The ongoing Special Counsel investigation is a United States law enforcement and counterintelligence investigation of any foreign government efforts to interfere, with large focus on Russia, in the 2016 presidential election. This investigation includes any possible links and/or coordination between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government, "and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." In addition, the scope of the investigation reportedly includes potential obstruction of justice by Trump and others. The investigation, since it began May 17, 2017, has been conducted by the United States Department of Justice Special Counsel's Office, headed by Robert Mueller, a former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Mueller took over several existing FBI investigations, including those involving former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
The investigation has resulted in dozens of indictments for federal crimes, and at least eight guilty pleas or convictions. In August 2018, Manafort was found guilty on eight felony counts of financial crimes in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, and a month later he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruct justice, in a plea bargain for Manafort's full cooperation with prosecutors. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and became a cooperating witness in December 2017. Mueller further secured guilty pleas from Manafort's business partner Rick Gates, Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, lobbyist W. Samuel Patten, and Richard Pinedo. All except van der Zwaan became cooperating witnesses to the probe. In February 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russian citizens and 3 Russian entities, most notably the Internet Research Agency, and in June 2018 added an indictment of Konstantin Kilimnik, Manafort's business partner. In July 2018, 12 members of the Russian GRU cyber espionage group known as Fancy Bear, responsible for the 2016 DNC email hacking, were indicted. Investigations into Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen were referred to the US Attorney's office of the Southern District of New York.
While initially enjoying bipartisan support, the special counsel investigation became subject to criticism by Trump and his supporters in the conservative media within months, with Sean Hannity eventually promoting the "deep state" conspiracy theory. Several allegations of investigators' misconduct have been raised and were almost immediately debunked, including supposed unlawful wire-tapping of Trump Tower during the campaign, unmasking of Trump associates on intelligence intercepts, FISA court alleged abuse against Carter Page detailed in the Nunes memo, the alleged installation of a mole in the Trump campaign, and the FBI being denied to forensically analyze the DNC servers.
A special counsel investigation is subject to oversight by the Attorney General. After questions arose regarding 2016 contacts between then-senator Jeff Sessions and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, as attorney general Sessions recused himself from any Justice Department investigations regarding Russian interference in the election. Over ensuing months, Trump repeatedly expressed anger over Sessions' decision to recuse. Oversight of any Russia investigation then fell to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017. After Sessions resigned at Trump's request the day after the 2018 midterm elections, Trump appointed Sessions' chief of staff Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General, assuming oversight for the Mueller investigation. Whitaker, a Trump loyalist whom White House chief of staff John Kelly described as the West Wing’s "eyes and ears" in the Justice Department, had publicly criticized the Mueller investigation on several occasions before joining the Justice Department in September 2017, asserting it was "going too far" and referring to it as a "lynch mob." Whitaker is also a personal friend of Sam Clovis, a former co-chair of the Trump campaign who has testified to Mueller's investigators and grand jury. Democrats and others asserted Whitaker's potential conflicts of interest require him to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller, although Whitaker reportedly indicated he had no intention of doing so. Justice Department ethics officials typically review conflicts of interest to recommend recusals, but their findings are not binding.
A January 2017 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that Russian leadership favored presidential candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally ordered an "influence campaign" to harm Clinton's electoral chances and "undermine public faith in the US democratic process.":7 It is alleged that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in order to increase political instability in the United States and to damage Clinton's presidential campaign by bolstering the candidacies of Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.
The special counsel appointment on May 17, 2017, followed a series of events that included Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey and Comey's allegation that Trump asked him to drop an FBI investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn. Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, in his role as Acting Attorney General for matters related to the campaign due to the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appointed Mueller, a former Director of the FBI, to serve as Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). The authority for the investigation is to examine Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, including exploring any links or coordination between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government, "and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation", and any other matters within the scope of 28 CFR 600.4 – Jurisdiction.
Until the removal of Sessions as Attorney General, Rosenstein continued to have authority over the use of DOJ resources by Mueller and the investigation. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rosenstein said he would recuse himself from supervision of Mueller if he himself were to become a subject in the investigation due to his role in the dismissal of Comey. If Rosenstein were to recuse himself, his duties in this matter would have been assumed by the Justice Department's third-in-command, Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio. So long as no successor fills that office, Solicitor General Noel Francisco would assume the authorities of Associate Attorney General.
As special counsel, Mueller has the power to issue subpoenas, hire staff members, request funding, and prosecute federal crimes in connection with the election interference. According to Rudy Giuliani, who is leading President Trump's legal team, Mueller's team told him that they cannot indict a sitting president; they can only write a report at the conclusion of the investigation. The decision aligns with Justice Department guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted. Giuliani also added that he believes the Constitution prevents indictment of a sitting president. However, this remains an unsettled matter of Constitutional law.
On November 7, 2018, Attorney General Sessions resigned at President Trump's request. Trump then appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting Attorney General, and transferred Rosenstein's oversight authority to him. In August 2017, one month prior to joining the Justice Department as Sessions' chief of staff, Whitaker wrote an opinion column for CNN titled "Mueller's investigation of Trump is going too far." He stated that Mueller's investigation is a "lynch mob", that it should be limited and should not probe into Trump's finances. The New York Times reported that White House aides and other people close to Trump anticipate that Whitaker will "rein in" the investigation.
On August 3, 2017, Mueller empaneled a grand jury in Washington, D.C., as part of his investigation. The grand jury has the power to subpoena documents, require witnesses to testify under oath, and issue indictments for targets of criminal charges if probable cause is found.
The Washington grand jury is separate from an earlier Virginia grand jury investigating Michael Flynn; the Flynn case has been absorbed into Mueller's overall investigation.
The grand jury has issued subpoenas to those involved in the Trump campaign–Russian meeting held on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower, which was also the location of Trump's presidential campaign headquarters.
NBC News reported on August 25, 2017, that "in recent days" the grand jury subpoenaed witness testimony from the executives of six public relations firms, who worked with Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on lobbying efforts in Ukraine.
On January 16, 2018, The New York Times reported that Steve Bannon was subpoenaed by Mueller to testify before the standing grand jury in Washington, DC. Reuters and CNN reported the next day that Bannon had struck a deal with Mueller's team to be interviewed by prosecutors instead of testifying before the grand jury. On February 15, 2018, multiple sources reported that those interviews had taken place over multiple days that week. TMZ reported that Kristin M. Davis, the "Manhattan Madam" who had previously worked for Roger Stone, was subpoenaed in June 2018. On August 10, 2018, a federal judge found Stone's former aide Andrew Miller to be in contempt of court for refusing to testify before the grand jury. Also that day, the Mueller investigation subpoenaed Randy Credico, whom Stone had described as his "backchannel" to Julian Assange. The Wall Street Journal reported on November 14, 2018, that Mueller's investigators are examining whether Stone engaged in witness tampering by intimidating Credico into supporting Stone's assertions.
Jerome Corsi, former Washington bureau chief of Infowars, was subpoenaed to appear on September 7, 2018, before a Mueller grand jury. Corsi's attorney said he expected his client to be asked about his association with Roger Stone, who had appeared to know in advance that WikiLeaks would release damaging information about the Clinton campaign.
The investigation involves multiple legal teams, specifically the attorneys, supervised by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, taking part in the investigation; the team defending President Trump in his personal capacity; and the team representing the White House as an institution separate from the President.
According to CNN, as of August 2018, the prosecution team includes 15 attorneys, led by Mueller. The additional supporting staff brings the number over 30. There have been few reported departures from Mueller's team.
The defense has two components: Emmet Flood representing the White House, and a team representing Trump personally, including Jay Sekulow, Andrew Ekonomou, Rudy Giuliani, the Raskin & Raskin law firm, and Joanna Hendon. Former members of the defense team include white-collar crimes expert John Dowd, Trump's long-time personal attorney Michael Cohen, and Ty Cobb representing the office of the presidency.
Mueller's legal team has been consistently attacked as biased against President Trump, who has repeatedly referred to his team as "The 13 Angry Democrats". However, Mueller himself is a registered Republican, and choosing to hire or not hire career attorneys on the basis of political affiliation is contrary to both Justice Department policy and federal law.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, serving as Acting Attorney General due to the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, authorized Mueller to investigate and prosecute "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump," as well as "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and any other matters within the scope of 28 CFR 600.4 – Jurisdiction.
In July 2016, the FBI began looking into Russian interference, as well as the question of whether members of the Trump campaign might have coordinated or cooperated with Russia's activities. Those investigations became part of the Special Counsel's portfolio.
U.S. intelligence agencies in January 2017 concluded "with high confidence" that the Russian government interfered in the election by hacking into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks, as well as by disseminating fake news promoted on social media, and by penetrating, or trying to penetrate, the election systems and databases of multiple U.S. states. de Volkskrant reported on January 25, 2018, that Dutch intelligence agency AIVD had penetrated the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear in 2014 and in 2015 observed them hack the DNC in real time, as well as capturing the images of the hackers via a security camera in their workspace. The New York Times reported on July 18, 2018, that American, British and Dutch intelligence services had observed stolen DNC emails on Russian military intelligence networks. NBC News reported on March 1, 2018, that Mueller was assembling a case for criminal charges against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking. Those charges were brought on July 13, 2018.
Russia's influence on U.S. voters through social media is a primary focus of the Mueller investigation. Mueller used a search warrant to obtain detailed information about Russian ad purchases on Facebook. According to a former federal prosecutor, the warrant means that a judge was convinced that foreigners had illegally contributed to influencing a US election via Facebook ads.
In a February 13, 2018, testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the heads of the top six American intelligence agencies unanimously reaffirmed Russian interference. Three sources familiar with Trump's thinking told CNN he remains unconvinced that Russia interfered because it suggests he didn't win the election solely on his own merits.
As early as spring 2015, US intelligence agencies started overhearing conversations in which Russian government officials, some within the Kremlin, discussed associates of Trump, then a presidential candidate.
The New York Times reported on February 14, 2017, that phone records and communications intercepts showed that Trump associates—including members of the Trump campaign—had "repeated contacts" with senior Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 campaign. Paul Manafort was the only Trump associate who was specifically identified as participating in these communications. In addition, some senior Trump associates, including Kushner, Trump Jr., Sessions, Flynn and Manafort, had direct contacts with Russian officials during 2016. Michael Flynn was forced to resign as National Security Advisor on February 13, 2017, after it was revealed that on December 29, 2016, the day that Obama announced sanctions against Russia, Flynn had discussed the sanctions with Russian ambassador Kislyak. Flynn had earlier acknowledged speaking to Kislyak but denied discussing the sanctions. Also in December 2016, Flynn and presidential advisor Jared Kushner met with Kislyak hoping to set up a direct, secure line of communication with Russian officials that American intelligence agencies would be unaware of. Jared Kushner also met with Sergei Gorkov, the head of the Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank (VEB), which has been subject to U.S. economic sanctions since July 2014. Flynn and Kushner failed to report these meetings on their security clearance forms.
The Trump Organization pursued a luxury hotel and condominium project in Moscow—dubbed the Trump World Tower Moscow—during the early months of the Trump presidential campaign. This project was facilitated by Michael Cohen, then an attorney for the Trump Organization and since January 2017 Trump's personal attorney. Trump signed a nonbinding "letter of intent" dated October 13, 2015, to proceed with the project. The letter, also signed by Russian investor Andrei Rozov, was forwarded to Cohen by Russian-American real estate developer Felix Sater, who had worked with The Trump Organization on prior deals, including Trump SoHo and Trump International Hotel & Residence. Sater has also been involved in criminal activities involving organized crime and has served as an informant to the FBI relating to those activities. He boasted to Cohen about his connections to Vladimir Putin, saying in an email to Cohen on November 13, 2015, "Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this. I will manage this process." He also asserted that he had secured financing for the project through the Russian state-owned VTB Bank, which was under sanctions by the United States government. Cohen emailed Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016 to request assistance in advancing the project and later stated he didn't recall receiving a response. The deal was abandoned that month. Buzzfeed reported on March 12, 2018, that Mueller's investigators had questioned Sater and on April 13, 2018, reported that a former Russian spy had helped secure financing for the project. In 2010 Sater was provided business cards describing himself as "Senior Advisor to Donald Trump" with an email address at TrumpOrg.com. In a 2013 sworn affidavit, Trump said "If [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like," and in 2015 he stated "Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I'm not that familiar with him."
The Trump team issued multiple denials of any contacts between Trump associates and Russia, but many of those denials turned out to be false. On December 4, 2017, prosecutors filed that Paul Manafort worked on an op-ed with a Russian intelligence official while out on bail, in a court filing requesting that the judge revoke Manafort's bond agreement.
The New York Times reported on March 28, 2018, that former Trump campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates in October/September 2016 frequently communicated with a man the FBI believes is a former agent of GRU, Russia's largest foreign intelligence agency, and who had maintained active links with Russian intelligence during these communications. This disclosure came in a court sentencing document for Alex van der Zwaan submitted by Robert Mueller. Identified in the document as "Person A," The Times reported that the man matched the description of Konstantin Kilimnik who for years was Paul Manafort's "right-hand man" in Ukraine. Gates reportedly told an associate that he knew "Person A" was a former GRU agent, although Manafort told associates he was not aware of such a connection.
Reuters reported on March 29, 2018, that the special counsel is examining an event at the 2016 Republican National Convention at which Jeff Sessions had conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Investigators are also looking into how and why language deemed hostile to Russia was removed from the Republican party's platform document during the convention. Mueller's office is also inquiring whether Sessions had private conversations with Kislyak at a Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. Some have noted that Kislyak was a familiar presence in Washington social circles, routinely meeting with members of Congress and making appearances at various conferences.
The Steele dossier asserted that Trump attorney Michael Cohen in August 2016 had a clandestine meeting with Kremlin representatives in Prague. Cohen has stated he has never been to Prague, inviting investigators to examine his passport. McClatchy reported on April 13, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have evidence that in August or early September 2016 Cohen traveled to Prague by way of Germany. Such a trip would not have required a passport as Germany and the Czech Republic are in the Schengen Area which has abolished passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders. On April 14, 2018, Cohen again denied he had ever been to Prague.
On July 21, 2018, the Justice Department released a heavily redacted version of the October 2016 FISA warrant application for Carter Page, which stated in part "The FBI believes that Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government" and "the FBI believes that the Russian government's efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate #1's campaign." The application also stated that "according to Source #1, Divyekin [who is assessed as Igor Nikolayevich Divyekin] had met secretly with Page and that their agenda for the meeting included Divyekin raising a dossier or "kompromat" that the Kremlin possessed on Candidate #2 and the possibility of it being released to Candidate #1's campaign." The Steele dossier asserted that Page had secretly met "senior Kremlin Internal Affairs official, DIVYEKIN" in Moscow on "either 7 or 8 July" of 2016, while Page was still officially with the Trump campaign, but did not refer to any kompromat.
Mueller is looking into the meeting on June 9, 2016, in Trump Tower in New York City between three senior members of Trump's presidential campaign—Kushner, Manafort, and Donald Trump Jr.—and at least five other people, including Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist and former Soviet army officer who met senior Trump campaign aides, Ike Kaveladze, British publicist Rob Goldstone, and translator Anatoli Samochornov. Goldstone had suggested the meeting to Trump Jr., and it was arranged in a series of emails later made public. In one email exchange of June 3, 2016, Goldstone wrote Trump Jr. that Aras Agalarov "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father," adding that it was "very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump" that he could send to Donald Trump's assistant Rhona Graff. Trump Jr. responded minutes later "Thanks Rob I appreciate that" and "if it's what you say I love it." Trump Jr. initially told the press that the meeting was held to discuss adoptions of Russian children by Americans, but after contrary media reports he added that he agreed to the meeting with the understanding that he would receive information damaging to Hillary Clinton. Mueller's team is investigating the emails and the meeting, and whether President Trump later tried to hide the meeting's purpose. On July 18, 2017, Kaveladze's attorney said that Mueller's investigators were seeking information about the Russian meeting in June 2016 from his client, and on July 21, Mueller asked the White House to preserve all documents related to the Russian meeting. It has been reported that Manafort had made notes during the Russian meeting. CNN reported on July 26, 2018, that anonymous sources stated that Michael Cohen was prepared to tell the Mueller investigation that Trump was aware of and approved of the June 9, 2016, meeting in advance, which Trump and Trump Jr. have repeatedly denied. CNN reported in the same story that Cohen attorney Lanny Davis had declined to comment for the report. The following day, The Washington Post reported a similar story coming from one anonymous source, although the paper did not specifically mention Russians. One month later, Davis identified himself as that source, clarifying that he could not be certain of Cohen's knowledge in the matter. Davis also asserted he had been a source for the CNN story. A CNN spokeswoman stated, "We stand by our story, and are confident in our reporting of it."
CNN reported on March 23, 2017, that the FBI was examining "human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings" indicating that Trump associates may have coordinated with "suspected Russian operatives" to release information damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
By August 3, 2017, Mueller had impaneled a grand jury in the District of Columbia that issued subpoenas concerning the meeting. The Financial Times reported on August 31 that Akhmetshin had given sworn testimony to Mueller's grand jury.
CNN reported on September 19, 2017, that Manafort had been a target of a FISA wiretap both before and after the 2016 election, extending into early 2017. Some of the intercepted communications caused concerns among investigators that Manafort had solicited assistance from Russians for the campaign, although the evidence was reportedly inconclusive. The wiretaps began sometime after Manafort became a subject of an FBI investigation into his business practices in 2014. The Mueller investigation was provided details of these intercepts.
Mueller is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Republican activist Peter W. Smith, who stated that he tried to obtain Hillary Clinton's emails from Russian hackers, and that he was acting on behalf of Michael Flynn and other senior Trump campaign members. Trump campaign officials have denied that Smith was working with them. In fall 2017, Mueller's team interviewed former Government Communications Headquarters cybersecurity researcher Matt Tait, who had been approached by Smith to verify the authenticity of emails allegedly hacked from Clinton's private email server. Tait reportedly told House Intelligence Committee investigators in October 2017 that he believed Smith had ties to members of Trump's inner circle—including Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway—and may have been helping build opposition research for the Trump campaign. Smith committed suicide in May 2017, several days after talking to The Wall Street Journal about his alleged efforts. Aged 81 and reportedly in failing health, he left a carefully prepared file of documents, including a statement police called a suicide note. An attorney for Smith's estate said in October 2017 that some of Smith's documents had been turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 7, 2018, that Smith had raised at least $100,000 from donors in his pursuit of the Clinton emails, that his estate had provided documents to the Mueller investigation, and that associates of Smith had been questioned by Mueller's investigators or a grand jury. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 10, 2018, that Smith had established a "professional relationship" with Flynn as early as 2015, and during the campaign was using Flynn's contacts to assist with his search for the Clinton emails. The Journal reported on October 19, 2018, that the Mueller investigation has evidence Smith may have had prior knowledge of the Guccifer 2.0 hacks.
In December 2017, it was reported that the Mueller investigation was examining whether the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, who worked together on the digital arm of Trump's campaign, provided assistance to Russian trolls attempting to influence voters. Yahoo News reported that Mueller's team is examining whether the joint RNC–Trump campaign data operation—which was directed on Trump's side by Brad Parscale and managed by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner—was related to the activities of Russian trolls and bots aimed at influencing the American electorate. Also that month, the Democratic ranking members of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees asked their respective Republican chairmen to subpoena two of the data firms hired by Trump's campaign for documents related to Russia's election interference, including the firm headed by Parscale. On February 27, 2018, Trump selected Parscale to serve as campaign manager on his 2020 reelection campaign. NBC News reported on February 28, 2018, that Mueller's investigators are asking witnesses pointed questions about whether Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release. This is the first reported indication that Mueller's investigation is specifically examining whether Trump was personally involved in collusive activities. Mueller's investigators have also asked about the relationship between Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and why Trump took policy positions favorable to Russia. Stone, a longtime Republican "dirty trickster" and Trump confidant has repeatedly discussed his backchannel communications with Assange and claimed knowledge of forthcoming leaks from Wikileaks. He also exchanged Twitter private messages with Guccifer 2.0, which American intelligence has connected to two Russian intelligence groups that cybersecurity analysts have concluded hacked Democratic National Committee emails. The New York Times reported on November 1, 2018, that Stone and Steve Bannon exchanged emails in October 2016 about Assange's intent to release documents, and that Bannon and other former senior Trump campaign officials had told Mueller's investigators of Stone's assertions he was a conduit to Wikileaks and seemed aware of imminent document releases, although the "top tier" of the campaign was skeptical of Stone's claims. Reuters reported on May 16, 2018, that Mueller's office had the prior week subpoenaed Stone's social media strategist, Jason Sullivan, to testify before a grand jury on May 18 and to provide documents, objects and electronically stored information. Reuters reported the next day that John Kakanis, Stone's driver, accountant and operative, had also been subpoenaed. Investigators have also focused on Trump's public comments in July 2016 asking Russia to find emails that were deleted from Hillary Clinton's private email server. At a news conference on July 27, 2016, days after WikiLeaks began publishing the Democratic National Committee emails, Trump said, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." The July 13, 2018, indictment of 12 Russian GRU agents described: "...on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton's personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign."
After a "testy March 5 meeting, Mueller's team agreed to provide the president's lawyers with more specific information about the subjects that prosecutors wished to discuss with the president." Then Jay Sekulow "compiled a list of 49 questions that the team believed the president would be asked.... The New York Times first reported the existence of the list."
On April 30, 2018, The New York Times published a list of interview questions for Trump that the Mueller investigation had provided to the president's attorneys. The list was provided to The Times by an individual outside Trump's legal team. Among the questions was, "What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?" Before this disclosure, there had been no publicly available information indicating any such outreach. The Times noted that the questions were not quoted verbatim and in some cases were condensed.
The New York Times reported on May 15, 2018, that Trump campaign policy aide and later White House Deputy Cabinet Secretary John Mashburn testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2018 that he recalled receiving an email from George Papadopoulos in the first half of 2016 indicating that the Russian government had damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Before this report, there had been no publicly available information indicating that Papadopoulos had informed anyone on the Trump campaign about such matters. Despite an extensive search for the purported email by various investigators, it has not been located. A court document Mueller's office filed in association with Papadopoulos's guilty plea included verbatim quotes from various emails Papadopoulos had sent or received, but the Mashburn email was not referenced in that document.
Shortly before firing him, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into a member of the Trump Campaign, former National Security Advisor Flynn. In March, Trump reportedly discussed the FBI's Russia investigation with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and asked if they could intervene with Comey to limit or stop it. When he was asked at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the report, Coats said he would not discuss conversations he had with the president but "I have never felt pressured to intervene in the Russia investigation in any way." Before being appointed Director of National Intelligence by Trump, Coats had been an elected Republican politician since 1981, serving in both the House and Senate.
In a May 2017 interview with NBC News anchorman Lester Holt, Trump stated he was thinking of "this Russia thing" when he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey. Trump's statement raised concerns of potential obstruction of justice. In May 2018 Trump denied firing Comey because of the Russia investigation. In August 2018 Trump tweeted that "Holt got caught fudging my tape on Russia," followed by his attorney Jay Sekulow asserting in September 2018 that NBC had ed the Trump interview. Neither Trump nor Sekulow produced evidence that the tape had been modified.
In February 2017, it was reported that White House officials had asked the FBI to issue a statement that there had been no contact between Trump associates and Russian intelligence sources during the 2016 campaign. The FBI did not make the requested statement, and observers noted that the request violated established procedures about contact between the White House and the FBI regarding pending investigations. After Comey revealed in March that the FBI was investigating the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Trump phoned Coats and Director of National Security Admiral Michael S. Rogers and asked them to publicly state there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and the Russians. Both Coats and Rogers believed that the request was inappropriate, though not illegal, and did not make the requested statement. The two exchanged notes about the incident, and Rogers made a contemporary memo to document the request. The White House effort to push back publicly on the Russia probe reportedly also included requests to senior lawmakers with access to classified intelligence about Russia, including Senator Richard Burr and Representative Devin Nunes, the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees, respectively.
In May 2017, it was reported that Comey took contemporaneous notes immediately after an Oval Office conversation with Trump on February 14, 2017, in which Trump is described as attempting to persuade Comey to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn. The memo notes that Trump said, "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 made no commitments to Trump on the subject. The White House denied the version of events in the memo, but an FBI agent's contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, Comey gave a detailed report on the February 14 conversation, including Trump's suggestion that he should "let go" the Flynn investigation. Comey said he "took it as a direction… I took it as, this is what he wants me to do." He added that it was "a very disturbing thing, very concerning", and that he discussed the incident with other FBI leaders. Comey created similar memos about all nine conversations he had with the president. Mueller's office has the Comey memos, but on February 2, 2018, a federal judge denied multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to make the documents public, at least for now.
The FBI launched an investigation of Trump for obstruction of justice a few days after the May 9 firing of Comey. The special prosecutor's office took over the obstruction of justice investigation and has reportedly interviewed Director of National Intelligence Coats, Director of the National Security Agency Rogers, and Deputy Director of the NSA Richard Ledgett. ABC News reported in June that Mueller was gathering preliminary information about possible obstruction of justice, but a full-scale investigation had not been launched. On June 16, Trump tweeted: "I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt." However, Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow said Trump's tweet was referring to the June 14 Washington Post report that he was under investigation for obstruction of justice, and that Trump has not actually been notified of any investigation.
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported on September 20, 2017, that Mueller's office had requested information from the White House regarding an Oval Office meeting President Trump had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on May 10, 2017, during which Trump reportedly said that firing Comey had relieved "great pressure" on him.
On January 23, 2018, The Washington Post reported that Robert Mueller sought to question President Donald Trump about the Flynn and Comey departures.
The Washington Post also reported on January 23, 2018, that Mueller's office is interested in a May 2017 Oval Office conversation between Trump and Andrew McCabe, days after McCabe had automatically become acting director of the FBI when Trump dismissed Comey, allegedly for not pledging loyalty to the president. During this conversation, Trump reportedly asked McCabe for whom he had voted in the 2016 presidential election. McCabe, a lifelong Republican, replied that he had not voted in that election. On January 24, 2018, Trump denied—or did not remember—asking McCabe about his vote. Like Comey, McCabe also took contemporaneous notes of his conversations with Trump, which are reportedly now in the possession of Mueller's office.
The New York Times reported on January 23, 2018, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned the preceding week by Mueller's investigators. Trump previously expressed frustration that Sessions had recused himself from the investigation and not prevented a Special Counsel from being appointed, stating that he would not have appointed Sessions had he known that would happen. Multiple episodes have been reported in which Trump has threatened to dismiss Sessions, or Sessions has tendered his resignation. The Washington Post reported on February 28, 2018, that the Mueller investigation has been examining a period of time during the summer of 2017 when Trump seemed determined to drive Sessions from his job, to determine "whether those efforts were part of a months-long pattern of attempted obstruction of justice." Sessions' departure would allow Trump to appoint another attorney general who is not restrained by recusal. The New York Times reported on May 29, 2018, that the Mueller investigation is examining a previously unreported March 2017 episode when Trump attempted to persuade Sessions to reverse his recusal, suggesting that the investigation into possible obstruction of justice was broader than previously understood. The questions Mueller's office had previously provided Trump's attorneys for an interview with the president included, "What efforts did you make to try to get [Sessions] to change his mind [about recusal]?"
USA Today and The New York Times reported on January 31, 2018, that Mueller's office is expected to question Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for President Trump's legal team, about his reported concerns that the president and his longtime aide Hope Hicks might have sought to obstruct justice. Corallo reportedly plans to tell investigators that Hicks told President Trump on a conference call that the Trump Jr. emails regarding his meeting with Russians "will never get out." Hicks' attorney denied the allegation. Mueller's investigators reportedly interviewed Hicks in early December 2017. Corallo had resigned from the Trump team in July 2017, reportedly because he became concerned that the president had obstructed justice.
Bloomberg News reported on March 12, 2018, that the obstruction of justice aspect of the investigation is near completion and that Mueller may set it aside to conclude other aspects, such as collusion and hacking.
The New York Times reported on March 28, 2018, that in 2017, as the Mueller investigation was building its cases against Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, former Trump attorney John M. Dowd broached the idea of presidential pardons of the men with their attorneys. The Times reported this might have indicated concerns by Trump's legal team about what the men might reveal to investigators if they agreed to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for leniency. Although legal opinions vary as to whether this discussion alone would constitute obstruction of justice, prosecutors might present it as part of a pattern of activity that points to a conspiracy to thwart the investigation. CBS News reported on March 28, 2018, that Manafort is declining a plea deal and proceeding to trial because he is expecting a pardon from Trump, citing "legal sources with knowledge of his strategy."
In a January 2018 letter to Mueller, Trump's attorneys asserted that Trump cannot unlawfully obstruct justice because the Constitution grants him full authority over all federal investigations and he can "if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon."
Trump requested and received the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions the day after the 2018 midterm elections, following months of criticizing Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation, stating in July 2017, "if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else." Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker, Sessions' chief of staff since September 2017, as Acting Attorney General. While Whitaker was Sessions' chief of staff, White House chief of staff John Kelly described him as the West Wing’s "eyes and ears" in the DOJ, which Trump considered hostile to him. Prior to joining the Justice Department, Whitaker had publicly criticized the Mueller investigation on several occasions, asserting it was "going too far," referring to it as a "lynch mob," and suggested it could be impeded by cutting its budget. Trump had seen Whitaker's supportive commentaries on CNN during the summer of 2017 and that July Whitaker was interviewed by White House counsel Don McGahn to join the Trump legal team as an "attack dog" against Mueller. Days after Whitaker's appointment, Jerry Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asserted that Whitaker's appointment was "part of a pattern of obstruction" of the Mueller investigation and that Whitaker would be the first witness called to testify before the Committee.
The Special Counsel investigation has expanded to include Trump's and his associates' financial ties to Russia. The FBI is reviewing the financial records of Trump himself, The Trump Organization, Trump's family members, and his campaign staff, including Trump's real estate activities, which had been under federal scrutiny before the campaign. According to CNN, financial crimes may be easier for investigators to prove than any crimes stemming directly from collusion with Russia. Campaign staff whose finances are under investigation include Manafort, Flynn, Carter Page, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. At a New York real estate conference in September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. stated: "And in terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." McClatchy reported on April 6, 2018, that Mueller's investigators that week arrived unannounced at the home of an unnamed business associate of the Trump Organization who had worked on foreign deals for the company in recent years. The investigators had warrants for electronic records and to compel sworn testimony, and were reported to be particularly interested in transactions involving Trump's attorney Michael Cohen.
Transactions under investigation include Russian purchases of Trump apartments, a SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, transactions with the Bank of Cyprus, real estate financing organized by Kushner, and Trump's sale of a Florida mansion for $30 million over its appraised value to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. The special counsel team has contacted Deutsche Bank, which is the main banking institution doing business with The Trump Organization. The Wall Street Journal reported on December 6, 2017, that Deutsche Bank received a subpoena from Mueller's office earlier that fall concerning people or entities affiliated with President Trump. The original Journal story incorrectly reported that Trump's records had been subpoenaed, which The New York Times reported on April 10, 2018, prompted Trump to tell his advisers "in no uncertain terms" that the Mueller investigation must be shut down, before Mueller's office advised his attorneys the report was inaccurate.
Kushner Properties—from which Jared Kushner resigned as CEO in early 2017 to serve as a senior advisor in the Trump White House—purchased the office tower located at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2007, just before Manhattan real estate prices fell in the Great Recession. The property has since experienced financial difficulties that the company has been attempting to resolve with new financing, without success, before the property's $1.2 billion mortgage comes due in February 2019. This effort has reportedly been complicated by Trump's election, which has caused potential lenders to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest. The matter has raised the interest of investigators who are looking at Kushner's December 2016 meeting with Sergei Gorkov, who said in a statement issued by his bank that he met with Kushner in his capacity as the then-chief executive of Kushner Properties, while Kushner assured Congress in a July 24, 2017, statement that the meeting did not involve "any discussion about my companies, business transactions, real estate projects, loans, banking arrangements or any private business of any kind." CNN reported on February 20, 2018, that Mueller's investigation has expanded beyond Kushner's contacts with Russia and now includes his efforts to secure financing for Kushner Properties from other foreign investors during the presidential transition.
Mueller took over an existing money laundering investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Manafort. On October 30, 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Manafort and his associate Rick Gates on charges including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, being an unregistered agent of foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, and false statements. Manafort's financial activities are also being investigated by the Senate and House intelligence committees, the New York Attorney General, and the Manhattan District Attorney.
The Special Counsel will be able to access Trump's tax returns, which has "especially disturbed" Trump according to The Washington Post. Trump's refusal to release his tax returns, as presidential candidates normally do, has been politically controversial since his presidential campaign.
The Special Counsel is also investigating whether the Central Bank of Russia's deputy governor, Aleksandr Torshin, illegally funneled money through the National Rifle Association to benefit Trump's campaign. On May 16, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report stating it had obtained "a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign" through Torshin and his assistant Mariia Butina, and that "The Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump's campaign." The NRA reported spending $30 million to support the Trump campaign—triple what they devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors. Torshin, a lifetime NRA member, reportedly sought to broker a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin in May 2016, but was rebuffed by Kushner. Torshin claims to have met with Trump at a Nashville NRA event in April 2015; he tweeted about the encounter in August, saying that Trump is "a proponent of traditional family values". Torshin spoke with Donald Trump Jr. during a gala event at the NRA's national gathering in Kentucky in May 2016, which Trump Jr.'s attorney Alan Futerfas characterized as "all gun-related small talk." Spanish authorities have implicated Torshin in money laundering and have described him as a "godfather" in Taganskaya, a major Russian criminal organization. On July 14, 2018, Butina was charged by the national security unit of the Justice Department with being an unregistered Russian agent who had attempted to create a backchannel of communications between American Republicans/conservatives and Russian officials by infiltrating the NRA, the National Prayer Breakfast and conservative religious organizations. The New York Times reported on July 17, 2018, that Torshin was scheduled to visit the White House in 2017, but the meeting was canceled after a national security aide noted Torshin was under investigation by Spanish authorities for money laundering.
CNN reported on April 4, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have been examining whether Russian oligarchs directly or indirectly provided illegal cash donations to the Trump campaign and inauguration. At least one oligarch was detained and his electronic devices searched as he arrived at a New York area airport on his private jet; subsequent reporting by The New York Times appeared to identify the man as Viktor Vekselberg. Another oligarch was also detained on a recent trip to the United States, but it is unclear if he was searched. Investigators reportedly have also asked a third oligarch who has not traveled to the United States to voluntarily provide documents and an interview. CNN reported that investigators are examining whether oligarchs invested in American companies or think tanks having political action committees connected to the campaign, as well as money funneled through American straw donors to the Trump campaign and inaugural fund.
The New York Times reported on April 9, 2018, that the Mueller investigation is examining a $150,000 donation Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian billionaire, made in September 2015 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange for a 20-minute appearance Trump made via video link to a conference in Kiev. This transaction came to light in documents the Trump Organization provided to investigators pursuant to a subpoena earlier in 2018. The donation, the largest the Foundation received in 2015 other than from Trump himself, was solicited by his attorney, Michael Cohen. The Times reported that the subpoena had demanded "documents, emails and other communications about several Russians, including some whose names have not been publicly tied to Mr. Trump."
On April 9, 2018, based on a referral to United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from the special counsel, the FBI raided the New York City office, residence, hotel suite, and safe-deposit boxes of Michael Cohen, seizing records related to several topics. The FBI seized Cohen's computers, phones, and personal financial records, including tax returns, as part of the no-knock raid on his office in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. CNN cited unnamed sources saying the search warrant was "very broad in terms of items sought" and that it included bank records.
The warrant was personally approved by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and carried out by the public corruption unit of the SDNY. Geoffrey Berman, the interim head of the SDNY, was recused from the matter; a Trump appointee, he had worked as a volunteer attorney on the Trump campaign. Further, due to the sensitive nature of the raid and the attorney–client privilege, a special "taint" team is required to review the documents to carefully separate out privileged and protected documents that may have been seized in the raid to ensure those inadmissible documents are not passed on to investigators. Legal blogger and former federal prosecutor Ken White of Popehat published a New York Times op-ed giving some background on the DOJ procedures required to approve such a raid, saying the search "suggests that the prosecutors believe they can convince a judge that communications between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen fall under the crime-fraud exception" of attorney-client privilege. It called the raid "highly dangerous" for both Cohen and Trump. White posted further analysis on Popehat, citing section 9-13.320 [sic] [recte 9-13.420] of the United States Attorneys' Manual, which sets the guidelines and regulations for searches of attorney premises.
In August 2017, Mueller's team issued grand jury subpoenas to officials in six firms, including lobbying firm Podesta Group and Mercury LLC with regard to activities on behalf of a public-relations campaign for a pro-Russian Ukrainian organization called European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The public relations effort was headed by Paul Manafort, and took place from 2012 to 2014. Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, is head of the Podesta Group. John Podesta is not employed by the company. Mercury LLC is headed by Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman. Mueller is investigating whether the firms violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The Podesta Group announced in November 2017 that it would be permanently closing, with many of its employees moving to Cogent Strategies, a new firm founded by Podesta Group CEO Kimberley Fritts.
From the beginning of his presidency Trump has requested assurances that he is not personally under investigation. FBI Director Comey told him so privately on three occasions but refused to make a public comment to that effect. In his letter dismissing Comey, Trump thanked Comey for "informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation." Comey later confirmed that this was true.
In March 2018, Mueller's office reportedly informed Trump's attorneys that the president is not a "criminal target" but remains a "subject" of the continuing investigation. Trump's advisers were reported to be split in their interpretation of this, with some believing it was an indication that his legal exposure was low, while others expressed concern that Mueller was inducing him to agree to a personal interview, which his attorneys have discouraged him from doing for fear he might perjure himself and thus change his status from subject to target. The Post reported that Mueller also advised the attorneys that he is "preparing a report about the president's actions while in office and potential obstruction of justice." The Post referenced Justice Department guidelines, which explain:
A "target" is a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant.
A "subject" of an investigation is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury's investigation.
Trump told reporters on January 24, 2018, that he was "looking forward" to testifying under oath to the Mueller investigation, perhaps in "two or three weeks," but added that it was "subject to my lawyers and all of that." The Wall Street Journal reported on February 25, 2018, that Trump's lawyers are considering ways for him to testify, provided the questions he faces are limited in scope and do not test his recollections in ways that amount to a potential perjury trap. Among options they are considering are providing written answers to Mueller's questions and having the president give limited face-to-face testimony. The Washington Post reported on March 19, 2018, that Trump's attorneys provided Mueller's office "written descriptions that chronicle key moments under investigation in hopes of curtailing the scope of a presidential interview.". In May 2018, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Politico that Mueller's team has rejected the proposal of providing a written testimony instead of an oral interview.
CNN reported on February 27, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have recently been asking witnesses about Trump's activities in Russia before the campaign, including the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow; unsuccessful discussions to build a Trump Tower Moscow; and the possibility of compromising information that Russians may have or claim to have about Trump.
The Intercept reported on March 2, 2018, that Jared Kushner and his father Charles Kushner made a proposal to Qatar's finance minister, Ali Sharif Al Emadi, in April 2017 to secure investment into 666 5th Avenue asset in his family's company's portfolio, when his request was not fulfilled, a group of Middle Eastern countries, with Jared Kushner's backing, initiated a diplomatic assault that culminated in a blockade of Qatar. Kushner specifically undermined the efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring an end to the standoff.
The New York Times reported on March 3, 2018, that the Mueller investigation had been examining possible efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to buy political influence by directing money to the Trump campaign. Investigators have recently interviewed Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, and other witnesses, about this matter. Nader was reportedly a frequent White House visitor during 2017 and investigators have inquired about any policymaking role he may have had. The Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits foreign nationals from contributing to American elections. The New York Times reported on March 6, 2018, that Nader is cooperating with the Mueller investigation and had testified before a grand jury during the preceding week. Investigators have examined a meeting around January 11, 2017, in the Seychelles that was convened by the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (known as "MBZ"), which Nader attended. Also present at that meeting were Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of state-owned Russian Direct Investment Fund, who is close to Vladimir Putin; and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a major Trump donor and an informal advisor to the Trump transition. UAE officials reportedly believed that Prince was representing the Trump transition and Dmitriev was representing Putin.
An aircraft owned by Andrei Skoch—a Russian billionaire subject to American sanctions—arrived in the Seychelles a day before Prince himself did. The Washington Post had reported on April 3, 2017, that American, European and Arab officials said the Seychelles meeting was "part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump." Prince denied on November 30, 2017, House Intelligence Committee testimony that he had represented the Trump transition or that the meeting involved any back-channel. The Washington Post reported on March 7, 2018, that Mueller has gathered evidence that contradicts Prince, and ABC News reported on April 6, 2018, that Nader had met with Prince at a Manhattan hotel days before the Seychelles meeting and later provided him with biographical information about Dmitriev. CNN reported on March 6, 2018, that Nader had been detained and questioned by the FBI at Dulles International Airport as he returned from a trip abroad on January 17, 2018.
Agents with search warrants copied the contents of Nader's electronic devices and served him with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury on January 19. CNN also reported that Nader had attended a December 2016 meeting in New York attended by MBZ; UAE ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba; and at least three Trump senior associates: Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner. The Wall Street Journal reported on April 2, 2018, that Mueller's investigators have inquired about the work done by a private consulting company, Wikistrat, on behalf of the UAE. One of the firm's co-founders, Joel Zamel, has reportedly been asked about his work with certain clients and his business relationship with George Nader. The Journal reported that, like Nader, Zamel had tried to forge a relationship with the new Trump administration.
The New York Times reported on April 4, 2018, that Nader has a history of dealings with Russia dating back to at least 2012, when he brokered a $4.2 billion arms deal between Russia and Iraq, and attended an invitation-only conference in Moscow organized by close associates of Vladimir Putin. Nader has reportedly traveled frequently to Russia on behalf of the UAE, accompanying MBZ on many of those trips, and has had his photo taken with Putin. Nader has reportedly received at least partial immunity for his cooperation with the Mueller investigation. The Times also reported that Joel Zamel had been stopped at Reagan International Airport in February 2018, had his electronic devices briefly seized, and later testified before the Mueller grand jury about his relationship with Nader. The New York Times reported on May 19, 2018, that Trump Jr. met with Nader, Prince and Zamel in Trump Tower on August 3, 2016. Nader reportedly told Trump Jr. the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were eager to help his father win the election. According to Trump Jr.'s attorney Alan Futerfas, Zamel pitched a social media manipulation campaign from his Israeli company Psy-Group, although Zamel's attorney Marc Mukasey denied this. Trump Jr. reportedly responded favorably according to one source, although Futerfas denied this. Nader subsequently had frequent meetings with Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner. After Trump's election, Nader paid Zamel a large sum of money of up to $2 million. The Times reported that Prince had arranged the August 2016 meeting; Prince had stated in his November 30, 2017, testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that he had no formal communications or contact, nor any unofficial role, with the Trump campaign. The Times reported on October 8, 2018, that sometime after March 2016 Rick Gates had solicited PSY Group to present proposals for social media manipulation and opposition research against Trump's primary opponents and Hillary Clinton. Gates reportedly was uninterested in the Psy-Group proposals, as social media strategy was being developed inside the Trump campaign, and there is no evidence the Trump campaign pursued the Psy Group proposals. The Mueller investigation obtained copies of the proposals and questioned Psy-Group employees.
Axios reported on March 4, 2018, that it has seen a grand jury subpoena that Mueller's office sent to a witness in February 2018. Axios did not name the witness. The subpoena reportedly demands all communications, from November 1, 2015, to date, that the witness sent or received "regarding" Trump; Carter Page; Corey Lewandowski; Hope Hicks; Keith Schiller; Michael Cohen; Paul Manafort; Rick Gates; Roger Stone; and Steve Bannon. A subsequent report by NBC News stated that the subpoena also encompasses "work papers, telephone logs, and other documents." On March 5, 2018, the witness was identified as Sam Nunberg, who served as a communications consultant on the Trump campaign until August 2, 2015, and later as an informal adviser. Nunberg stated that he had been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury on March 9, 2018, but he would refuse to appear or provide any of the subpoenaed documents. After multiple defiant television appearances on March 5, 2018, Nunberg indicated the next day that he plans to comply with the subpoena.
The New Yorker reported on March 5, 2018, that Christopher Steele spoke with Mueller's investigators in September 2017. The magazine asserts that Steele discussed another document he had authored in November 2016—after the Steele dossier—that describes discussions "a senior Russian official" had heard inside the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: that the Kremlin had asked Trump "through unspecified channels" to not appoint Mitt Romney as Secretary of State. As a presidential candidate in 2012, Romney described Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe." After publicly considering Romney as Secretary of State, Trump ultimately selected Rex Tillerson, who has a long history of business dealings in Russia and was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin in 2013.
The Washington Post reported on March 6, 2018, that Mueller's office has requested documents and interviewed witnesses regarding activities of Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime personal lawyer. Investigators are reported to be interested in at least two episodes relating to Russian interests, including the proposed construction of Trump Tower Moscow and "a Russia-friendly peace proposal for Ukraine that was delivered to Cohen by an Ukrainian lawmaker one week after Trump took office."
The New York Times reported on March 7, 2018, that the Mueller investigation is aware of conversations Trump had with two witnesses regarding their testimony with investigators. In one conversation, Trump asked White House counsel Don McGahn to issue a statement denying a story The Times published in January 2018. That story reported that McGahn told investigators Trump had ordered him to direct the Justice Department to dismiss Mueller. McGahn never issued the statement and reportedly told Trump that the president had, in fact, told him to have Mueller dismissed. The New York Times reported on August 18, 2018, that McGahn had been cooperating extensively with the Mueller investigation for several months and that he and his lawyer had become concerned that Trump "had decided to let Mr. McGahn take the fall for decisions that could be construed as obstruction of justice, like the Comey firing, by telling the special counsel that he was only following shoddy legal advice from Mr. McGahn." Trump also asked his former chief of staff Reince Priebus how his interview with investigators had gone and whether they were "nice." The Times reported that although "legal experts" thought the conversations probably did not constitute witness tampering, witnesses and attorneys who became aware of the conversations reported them to Mueller.
The New York Times reported on March 15, 2018, that the Mueller investigation had subpoenaed documents from The Trump Organization, including all documents related to Russia. Although the full scope of the subpoena was not clear, it was the first known time investigators demanded documents from Trump's businesses. The Los Angeles Times reported the same day that the special counsel's office had also subpoenaed the Trump campaign for documents.
NBC News reported on March 30, 2018, that Ted Malloch, a professor and author who worked with the Trump campaign, had been detained and questioned by the FBI two days earlier as he arrived at Boston Logan Airport after a flight from London. He was served with a subpoena to appear for questioning by Mueller's investigators on April 13, and presented with a warrant to have his phone seized and searched. Malloch told NBC in an email that FBI agents asked him a variety of questions, including about Roger Stone, author Jerome Corsi, and WikiLeaks. CNN reported that Malloch has written a forthcoming book alleging a "deep state" within the United States government fabricated the Steele dossier to destroy Trump.
Michael Caputo, a former communications adviser for the Trump campaign, was interviewed by Mueller's investigators on May 2, 2018. Caputo was recruited to the Trump campaign by Paul Manafort and had previously worked with Russian politicians. A long-time associate of Roger Stone, Caputo stated after his interview, "It's clear they are still really focused on Russia collusion. They know more about the Trump campaign than anyone who ever worked there."
CNN reported on May 5, 2018, that Mueller's investigators had interviewed Trump's close friend and inaugural committee chairman Tom Barrack in December 2017, asking him primarily about his relationship with Manafort and Gates, although The Associated Press reported the interview was broader and included campaign finance matters.
On May 9, 2018, CNBC reported that Mueller's office had contacted telecommunications giant AT&T regarding payments totalling at least $200,000, but possibly as high as $600,000, made to a company founded by Michael Cohen in order to gain "insights" into the incoming Trump administration. An AT&T spokesperson said that they had provided all the information requested by the Special Counsel in November and December 2017.
Glenn Simpson, a co-founder of Fusion GPS, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22, 2017, that the FBI told Christopher Steele—and then Steele told Simpson—that the FBI had "a human source from inside the Trump organization" (and, more specifically, "an internal Trump campaign source"). Simpson did not indicate when Steele received this information or when he conveyed it to Simpson. The Washington Post reported on May 8, 2018, that a longtime FBI and CIA informant had provided information about connections between Russia and the Trump campaign to FBI investigators early in their investigation. This sparked speculation the FBI had planted a "mole" inside the Trump campaign, although it was not clear that the individual Simpson described is the same individual described by The Post. The Washington Post reported on May 9, 2018, that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes subpoenaed the Justice Department to provide him with all documents regarding the longtime informant; The Post quoted the subpoena as demanding "all documents referring or related to the individual referenced in Chairman Nunes' April 24, 2018, classified letter to Attorney General Sessions," although Nunes denied he had referred to any specific individual. The Justice Department resisted on the grounds that revealing the information could endanger the life of a longtime top-secret informant for the FBI and CIA, and the Trump White House—with the president's agreement—sided with the Justice Department. The New York Times reported on May 16, 2018, that at least one government informant had met several times with Trump campaign aides Carter Page and George Papadopolous. The next day, Trump tweeted "Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI "SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT.""
The Washington Post noted on January 9, 2018, that the source Simpson referenced may not have necessarily been an informant willingly or directly, or during the campaign, but rather may have become an informant as a result of later becoming implicated in wrongdoing. Natasha Bertrand, then with Business Insider, reported on January 3, 2018, that a source told her Simpson had been referring to George Papadopolous, who had first been interviewed by the FBI seven days after Trump's inauguration and whose cooperation with the FBI—to "provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant"—began with his arrest on July 27, 2017, and was not publicly known until his indictment in October 2017. Sara Carter, a frequent guest on Sean Hannity's Fox News program, confirmed Bertrand's reporting on January 9, 2018, stating "according to people close to Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS he misspoke. That it isn't true at all. That what [Simpson] was referring to was Papadopoulos actually in London." The New York Times reported on May 18, 2018, the FBI sent an informant to meet with George Papadopolous in late-summer 2016, and to meet repeatedly with Carter Page over ensuing months, after the FBI had acquired evidence the two men had suspicious contacts with Russians. The Washington Post reported the same day the informant first approached Page at a symposium in Britain in July 2016, and in September 2016 invited Papadopolous to London to work on a research paper. Late that summer, the informant also met with Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis in Northern Virginia. The informant was identified as an American academic who teaches in Britain, but both The Times and The Post declined to publish his name. NBC News identified him as Stefan Halper.
The Washington Post reported on June 28, 2018, that the Mueller investigation, as well as British investigators, are examining relationships between the Brexit movement, Russia and the Trump campaign. The Post reported Mueller's investigators had specifically asked two individuals, including former Trump communications official Michael Caputo, about relationships between Trump associates and Brexit leader Nigel Farage.
ABC News reported on September 20, 2018, that Michael Cohen had been interviewed by Mueller's investigators multiple times since he pleaded guilty to charges a month earlier. The interviews covered a broad range of topics, including Trump's business dealings with Russians, alleged collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign and whether Trump or his associates had discussed a pardon of Cohen with him.
The Wall Street Journal reported on December 15, 2017, that Mueller's office had requested and received employee emails from Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that worked for the Trump campaign, earlier that year. The Washington Post reported on March 20, 2018, that Christopher Wylie, an employee of Cambridge Analytica until late 2014, said that former Trump campaign CEO and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon oversaw a 2014 effort at the company (which he co-founded) to gather Facebook data on millions of Americans and test the effectiveness of anti-establishment messages such as "drain the swamp" and "deep state," which became major Trump themes after Bannon joined the campaign in August 2016. Views of Russian President Vladimir Putin were also tested. The Associated Press reported on March 22, 2018, that the special counsel is examining the connections between the company, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, particularly how voter data may have been used in battleground states.
Several news agencies reported on April 4, 2018, that the security of 87 million Facebook users` private data had been shared, without their consent, via Cambridge Analytica, influencing voters and helping Trump win the 2016 election. The New York Times reported on May 15, 2018, that the Justice Department and FBI were investigating Cambridge Analytica, although it was unclear if Mueller's office was involved in the investigation.
At a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on August 1, 2018, Chairperson Burr entered a diagram to the record, showing foreign influence on both the left-wing and right-wing social networks. Although the diagram purported Russian activity, witnesses confirmed that such activity was not exclusive to Russian actors, without having elaborated on Israeli or other foreign actor influence. Technical excascerbations such as the use of Israeli multinational server arrays as the backbone of Facebooks data porting as opposed to "USA-based" social media were covered. Chairman Burr stated that these problems are affecting countries all around the world. Witness Doctor John Kelly, CEO of Graphika compared systematic influencing of political social media to systems used to promote "pop music" on social media.
Through July 2018, the Special Counsel has publicly initiated criminal proceedings against 33 people—six U.S. nationals, 26 Russian nationals, and one Dutch national—and three Russian organizations. Two different federal grand juries have been used to issue indictments in these proceedings: one located in the District of Columbia (D.D.C.) and another located in the Eastern District of Virginia (E.D. Va.).
|Accused||Date first charged||Charge(s)||Case status||Jurisdiction|
|George Papadopoulos||October 3, 2017||1 count: false statements||Pleaded guilty on October 5, 2017. Sentenced to 14 days in prison, a $9,500 fine, 200 hours of community service and 12 months probation on September 7, 2018.||D.D.C.|
|Rick Gates||October 27, 2017[A]||2 counts: conspiracy against the United States and false statements||Pleaded guilty on February 23, 2018.||D.D.C.|
|February 22, 2018||23 counts: assisting in the preparation of false tax returns (×5), subscribing to false tax returns (×5), filing a false amended return, failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts (×3), bank fraud conspiracy (×5), and bank fraud (×4)||Charges dismissed without prejudice on February 27, 2018.||E.D. Va.|
|Paul Manafort||October 27, 2017[B]||2 counts: conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice||Pleaded guilty on September 14, 2018.||D.D.C.|
|February 22, 2018||18 counts: filing false tax returns (×5), failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts (×4), bank fraud conspiracy (×5), and bank fraud (×4)||Found guilty on 8 counts, mistrial declared on 10 counts on August 21, 2018.||E.D. Va.|
|Michael Flynn||November 30, 2017||1 count: false statements||Pleaded guilty on December 1, 2017.||D.D.C.|
|Richard Pinedo||February 2, 2018||1 count: identity fraud||Pleaded guilty on February 2, 2018. Sentenced to six months prison, followed by six months of home confinement on October 10, 2018.||D.D.C.|
|Alex van der Zwaan||February 16, 2018||1 count: false statements||Pleaded guilty on February 16, 2018. Sentenced to 30 days in prison and a $20,000 fine on April 3, 2018.
Deported to the Netherlands June 5, 2018.
||8 counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft (×6)||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|
||7 counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, and aggravated identity theft (×6)|
|1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States|
|Concord Management and Consulting LLC||1 count: conspiracy to defraud the United States||Pleaded not guilty on May 9, 2018.|
|Konstantin Kilimnik||June 8, 2018||2 counts: obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|
||July 13, 2018||10 counts: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, aggravated identity theft (×8), and conspiracy to launder money||Outside US jurisdiction||D.D.C.|
|Aleksandr Osadchuk||11 counts: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States (×2), aggravated identity theft (×8), and conspiracy to launder money|
|Anatoliy Kovalev||1 count: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States|
On October 30, 2017, it was revealed that Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty earlier in the month to making a false statement to FBI investigators, a felony. The guilty plea was part of a plea bargain in which he agreed to cooperate with the government and "provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant."
On December 30, 2017, The New York Times reported that Papadopoulos had in May 2016 disclosed to the Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Alexander Downer in Kensington Wine Rooms, a London wine bar, that the Russians possessed a large trove of stolen Hillary Clinton emails that could potentially damage her presidential campaign. Australia officials initially did not convey this information to the American counterparts but did so after WikiLeaks and DCLeaks released stolen Democratic National Committee emails in June/July 2016, which American intelligence has concluded with "high confidence" originated from Russian hackers. The hacking, and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign apparently had inside information about it, were driving factors that led the FBI in July 2016 to open an investigation into Russia's attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump's associates conspired. The Nunes memo confirmed that the Papadopolous matter triggered the investigation—and not the Steele dossier, which some Republicans had alleged to have been the trigger.
Papadopoulos was recruited to the Trump campaign in early March 2016. In a court document filed as part of Papadopoulos's guilty plea, prosecutors asserted that later in March while traveling in Italy he met Joseph Mifsud, a London-based academic with contacts in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mifsud showed little interest in Papadopoulos until Mifsud learned Papadopoulos was a member of the Trump campaign. Several days later, Papadopoulos met in London with Mifsud and Olga Polonskaya, a Russian national whom Papadopoulos initially but falsely believed was Vladimir Putin's niece. Papadopoulos then emailed his Trump campaign supervisor Sam Clovis about his meetings, which he said included the Russian Ambassador, and which had been about a "meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump." Clovis was non-committal but replied "Great work." In subsequent days Papadopoulos worked with Mifsud and Polonskaya to arrange contacts between the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Trump campaign. In late April 2016, Papadopoulos emailed a unnamed Trump campaign "Senior Policy Advisor," stating "The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr. Trump to meet him when he is ready." At about the same time, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that the Russian government had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails," which Papadopoulos then shared with Alexander Downer in a London bar days later. Mifsud dropped from sight after his name appeared in published reports in October 2017 and has not been heard from through May 2018. Stephan Roh, a German national who is a close associate of Mifsud, asserts he was detained, questioned and surveilled by FBI agents after he arrived on a flight to New York in 2017. The BBC reported on March 21, 2018, that Roh and another man named Ivan Timofeev were also involved in Papadopoulos's efforts to contact Russian officials.
For several weeks prior to his scheduled sentencing, his wife had been saying publicly that he might reconsider his guilty plea and its agreement to cooperate with prosecutors. On August 17, Mueller recommended to the judge that Papadopoulos be sentenced to up to 6 months in prison for lying to the FBI. The recommendation commented that "The defendant’s crime was serious and caused damage to the government’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election," adding that he did not provide "substantial assistance" to the prosecution, but instead withheld information. On August 29, his wife said he has decided to stick with his plea agreement. On September 7, 2018, Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in jail, plus 200 hours of community service, one year of probation and a $9,500 fine.
The two criminal trials of Paul Manafort are the first cases brought to trial by the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort served as campaign chair for the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign from June 20 to August 19, 2016.
In July 2017, the FBI conducted a raid of Manafort's home, authorized by search warrant under charges of interference in the 2016 election. Manafort and his business assistant Rick Gates were both indicted and arrested in October 2017 for charges of conspiracy against the United States, making false statements, money laundering, and failing to register as foreign agents for Ukraine. Gates entered a plea bargain in February 2018.
Manafort's first trial on 18 criminal counts began on July 31, 2018. In that trial, Gates testified that he committed tax-evasion and embezzlement crimes with Manafort. Under cross examination, Gates also admitted to an extramarital relationship funded with money embezzled from Manafort. Manafort was found guilty on eight counts (covering filing false tax returns, bank fraud, and failing to disclose a foreign bank account), but a mistrial was declared on the remaining 10 counts due to a single juror harboring reasonable doubts.
During his second trial, Manafort pleaded guilty to two counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering. He further admitted to the remaining charges against him, agreed to forfeit several properties and accounts, and agreed to full cooperation with the prosecution. Manafort has reportedly met with prosecutors nearly a dozen times. But in late November it was reported that Manafort is not being as forthcoming as FBI investigators want and that they are "not getting what they want" from him. The reported breakdown in cooperation followed the firing of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and the appointment of Matthew Whittaker, a critic of the Mueller investigation, as acting attorney general.
As part of the investigation, Mueller assumed control of a Virginia-based grand jury criminal probe into the relationship between Flynn and Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin. Flynn Intel Group, an intelligence consultancy, was paid $530,000 by Alptekin's company Inovo BV to produce a documentary and conduct research on Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish cleric who lives in the United States. The special prosecutor is investigating whether the money came from the Turkish government, and whether Flynn kicked funds back to a middleman to conceal the payment's original source. Investigators are also looking at Flynn's finances more generally, including possible payments from Russian companies and from the Japanese government. White House documents relating to Flynn have been requested as evidence. The lead person within Mueller's team for this investigation is Brandon Van Grack. Flynn's son, Michael G. Flynn, is also a subject of the investigation. Michael G. Flynn worked closely with his father's lobbying company, the Flynn Intel Group, and accompanied his father on his 2015 visit to Moscow.
On November 5, 2017, NBC News reported that Mueller had enough evidence for charges against Flynn and his son. NBC News reported on November 22, 2017, that former Flynn business partner Bijan Kian is a subject of the Mueller investigation. In late November 2017, Flynn's defense team stopped sharing information with Trump's team of lawyers, which was interpreted as a sign that Flynn was cooperating and negotiating a plea bargain with the special counsel team. On December 1, 2017, Michael Flynn agreed to a plea bargain with Mueller. He appeared in federal court to plead guilty to a single felony count of "willfully and knowingly" making "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements" to the FBI and to confirm his intention to cooperate with Mueller's investigation, including "participating in covert law enforcement activities." As part of Flynn's plea bargain, his son Michael G. Flynn is not expected to be charged. On January 31, 2018, the Mueller team advised a federal court that they will not be ready to request sentencing of Flynn until at least May 1, 2018; and on that day, the special counsel requested an extension to June 29, 2018. On that date, Mueller requested another extension, to August 24, 2018. Another postponement was requested on August 21, 2018, to September 17. On that date, the Mueller and Flynn legal teams requested Flynn be sentenced in late November 2018.
On February 16, 2018, Mueller's office unsealed an indictment which revealed that Richard “Ricky” Pinedo Jr., of Santa Paula, California, accepted a plea agreement on February 2, in which he pleaded guilty to identity fraud, and using the identity of other persons for "unlawful activity", both felonies. Pinedo also agreed to cooperate with the investigation, but faces up to fifteen years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000. Pinedo had operated Auction Essistance, a web-based business that brokered bank account numbers, enabling people who had been barred from websites like eBay and PayPal to return to those websites under a different identity. He does not have a prior criminal history. On October 10, 2018, Pinedo was sentenced by United States District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich to six months in prison, followed by six months of home confinement.
On February 16, 2018, Mueller charged attorney Alex van der Zwaan with one count of making false statements to the FBI with respect to van der Zwaan's communications with Gates and another individual identified as "Person A", believed to be Konstantin Kilimnik, in addition to deleting email sought by investigators. Van der Zwaan has worked with Manafort and Gates in 2012 on Ukraine-related matters. Van der Zwaan is the son-in-law of German Khan, who owns Russia's Alfa-Bank along with Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven; all three of them are named in the Trump–Russia dossier.
Van der Zwaan pleaded guilty on February 20, 2018; the guilty plea did not include an agreement to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. On March 27, 2018, Mueller's office asked a judge to consider jail time for van der Zwaan. His sentencing hearing was held on April 3, 2018, and he was sentenced to 30 days in prison followed by two months of supervised release, and fined $20,000. Judge Amy Berman Jackson stated that van der Zwaan, whose pregnant wife is due to give birth in August, can have his passport back after his 30-day sentence, at which point he can self-deport back to Europe if Immigrations and Customs Enforcement allows.
On February 16, 2018, special counsel Robert Mueller's team announced it had filed an indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations. The indictment alleges that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, funneled significant funds to Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked company headquartered in Saint Petersburg and described as a "troll factory", for the purposes of carrying out a secret operation to influence the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election while obstructing the enforcement of federal elections laws. The indictment alleges that members of the conspiracy traveled to the United States to conduct research; created social media accounts impersonating Americans; opened financial accounts with the stolen identities of Americans; bought advertisements on social media platforms; organized and financed political rallies; and posted and promoted material favorable to Donald Trump, Jill Stein, and Bernie Sanders, while disparaging candidates like Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The indictment cites one case in which the defendants and their co-conspirators paid a U.S. person to build a cage on a flatbed truck and paid another U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform for a pro-Trump political rally in Florida. Reporters have since contacted some of those "unwitting" Americans. The man who built the cage says he often spoke on the phone with the group that paid him for it, and he never suspected he was dealing with Russians until the FBI contacted him months later.
The indictment's allegations that Russians were actively interfering in the 2016 election process contradict President Trump's repeated assertions that Russian interference was a "hoax" devised by Democrats or perpetrated by others, such as China.. Historically, Russia is second only to the United States in foreign election intervention and is therefore statistically the most probable perpetrator against the United States.
A long-time associate of Paul Manafort, Kilimnik was charged on June 8, 2018, on two counts, both relating to obstruction of justice. A Russian national, he is believed to be in Moscow, where he may have ties to Russian intelligence.
The New York Times reported on August 31, 2018, that an unnamed Russian political operative and a Ukrainian businessman had illegally purchased four tickets to the inauguration of Donald Trump on behalf of Kilimnik. The tickets, valued at $50,000, were purchased with funds that had flowed through a Cypriot bank account. The transaction was facilitated by Sam Patten, an American lobbyist who had related work with Paul Manafort and pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent. Patten agreed to cooperate with Mueller's office and other law enforcement authorities.
On July 13, 2018, Rod Rosenstein, the United States Deputy Attorney General, announced indictments of twelve Russian GRU officers for their efforts in the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak, through the establishment of false identities as DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, as well as charges of money laundering using bitcoin. The indictment also alleged that an unnamed congressional candidate requested and received stolen documents about his/her opponent from Guccifer 2.0, and that the Russians were in contact with a "friendly reporter". Combined with the findings of the intelligence community in January 2017, and endorsed by the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2018, the indictments appeared to decisively debunk a number of alternate theories by Trump and his allies about who perpetrated the hacks, and came three days before Trump was to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin for a summit in Helsinki, Finland. After the indictments were announced, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters stated "Today's charges include...no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result." However, that the emails were stolen by hacking has never been in dispute, except for a debunked smear campaign promoted by numerous Trump allies that the emails were stolen and released by DNC employee Seth Rich, who supposedly was later "assassinated" in retribution.
Bloomberg News reported that Trump permitted the indictments to be announced prior to the 2018 Russia–United States summit hoping it would strengthen his position in negotiations with Vladimir Putin.
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney and adviser, pleaded guilty to two felony campaign finance violations.
Elena Khusyaynova, a Russian national, stands accused of overseeing a $35 million budget from 2014 to 2018 that covered spending on activists, social media advertising, and promoting news postings on social networks. The Justice Department says that the proposed operating budget for 2018 alone was over $10 million.
Maria Butina, a Russian national, stands accused of working with her mentor, Alexander Torshin, to develop "back channel" communication with US politicians, according to an FBI affidavit.
Mueller's appointment to oversee the investigation immediately garnered widespread support from Democrats and from some Republicans in Congress. Over time, some conservatives, including political commentators Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, began to criticize the investigation, asserting that Mueller should be dismissed and the investigation closed. Sean Hannity, a strong supporter of Trump, became a vocal and persistent critic of the Mueller investigation on his Fox News television show, Hannity, and syndicated radio program, The Sean Hannity Show. He has called the investigation a "witch hunt" and described Mueller as "corrupt, abusively biased and political."
Throughout 2017 and 2018, Trump and his allies in Congress and the media promulgated a series of false narratives to assert that the FBI, Justice Department and Mueller investigation have been engaged in an elaborate, corrupt conspiracy against Trump. Among other things, Trump characterized the Mueller investigation as a "rigged Russia witch hunt," while prominent Trump supporter Sean Hannity has described it as "the biggest corruption scandal in American history." On May 29, 2018, Trump went so far as to assert that the Mueller investigation intended to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections, an accusation Hannity reinforced on his Fox News show that night, saying Mueller "wants to derail many pro-Trump Republicans in the midterms." In a two-minute monologue that same day, Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith flatly debunked that assertion and a number of other Trump narratives, saying "you laugh at them because there's almost nothing else you can do."
In June 2017, Trump reportedly told McGahn to fire Mueller, but was persuaded to back off from this course of action. Also in June 2017, Trump reportedly instructed his aides to start a campaign for his administration and his Republican allies to discr potential witnesses in the investigation, including FBI officials Andrew McCabe, Jim Rybicki, and James Baker. The three men had been identified by Comey as his confidants. The instruction was reported in January 2018 by Foreign Policy. Trump's lead attorney John Dowd disputed the accuracy of the report.
On March 17, 2018, Trump appeared to abandon his attorneys' advice to avoid directly criticizing the Mueller investigation, tweeting that the "Mueller probe should never have been started" and that it was a "WITCH HUNT!" He also claimed that "there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State." The next day, he questioned how "fair" it was that "the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans". Trump did not note that Mueller himself is a Republican, as is the man who appointed him, Rod Rosenstein—who was appointed by Trump. This was the first time he had criticized Mueller by name, alarming many prominent Republicans, who cautioned Trump not to criticize Mueller or give any appearance that he was contemplating having Mueller dismissed; they warned of dire repercussions if he did. Presidential lawyer Ty Cobb later stated that the president "is not considering or discussing" firing Mueller.
On August 1, 2018, President Trump said on Twitter that Attorney General Jeff Sessions "should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further." In an interview published on September 19, 2018, Trump said that the Mueller investigation was "beyond a witch hunt" - it is a "hoax" with "17 angry democrats" which has committed "fraudulent" acts.
CrowdStrike, the company the DNC brought in to initially investigate and remediate the hack, actually shared images of the DNC servers with the FBI. For the purposes of an investigation of this type, images are much more useful than handing over metal and hardware, because they are bit-by-bit copies of a crime scene taken while the crime was going on.
I've talked with Director Mueller about this," Rosenstein said. "He's going to make the appropriate decisions, and if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation then, as Director Mueller and I discussed, if there's a need from me to recuse, I will.
According to sources familiar with the process ... [a]n assessment of evidence and circumstances will be completed before a final decision is made to launch an investigation of the president of the United States regarding potential obstruction of justice.
SEKULOW: The president is not and has not been under investigation.
DICKERSON: How do you know?
SEKULOW: Because we've received no notice of investigation. There has been no notification from the special counsel's office that the president is under investigation.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia, is expanding his probe to assume control of a grand jury investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, three sources told Reuters [...] Federal prosecutors in Virginia are investigating a deal between Flynn and Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin as part of a grand jury criminal probe, according to a subpoena seen by Reuters.
Mr. Pinedo’s enterprise essentially entailed providing “customers” of Auction Essistance with bank account and deposit information so that they could establish verified Pay Pal accounts without the need of providing personal bank account information.
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