barrack’s own questioning describes that, “Investigators have for months been inquiring about the Trump campaign’s finances and compliance with federal election law,” and it doesn’t even include a single one of the crimes laid out here).

But it’s highly likely McGahn has given significant testimony about the (campaign finance) crime.

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. 

The Manafort Election Season Lying Bonanza Stall

I’d like to look at the timing laid out in Mueller’s filing arguing that Paul Manafort breached his plea agreement.

Manafort lied about his handler and his bankers

As the government lays out, Manafort lied about several things.

  • His communications with Konstantin Kilimnik: He appears to have denied his ongoing reporting to Kilimnik during the campaign, and (as WSJ reported), he appears to have hidden details about a boat trip he made with Tom Barrack after being fired from the campaign. There’s one more instance of a Kilimnik contact he’s lying about.
  • Kilimnik’s role in witness tampering: This one is frankly remarkable. As part of Manafort’s plea, he agreed that Kilimnik helped him attempt to witness tamper. Then, after that plea, he denied that very thing. Then, “when asked whether his prior plea and sworn admissions were truthful, Manafort conceded that Kilimnik had conspired with him.”
  • Payment to a firm working for him: Manafort lied about someone — it doesn’t say whom — paying off a $125,000 debt for him. Maybe this explains who is paying his spox, or maybe it even pertains to legal fees (though the amounts don’t come close to the fees covering the latter he must have incurred).
  • Another DOJ investigation: After proffering information that would help another investigation before his plea, Manafort told an exculpatory story after he signed his plea agreement. I suspect @liberty_42 is correct that this investigation pertains to the mortgage Manafort got from Steve Calk, especially given that his bank is (remarkably) contesting the forfeiture and the charges pertaining to him are among those Mueller seems to be considering retrying.
  • Contact with the Administration: I said in this post that if Mueller has evidence that Manafort discussed pardons with the Administration, now would be a good time to show it. In the passage describing Manafort’s lies about contacts with the Administration, it records him making a blanket denial; he had “no direct or indirect communications with anyone in the Administration while they were in the Administration” [my emphasis], but then goes on to suggest that Mueller had interest in “certain individuals.” Manafort claimed he had only spoken with those “certain individuals” before or after they worked for the Administration. This is kind of a dumb lie by Manafort to begin with, as there’s reporting of him talking to people like Reince Priebus. But Mueller’s invocation of a text from a specific date — May 26, 2018 — as well as what appears to be Rick Gates’ testimony that Manafort remained in communication with a senior Administration official up until February 2018 (when Gates flipped), suggests Mueller not only knows that Manafort had these discussions, but knows what was discussed. And I’m betting that involves pardons. If I’m right, then it would mean that Amy Berman Jackson will soon review whether Manafort lied about asking for a pardon.

June 9 lies are not alleged

There are a few things to conclude about the substance of Manafort’s claimed lies — aside from the fact that he really doesn’t want to tell the truth about Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the government alleges has ties to GRU.

First, the government notes that “at four of the post-plea meetings, prosecutors from other Department of Justice components attended.” If Manafort lied about Calk, that makes sense, because Calk would be prosecuted in NDIL or SDNY (where Mueller referred everything else). Konstantin Kilmnik’s other business partner, Sam Patten, is being managed out of DC, so prosecutors from there may have sat in. It may just be that National Security Division lawyers attended because all this involves counterintelligence. But the presence of outsiders at almost half of the post-plea meetings suggests that the Mueller investigation was not the prime focus.

And in spite of CNN’s scoop today that the June 9, 2016 meeting did come up with Manafort, it’s not mentioned here. That seems to suggest that while Mueller did get Manafort on the record on certain subjects relating to the election, aside from lies about his handler Kilimnik, Mueller is not including those lies here.

But Mueller did put Manafort before a grand jury on two occasions, after what must be weeks of lying, but right before the election, on October 26 and November. Significantly, that was a key time for Mueller’s Roger Stone investigation, especially November 2, when other Stone witnesses testified. We know that Mueller did ask Manafort for information about his lifelong buddy Roger Stone even in the time period leading up to Manafort’s grand jury testimony.

Still, aside from lying about his handler, Mueller doesn’t lay out any of Manafort’s lies on these subjects, if he did tell lies.

Immediately after the election Mueller started to deal with their liar

Here’s the timeline of what all this lays out.

Prior to September 14: Three proffers that presumably matched what prosecutors knew

September 14: Manafort pleads guilty

October 14: Based on CNN’s accurate count, end date for regular meetings between Manafort and Mueller

October 22: Rudy mouths off about continuing to get reports from Manafort

October 26: Manafort testifies to the grand jury

November 2: Manafort testifies to the grand jury

November 8: The government informs Manafort he has breached his plea agreement; Trump’s people work the press suggesting he may not respond to Mueller’s questions

November 13 [one day after return from France]: Trump initially promised to turn in open book test

November 15: Blaming leaked Corsi plea, Trump balks on submitting his open book test

November 13-16: Manafort’s lawyers argue he didn’t lie

November 20: Trump turns in his open book test, having refused to answer questions on the transition

November 26: Manafort’s lawyers argue he didn’t lie; Mueller refuses another extension to continue that effort

Thanks to CNN’s stakeout journalism, which accurately reported 9 meetings in the post-plea four weeks, we know that it’s not like Mueller suddenly realized at the end of all this that Manafort was lying. Because all the meetings they counted predated Manafort’s two grand jury appearances, we can be virtually certain that Mueller knew by that point Manafort was lying, and lying about silly stuff to which he had just pled guilty. Mueller gave Manafort nine post-plea changes to tell the truth, put him before the grand jury twice after that, and then less than a week later (the day after Sessions got fired and the first day that Matt Whitaker would have been Acting Attorney General, and on the very day Trump publicly balked on whether he was really going to turn in his open book test), Mueller for the first time told Manafort he had failed to meet the terms of the plea agreement.

Then starting again on the day when Trump said he maybe kind of would turn in his answers after taking a day to recover after his Paris trip, Manafort’s lawyers started to argue that their client hadn’t lied. That argument continued until the day after Trump balked again and the government got a 10-day extension on the status report on Manafort. Finally, after using that 10 day extension to … apparently do nothing, Manafort’s lawyers made one more try to argue their client didn’t lie.

In the interim period, Trump turned in his open book test.

Throughout this period, at least according to the government, Manafort’s lawyers didn’t advance any argument to refute the government claim their client lied. “In none of the communications with Manafort’s counsel was any factual or legal argument made as to why the government’s assessment was erroneous or made without good faith.”

Who was stalling whom?

I have argued that by entering a pardon-proof plea deal with a known liar while Trump pondered how to answer Mueller’s open book test, Mueller may have lulled Trump into answering those questions. The record doesn’t entirely support that case (though it is not incompatible with it), as Trump knew before he handed in his open book test that Mueller had branded Manafort a liar. Plus, because Mueller doesn’t allege that Manafort lied about some of the big questions — and because Mueller seems to have been tending other investigative priorities, like Steve Calk — we can’t tell (aside from the public report that Manafort got asked about his buddy Roger and Rudy’s claim Mueller’s prosecutors told Manafort Trump was lying about June 9) whether Mueller asked questions about key events like the June 9 meeting and Manafort lied, whether he just didn’t pose them, or whether he doesn’t have the other credible sources to present to Amy Berman Jackson.

So it’s unclear how Mueller approached the aborted election season plea deal.

But if Mueller’s claims that Manafort lied hold up — and his lies look really contemptuous — then it appears clear that Manafort is either hopelessly pathological and/or he used the plea deal just to buy time, presumably for Trump.

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. 

Updating the Mueller Docket: What Has Zainab Ahmad Been Working On?

I’ve been meaning for some days to update my running commentary on what Mueller’s prosecutors are doing.

But yesterday’s Mike Flynn filing made a point that I’ve been meaning to make: counterterrorism and international extradition expert Zainab Ahmad remains on Mueller’s team, but we’ve barely heard from her.

I’ve recently updated my own running docket (which is far too unwieldy to fit on a page anymore). It also includes a number of related cases:

  • Michael Cohen’s SDNY prosecution
  • Sam Patten’s DC prosecution
  • Maria Butina’s DC prosecution
  • Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova’s EDVA charges

I’ve also noted the departures of the prosecutors who have left (suggesting either that their part of the investigation is completed, or they’re bringing some part of it back to their home departments at DOJ to pursue).

One thing I’ve been following in recent Mueller activities is Jeannie Rhee’s seeming central role in what we’re seeing. If there’s a conspiracy-in-chief prosecution, she seems to be in charge of that.

Also of interest, Rush Atkinson appears to have ties to a seemingly disparate series of cases involving Russia: the IRA prosecution and related Pinedo case, the GRU prosecution. He’s also involved in both Michael Cohen’s Mueller prosecution and Jerome Corsi’s aborted cooperation. Notably, he’s not involved in the Andrew Miller subpoena, which may mean that he’s not involved in everything pertaining to Roger Stone. So his presence on a case may suggest a direct tie to Russians.

But perhaps the most interesting thing this docket shows is that, among the prosecutors (as distinct from the appellate specialists, though it’s unclear whether Elizabeth Prelogar is on the team for her Russian expertise as well as her appellate speciality or not), Zainab Ahmad is the only person whose work we’ve barely seen. While she has had a role in the Flynn cooperation, Brandon Van Grack (who’s in the process of transitioning back to his National Security Division home) took the lead on that.

As an experienced counterterrorism prosecutor normally located in EDNY (the district where JFK Airport is located), Ahmad is an expert in prosecutions involving extraditions (because of the JFK connection, many of those go through EDNY, and that’s where a lot of the important precedents are). Also of note, given the questions around whether there are two or three parts of a Mueller investigation on which Flynn cooperated, she’s an Arabic speaker.

We’ve not seen a substantive plea or charge related to what I’ll call the Middle Eastern graft (centered around, but not limited to, the Seychelles meeting Flynn attended), though we know that Mueller has spent a lot of time investigating it, and that’s an area where Flynn’s cooperation would be key. Given Ahmad’s skill set, it would make sense that she would be involved in those areas of the investigation.

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. 

If SSCI Was Referring All This Perjury to Mueller about GRU Funding Trump, Why Did Richard Burr Claim It Had Found No “Collusion”?

In the wake of the Michael Cohen plea, Richard Burr made some comments about his committee’s relationship with the Special Counsel. He referred to multiple referrals to Mueller, even using the phrase “a lot.”

“It’s a loud message to everybody that’s interviewed by our committee. … If you lie to us, we’re going to go after you,” Mr. Burr said during a candid question-and-answer session at the annual Texas National Security Forum.

[snip]

[T]he committee has on more than one occasion recommended prosecutions based on their interviews.

“We continually go back and look at the testimony we’ve been given, and we weigh it against any new information that might be out there that either a reporter has been able to [get] in a comment from an individual,” he said. “We have shared, when permission has been given by those we interview, interview notes with the Department of Justice and specifically with the special prosecutor.”

“We have made referrals to the special prosecutor for prosecution,” he continued. “In a lot of cases, those might be tied to lying to us.”

While it’s not clear how much SSCI confirmed about Cohen’s lies (Cohen testified on October 25, 2017, and Felix Sater testified on April 4, 2018), given Sater’s public comments up to and including BuzzFeed’s big story, At a minimum (per Sater’s description of his testimony to BuzzFeed, SSCI knew that Cohen had lied about how many times he spoke to Trump about the deal.

The Moscow Project was discussed multiple times within the Company and did not end in January 2016. Instead, as late as approximately June 2016 , COHEN and Individual 2 discussed efforts to obtain Russian governmental approval for the Moscow Project. COHEN discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with Individual 1 on more than the three occasions COHEN claimed to the Committee, and he briefed family members of Individual 1 within the Company about the project .

And SSCI almost certainly learned that Cohen was working on a trip to Russia up to the time when news broke that the Russians had hacked the DNC.

COHEN agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project and took steps in contemplation of Individual l ‘ s possible travel to Russia. COHEN and Individual 2 discussed on multiple occasions traveling to Russia to pursue the Moscow Project. COHEN asked Individual 1 about the possibility of Individual 1 traveling to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project, and asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia.

On or about May 4 , 2016 , Individual 2 wrote to COHEN, “I had a chat with Moscow. ASSUMING the trip does happen the question is before or after iii. the convention. Obviously the pre – meeting trip (you only) can happen anytime you want but the 2 big guys where [sic] the question. I said I would confirm and revert.” COHEN responded, “My trip before Cleveland. [Individual l] once he becomes the nominee after the convention. ”

On or about May 5, 2016, Individual 2 followed up with COHEN and wrote, “[Russian Official l] would like to invite you as his guest to the St. Petersburg Forum which is Russia’s Davos it’s June 16- 19. He wants to meet there with you and possibly introduce you to either [the President of Russia] or [the Prime Minister of Russia], as they are not sure if 1 or both will be there. He said anything you want to discuss including dates and subjects are on the table to discuss. ”

On or about May 6, 2016, Individual 2 asked COHEN to confirm those dates would work for him to travel. COHEN wrote back, “Works for me.”

From on or about June 9 to June 14, 2016, Individual 2 sent numerous messages to COHEN about the travel, including forms for COHEN to complete. However, on or about June 14, 2016, COHEN met Individual 2 in the lobby of the Company’s headquarters to inform Individual 2 he would not be traveling at that timeT.

SSCI would have known this in April (perhaps not coincidentally, five days before the raid on Cohen by SDNY; remember that Paul Manafort was raided the night after testifying to SSCI).

In addition to Cohen, we also know SSCI referred Sam Patten to Mueller (though SSCI seems to have referred Patten for something other than the lies laid out in his criminal information). Patten lied about funneling oligarch money into Trump’s inauguration.

PATTEN misled the SSCI in that he intentionally did not provide SSCI certain documents that could lead to revelation of him causing and concealing the foreign purchase of the PIC tickets, described about, and gave false and misleading testimony to avoid disclosing that he had caused and concealed foreign money to be paid to the PIC. In addition, PATTEN provided misleading testimony about his representation of foreign principals in the United States, so as to conceal his violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Finally, after the interview, PATTEN deleted documents pertinent to his relationships with the above-described foreign principals.

So in other words, by April, SSCI knew, as part of their investigation into whether Trump conspired with the GRU officers who hacked and leaked Hillary’s email, that Trump was in bed with GRU money on both the front end of the election — in attempting to set up this Trump Tower deal — and the back end — in accepting laundered money from GRU-connected individuals.

And yet two times during election season, first in August and then again in September, Richard Burr claimed that his committee had found “no hard evidence of collusion.” In response to both, I suggested that it looked like the committee wasn’t pursuing what evidence it had learned of. Now Burr is openly talking about referring “a lot” of people to Mueller’s office — and the two we know he referred, together, may not be a smoking gun but certainly would set off my itchy smoke alarm.

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. 

On Rick Gates’ Expansive Cooperation

Much has been made from something in a status update in Rick Gates’ case the other day. In asking for a two month delay on sentencing (the last one was for three months), the parties revealed that Gates is cooperating on “several ongoing investigations.”

1. The parties previously filed a Joint Status Report on August 10, 2018 and proposed to send an ensuing report within ninety days and no later than November 10, 2018. To date, the status of this matter has not changed substantially since the August report, as defendant Gates continues to cooperate with respect to several ongoing investigations, and accordingly the parties do not believe it is appropriate to commence the sentencing process at this time.

2. The parties respectfully request that they provide a joint status report within sixty days, no later than January 15, 2019.

So he’s working on more than Mueller’s investigation (if he’s even still focusing on that; I’ve seen no report of him appearing at Mueller’s office).

That actually shouldn’t be that big a surprise. As part of his plea agreement, Sam Patten — who like Gates had close ties to Konstantin Kilimnik — is required to cooperate with “this Office, the Special Counsel’s Office, and other law enforcement authorities.” That means Patten is, at a minimum, cooperating with Mueller and a separate investigation out of the DC US Attorney’s Office (with whom he signed his plea). Plus, when Kyle Freeny left Mueller’s office last month, she may have brought some part of the money laundering investigation Mueller was doing with her; one obvious candidate might be Trump’s Inauguration Pay-to-Play.

The Objection that Made Mueller’s Case

This will be a grandiose statement, but what the fuck, it’s a crazy day.

The moment when Robert Mueller made his case came on August 7 when Greg Andres objected to a line of Kevin Downing’s cross-examination of Rick Gates.

The lawyers went into a sidebar with Judge Ellis. According to a successful prosecution motion to seal that part of the sidebar, the two sides argued about details of Mueller’s investigation.

On August 7, 2018, the Court held a sidebar conference to address a line of questioning pursued by the defense during their cross-examination of witness Richard Gates. During the sidebar conference, substantive evidence pertaining to an ongoing investigation was revealed.

Ultimately, Ellis ruled that Manafort’s team could not pursue that line of questioning. I believe that objection is what led to Manafort’s plea deal today, and with it, likely the final bits to the key conspiracy case against Trump and his spawn.

I say that for the following reasons.

Manafort got very little (that we can see) from his plea deal

Start with Manafort’s plea deal. When I was thinking of Mueller’s leverage the other day, I imagined Manafort might plead to the charges he did today, but that Mueller would also bracket off some of Manafort’s forfeitures — probably the $16 million that the holdout juror saved Manafort in the EDVA case. That didn’t happen — Mueller dumped the EDVA forfeiture into this deal, so that Manafort will lose all of his thus far identified ill-gotten gains (he’s apparently swapping his Trump Tower apartment for one of the financial accounts, which means that the US government will soon own a Trump Tower property it has unlimited discretion to decide what to do with).

And unless he gets a downward departure for significant cooperation, he’ll do ten years. Under some scenarios, that’s what he would have gotten had he gone to trial in DC and lost. So aside from saving him from a second (and possibly third, if the government pursued the 10 hung charges in EDVA) trial, Manafort got very little that we can see in his plea — just the legal fees associated with the trial(s), while losing the forfeiture he had won by going to trial in EDVA. And for that very little, he kisses away all hope he’ll get a pardon, as well as the (admittedly slim) chance that he might not be found guilty in DC. He also forgoes any appeals and any profits off telling his story. He basically commits to going to prison and coming out an old man to a vastly diminished fortune.

The possible plea benefits we don’t know about

That says the reasons behind Manafort’s decision to accept this plea are things we can’t see but he can.

There are two related possibilities: First, that Manafort came to the conclusion that he’d never get the pardon he had been working towards. That might stem from justified distrust that Trump will ever keep his word, but I doubt it. A pardon was always Manafort’s best way out, and up to a point, it made sense for him to take his chances with Trump.

Which suggests that, for some reason, Manafort came to believe Trump wouldn’t be able to pardon him, probably because he came to understand it would be politically impossible or legally improbable.

Couple that with the other thing that might convince Manafort he’d be better off taking this plea now than continuing to fight his charges: that he knew the next thing he was going to be charged with would be far worse. Just as one example, I’ve suggested that once you’re working for the government of Ukraine (as Manafort was, in the charges settled today) or the government of Russia (as might be established if you showed Konstantin Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer, as Mueller has already alleged), very little separates a FARA charge (what he pled to today) from a 18 USC 951 charge, spying. It’s a lot harder to pardon someone for spying than to pardon him for obstruction and financial crimes.

It’s also possible that Manafort came to understand the scope of the conspiracy prosecutors are now pursuing. If he knew they already had the evidence to charge Trump as a co-conspirator in that conspiracy, it would also make it a lot harder for the President to pardon his co-conspirators.

In any case, whatever it is, it’s likely that Manafort had figured out where the prosecutors were heading, and he recognized he was far better off with this painful cooperation deal than being included in the next indictments. Losing his ostrich skin shirt (and five homes and $46 million) and trying to cooperate into a lesser sentence beats facing down a spying charge as part of a conspiracy with both the Russians and a president with severely curtailed pardon abilities, as it turns out.

The Rick Gates details he tried — but failed — to put into the public record

Which brings me back to that Andres objection on August 7.

Just before the EDVA trial, the government would have had to provide Manafort all their 302s from Rick Gates, so he could use that information to damage Gates’ credibility on the stand. And damage his credibility he did, among other things, by revealing that Gates stole money from the Trump transition.

But in addition to looking at those 302s for impeachment evidence, Manafort also surely looked at it to see what Gates had already provided to Mueller’s prosecutors. I’m guessing (based off what a number of people have said about the role Gates played on the campaign) that Gates got Mueller 90% of the way to a conspiracy involving the President, leaving just some meetings attended only by Manafort and Trump as gaps in the evidentiary record.

And that’s what I believe Downing was trying to do back on August 7: Elicit testimony from Gates that would lay out some of the evidence he had provided Mueller in such a way that didn’t violate the protective order he signed in the DC case (there’s not one in the EDVA case, but the DC one basically covers that, not least because the discovery significantly overlaps). So Downing was trying to put into the public record something about what Gates had told Mueller.

Had he succeeded, perhaps Trump would have recognized the jeopardy that put Manfort (and, presumably, himself) in. Perhaps he would have taken that moment to pardon Manafort, and save him from that jeopardy.

But Greg Andres piped up to object, Mueller’s team won the still sealed sidebar discussion, and Manafort failed to introduce whatever evidence into the public record for Trump and his other co-conspirators to see.

Which left Trump and his legal team, even as Manafort had his first proffer discussion with Mueller on Monday, still claiming that Manafort remained in a Joint Defense Agreement four days later, apparently blissfully unaware that Manafort had seen enough to decide it was time to flip.

Downing’s ploy probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. Pardoning Manafort might have helped Manafort, but if Mueller got 90% of the way to the conspiracy with the witnesses he has (including Sam Patten, whose plea surely contributed to Manafort’s certainty he was fucked going forward), then it wouldn’t have helped Trump and probably would have gotten us closer to when Republicans realize Trump has become an anvil rather than an electoral plus.

But I suspect that was the moment when Manafort’s cooperation, with whatever last little bits implicating Trump, became inevitable.

As I disclosed 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. 

Mueller Ready to Get Trump on the Record on His Involvement in the Russian Conspiracy

EUREKA!!!

The NYT finally has a story that admits Trump is at risk under conspiracy charges!

It reports that Mueller told Trump’s lawyers last Friday that he’d be willing to start with written answers about his involvement in the election conspiracy, while bracketing obstruction questions as privileged.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, will accept written answers from President Trump on questions about whether his campaign conspired with Russia’s election interference, Mr. Mueller’s office told Mr. Trump’s lawyers in a letter, two people briefed on it said on Tuesday.

But on another significant aspect of the investigation — whether the president tried to obstruct the inquiry itself — Mr. Mueller and his investigators understood that issues of executive privilege could complicate their pursuit of a presidential interview and did not ask for written responses on that matter, according to the letter, which was sent on Friday.

Mr. Mueller did not say that he was giving up on an interview altogether, including on questions of obstruction of justice. But the tone of the letter and the fact that the special counsel did not ask for written responses on obstruction prompted some Trump allies to conclude that if an interview takes place, its scope will be more limited than Mr. Trump’s legal team initially believed, the people said.

For the moment, I’m not going to say what I think this means (I’ve got some ideas, but will hold those for now).

Instead, consider what questions will be included in Trump’s take-home test, from the list the NYT first published (though it has presumably grown since March when Jay Sekulow wrote it up). I’m going to group them, here, under things we know Mueller has been up to in recent months.

November 30, 2017: Mike Flynn pleads guilty as part of a cooperation deal

Last year, Mike Flynn pled guilty as part of a cooperation deal; he has a status hearing — scheduled on a 24 day interval — on September 17. Flynn has spent the last nine months answering these questions:

  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
  • What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?
  • What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince?
  • What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017?

February 23: Rick Gates pleads guilty as part of a cooperation deal

On February 23, Rick Gates pled guilty as part of a big cooperation agreement. Two weeks later, Mueller obtained search warrants for 5 AT&T phones (and probably an equivalent number of Verizon phones), at least one of which is Paul Manafort’s and one of which may be Roger Stone’s. Gates can surely help answer the following questions:

  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?
  • What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
  • What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

April: Jared testifies for seven hours

Sometime in April, Jared testified for seven hours. Jared is likely to be able to provide some answers about the following questions:

  • What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?
  • What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince?
  • When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?
  • What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?

May 22: Sam Patten makes his first proffer for a cooperation deal

On August 31, Sam Patten pled guilty to FARA violations in the context of a cooperation agreement for which he made his first proffer back on May 22. Patten may know some of the answers to these questions:

  • What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017?
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?
  • What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?

August 17: Paul Manafort seeks a plea deal

During jury watch in his first trial, Manafort and Mueller’s lawyers had aborted discussions about a plea deal, at least to resolve his second trial. Manafort’s lawyers are only belatedly preparing for the second trial, jury selection for which begins on September 17.

Manafort would be able to answer the following questions:

  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?
  • What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
  • What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

August 21: “They’re squeezing Don Jr. right now”

On August 21, Vanity Fair reported that Mueller has been making document follow-up requests pertaining to Jr.

Another theory for what’s motivating Trump’s increasingly unhinged tweets is that Mueller may be closing in on his son Don Jr. “A lot of what Trump is doing is based on the fact [that] Mueller is going after Don Jr.,” a person close to the Trump family told me. “They’re squeezing Don Jr. right now.”

Don Jr.’s lawyer said, “I’m not going to comment.” Another person briefed on the investigation disputed the term “squeeze,” but said the Mueller team continues to ask for documents.

These questions would directly pertain to Don Jr and the documents he has been turning over:

  • During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?
  • When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?
  • What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?

August 21: Michael Cohen pleads guilty to eight charges while begging to cooperate

On August 21, Michael Cohen pled guilty to eight charges; both before and after he has desperately shopped a plea deal (though he has gone quiet in recent days). Cohen’s cooperation might help answer these questions:

  • During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?
  • What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?
  • What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017?

September 7: The second-to-last known witness against Roger Stone testifies before the grand jury

On Friday, Randy Credico will bring his dog to visit the grand jury and describe how Roger Stone tried to convince him to claim he was Stone’s back channel to Assange (he has already interviewed with Mueller’s team, so they know what he’s going to say). Mueller has been questioning witnesses about Stone since February, and just one — Andrew Miller — remains to testify (assuming the sealed order Beryl Howell signed on August 13) didn’t immunize him for part of his testimony).

That long line of witnesses likely provided information relevant to these questions:

  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
  • What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

In short, while the NYT has been reporting incessantly about the obstruction charges against Trump, Mueller has accumulated a good deal of evidence to answer the questions about the Russian conspiracy that Trump’s lawyers have in the past said they’d be willing to answer.

I’d say Mueller’s ready to get Trump’s answers — which will not be truthful — on the record. You don’t need obstruction charges involving Jim Comey when you’re guaranteed the President will lie on the record about conspiracy.

Update: In their version of this story, WaPo notes they’ll return to obstruction discussions later.

On potential obstruction-of-justice issues, “he said he’d assess it down the road,” said one person familiar with Mueller’s letter who requested anonymity to discuss private communications. “They’re essentially saying, ‘We’ll deal with this at a later date.’”

That makes sense. There’s bound to be more obstruction to discuss later down the road, whether it’s lies in response to these questions or attempted pardons.

Update: One other thing this does. This letter, inviting Trump to answer questions in writing, came a day after the first detailed story on Rudy’s counter-report came out. Rudy’s blabbing about how they’re going to release a report that purportedly addresses all of Mueller’s concerns will make it hard (but never impossible) to refuse to comply. And it will also give Rudy a hobby that will distract from inventing conspiracy theories about Mueller conflict.

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. 

Spy versus Spy: The Two Alleged Agents of Foreign Powers Sitting in the Alexandria Jail, Part Two (Mariia)

In this post, I laid out the difference between two laws criminalizing foreign agents of influence, 22 USC 611 et seq. (FARA) and 18 USC 951. Paul Manafort is charged with the former; Rick Gates, Mike Flynn, and Sam Patten have also all pled guilty to FARA related crimes; Mariia Butina is accused of the latter.

I think, particularly as Mueller’s investigation begins to put real teeth in FARA (and as nation-state spying hides under new kinds of cover and funding arrangements), the border between the two crimes will become increasingly tenuous. A comparison of Butina and Manafort shows some of the ways that’s clear.

Butina’s lawyer pitches her actions as lobbying

In response to her charges, her attorney Robert Driscoll has repeatedly denied she’s an agent of Russia, not by denying she did what Aleksandr Torshin instructed her to, but by claiming that hers is just a regulatory filing case.

“This is not an espionage case, this is not a spy case, this is a regulatory filing case,” in which Butina didn’t file the correct paperwork with the Justice Department, Driscoll told Robnson in arguing why she should be freed pending trial.

“She’s not an agent of the Russian Federation,” Driscoll told reporters after the hearing.

In a bid to overturn Magistrate Deborah Robinson’s decision to deny Butina bail, Driscoll minimizes the Russian’s activities as “going to dinners among intellectuals and foreign policy wonks to discuss U.S.-Russia relations, attending two National Prayer Breakfasts, and booking hotel rooms at the Washington Hilton, if true, is anything but an ‘obvious’ danger to the public.” He argues, “the allegations do not involve spying, tradecraft, classified information, or any other hallmarks of an espionage case.” To rebut any claim of covert operation, Driscoll points to the fact that one of the actions in her indictment — a dinner hosted by her unindicted co-conspirator, George O’Neill, just after the National Prayer Breakfast — was hosted by O’Neill and written up in the press (one of two stories he cited was written by O’Neill).

She is accused of arranging dinners to promote better relations between Russia and the United States although the very dinner that is listed as a predicate act for her alleged crimes was written about in Time Magazine and the American Conservative—hardly covert activity—and, in actuality, was initiated, organized, and directed by an American citizen, not the Russian government.3

He argues that the government charged Butina with section 951 as a tactical move, to make it easier to prosecute political activity (I’m not a lawyer, but I’m virtually certain he mis-states what the materials say about exempting political activity, not least because, per other materials, section 611 can be a subset of a section 951 violation).

To distract from the frailty of its charges, the government reprises that Ms. Butina is charged under section 951 and not FARA. However, that charging decision alone contradicts the Justice Department’s own policies, and perhaps was made as an attempt to aggrandize her conduct and mischaracterize her innocent political interest as nefarious.

That is, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) Criminal Resource Manual makes a distinction between section 951 and a FARA violation. It describes FARA under section 611 et seq. as requiring an agent of a foreign principal engaged in political activities to register. See U.S. Dep’t of Justice, United States Attorneys’ Manual 9-90.700 and 9-90.701; and see Criminal Resource Manual at 2062. It also discusses other federal statutes like section 951, which is “aimed at persons loosely called foreign agents” but specifically exempts section 951 from applying to “foreign agents engaged in political activities.” Id. In plain English, DOJ further notes among frequently asked questions that section 951 is only “aimed at foreign government controlled agents engaged in non-political activities.”5

The government’s April, 2018 search warrant sought evidence of a potential violation under FARA.

[snip]

[A]lthough such allegations are unfounded and untrue, and although the government’s searches revealed no hidden transmitters, wads of cash, counterfeit passports, and plane tickets back to Moscow, the government still decided to paper a case against Ms. Butina under section 951. This decision shows that the government desired to overcharge and inflate her conduct for tactical advantages versus act with restraint or, at a minimum, be consistent with the DOJ and National Security Division’s own publicized understanding of appropriate charges.

And Driscoll doesn’t even concede she violated FARA.

[F]or reasons only it is aware, the government has charged Ms. Butina under 18 U.S.C. § 951 rather than the Foreign Agent Registration Act (“FARA”), 22 U.S.C. § 611 et seq., which generally carries civil penalties and much less severe criminal penalties (for circumstances far more egregious than the facts alleged here). Much like a FARA case, the government does not allege that Ms. Butina undertook any independently illegal activities in the United States. The only thing that made her alleged conduct illegal, if true, is that she did not notify the Attorney General prior to undertaking it.

[snip]

At bottom, the government’s case appears to be a novel attempt to stretch 18 U.S.C. § 951 to cover the activities of a foreign national student under the theory that her communications (about non-classified public source material) with contacts in her home country made her an “agent” of that country. The serious charges against her should be viewed in that context, which makes this case distinctly different from a typical section 951, “espionage-like or clandestine behavior” case.4

The lobbying included in Butina’s alleged crimes

To some extent, Driscoll is right: the government’s description of the allegations against Butina does focus closely on activity that might fall under FARA’s political activities (though, as noted, he cites a DOJ statement that suggests sections 611 and 951 are mutually exclusive, when by my understanding sections 611 can be a part of 951).

Many of the activities Butina is alleged to have done involve things that might be classified as lobbying. In her arrest affidavit, DOJ describes how Butina, with help from Paul Erickson, identified a network of influential Americans, including the NRA, to whom she could pitch closer relations with Russia. George O’Neill helped Butina set up a series of “friendship and dialogue” dinners. A number of her activities, such a publishing an article in The National Interest, are precisely the kinds of things FARA attempts to provide transparency on. This is where Driscoll gets his claim that Butina only “arrang[ed] dinners to promote better relations between Russia and the United States.”

Butina was directed by Aleksandr Torshin

A number of the allegations would support either a FARA or 951 violation.

The affidavit makes it clear she was following the directions of Aleksandr Torshin, the Deputy Governor of Russia’s Central Bank and as such an official representative of the government.

On the night of the election, for example, she asked for orders from Torshin, “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 am here. I am ready for further orders.” The two moved to WhatsApp out of Torshin’s concern “all our phones are being listened to.” It’s clear, too, she and Torshin were hiding the role of the Russian government behind her actions. When she sent a report on a conference to establish a dialogue with US politicians, she said it “must be presented as a private initiative, not a government undertaking.”

The government even presented proof that Butina’s actions were approved by people close to Putin himself.

On March 14, 2016, Butina wrote O’Neill that what DOJ calls a  “representative of the Russian Presidential administration” had expressed approval “for building this communication channel,” suggesting she and Torshin had direct approval from Putin. “All we needed is <<yes>> from Putin’s side,” Butina explained to O’Neill.

With one exception, Driscoll largely offers bullshit in response to the government’s evidence she operated as a Russian government agent (indeed, his recognition that Butin advertised being Torshin’s special assistant on one of her business cards confirms that she continued to work for Torshin). He includes a letter of grad school recommendation for Butina for Columbia as proof of … it’s not clear what, particularly since Torshin includes his government affiliation on the letter.

Still: Paul Manafort was operating on behalf of a foreign government while Viktor Yanukovych remained in power, yet DOJ charged him with FARA, not section 951. The bar to meet foreignness under FARA is broader than it is under section 951, but lobbying for a foreign government can be sufficient to it. Yet Butina got charged under section 951, not FARA.

Paid by an oligarch

The exception to my claim that Driscoll offers little to rebut (in court filings — his statements to the press are another issue) that Butina was directed by the Russian government is the issue of her funding, which the government notes comes from an oligarch that Butina identified to the Senate Intelligence Committee as Konstantin Nikolaev.

Her Twitter messages, chat logs, and emails refer to a known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration. This person often travels to the United States and has also been referred to as her “funder” throughout her correspondence; he was listed in Forbes as having a real-time net worth of $1.2 billion as of 2018. Immediately prior to her first trip to the United States in late 2014, Butina engaged in a series of text messages with a different wealthy Russian businessman regarding budgets for her trip to the United States and meetings with the aforementioned “funder.”

Driscoll points to this to disclaim a tie between her and the Russian state.

[T]he Russian Federation did not pay for her travel to the United States, her tuition, her living expenses, or make any payments to her at all.

This is actually an interesting point, because while FARA requires only that a person be working as an agent of a foreign principal (which might include, for example, an oligarch), section 951 requires that the agent be working on behalf of a foreign government. Butina no doubt still qualifies, given her tie to Torshin.

But particularly when comparing Manafort and Butina, both of whom worked at the border between laundered oligarch cash and government officials, the detail is of particular interest. If Russia outsources its intelligence operations to oligarchs (the Internet Research Agency’s Yevgeniy Prigozhin is another example), will that intelligence still qualify as spying under section 951?

In any case, thus far, the allegations against Butina and Manafort are fairly similar: both were hiding the fact that their political activities were backed by, and done in the interest of, Russian or Russian-backed entities.

The evidence for covert action

One area where Butina may go further than Manafort (at least for his pre-election work) is in the means by which she was trying to hide her work.

In spite of the great deal of publicity Butina made of her own actions — with all the pictures of her and powerful Republican men — the government affidavit also described Butina trying to set up (in her words) a “back channel” of communication with influential Americans.  On October 4, 2016, Erickson emailed a friend admitting he had “been involved in security a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA]. The affidavit describes Butina telling Torshin that her Russia-USA friendship society” is “currently ‘underground’ both here and there.” When discussing the list of delegates to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast with Erickson in late November, she said the attendees were seeking to establish a “back channel of communication.”

Manafort was trying to hide that the lobbying he paid for was done for Yanukovych’s benefit, but there’s no allegation his pre-election work aimed to set up a secret channel of communication between Yanukovych and Congress.

Of particular interest, given the parallel efforts on voter suppression from Roger Stone and the Russians, Butina floated serving as an election observer. Torshin argued that “the risk of provocation is too high and the ‘media hype’ which comes after it.” But Butina argued she’d only do it incognito.

The honey pot claim

Then there’s the specific government insinuation that Butina was engaged in a honey pot operation. It substantiates this two ways — first, by suggesting she’s not that into Erickson.

Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.

It also alleges she offered sex for favors.

For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.

Driscoll pretty convincingly argues the government misinterpreted this last bit.

The only evidence the government relied on for its explosive claim was an excerpt from an innocuous three-year-old text exchange (attached as Exhibit 3) sent in Russia between Ms. Butina and DK, her longtime friend, assistant, and public relations man for The Right to Bear Arms gun rights group that she founded.

DK, who often drove Ms. Butina’s car and thus was listed on the insurance, took the car for its annual government-required inspection and insurance renewal, and upon completion, texted (according to government translators), “I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance they put me through the wringer.” Ms. Butina jokingly replied, “Sex. Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.” DK responded: “Ugh . . . ( ”—that is, with a sad face emoticon.

Aside from the fact that Maria is friends with DK’s wife and child and treats DK like a brother, the reference to sex is clearly a joke.

We still haven’t seen the government response to this, but what Driscoll presents does support his claim this is a “sexist smear.”

But Driscoll’s dismissal of the other claim — that Butina disdained living with Erickson — is far less convincing.

[I]n response to her girlfriend’s own complaints about her boyfriend’s failure to call in three weeks (accompanied by an angry face emoji) that Maria responds that her own boyfriend (Mr. Erickson) has been “bugging the sh*t out of me with his mom” and that she has “a feeling that I am residing in a nursing home.” “Send a link to the dating app[,]”

Driscoll spins this as an attack on Erickson’s now late mother, but doesn’t address the central allegation that she likened living with her much older boyfriend to living in a nursing home. Nor that she started the exchange by saying “let’s go have some fun with guys!!!” because she was “Bored. So there.” Furthermore, Butina seemed concerned that her use of Tinder would become public because she logged in using Facebook.

Though he has been sharing schmaltzy videos of Butina and Erickson with ABC, Driscoll also doesn’t address the fact that as early as May, Butina was proffering to flip on Erickson in fraud charges in South Dakota, which would have the effect of putting her in a position to negotiate permanent visa status independent of him, while limiting her own legal exposure.

A student visa or tourist one?

One key distinction between Manafort and Butina stems from the fact that she’s not a citizen.

The government’s detention motion also notes that Butina “use[d] deceit in a visa application.” They describe her attendance at American University as her cover, one she chose after rejecting carrying out the operation on tourist visas.

Butina chose a student visa from a range of options for her ultimate application, but not before a lengthy discussion of the risks associated with traveling to the United States repeatedly on a tourist visa. The FBI has discovered text messages and emails between U.S. Person 1 and Butina in which Butina would routinely ask U.S. Person 1 to help complete her academic assignments, by editing papers and answering exam questions. In other words, although she attended classes and completed coursework with outside help, attending American University was Butina’s cover while she continued to work on behalf of the Russian Official.

The government also notes that Butina claimed she was no longer employed by Torshin on her visa application. It points to her visa fraud as additional support that she did not intend to register as required by the law.

Butina entered the United States with the express purpose of working as part of a covert Russian influence campaign and did not disclose that fact—not on her visa application and not to the Attorney General.

Driscoll offers a narrow (and to my mind, unconvincing) defense, arguing the government hasn’t shown proof she lied on her form, when the claim is, instead, that intercepts show she applied for a student visa over a tourist visa because of the immigration advantages it offers.

[T]he government has also failed to provide any evidence to support its claim that Maria affirmatively lied on her application for a student visa should give this Court pause.

To be clear: this doesn’t mean Americans can’t be charged under section 951. In June, for example, DOJ charged Ron Rockwell Hansen under section 951 for spying for China.

But because Butina had to find a way to get and stay in the US, she had to game out the best way to do so, and that adds to the evidence that her entire purpose for being in the US is to push Russian policies. That is, it may be easier to charge a foreigner under section 951 because it often involves lying on visa forms.

Ongoing ties with Russian intelligence

Finally, there are ties with spooks.

The government alleges that Butina had ongoing ties with the Russian intelligence agencies, including a private meal with a suspected Russian intelligence operator, Oleg Zhiganov (whom Driscoll identified, to the government’s displeasure, to Politico).

FBI surveillance observed Butina in the company of a Russian diplomat in the weeks leading up to that official’s departure from the United States in March 2018. That Russian diplomat, with whom Butina was sharing a private meal, was suspected by the United States Government of being a Russian intelligence officer.

The government also cites from pointed to a conversation where Torshin likened Butina to Anna Chapman (see below) and argued that showed that Torshin treated her a covert spy. The government further points to a document suggesting she considered a job with FSB (though remains murky about other evidence that supports the claim).

Another document uncovered during the execution of a search warrant contained a hand-written note, entitled “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization,” and asking “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” Based on this and other evidence, the FBI believes that the defendant was likely in contact with the FSB throughout her stay in the United States.

That said, the government also alleges that Manafort has had ongoing ties with Russian intelligence, in the form of Konstantin Kiliminik. So it’s not like ties to intelligence officers by itself merits a section 951 charge.

Recruiting assets

I suspect a key feature that may distinguish Butina from Manafort is that she had two Americans, Erickson and O’Neill, working with her. There’s even the allegation that she was seeking out time with JD Gordon in the lead-up to the election, suggesting she may have been recruiting assets within the new administration, an action akin to a formal spook. That is, she seems to have been recruiting agents.

That’s different from Manafort, employing a bunch of lobbyists (even while hiding some aspects of those engagements), because Manafort was hiring established professionals (or former European government officials).

I guess one question I have is whether the awareness of the recruitment targets is different.

Flight risk

While it matters little for the distinction between FARA and section 951, Driscoll suggests the fact that Butina hasn’t fled yet — notably did not in response to a report on her work — is proof she’s not an agent.

First, in February, 2017, the Daily Beast published an article about Maria, her connection to Aleksandr Torshin, her love of guns, and her activities in the United States, essentially alleging that her purpose in the United States might be to “infiltrate” American conservative political groups.13 If the government’s fanciful theory were correct, almost 18 month ago, Maria Butina was exposed, her handler identified, and her purpose in the United States published on the internet. She did not flee, visit the Russian Embassy, or make any effort to change her status as a student.

Curiously, he doesn’t address an intercept excerpted in the government’s detention motion, suggesting that in March 2017 there was an order against arresting her.

Specifically, in March 2017, after a series of media articles were published about Butina, the following conversation ensued:

Russian Official: Good morning! How are you faring there in the rays of the new fame?[] Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones. There are a hell of a lot of rumors circulating here about me too! Very funny!

[snip]

Butina: It’s the other thing that is important: evidently, there is an Order not to touch us. I believe it is a good sign.

Russian Official: For now – yes, but should things shift, then we are guaranteed a spot on the list of ‘agents of influence.” . . .

But as I noted, Butina’s flight risk would remain the same regardless of whether she had been charged with FARA or section 951.

Why Maria and not Manafort (yet)?

All of which raises a series of questions about what might distinguish Butina from Manafort:

  • How important is citizenship in this? And would dual citizenship — dual Russian Federation and US — change that? The government’s reliance on Butina’s alleged visa fraud would (and in other 951 cases has) have important repercussions for any subjects of the investigation who lied but have since obtained US citizenship.
  • Does who is paying for a person’s defense matter? Driscoll won’t say who is paying his bills, but neither do we know who is funding Manafort’s (thus far) much more expensive defense. In similar cases (such as Evgeny Buryakov, one of the spies who recruited Carter Page), the government filed for a Curcio hearing to make sure a person’s lawyer wasn’t representing the interests of the people paying his bills rather than the defendant, but in so doing proved that Buryakov was not a government agent. If a close Putin ally is paying for Manafort’s defense, does that change the calculus of who he’s working for?
  • At what point would obtaining useful information on political process in the US count as collecting intelligence? Manafort knows US politics better than almost anyone — he doesn’t need to recruit a source to learn that. Butina did. Does recruiting Erickson to learn about US politics amount to collecting intelligence?
  • Is beefed up FARA enforcement the proper tool to combat foreign influence operations, or is section 951, absent more covert operations, the way to go after foreign nationals engaging in influence operations?
  • Given how these two crimes might bleed into each other, are prosecutors threatening charges under section 951 to get pleas under FARA?
  • All this analysis is based off stuff Manafort did years ago, going back over a decade. It doesn’t address the stuff he is suspected of doing in during the 2016. For example, if Manafort was reporting back on an active Presidential campaign to Oleg Deripaska via suspected Russian intelligence agent Konstantin Kilimnik, is that a FARA violation, or a section 951 one? He got charged under FARA for his historic work. But I’m not sure his election-related work doesn’t pass the bar for a section 951 charge.

As I disclosed 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. 

Among Other Things, Sam Patten Plea Signals that Mueller Referrals Will Include False Congressional Testimony

As I noted in an update to this post, another sleazy influence peddler, Sam Patten, just pled guilty to a FARA violation. As his criminal information lays out, he pled to serving as an agent of Konstantin Kilimnik and Serhiy Lyovochkin without registering under FARA. His plea agreement (which notes he first made a proffer to Mueller’s team on May 22, meaning this is another investigation that has been going on months that is being finalized in the last days of August) included a cooperation agreement.

More interesting details, however, are the descriptions of the other crimes he is being excused from, which appear in the statement of the offense.

First, there’s a description of how he served as a straw purchaser for Lyovochkin for inauguration tickets.

To circumvent the foreign donation restriction, PATTEN, with the knowledge of Foreigner A, solicited a United States citizen to act as a “straw” purchaser so that he could conceal from the [Presidential Inauguration Committee] that the tickets for the inauguration were being paid for from a foreign source. The straw purchaser paid $50,000 for four inauguration tickets. The straw purchaser paid that sum one day after receiving from [Begemot Ventures] a check signed by PATTEN in the sum of $50,000. In turn, [Lyovochkin] had paid [Begemot] for the tickets though a Cypriot account. [Kilimnik and Lyovochkin] another Ukrainian, and PATTEN were allocated the four inauguration tickets. Thereafter, PATTEN attended a PIC even in Washington, D.C. with Foreigner B.

I suspect we’ll see a lot more straw purchasers funneling money from foreigners who backed his campaign into Donald Trump’s pocket before this investigation is done.

Less sexy, but procedurally more important, is the revelation that Patten also lied to SSCI.

In or about January 2018, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) sought PATTEN’s voluntary testimony on various topics. In advance of that testimony, the SSCI sought various pertinent documents from PATTEN.

In or about January 2018, PATTEN testified before the SSCI. Both before and during his testimony, PATTEN misled the SSCI in that he intentionally did not provide SSCI certain documents that could lead to revelation of him causing and concealing the foreign purchase of the PIC tickets, described about, and gave false and misleading testimony to avoid disclosing that he had caused and concealed foreign money to be paid to the PIC. In addition, PATTEN provided misleading testimony about his representation of foreign principals in the United States, so as to conceal his violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Finally, after the interview, PATTEN deleted documents pertinent to his relationships with the above-described foreign principals.

As noted, this is one of the additional crimes that Patten will avoid being charged for by pleading to the FARA charge. Reportedly, SSCI made its own criminal referral, based off different comments.

All of this might concern people like Don Jr, who pretty clearly lied to multiple committees. Because it shows Mueller will use such crimes for leverage.

But Mueller probably has bigger things planned for Don Jr.

Update: This is speculation. But SSCI has released a statement making it clear that they referred Patten, but for statements other than what made it into his plea.

We can confirm that Mr. Patten produced documents to the Committee and was interviewed by Committee staff. Due to concerns about certain statements made by Mr. Patten, the Committee made a criminal referral to the Department of Justice. While the charge, and resultant plea, do not appear to directly involve our referral, we appreciate their review of this matter. We will have no further comments on this case at this time.

One thing SSCI has investigated closely is Cambridge Analytica. One thing this plea is utterly silent about is Patten’s work for CA in 2014.

Which would make the topic an even more interesting thing for Patten to cooperate on (without protection against prosecution) than just straw donors.

Update: On Twitter, Christopher Wylie said,

BREAKING: Ex-Cambridge Analytica contractor Sam Patten just charged by FBI after Mueller referral. This guy was responsible for CA operations in the US that involved covertly testing US voter attitudes on Putin’s leadership… I know there’s more to come…

In his testimony to SJC, he said,

Other CA contractors have worked on pro-Russian political operations in Eastern Europe, including work in Ukraine with suspected Russian intelligence agents. This may have influenced some of CA’s research in the USA. During its research projects in 2014, CA also set up focus groups, message testing and polling on Americans’ views on the leadership of Vladimir Putin and Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe. Of note, Vladimir Putin was the only foreign leader tested by CA.

He also told SJC he was cooperating with FBI, so he presumably made this same claim to FBI under threat of false statements charges.