Republicans in Congress are clearly collaborating with Donald Trump to interfere with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
In 2008, a Russian tax law expert named Sergei Magnitsky accused Russian officials and organized crime figures of a $230 million tax fraud as part of a scheme to seize assets belonging to his client, the American-born investor William Browder.
Instead of investigating Magnitsky’s allegations, Russian officials arrested him and accused him of being involved in the fraud himself. The following year, Magnitsky died in a Russian prison. He was denied medical care while suffering from acute pancreatitis and had reportedly been chained to a bed and beaten by prison guards with rubber batons.
Strange and terrible things have been happening to people who get too close to the Magnitsky case in Moscow and beyond ever since. In 2010, Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian who had conspired with the Russian officials involved in the massive tax fraud, fled to Britain; he later gave incriminating banking documents to Swiss officials. In 2012, while jogging in his posh gated community in Britain, he dropped dead. Suspicions persist that he was poisoned, and an inquest into his death is still underway.
Last year, Nikolai Gorokhov, a Russian lawyer representing Magnitsky’s family, was scheduled to appear in a Moscow court to try to force an investigation into new evidence in the Magnitsky case. Just before he was due in court, Gorokhov fell from the fourth floor of his Moscow apartment building. He barely survived the 50-foot fall, suffering a fractured skull and other injuries that sent him to intensive care. He said he couldn’t remember anything about what had happened.
“I am still afraid for my life,” Gorokhov told NBC News last year.
Browder, Magnitsky’s client and once the biggest foreign investor in Russia, has become a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In May, Browder was detained in Spain on an Interpol warrant instigated by Russia. The Russians have accused him of being complicit with Magnitsky in the massive tax fraud that Magnitsky actually uncovered.
Spanish authorities quickly released Browder, but the fact that he was detained in the first place shows the Putin government’s international reach in its bid to punish anyone associated with the Magnitsky case.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials believed to have been complicit in Magnitsky’s killing. The Putin government has been trying to get them lifted for the last six years. But in Washington, no one has been poisoned or fallen out a window. Instead, the Russians have found Republican allies in Congress willing to help ease the Magnitsky Act restrictions.
Indeed, the Magnitsky case now serves as the backstory to the way in which some congressional Republicans have also sought to impede any serious investigation into evidence that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.
This is my fourth column for The Intercept about the Trump-Russia case. It is easy to get lost in the daily, incremental stories about Trump and Russia; these columns are my attempt to step back and look at the big picture.
This piece is a companion to my previous column about whether Trump has tried to impede efforts — first by the FBI under then-Director James Comey and later by Special Counsel Robert Mueller — to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to win the White House. I concluded that the answer is absolutely yes.
The question I’m addressing in this fourth column is whether Republicans in Congress have been aiding Trump’s efforts to obstruct and impede the Russia investigation. I believe the answer to that question is yes as well. Their actions may not meet the legal definition of obstruction of justice, but they are clearly collaborating with Trump to interfere with Mueller’s investigation. They are laying the groundwork to discredit Mueller’s inquiry if Congress is eventually asked to weigh impeachment charges against Trump.
But before the Trump-Russia story, there was the Magnitsky case. In fact, by the time the inquiry into evidence of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia got going, some Republicans in Congress were already aiding and abetting Russian operatives who were seeking support in their efforts to get the Magnitsky Act repealed.
In some cases, these Russian operatives were the same ones who later became enmeshed in the Mueller investigation. Moreover, California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, one of Russia’s chief congressional allies in its attempts to repeal the Magnitsky Act, is now also caught up in Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia case. I believe the Magnitsky case shows how the Russians were already working Capitol Hill to find important allies among congressional Republicans before the Mueller investigation even began.
Like any good Russian story, the Magnitsky-Browder tale has lots of layers. Some outside observers have been skeptical of Browder and his accusations against the Russian government in the Magnitsky case, and some in the West have accused him of engaging in the same kind of tax evasion that he has accused Russian officials of committing. The skepticism of Browder’s claims comes in part because before he became one of Putin’s loudest critics, he was widely perceived as a vocal Putin supporter.
“I originally met William Browder back when I was a journalist at the Wall Street Journal when I was doing stories about corruption in Russia,” Glenn Simpson, the former journalist who now runs an investigative firm that is caught up in the Trump-Russia case, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. While testifying before the committee about his work investigating Trump’s ties to Russia for both Republican and Democratic clients before the election, Simpson was also asked about his separate but overlapping work in a legal case related Browder and Magnitsky.
“I think the first time I met him he lectured me about – I was working on a story about Vladimir Putin corruption and he lectured me about how Vladimir Putin was not corrupt and how he was the best thing that ever happened to Russia.”
Browder and his investment fund, Hermitage Capital Management, thrived in the early Putin years. But even as his investments grew, Browder became well-known in Moscow for speaking out about corruption in Russia. Because he continued to do well financially, however, some surmised that he had a special relationship with Putin.
In his 2015 memoir, “Red Notice,” Browder argues that when Putin first became president in 2000, he needed to gain control over the oligarchs and consolidate his own power. At the time, Browder’s attacks on the oligarchs’ corruption were in Putin’s political interest. The perception that he was allied with Putin helped protect Browder from the oligarchs and allowed him to flourish.
“Because everyone thought I was Putin’s guy, no one touched me,” he wrote.
But as Putin consolidated his power and gained control over corrupt deals throughout Russia, Browder lost his protection, leading to the $230 million tax fraud scheme in 2007, and Magnitsky’s death in 2009.
Rohrabacher has a long history of close ties to Russia and has earned a reputation on Capitol Hill for being pro-Putin. In 2012, the FBI warned Rohrabacher that Russian intelligence was trying to recruit him as an “agent of influence,” the New York Times reported last year.
On a congressional delegation’s trip to Moscow in April 2016, Rohrabacher and his longtime aide Paul Behrends met with Veselnitskaya, one of the key Russian advocates for repealing the Magnitsky Act. Veselnitskaya gave Rohrabacher a memo alleging that major Clinton campaign donors had evaded Russian taxes while investing with Browder. She gave a similar memo to Rep. French Hill, an Arkansas Republican who was also on the trip to Moscow, after Behrends reportedly suggested he meet with Veselnitskaya.
Veselnitskaya turned over a memo with the same accusations to Trump Jr. during their June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.
After he returned from the Moscow trip, Rohrabacher planned a carefully staged congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, which he chairs, in which Browder would testify while also being confronted with an anti-Magnitsky documentary, which was to be screened during the hearing. Veselnitskaya was also supposed to testify.
The hearing was canceled because top Republicans in the House objected to such an overtly pro-Russian bit of political theater. Undaunted, Rohrabacher continued his association with Veselnitskaya, who attended a party hosted by Rohrabacher’s campaign committee during Trump’s inauguration, the Washington Post reported.
Behrends, who Politico described as Veselnitskaya’s “chief Capitol Hill contact,” was removed from his post as staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe last summer, even though Rohrabacher continued to chair the panel. Rep. Edward Royce, the chair of the full House Foreign Affairs Committee, reportedly had concerns about Behrends’s Russian contacts. Behrends is now deputy staff director in Rohrabacher’s personal congressional office.
Ken Grubbs, a spokesperson for Rohrabacher, said in an email response to questions, that while Behrends is not doing interviews, “he did want you to know that he met with Russians only as part of his job on the subcommittee.” Behrends’s ouster came despite his deep ties to Rohrabacher as well as to Trumpworld: He first worked for Rohrabacher in the 1990s, when he helped arrange an internship in Rohrabacher’s office for a young Erik Prince, the scion of an auto parts fortune. Prince went on to found the private security firm Blackwater and hired Behrends as a lobbyist. Today, Prince is close to the Trump White House – his sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s secretary of education – and he has also been caught up in the Trump-Russia story.
In addition to his contacts with the Russians on the Magnitsky case, Rohrabacher is also now more directly linked to the Trump-Russia case.
In February, Richard Gates, a former Trump campaign operative and close associate of former campaign chair Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI. He is now cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. As part of his plea deal, Gates revealed that a 2013 meeting between Rohrabacher, Manafort, and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressperson and now a lobbyist, included a discussion about Ukraine. Mueller’s team has accused Manafort and Gates of engaging in a secret and lucrative lobbying campaign for the pro-Russian Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych.
I believe that Veselnitskaya and other Russians found willing partners among congressional Republicans in part because Russia is increasingly popular among Republican voters, who seem to approve of Putin’s authoritarianism.
A May 2017 Morning Consult poll found that 49 percent of Republican voters – and half of Americans who voted for Trump – viewed Russia as either friendly to the United States or as an ally. Republican approval for Putin himself has also been rising. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that Republican approval for Putin rose to 34 percent last year, up from 17 percent in 2015. Right-wing pundit Christopher Caldwell captured that attitude in a 2017 speech when he said that “Vladimir Putin is a powerful ideological symbol and a highly effective ideological litmus test. He is a hero to populist conservatives around the world and anathema to progressives. I don’t want to compare him to our own president, but if you know enough about what a given American thinks of Putin, you can probably tell what he thinks of Donald Trump.”
This represents a stark change in the Republican Party from 40 or 50 years ago, and I think helps explain why congressional Republicans today are not particularly bothered by allegations that Trump colluded with Russia to win the presidency.
Moreover, Republican fortunes are now so tightly tied to Trump himself that Republicans in Congress will never act in a bipartisan manner and turn on him. They will not follow the honorable precedent set by Howard Baker during Watergate.
In 1973, Baker, a Republican senator from Tennessee who was considered a loyal supporter of President Richard Nixon, was named the ranking minority member of the new Senate committee investigating the growing Watergate scandal. When he joined the committee, Baker thought that Watergate was nothing more than a “political ploy” by the Democrats designed to damage Nixon just as he began his second term following a landslide re-election victory.
At the time, the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, and in the early months of Watergate, many Americans still believed the scandal was being blown out of proportion because of partisan politics. But as the committee started investigating, Baker gradually began to recognize the seriousness and scope of the accusations. He and Sen. Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the committee, worked closely to ensure that their investigation was bipartisan. And by the summer of 1973, when the nation’s attitudes toward Watergate began to change and the public was so gripped by the televised hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee that celebrities like John Lennon and Yoko Ono had sat in the hearing room audience, Baker was transformed into a star with his piercing questioning of witnesses. He went down in history for asking the most famous question of the Watergate hearings: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Unfortunately, Devin Nunes is no Howard Baker.
Nunes, the Republican representative from California who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has turned himself into Trump’s fawning creature when it comes to congressional efforts to investigate the Trump-Russia case. Rather than lead a bipartisan investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Nunes has become a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist in Congress and has been using his power as Intelligence Committee chair to repeatedly badger the FBI and Justice Department to try to discredit Mueller’s inquiry. He has proven time and again that he is eager to take orders from the White House to hunt down purported evidence to support the latest bits of right-wing conspiracy garbage being spewed on Fox News and other right-wing outlets about the Mueller investigation.
Sadly, Nunes is not alone. He is part of a cadre of congressional Republicans who are eagerly helping to impede the Trump-Russia investigation. Like Nunes, almost all of them represent solidly Republican districts.
They have helped block any legislation to protect Mueller from Trump’s threats to fire him, and they have shown no interest in investigating evidence that Trump has obstructed justice in the Russia inquiry. They have threatened to impeach the head of the FBI and the deputy attorney general for their reluctance to turn over a classified document about how the Trump-Russia inquiry began. They have leaked to Fox News text messages from the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee to embarrass him for trying to get in contact with Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who authored the so-called Steele dossier. Two Senate Republicans even sent a letter to the Justice Department urging Steele’s prosecution, despite the lack of evidence that he has broken any laws.
Congressional Republicans have been demanding information from the FBI and the Justice Department about the Russia investigation, and critics believe their only goal is to impede the inquiry. “It infuriates me to observe (and cover) a months-long charade by the House GOP to demand more and more details about those who have shared information with the government, at least some of whom were only trying to prevent real damage to innocent people, all in an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation,” Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who focuses on national security, wrote earlier this month, while disclosing that she has provided information to the FBI in connection with the Trump-Russia investigation.
Congressional Republicans have also consistently pushed for Mueller to quit his post as special prosecutor or to bring his investigation to an abrupt end. (Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has tried to present himself as a break on Trump’s desire to fire Mueller, has said that Mueller should start winding down his investigation.) They used the release last month of the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s report on the way the FBI handled the Clinton email case as a vehicle to repeat their claims that during the 2016 campaign, the FBI and the Justice Department were biased in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Trump. A group of eight Senate Republicans drew criticism for spending the Fourth of July in Russia, where they downplayed the significance of the investigation into Russian intervention in the 2016 election. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who led the delegation, said the point of the visit was to improve relations, not to “accuse Russia of this or that or so forth.
Congressional Republicans have also have become obsessed with the roles played in both the Clinton email investigation and the FBI’s Trump-Russia inquiry by two FBI officials who were having an affair. Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI official Peter Strzok exchanged anti-Trump text messages, and now Republicans have seized on their relationship and their texts to try to undermine the entire Trump-Russia investigation.
On Thursday, Strzok testified before a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, which Republicans used as yet another way to attack the Russia investigation. The hearing was bitter from the start, as Republicans demanded Strzok provide details about his role in the early days of the investigation and then angrily threatened to hold him in contempt of Congress when he said the FBI had directed him not to answer such questions. Strzok, in turn, accused the Republicans of purposefully trying to sabotage the Trump-Russia inquiry, saying: “I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt.”
Politico recently published a list of the four House Republicans (besides Nunes) who are both Trump’s most ardent defenders and Mueller’s fiercest critics. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida are all hungry and ambitious conservatives from strongly Republican districts and have all worked assiduously to block Mueller’s investigation.
Gaetz is perhaps Trump’s most visible backer in the House. He is a 35-year-old freshman Republican from Florida’s 1st Congressional District, which hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
The son of a former president of the Florida state Senate, Gaetz has turned himself into a constant presence in the media – any media. Earlier this year, he appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars radio program to discuss Nunes’s infamous intelligence memo, which made a series of misleading claims about the Trump-Russia investigation.
Gaetz has introduced a resolution in the House urging Mueller to quit and has called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to undo his recusal from overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation.
In May, Meadows, chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called for a financial audit of Muller’s investigation by the Government Accountability Office. Meadows wants to put public pressure on Mueller by criticizing the spending patterns of the Special Counsel’s Office.
Jordan, like Meadows, is a member of the Freedom Caucus and has called for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate the Justice Department and the FBI for going too hard on Trump and too easy on Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Jordan is now caught up in a growing scandal over accusations that, while he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State in the 1980s and 1990s, he failed to act on evidence that a team doctor, who has since died, molested wrestling team members.
Jordan has denied the allegations made by a growing list of former Ohio State wrestlers, and Trump has come out strongly in support of Jordan – almost certainly because Jordan has worked so hard to try to block Mueller’s investigation.
For his part, DeSantis has proposed legislation that would halt funding for Mueller’s investigation within six months and bar the special counsel from looking into anything that happened before Trump launched his presidential campaign. DeSantis is now running for governor in Florida. In return for his efforts to curb the Mueller inquiry, Trump tweeted favorably about his gubernatorial campaign.
These representatives’ slavish support for Trump and their attacks on Mueller translate into constant appearances on Fox News as well as controversy and criticism from the mainstream media. But they have all learned that attacking Mueller is good politics for them. Only Rohrabacher, who represents Orange County in California, is in political danger this year.
Nunes, for example, was the target of intense Democratic attacks before the California primary in early June, when a Democratic group put up a series of three billboards in his district, including one that read, “Why is Devin Nunes hot on Russia…” The anti-Nunes campaign was modeled after the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
But the billboards and other attacks had no effect. Nunes easily won his primary and is expected to win re-election in November.
The blindly loyal conservative Republican support for Trump in Congress means that he will very likely never be impeached, no matter what Mueller uncovers. Even if the Democrats win control of both the House and the Senate in the 2018 midterms, they will not be able to gain the two-thirds Senate majority they needed for impeachment without any Republican votes.
More troubling is the fact that the Republican eagerness to discredit Mueller and protect Trump at all costs means that Congress is forfeiting its oversight role. Once abandoned, that oversight power may be lost forever.
James Risen weighs the evidence for accusations of Russian election interference, collusion, and obstruction of justice.
Given Trump’s conflicting explanations for firing former FBI Director James Comey, it may be difficult to prove his intent beyond a reasonable doubt.
One of the most important things to understand about Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump-Russia case, is that he helped nail New York mob boss John Gotti, the gangster known as the “Teflon Don.”
One of the most important things to understand about Donald Trump, the con man and hustler who happens to be president, is that he comes from the mob-tinged New York real estate industry and knows exactly what happened to Gotti and other mob bosses felled by racketeering prosecutions waged by the likes of Mueller.
Trump knows that Mueller is now conducting the same kind of racketeering investigation in the Trump-Russia case, and it frightens him.
Mueller is approaching his Trump-Russia investigation in the same way he and his fellow Justice Department prosecutors went after Gotti and other mobsters. He is rolling up Trump loyalists. He is slowly but surely climbing the ladder from low-level operatives to more prominent figures, and holding the threat of prison over their heads to get them to flip and talk about people higher up the ladder. Eventually, Mueller’s racketeering case will make its way to Trump.
Whenever Mueller seems to be making progress, Trump tries to distract. That is why a desperate Trump has been turning to crazed loyalists like Rudy Giuliani to go on cable news and spout incoherent attacks on the Mueller investigation. And it explains why Trump and his minions are now trying to focus the public’s attention on the FBI’s use of an informant to falsely claim that Trump was illegally spied on by the purported “deep state” during the 2016 campaign. To be sure, there is plenty of ugly history behind the FBI’s use of informants. In the 1960s, the FBI infiltrated the anti-war movement and other political organizations; more recently, it has used informants to entrap people in ginned-up terrorism cases.
But there is no evidence that the FBI engaged in any of those abusive tactics in the Trump-Russia investigation. Trump simply wants to depict himself as the victim of partisan intelligence operatives so that he can discredit and distract from Mueller’s actual investigation. It is the same kind of ploy he tried last year, when he claimed that he had been wiretapped.
In fact, the stunning number of very public actions taken by Trump to distract from or impede the Russia inquiry – a number that grows almost daily — suggests that he has been desperate to make the investigation go away from the moment it began.
I believe that it is obvious – and has been for more than a year – that Trump is doing everything he can to obstruct any investigation into evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia in the 2016 presidential election. If that means discrediting the FBI, the Justice Department, and other government agencies, Trump will do it. He is quite willing to destroy crucial governmental checks and balances to impede the investigation.
This is my third column for The Intercept about the Trump-Russia case. Given all the conspiracy theories, false controversies, and Trump’s other efforts at distraction – which the media dutifully reports in mind-numbing detail in excruciatingly narrow and incremental stories – it is easy to lose the thread of the Trump-Russia narrative. My objective in this series of columns is to step back and look at the big picture.
While Trump tries to make you look the other way, I want to remind you of the big events, like the fact that Trump fired the FBI director to stop the Trump-Russia inquiry.
This third column is very straightforward. It is about whether Trump has attempted to impede the efforts, first by the FBI under then-Director James Comey and now by Mueller, to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians win the White House.
The answer, unequivocally, is yes.
There are many open questions about other aspects of the Trump-Russia narrative, but not about this. Trump has been trying to block the investigation from the very start.
There are many open questions about other aspects of the Trump-Russia narrative, but not about this. Trump has been trying to block the investigation from the very start. The only real questions about this aspect of the case are whether Trump’s efforts to impede the inquiry will meet the legal definition of obstruction of justice, whether he will be criminally charged with obstruction of justice, and whether he will face impeachment in Congress.
And one more: Will Trump fire Mueller if he thinks he is getting too close to making the case for obstruction?
Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation have been very public and are becoming increasingly unbalanced.
Trump’s current focus on what he calls “Spygate” is straight from the playbook he has been using since the investigation began. He is trying to distract the public from the substance of the investigation by publicly spouting conspiracy theories and other wild claims.
During the 2016 campaign, the FBI asked Stefan Halper, an American who was an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, to act as an informant in its fledgling investigation of Russian election interference and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Halper, a former Republican operative, was asked by the FBI to talk to Trump foreign policy advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both of whom the bureau believed were in contact with the Russian government.
Halper’s informal talks with the Trump advisers don’t seem to have yielded much. But press reports about his role as an FBI informant gave Trump and his loyalists fresh ammunition to attack the FBI.
Trump purposefully and falsely branded Halper as a “spy” planted inside his campaign. To sway public opinion, he tried to make Halper’s role and the FBI’s inquiry sound far more nefarious than it was.
Giuliani recently acknowledged in a television interview that Trump and his camp are waging a battle to discredit Mueller’s investigation if the case ends up going to Congress for impeachment proceedings, which are, by definition, political and subject to the whims of public opinion. “Eventually, the decision here is going to be: impeach [or] not impeach. Members of Congress, Democrats, and Republicans are going to be informed a lot by their constituents. So our jury … is the American people. And the American people … Republicans largely, independents pretty substantially, and even Democrats, now question the legitimacy of [Mueller’s probe],” Giuliani said on CNN last weekend.
Trump so successfully cast the Halper episode as a right-wing fever dream that congressional Republicans demanded briefings on Halper’s role in the investigation. The FBI and the Justice Department gave in and agreed to brief some Democrats as well. Afterward, like so many Trump conspiracy theories before it, the Halper case began to fizzle. Most Republicans had little to say, while Democrats said the briefings showed that there was no substance to Trump’s charges. Eventually, even some Republicans began to break with Trump on the Halper matter. Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged that there was no evidence that the FBI had been spying on the Trump campaign. Most surprisingly, Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and Draco Malfoy lookalike who has long been one of the GOP’s leading conspiracy theorists, now says that the FBI’s use of Halper was appropriate.
“Spygate” is just the latest in a long string of actions by Trump designed to impede the investigation.
Before Mueller, Trump went after Comey when he was running the Russia investigation. Like Mueller, Comey quickly came to see Trump’s similarity to the mob bosses that he had pursued as a prosecutor in New York, particularly after Trump began trying to pressure Comey to do his bidding.
Unlike the close-mouthed Mueller, Comey has been very public and explicit in comparing Trump to a mobster. In his recent memoir, Comey describes one meeting with Trump this way: “As I was sitting there, the strangest image filled my mind. I kept pushing it away because it seemed too odd and too dramatic, but it kept coming back: I thought of New York Mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Cafe Giardino. I couldn’t shake the picture. And looking back, it wasn’t as odd and dramatic as I thought it was at the time.”
The Trump-Comey relationship got off to a rocky start, when Comey had to brief the president-elect on the contents of the infamous Steele dossier. Comey told Trump about an unconfirmed allegation included in the dossier that during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, Trump had spent a night at the Ritz Carlton with prostitutes and been filmed by Russian intelligence. Days later, after BuzzFeed published the dossier, Trump called Comey to vent about it.
About two weeks later, on January 27, 2017, Trump again called Comey and asked him to come to the White House for dinner that night. When Comey arrived, he discovered that he was the only guest.
Over dinner, Trump asked Comey whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director. Since Trump had previously asked him the same thing, and Comey had already told him that he did, Comey rightly suspected that this was a veiled threat.
“Now it was pretty clear to me what was happening,” Comey writes in his book. “The setup of the dinner, both the physical layout of a private meal and Trump’s pretense that he had not already asked me to stay on multiple occasions, convinced me this was an effort to establish a patronage relationship.”
“I expect loyalty,” Trump told him over dinner.
Comey says he responded: “You will always get honesty from me.”
Comey came away from the dinner feeling like he had just met with a Mafia boss who was trying to strong-arm him.
“I thought of New York Mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Cafe Giardino.”
On February 14, Comey met Trump again at the White House, this time with a group of other officials. At the end of the meeting, Trump asked Comey to stay behind for a private talk. When everyone else had left the room, Trump told Comey that he wanted to talk about Gen. Michael Flynn, his onetime national security adviser, who had resigned the day before amid questions about his contacts with Russia and for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about them.
Trump told Comey that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in his dealings with the Russians, and then made a statement that sounded to the FBI director a lot like an effort to obstruct justice: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey says he replied only that Flynn was “a good guy,” but did not say that he would let the matter go.
On March 30, Trump called Comey and told him that the Russia investigation, then being run by the FBI, was a “cloud” over his presidency, and asked what could be done to “lift the cloud.” Trump also asked him to make public the fact that Trump was not personally under investigation, which Comey had previously told him privately.
On April 11, Trump called Comey again and made another veiled threat, saying: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know.” This was apparently a reference to their dinner in which Trump had demanded Comey’s loyalty.
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It was the most public and consequential action taken by Trump in the growing obstruction case against him. It ultimately led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel to conduct an independent investigation into the Trump-Russia case.
At first, Trump suggested that a Justice Department memo criticizing Comey for his handling of the Clinton email investigation prompted the firing. But Trump couldn’t control himself and soon admitted to a television reporter that he was really thinking of “this Russia thing” when he fired the FBI director.
The day after he fired Comey, Trump told visiting Russian officials: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” according to a memo describing the discussion.
During those early months, Comey wasn’t the only person Trump sought to pressure on the Russia investigation.
In March 2017, before he fired Comey, Trump asked two top intelligence officials — the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and NSA Director Mike Rogers — to say publicly that they saw no evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russians. Both declined.
After he was fired, Comey decided he would go to the press, at least indirectly. He used a law professor friend as an intermediary. The friend told the New York Times about Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice by pressuring Comey to drop the investigation of Flynn. The resulting media firestorm prompted Rosenstein to appoint Mueller to investigate the Trump-Russia case. Rosenstein’s decision so angered Trump that he has reportedly wanted to fire him ever since.
Trump also wanted to fire Mueller almost as soon as he was appointed. He was only stopped when his own White House counsel said he would quit rather than carry out the order.
If Mueller gets enough evidence to make an obstruction case against Trump but still can’t prove the underlying case of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the obstruction case will ring hollow.
Trump has gone to great lengths to quash the investigation, even getting directly involved in crafting a misleading statement to the press about the purpose of a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer, Donald Trump Jr., and campaign officials. The meeting was designed to get dirt on Clinton, but the press statement said it was about Russian adoption policy.
It seems unlikely that Mueller will seek to criminally charge and prosecute a sitting president. But if Mueller writes a report to Congress that could be used in impeachment proceedings, there is historical precedent for a focus on obstruction. During Watergate, the first count in the impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon included charges of obstruction of justice.
The big question in this case will be whether Trump’s actions meet the legal definition of obstruction. As president, he has the power to hire and fire senior officials, like the FBI director. And given all of Trump’s various early explanations, including the laughable notion that he fired Comey because of his handling of the Clinton email case (which, incidentally, almost certainly helped Trump win the election), it may be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt what exactly drove him to fire Comey. Trump has been so public and said so many contradictory things that it will also be difficult to parse his words and intent on many other actions.
What’s more, if Mueller gets enough evidence to make an obstruction case against Trump but still can’t prove the underlying case of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the obstruction case will ring hollow. Trump’s supporters will almost certainly rally to him, claiming he is just being punished for his efforts to fight back against a partisan takedown.
It’s important to remember what Trump thinks of his voters and how strongly he believes they will always side with him. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
James Risen weighs the evidence for accusations of Russian election interference, collusion, and obstruction of justice.
The relationship between a young American adviser and an academic with shadowy ties to Moscow reveals a secret channel between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
They met in Moscow.
Joseph Mifsud saw her for the first time at the Bolshoi Theater. He struck up a conversation, offered to take her picture, and asked her out to dinner. Mifsud, an obscure, middle-aged academic originally from Malta, soon began dating the young Ukrainian woman. He liked to impress her by talking about his ties to important Russian officials. He told her he was friends with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
Soon he was traveling to Ukraine to visit her. He met her family and eventually asked her to marry him. They got engaged; she got pregnant.
And then, last fall, he vanished.
Anna, Joseph Mifsud’s fiancée, whose story — without her last name — was recently told in a well-crafted BuzzFeed News piece, stands at the center of one of the biggest mysteries in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump: Where is Joseph Mifsud?
On October 30, 2017, Mueller unveiled the first charges in his Trump-Russia probe. That day, his office announced indictments against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates, as well as a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI in a deal approved secretly three weeks earlier, so it was clear that Papadopoulos was already cooperating with Mueller’s inquiry. The ambitious, young Greek-American Trump adviser was presumably telling Mueller everything he knew about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The court documents also show that Papadopoulos had good reason to believe the professor; he knew that Mifsud had close ties to senior Russian officials.
When Papadopoulos first talked to FBI agents, he tried to downplay Mifsud’s significance. He “told the investigating agents that the professor was ‘a nothing’ and ‘just a guy talk[ing] up connections or something.’ In truth and in fact, however, defendant PAPADOPOULOS understood that the professor had substantial connections to Russian government officials (and had met with some of those officials in Moscow immediately prior to telling defendant PAPADOPOULOS about the ‘thousands of emails’) and, over a period of months, defendant PAPADOPOULOS repeatedly sought to use the professor’s Russian connections in an effort to arrange a meeting between the [Trump] Campaign and Russian government officials.”
The Papadopoulos-Mifsud connection is now Exhibit A in the argument that Trump or those close to him colluded with Moscow to gain the White House.
When Papadopoulos’s guilty plea was made public, the press quickly identified the professor as Joseph Mifsud.
The Papadopoulos-Mifsud connection is highly suggestive of a direct link between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government. The relationship between the young campaign adviser and the academic with shadowy ties to Moscow reveals the existence of a secret channel through which the Russian government was able to communicate with the Trump campaign as it stole Democratic emails and weaponized them to help Trump win the presidency. The Papadopoulos-Mifsud connection is now Exhibit A in the argument that Trump or those close to him colluded with Moscow to gain the White House.
At that time, I believed there was much stronger evidence that the Russians had intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump win through a cyberoffensive targeting the American political system. I also thought there was powerful evidence that Trump and his aides had engaged in efforts to obstruct justice and impede Mueller’s investigation. Further, I suspected that congressional Republicans were engaged in a similar conspiracy to obstruct justice in Mueller’s inquiry. I was much less convinced that there was compelling evidence to show that Trump or those around him had actually conspired with the Russians to win the presidency. Like many others, I was willing to believe that Trump and his aides were too haplessly disorganized and incompetent to have coordinated with the Russians.
But as I’ve dug deeper into the evidence made public so far, I have become convinced that the case for collusion is much stronger than I thought. There are still plenty of unanswered questions, but that case is getting more persuasive as new facts come to light. (On Monday, the FBI raided the office and hotel room of one of Trump’s lawyers, although it’s unclear whether that will yield evidence of collusion.)
In addition to the channel between Papadopoulos and Mifsud, a series of other links also point toward ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Some of these connections have been known for a long time, while details of others are still emerging.
One prominent example, of course, is the case of the inflammable Roger Stone, a longtime Trump political adviser and Manafort’s onetime lobbying partner. Stone, best known as a loud, pro-Trump cable news pundit and a political dirty trickster dating back to the Nixon era, has acknowledged that in 2016, he was in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who claimed to have turned over stolen Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign. WikiLeaks then published the emails, sometimes releasing them at critical moments when they seemed designed to inflict maximum damage on Clinton’s campaign.
Guccifer 2.0 is now widely believed to be a front name used by Russian intelligence. The Daily Beast recently reported that Guccifer 2.0 has been identified by U.S. investigators as an officer in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence arm.
Last year, Stone told CNN that his brief communications with Guccifer 2.0 were harmless, and that he had only messaged him in August 2016, after Guccifer’s role was publicly known. Stone has denied any involvement in collusion with Russia. In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in September, Stone said that “those who believe that there was collusion between the Trump camp and the Russian state, now say Stone ‘MUST HAVE’ been involved, but that is not based on one shred of evidence.”
In February, The Atlantic reported on private Twitter messages between Stone and WikiLeaks in October 2016. The magazine added that WikiLeaks “sought to keep its channel to Stone open after Trump won the election.”
Stone has said the email was “a joke,” but the same day he sent that email, he had appeared on the radio show InfoWars claiming that he had dined with Assange and predicting “devastating” disclosures about Clinton, according to CNN.
The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. was also in contact with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign and afterward, also through private messages on Twitter. Last November, The Atlantic reported on the details of those messages, showing that WikiLeaks first contacted Trump Jr. in September 2016, and the president’s son had readily responded. In October 2016, according to The Atlantic, WikiLeaks sent Trump Jr. a message: “Hey Donald, great to see you and your dad talking about our publications. Strongly suggest your dad tweets this link if he mentions us. There’s many great stories the press are missing and we’re sure some of your follows will find it. Btw we just released Podesta Emails Part 4.”
Two days later, Trump Jr. tweeted the link.
Among the contacts that are now known to have occurred are many that raise questions about their purpose, questions that Trump and his aides and allies have failed to adequately answer.
In April 2016, for example, Trump gave a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. At the same event, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Trump supporter, met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Kislyak told Moscow that he had talked about campaign-related issues with Sessions, the Washington Post later reported. Sessions met with Kislyak again in September 2016 at his Senate office.
During his confirmation hearings to be attorney general in January 2017, Sessions did not disclose his contacts with Kislyak; he later said the meetings were not about the Trump campaign. Sessions’s statements during his confirmation hearings raised questions about whether he had been truthful to the Senate. They also played a role in his decision in March 2017 to recuse himself from overseeing the Trump-Russia inquiry.
Other contacts raise additional ominous questions about the depths of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia. At the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in May 2016, for example, Donald Trump Jr. spoke to Alexander Torshin, an official at the Russian central bank with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In January, McClatchy reported that the FBI was investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA in order to help Trump win the presidency. Torshin was one of a group of Russian individuals hit with new Treasury Department sanctions last week, an action that appears to have been taken independently of both Mueller’s investigation and the White House.
It has become increasingly clear that Mueller is aggressively pursuing questions about whether illegal Russian cash infusions helped Trump get elected.
Torshin is a life member of the NRA, as is a woman who was previously his special assistant at the Russian central bank, Maria Butina. Butina has been described in the press as a strong advocate for gun rights in Russia and has developed close ties to Republican Party operatives in the U.S. Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative who has fundraised for the NRA, formed a company in South Dakota with Butina and emailed a Trump campaign aide in 2016 about the idea of setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump.
Under normal circumstances, the fact that an FBI investigation was underway to determine whether the presidency had been won with Russian cash funneled through a highly partisan organization like the NRA would be enough on its own to spur talk of impeachment. But with Trump, it is just one more piece in a much larger mosaic of potentially illegal or even treasonous activity. Since the news of the NRA-Russia link broke, it has become increasingly clear that Mueller is aggressively pursuing questions about whether illegal Russian cash infusions helped Trump get elected. Mueller’s team has begun to question Russian oligarchs as they travel in the United States, stopping one when his private plane landed in New York. Mueller’s investigators have asked the Russians if they gave cash donations directly or indirectly to Trump’s campaign or his inauguration, CNN reported this month. Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for records related to its business with foreign nationals, including several Russians, the Times reported Monday.
Perhaps the most infamous meeting between the Trump campaign and Russians took place in June 2016, at Trump Tower in New York, when Donald Trump Jr., Manafort, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, met with Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer.
Explanations for why the meeting occurred have continually shifted ever since the New York Times first reported on it last year. Eventually, it became clear that Veselnitskaya had gone to the meeting with a memo she believed contained damaging information about the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. The Times reported that Veselnitskaya had discussed the allegations contained in the memo with Russia’s prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, and that her memo was similar to a document Chaika’s office had produced.
Now there are new signs that Mueller has an important ally in his investigation of the Manafort-Gates-Kilimnik collusion evidence. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe because of Sessions’s recusal, wrote a memo last August saying that Mueller should investigate allegations that Manafort colluded with Russian government officials to interfere in the 2016 election. Rosenstein’s memo was made public earlier this month.
The Kilimnik connection has already led to jail time for one figure in the collusion case. Earlier this month, Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who worked at the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, was sentenced to 30 days in prison and a $20,000 fine for lying to the FBI about his communications with Gates and Kilimnik. Gates and van der Zwaan both communicated with Kilimnik during the 2016 election campaign, according to court documents.
The evidence of continued contact between the Trump team and the Russians after the election has also continued to build and now seems to be of real significance in Mueller’s investigation. American intelligence learned about a deeply suspicious December 2016 conversation between Kushner and Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. The two men reportedly talked about setting up a secret and secure communications channel between the Trump transition team and Moscow using Russian facilities. Maybe Kushner was just showing his naiveté. But his proposal to create a secret communications channel with Moscow using Moscow’s own secure communications systems — presumably so U.S. intelligence couldn’t eavesdrop — sounds like something a spy would suggest.
At about the same time, Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, was also in repeated contact with Kislyak. In December 2016, before Trump took office, Flynn and Kislyak discussed sanctions imposed on Russia by the outgoing Obama administration. Flynn allegedly lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the content of that conversation and was subsequently fired. In December 2017, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak and began cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
The meeting included Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, whose sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s education secretary. Prince, who has been close to Trump’s national security team, met with Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian fund manager with ties to Putin, along with Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, where Prince has had extensive business dealings. George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who also attended the meeting, is said to be cooperating with Mueller’s team, and has reportedly revealed that the meeting was designed to create a backchannel between the new Trump administration and Moscow.
Le Carré could hardly have invented a better go-between than the Maltese professor.
Le Carré could hardly have invented a better go-between than the Maltese professor.
Mifsud has spent years as a nomadic academic, with postings of uncertain seriousness at institutions throughout Europe, including several that seem to have occurred at more or less the same time. He has variously been described as a teaching fellow at University of Stirling in Scotland; the “honorary director” of the London Academy of Diplomacy; an “honorary” professor at the University of East Anglia; and a visiting professor at Link Campus University in Rome. At one time, he reportedly held a position with the London Centre of International Law Practice, where George Papadopoulos also worked for a few months as director of the organization’s Center for International Energy and Natural Resources Law and Security.
Mifsud’s academic life and background would provide perfect cover for an intelligence asset. His credentials were just enough to gain him entree to the European academic circuit, yet his postings couldn’t withstand much scrutiny once his name surfaced in the Trump-Russia case. Quartz quickly discovered that the “London Centre of International Law Practice” was nothing more than “four people working in an undecorated backroom, all of whom declined to comment.”
“Whilst according to many Western and Arab analysts the United States has been dillydallying with the world order, more intent on imposing a verbal “unilateral diktat”, other centres of power (e.g. the Russian Federation in Syria, Saudi Arabia in Yemen) were taking the bull by the horns and resorting to military force as a measure of last resort,” Mifsud wrote. “One can also contend that the Russian military participation in Syria was clearly organised in such a way as to ensure that diplomacy also takes its course. … The United States administration is on the defensive, still heavily labouring under the internal repercussions of the nuclear deal with Iran, the ‘fiasco’ in Libya, the heating up of the presidential race, the dismantling of the ‘iron partnerships’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the overt economic power struggle with China. On the other hand, the Russian leader has walked the talk with ‘facts on the ground’ and has ensured that the Russian presence emanating from its direct involvement in the war in Syria will have a major impact on the shared solution.”
After Papadopoulos’s guilty plea became public last October, an Italian newspaper quickly tracked Mifsud down in Rome. “This is nonsense,” Mifsud said, referring to Mueller’s accusations that he had acted as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and Moscow. “The only thing I did was to facilitate contacts between official and unofficial sources to resolve a crisis. It is usual business everywhere. I put think tanks in contact, groups of experts with other groups of experts.” He denied “any discussion of mine about secrets concerning Hillary Clinton. … Let’s be clear: the Russians didn’t ask me to meet Papadopoulos.”
Shortly after that interview, published on November 1, 2017, Mifsud disappeared. No one has acknowledged seeing him since. BuzzFeed reported last month that Italian prosecutors, who were seeking him in an unrelated case, couldn’t find him.
Mifsud’s fiancée, Anna, recently gave birth to a baby girl. She says Mifsud is the child’s father, yet she still hasn’t heard from him. Questions abound about what happened to the professor. But one thing we know is that a key intermediary between the Trump campaign and Moscow has been missing for months. Mifsud’s disappearance comes at a time when bad things are happening to those who get in Vladimir Putin’s way.
That makes me increasingly suspect that Mueller’s investigation into collusion is on the right track.
James Risen weighs the evidence for accusations of Russian election interference, collusion, and obstruction of justice.
Americans must live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether Trump has the best interests of the United States or those of Russia at…
I find it hard to write about Donald Trump.
It is not that he is a complicated subject. Quite the opposite. It is that everything about him is so painfully obvious. He is a low-rent racist, a shameless misogynist, and an unbalanced narcissist. He is an unrelenting liar and a two-bit white identity demagogue. Lest anyone forget these things, he goes out of his way each day to remind us of them.
At the end of the day, he is certain to be left in the dustbin of history, alongside Father Coughlin and Gen. Edwin Walker. (Exactly – you don’t remember them, either.)
What more can I add?
Unfortunately, another word also describes him: president. The fact that such an unstable egomaniac occupies the White House is the greatest threat to the national security of the United States in modern history.
Which brings me to the only question about Donald Trump that I find really interesting: Is he a traitor?
Did he gain the presidency through collusion with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
One year after Trump took office, it is still unclear whether the president of the United States is an agent of a foreign power. Just step back and think about that for a moment.
The fact that such an unstable egomaniac occupies the White House is the greatest threat to U.S. national security in modern history.
His 2016 campaign is the subject of an ongoing federal inquiry that could determine whether Trump or people around him worked with Moscow to take control of the U.S. government. Americans must now live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the president has the best interests of the United States or those of the Russian Federation at heart.
Most pundits in Washington now recoil at any suggestion that the Trump-Russia story is really about treason. They all want to say it’s about something else – what, they aren’t quite sure. They are afraid to use serious words. They are in the business of breaking down the Trump-Russia narrative into a long series of bite-sized, incremental stories in which the gravity of the overall case often gets lost. They seem to think that treason is too much of a conversation-stopper, that it interrupts the flow of cable television and Twitter. God forbid you might upset the right wing! (And the left wing, for that matter.)
But if a presidential candidate or his lieutenants secretly work with a foreign government that is a longtime adversary of the United States to manipulate and then win a presidential election, that is almost a textbook definition of treason.
In Article 3, Section 3, the U.S. Constitution states that “treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
Based on that provision in the Constitution, U.S. law – 18 U.S. Code § 2381 – states that “[w]hoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere” is guilty of treason. Those found guilty of this high crime “shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
Now look at the mandate given to former FBI Director Robert Mueller when he was appointed special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was acting in place of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself because of his role in the Trump campaign and the controversy surrounding his own meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
On May 17, 2017, Rosenstein issued a letter stating that he was appointing a special counsel to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.” He added that Mueller’s mandate was 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.” Rosenstein noted that “[i]f 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.”
How closely aligned is Mueller’s mandate with the legal definition of treason? That boils down to the rhetorical differences between giving “aid and comfort, in the United States or elsewhere” to “enemies” of the United States and “any links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and Trump campaign aides related to “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
Sounds similar to me.
As a practical matter, the special counsel is highly unlikely to pursue treason charges against Trump or his associates. Treason is vaguely defined in the law and very difficult to prove. To the extent that it is defined – as providing aid and comfort to an “enemy” of the United States – the question might come down to whether Russia is legally considered America’s “enemy.”
Russia may not meet the legal definition of an “enemy,” but it is certainly an adversary of the United States. It would make perfect sense for Russian President and de facto dictator Vladimir Putin to use his security services to conduct a covert operation to influence American politics to Moscow’s advantage. Such a program would fall well within the acceptable norms of great power behavior. After all, it is the kind of covert intelligence program the United States has conducted regularly against other nations – including Russia.
Throughout the Cold War, the CIA and the KGB were constantly engaged in such secret intelligence battles. The KGB had a nickname for the CIA: glavnyy vrag or “the main enemy.” In 2003, I co-authored a book called “The Main Enemy” with Milt Bearden, a retired CIA officer who had been chief of the CIA’s Soviet/Eastern European division when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. The book was about the intelligence wars between the CIA and the KGB.
Today’s cyber-spy wars are just the latest version of “The Great Game,” the wonderfully romantic name for the secret intelligence battles between the Russian and British empires for control of Central Asia in the 19th century. Russia, the United States, and other nations engage in such covert intelligence games all the time – whether they are “enemies” or simply rivals.
In fact, evidence of the connections between Trump’s bid for the White House and Russian ambitions to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election keeps piling up. Throughout late 2016 and early 2017, a series of reports from the U.S. intelligence community and other government agencies underlined and reinforced nearly every element of the Russian hacking narrative, including the Russian preference for Trump. The reports were notable in part because their findings exposed the agencies to criticism from Trump and his supporters and put them at odds with Trump’s public dismissals of reported Russian attempts to help him get elected, which he has called “fake news.”
In addition, a series of details has emerged through unofficial channels that seems to corroborate these authorized assessments. A classified NSA document obtained by The Intercept last year states that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, played a role in the Russian hack of the 2016 American election. In August, a Russian hacker confessed to hacking the Democratic National Committee under the supervision of an officer in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, who has separately been accused of spying for the U.S. And Dutch intelligence service AIVD has reportedly given the FBI significant inside information about the Russian hack of the Democratic Party.
On February 16, just hours after this column was published, the special counsel announced indictments of 13 Russians and three Russian entities for meddling in the U.S. election. The special counsel accused them of intervening to help Trump and damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton. The indictments mark the first time Mueller has brought charges against any Russians in his ongoing probe.
Given all this, it seems increasingly likely that the Russians have pulled off the most consequential covert action operation since Germany put Lenin on a train back to Petrograd in 1917.
There are four important tracks to follow in the Trump-Russia story. First, we must determine whether there is credible evidence for the underlying premise that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump win. Second, we must figure out whether Trump or people around him worked with the Russians to try to win the election. Next, we must scrutinize the evidence to understand whether Trump and his associates have sought to obstruct justice by impeding a federal investigation into whether Trump and Russia colluded. A fourth track concerns whether Republican leaders are now engaged in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice through their intense and ongoing efforts to discredit Mueller’s probe.
This, my first column for The Intercept, will focus on the first track of the Trump-Russia narrative. I will devote separate columns to each of the other tracks in turn.
The evidence that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump win is already compelling, and it grows stronger by the day.
There can be little doubt now that Russian intelligence officials were behind an effort to hack the DNC’s computers and steal emails and other information from aides to Hillary Clinton as a means of damaging her presidential campaign. Once they stole the correspondence, Russian intelligence officials used cutouts and fronts to launder the emails and get them into the bloodstream of the U.S. press. Russian intelligence also used fake social media accounts and other tools to create a global echo chamber both for stories about the emails and for anti-Clinton lies dressed up to look like news.
To their disgrace, editors and reporters at American news organizations greatly enhanced the Russian echo chamber, eagerly writing stories about Clinton and the Democratic Party based on the emails, while showing almost no interest during the presidential campaign in exactly how those emails came to be disclosed and distributed. The Intercept itself has faced such accusations. The hack was a much more important story than the content of the emails themselves, but that story was largely ignored because it was so easy for journalists to write about Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
The attack on the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party looks like the contemporary cyber-descendant of countless analog KGB propaganda efforts.
To anyone who has studied the history of the KGB, particularly during the Cold War, the attack on the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party during the 2016 U.S. election looks like the contemporary cyber-descendant of countless analog KGB propaganda efforts. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the KGB frequently engaged in ambitious disinformation campaigns that were designed to sow suspicion of the United States in the developing world. The KGB’s so-called “active measures” programs would use international front organizations, cutouts, and sometimes unwitting enablers in the press to disseminate their anti-American propaganda.
The most infamous and dangerously effective KGB disinformation campaign of the Cold War was known as Operation Infektion. It was a secret effort to convince people in developing countries that the United States had created the HIV/AIDS virus.
In 1983, a newspaper in India printed what purported to be a letter from an American scientist saying the virus had been developed by the Pentagon. The letter went on to suggest that the U.S. was moving its experiments to Pakistan, India’s archenemy. Meanwhile, the KGB got an East German scientist to spread misinformation supporting the Moscow-backed conspiracy theory that the U.S. was behind the virus.
While these lies never penetrated the U.S. mainstream, they nonetheless spread insidiously through much of the world.
Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer during the 1980s when the KGB was conducting this disinformation campaign. He was stationed in East Germany in the late 1980s, and there is a good chance he knew about the East German component of Operation Infektion.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB was broken up and its successor agencies renamed. But the KGB never really went away. Instead, it underwent an extensive rebranding that did little to change its culture and traditions.
The KGB’s First Chief Directorate, its foreign intelligence service, was renamed the SVR. Like its predecessor agency, it was still housed in the First Chief Directorate’s headquarters in the Yasenevo District of Moscow, which was known as the “Russian Langley” for its similarities to CIA headquarters. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I met many former KGB officials in Moscow, including Leonid Shebarshin, the last leader of the First Chief Directorate, who was running the agency in 1991 when communist hardliners launched a coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. By the time I met Shebarshin, he was retired and running an “economic intelligence” firm out of an office in Moscow’s old Dynamo Stadium, the home of the KGB’s soccer team. A mural on his office wall depicted scenes from the Battle of Stalingrad and the Bolshevik Revolution, signaling his immersion in the Soviet era.
After the Soviet collapse, the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate, which handled spy-hunting and counterintelligence, along with other directorates that handled the KGB’s internal police state functions, were bundled into a new organization known as the FSB, the Federal Security Service. I conducted extensive interviews with one of the most legendary spy-hunters of the Second Chief Directorate, Rem Krassilnikov, a man whose personal history showed how entwined Russian intelligence still was with its Soviet past. His first name, Rem, was an acronym for Revolutsky Mir – the “World Revolution” Soviet leaders had longed to bring about. His father had been a general in the NKVD, the Stalinist predecessor to the KGB, and whenever I talked to him, Krassilnikov made it clear that he still considered the United States his adversary. He proudly took me on a tour of sites around Moscow where he had arrested American spies.
No one even bothered to rename the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. During the Cold War, the KGB considered the GRU a lower-class cousin, much as the CIA has always looked down upon the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Today, the GRU has added cyber and hacking capabilities like those of the National Security Agency. The GRU was involved in the Russian hack of the 2016 American election, according to a classified NSA document obtained by The Intercept, yet it still operates in the shadows of the more influential FSB and SVR.
Russian intelligence was briefly weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but under Putin – the first KGB man to run the country since Yuri Andropov died in 1984 – it has come roaring back. During his KGB career, Putin served in both the First and Second Chief Directorates. One of his key formative experiences occurred in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Putin was stationed in East Germany at the time, and his biographers have written that the personal humiliation he felt watching the Soviet empire collapse helps explain his drive to return Russia to great power status.
In 1998, Russian President Boris Yeltsin named Putin director of the FSB. Since coming to power himself, Putin has deployed his country’s spies in Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria in a bid to reassert Moscow’s global influence.
Why wouldn’t he be willing to deploy his spies inside the computer system of the DNC as well?
The chronology of the attack on the Democratic Party is a sad testament to the overconfidence of the Clinton campaign. It also highlights the inattention of American intelligence and law enforcement and their failure to adequately warn the major political parties of looming cyberthreats to the U.S. electoral system.
In September 2015, the FBI made a halfhearted effort to tell the DNC that its computer system had been invaded. In November 2015, the FBI told the DNC that its computers were sending data to Russia, but even that didn’t seem to prompt much concern on the Democrats’ part. In March 2016, Podesta’s email account was hacked in a phishing attack, giving thieves access to thousands of his emails.
In May 2016, CrowdStrike, a cybercompany hired by the DNC after the party finally recognized it had a problem, told DNC officials that its computers had been compromised in two separate attacks with two sets of malware associated with Russian intelligence.
While the DNC used CrowdStrike, a private contractor, to conduct an investigation, it did not give the FBI access to its computer systems. That fact has since been seized upon by skeptics who say that CrowdStrike’s analysis can’t be considered credible. But according to a November BuzzFeed story, CrowdStrike’s lead investigator, Robert Johnston, was a former Marine captain who had previously worked at the U.S. Cyber Command, where he had investigated an attempted hack of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he identified as likely associated with the FSB. He had recent experience in identifying the signatures of hacking linked to Russian intelligence.
In June 2016, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said WikiLeaks had obtained emails associated with Clinton. Just days later, the Washington Post reported that Russian intelligence had hacked the DNC’s computers.
In July 2016, just before the Democratic National Convention, Wikileaks released thousands of DNC emails, and the party’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to resign.
In September 2016, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, issued a statement that they had received classified briefings that made it clear that Russian intelligence was trying to intervene in the election.
The pattern and timing of the disclosures strongly suggests that the objective was to damage Clinton’s campaign and help Trump.
“We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government,” their statement noted.
The key moment in the 2016 campaign came on October 7, when three events unfolded one after another. That afternoon, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of the Office of National Intelligence issued a statement that U.S. intelligence believed Russia was behind the Democratic Party hacks and email releases.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations,” the statement read. “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
That statement was immediately overshadowed later that afternoon when the Washington Post published the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump is heard talking about how easy it is for him to get away with sexual assault, including groping and forcibly kissing women.
Later that afternoon, WikiLeaks started tweeting links to emails hacked from Podesta’s account. WikiLeaks then began releasing Podesta emails on a regular basis throughout the last month of the campaign. Meanwhile, a group called DC Leaks, which is now believed to be a front for the Russian hackers who sought to intervene in the election, released more Democratic Party-related documents.
Within days, Trump was telling his supporters at rallies: “I love WikiLeaks.”
The scope of the impact of Russian hacking and subsequent disclosures of Democratic Party emails and data on the outcome of the 2016 election remains unclear. But the disclosures certainly helped take at least some of the media’s attention off Trump, and probably should be credited with giving him time to recover from the disastrous “Access Hollywood” tape. The pattern and timing of the disclosures also strongly suggests that the objective was to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help Donald Trump.
In December 2016, a month after the election, the FBI and the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center issued a joint report detailing the cybertools used by Russian intelligence to attack the Democratic Party.
The report is still illuminating today because it suggests that the original DNC hack in 2015 was part of a much broader Russian cyberassault on a wide array of American institutions, including government agencies. Originally, it seems, the Russians were not specifically targeting the Democrats, but were simply casting a wide net in Washington to see who might take the bait.
The agencies’ report determined that in the summer of 2015, “an APT29 [Advanced Persistent Threat 29, one of two Russian intelligence “actors” identified in the report, also known as Cozy Bear] spearphishing campaign directed emails containing a malicious link to over 1,000 recipients, including multiple U.S. Government victims. APT29 used legitimate domains, to include domains associated with U.S. organizations and educational institutions, to host malware and send spearphishing emails. In the course of that campaign, APT29 successfully compromised a U.S. political party.”
The report adds that the Russians quickly followed up when they gained access to the Democrats. “APT29 delivered malware to the political party’s systems, established persistence, escalated privileges, enumerated active directory accounts, and exfiltrated email from several accounts through encrypted connections back through operational infrastructure.”
While intervening in the 2016 election may not have been the initial purpose of the cyberattack, once the Russians opportunistically struck gold by breaking into the DNC, they went after the Democrats relentlessly.
“In spring 2016, APT28 [another Russian intelligence “actor”] compromised the same political party, again via targeted spearphishing,” the report states. “This time, the spearphishing email tricked recipients into changing their passwords through a fake webmail domain hosted on APT28 operational infrastructure. Using the harvested credentials, APT28 was able to gain access and steal content, likely leading to the exfiltration of information from multiple senior party members.”
By luck or design, Russian intelligence had obtained a vast trove of inside information from the Democratic Party in the middle of a presidential campaign.
In January 2017, just days before Trump took office, a remarkable report from the CIA, FBI, and NSA was made public, plunging the U.S. intelligence community into American politics in an unprecedented way. Its aftershocks continue to reverberate a year later.
The report states that “we assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” It continues: “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments. We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
The report also notes that “further information has come to light since Election Day that, when combined with Russian behavior since early November 2016, increases our confidence in our assessments of Russian motivations and goals.”
Trump has sought to discredit the report, and by extension, the entire intelligence community, ever since. His cronies have chimed in, dismissing it as the work of the so-called deep state.
Yet interestingly, CIA Director Mike Pompeo – a Trump loyalist who has been criticized for transparently currying favor with Trump in hopes of being named secretary of state – still stands by the January intelligence assessment. In November, after Trump once again publicly trashed the intelligence community’s conclusions, the CIA issued a statement that “[t]he Director stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment.” According to the CIA, “the intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.” Pompeo’s willingness to stand by the assessment is clearly not in his own political interest and thus, lends credibility to the assessment.
Earlier this week, meanwhile, top intelligence officials, including Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, underlined their ongoing concerns about Russian election meddling, warning that Moscow once again seems to be seeking to intervene, this time in the 2018 midterm elections. In a congressional hearing, Coats suggested that the Russians believe they were successful in 2016 and want to build on their success in 2018. Coats said that “the 2018 midterm elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations,” and that “at a minimum, we expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
Further documentary evidence of Russian intervention in the 2016 election came from an important story published by The Intercept last June.
The story was notable because it was based on a classified U.S. intelligence document about Russian election hacking obtained through an unauthorized leak. All the other U.S. intelligence assessments and reports that have so far been made public about the issue have come through officially authorized channels. Thus, the NSA report leaked to The Intercept has the enhanced credibility that comes from being disclosed against the will of the U.S. intelligence community.
The classified report is significant because it reveals that Russian interference in the election extended beyond the direct attack on the Democratic Party and included attempts to gain access to the basic infrastructure involved in actually counting American votes. It details how the GRU conducted a cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier and engaged in spear-phishing to try to hack local election officials before the 2016 vote
Pompeo’s willingness to stand by the assessment is clearly not in his own political interest and thus, lends credibility to the assessment.
The classified May 2017 NSA report, provided anonymously to The Intercept, shows that Russian hackers sought to pose as an e-voting vendor and trick local government officials into opening Microsoft Word documents loaded with malware that would let the hackers remotely control the government computers. To fool the local officials, the Russians first sought to gain access to the vendor’s internal systems, which they hoped would provide a convincing disguise.
“Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors [redacted] executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August, 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions, according to information that became available in April, 2017,” the report states. “The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to create a new email account and launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”
The compromise of the vendor would provide cover for the direct attack on the local officials. “It was likely that the threat actor was targeting officials involved in the management of voter registration systems,” the report adds. “It is unknown whether the aforementioned spear-phishing deployment successfully compromised the intended victims, and what potential data could have been accesses by the cyber actor.”
The growing evidence that Russia was behind the attack on the Democratic Party now includes the confession of a Russian hacker in a Moscow court. The story of Konstantin Kozlovsky appears to be one of the most significant of the entire Trump-Russia saga. It is one of several intriguing tales now emerging that suggests that the secrecy surrounding the Russian hacking is beginning to unravel.
In December 2017, The Bell, an independent Russian news site, reported on Kozlovsky’s stunning testimony in Moscow City Court. Kozlovsky — a young Russian hacker who had been arrested, along with other members of the Lurk hacking group, in connection with the cybertheft of more than $50 million from Russian bank accounts — testified that he had conducted the Democratic Party hack on behalf of Russian intelligence. In an August 15 court hearing in Moscow, Kozlovsky said he “performed various tasks under the supervision of FSB officers,” including hacking “of the National Committee of the Democratic Party of the USA and electronic correspondence of Hillary Clinton,” and hacking “very serious military enterprises of the United States and other organizations,” according to the Bell.
The news site reported that Kozlovsky said he had conducted the hack at the direction of Dmitry Dokuchaev, a major in the FSB’s Information Security Center, the intelligence agency’s cyber arm.
When Kozlovsky made this statement in court, he was already facing serious criminal charges for hacking. He may have thought that claiming involvement in the DNC hack would help him with his ongoing criminal case, or he may have thought that he had nothing left to lose and so should tell all. He remains in pretrial detention in Moscow.
Dokuchaev, meanwhile, is a fascinating character, and his involvement in Kozlovsky’s story plunges it into the wilderness of mirrors of present-day espionage battles between the U.S. and Russia.
In December 2016, Dokuchaev was arrested in Moscow and charged with spying for the United States. He and three others have reportedly been accused of providing information to U.S. intelligence on the Russian hack of the Democratic Party. Along with Dokuchaev, FSB Col. Sergey Mikhailov, Ruslan Stoyanov of Kaspersky Labs, and Georgy Fomchenkov, a Russian businessman, have been charged with treason in the case.
Dokuchaev is now being detained in Russia, but since Kozlovsky’s confession was made public, Dokuchaev, through his lawyer, has told the Russian press that he doesn’t know the hacker and was not involved with the theft of documents from the Democratic Party.
In March 2017, just months after Dokuchaev was arrested in Moscow for spying for the United States, the U.S. Justice Department announced that he had been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of hacking Yahoo’s network and webmail accounts. Dokuchaev, identified by the Justice Department as a 33-year-old FSB officer, was one of four men indicted in the case. “The defendants used unauthorized access to Yahoo’s systems to steal information from about at least 500 million Yahoo accounts and then used some of that stolen information to obtain unauthorized access to the contents of accounts at Yahoo, Google and other webmail providers, including accounts of Russian journalists, U.S. and Russian government officials, and private-sector employees of financial, transportation and other companies,” according to the Justice Department.
At the press conference announcing the indictments, officials displayed a large FBI wanted poster for Dokuchaev.
This chain of events leaves plenty of questions unanswered, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dokuchaev’s December 2016 arrest for treason in Moscow and his March 2017 indictment in the United States were somehow related.
While the Washington press corps has been obsessing over Donald Trump’s tweets and a ginned-up memo from House Republicans seeking to discredit the Trump-Russia investigation, another major break in the story has just begun to unfold in the Netherlands. In late January, a Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, along with Nieuwsuur, a Dutch current affairs television program, reported that Dutch intelligence service AIVD has turned over to the FBI conclusive inside information about the Russian hack of the Democratic Party.
The two news organizations reported that in 2014, Dutch hackers working for the AIVD gained secret access to the Russian hacker group known as Cozy Bear – also known as Advanced Persistent Threat 29 – a Russian intelligence unit behind the hack of the DNC.
Dutch intelligence first told their American counterparts about their successful penetration of Cozy Bear in 2014, tipping off Washington that the Russian hackers were trying to break into the State Department’s computer system. That warning led the NSA to scramble to counter the Russian threat.
In 2015, the Dutch were also able to watch, undetected by the Russians, as the Cozy Bear hackers launched their first attack on the Democratic Party, according to the two news organizations. In addition to gaining access to the Cozy Bear computers, the Dutch were able to hack into a security camera that recorded who was working in Cozy Bear’s office in a university building in Moscow near Red Square. The Dutch discovered that there were about 10 people working there, and they were eventually able to match the faces to those of Russian intelligence officers who work for the SVR.
The information flowing from the Dutch was considered so vital by the Americans that the NSA opened a direct line with Dutch intelligence to get the data as fast as possible, according to the Dutch news organizations. To show their appreciation, the Americans sent cake and flowers to AIVD headquarters in the Dutch city of Zoetermeer.
If the Dutch story is accurate, it would help explain why the U.S. intelligence community is so confident in its assessment that Russian intelligence was behind the attack on the Democratic Party.
The Dutch news organizations say that the AIVD is no longer inside the Cozy Bear network, and that Dutch intelligence has become increasingly suspicious of working with the Americans.
Since Trump’s election, who can blame them?
Update: Feb. 16, 2018
This article has been updated with news of the special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations.