Credit to Author: Garrett M. Graff| Date: Wed, 05 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
Michael Flynn's sentencing memo, filed yesterday with the most intriguing and interesting parts redacted by special counsel Robert Mueller, provided yet another frustrating glimpse into an investigation that seems at times almost maddeningly opaque. It made clear that Flynn was cooperating in three criminal investigations—and that he had cooperated extensively—but shed little light on the "what" or the "how."
Amid the flurry of revelations from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign, it’s worth revisiting the loose ends of his probe. Specifically, focusing on questions that remain mysteries to us but that clearly Mueller himself knows by this point—the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns”—provides particular clarity as to where the investigation will head next.
Decoding Mueller’s 17-month investigation has been a publicly frustrating exercise, as individual puzzle pieces, like Flynn's sentencing memo, often don’t hint at the final assembled picture—nor even tell us if we’re looking at a single interlocking puzzle, in which all the pieces are related, or multiple, separate, unrelated ones.
The sheer breadth of alleged, unrelated criminality by so many different Trumpworld players—from Paul Manafort’s money laundering and European bribes to Michael Flynn’s Turkish conspiracies to Michael Cohen’s tax fraud to even the indictments of the first two members of Congress to endorse Trump, representatives Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter—make it particularly difficult to disentangle what might have transpired at Trump Tower and the White House.
Mueller’s investigation, though, has been remarkably focused and consistent straight through—zeroing in on five distinct investigative avenues: money laundering and Russian-linked business deals; the Russian government’s cyberattack on the DNC, other entities, and state-level voting systems; its related online information influence operations, by the Internet Research Agency; the sketchy contacts by Trump campaign and transition officials with Russia; and the separate question of whether Trump himself, or others, actively tried to obstruct justice by impeding the investigation of the above.
A sixth investigative avenue was opened this spring by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, where Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws by paying hush money to Stormy Daniels and others—which he says occurred at Trump’s instruction.
Mueller’s careful, methodical strategy often only reveals itself in hindsight, as the significance of previous steps becomes clear with subsequent ones. Examining today the totality of what Mueller and prosecutors have shown thus far illuminates numerous areas of clear interest.
Despite the massive revelations—and more than 300 pages of a “Mueller report” that has already been written through court filings—there remain very basic details we still don’t know, starting with three overarching concerns:
1. Is Matt Whitaker overseeing the Russia probe—and is his appointment as attorney general even legal? It’s remarkable how little we know about the status of the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, whose appointment is being challenged in multiple legal forums currently as unconstitutional, and whether he’s actively overseeing the Russia investigation. Under immense pressure, Whitaker—who has publicly criticized the Mueller probe and whose appointment seemed designed to hinder Mueller—announced soon after his appointment that he would seek the guidance of Justice Department ethics lawyers, but the department has refused to say whether he’s done so. As Tom Goldstein, one of DC’s most respected Supreme Court attorneys and observers, wrote to the Court, “It is a constitutional crisis even if we are distracted from and dulled to it.”
2. Is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross involved in any of this? Scandals come and go so quickly in the Trump administration that it’s hard to keep them straight, but it’s worth revisiting that investigative journalists, primarily at Forbes, have spent the year documenting myriad sketchy financial dealings by Cabinet member and billionaire Wilbur Ross, including his apparent ties to a Cyprus bank controlled by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who has been mixed up with Michael Cohen and whose companies funneled Cohen more than $4.4 million for “consulting services” after Trump’s election. (The same Cyprus bank was a key conduit of Paul Manafort’s alleged money laundering, and cooperated with Mueller’s investigation.) As Cabinet secretary, Ross also maintained part ownership in a shipping company owned by another Russian oligarch who was under sanctions by the US government. While Ross’s scandals have thus far appeared separate from Trump’s, he adds to the unusually large number of Trump associates with complex financial ties to Russia. And Ross’s continued well into his time in the Cabinet, providing another potential point of leverage for Russian influence.
3. How closely related is the investigation of the 2016 election to the Trump Organization’s financial scandals? The Michael Cohen plea agreement highlighted another uncomfortable fact: just how little we know about the business holdings, income, business partners, or investors in Donald Trump’s business empire. Again, earth-shaking scandals sweep past in the Trump era too quickly to remember, so it’s easy to forget that just two months ago, The New York Times reported that Donald Trump as a businessman had engaged in an apparent $400 million tax fraud. Trump money watchers noted quickly that the Times investigation complemented an earlier Washington Post report that pointed to how Trump abruptly switched in the 2000s—when, we now know, his father’s funds dried up—to paying for projects with massive, largely unexplained piles of cash. Around that same time period, Donald Trump, Jr. said that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” The first rule of any scandal is always the Watergate maxim: Follow the money. Who were, or are, Trump’s business partners, and did any of them play a part in the 2016 election attack? We know from excellent reporting by people like Adam Davidson, in the the New Yorker, that Trump was happy to do business with Russian oligarchs. The June 2016 Trump Tower meeting involved at least some of Trump’s business partners, like Aras Agalarov, who may have moved money around suspiciously soon thereafter. Given how intertwined Russia’s business elite is with Vladimir Putin, it hardly seems like these connections are entirely unrelated to Russia’s multi-pronged attack on the 2016 election.
Beyond those three broader potential scandals—any one of which in ordinary times would have been the subject of wall-to-wall news coverage—a close examination of the state of Mueller’s investigation offers a host of intriguing questions yet to be answered, and puzzle pieces left unplaced:
4. How did Trump himself, and the Trump family, react to Cohen’s updates on various schemes? Michael Cohen’s two plea agreements both discuss his interactions with “Individual 1,” aka Donald Trump. Notably, though, the court filings stop short of providing any clear detail about just how Trump or, in the case of the Trump Tower Moscow project, Trump’s family members reacted to Cohen’s updates. However, Cohen has gone out of his way in court to point out verbally that he acted at the direction of Donald Trump. Prosecutors can’t ethically allow him to say things in court that they don’t have reason to believe are true, so if Cohen is saying that, they almost certainly have documentary evidence to back it up. Remember, prosecutors seized about 291,000 documents in their April raid of Cohen’s office, as well as around 30 iPads, cell phones, computers, and other devices. Cohen himself has made clear that he secretly recorded conversations around Trump, so it’s possible that prosecutors even have some of the exchanges in question verbatim. Given how thorough and detail-rich Mueller’s court filings have been, it seems likely there’s a reason to have left these details out so far.
5. What has Felix Sater told Mueller? The man known as “Individual 2” in the Cohen agreement, real estate developer and peripheral Trump figure Felix Sater, possesses perhaps the most intriguing background of anyone wrapped up in the scandal. He’s a longtime intelligence asset and businessman who was a key participant in the Trump Tower Moscow project. From another case involving the Russian mob, he also has a pre-existing relationship with Andrew Weissmann, Mueller’s bulldog prosecutor. Sater has been apparently cooperating with the special counsel, and that assistance, paired with Michael Cohen—a walking, 70-hour-talking Rosetta Stone of Trumpland—would potentially provide comprehensive insights.
6. What has George Nader told Mueller? Beyond the questions around WikiLeaks, the biggest part of the Trump puzzle that hasn’t seen any public action centers around another enigmatic figure, would-be Middle Eastern power broker George Nader, who, like Sater, apparently has been cooperating for some time with Mueller. A whole series of questions remain about a meeting in the Seychelles involving Blackwater founder Erik Prince. It’s possible that they haven’t come to light because Mueller found nothing there. But given his sustained months of interviews and questions, it seems equally likely Mueller’s building something we haven’t seen.
Mueller’s careful, methodical strategy often only reveals itself in hindsight.
7. What happens to Cozy Bear? The Russian government perpetrated two distinct cyberattacks on the DNC, one by the military intelligence unit GRU, and its hacking team known as “Fancy Bear,” and a separate, apparently uncoordinated attack by the state security service FSB, known as “Cozy Bear.” Mueller brought a narrative-rich indictment against the GRU’s Fancy Bear team, but we know from European reporting that the US knowledge of Cozy Bear’s activities is at least as rich. Dutch intelligence hacked Cozy Bear’s offices and has security camera footage of the individual hackers involved, all of which was turned over to the US. If the Cozy Bear hackers haven’t been charged, there’s presumably a reason—and, given the public knowledge of the Dutch intelligence coup, it’s likely not just about protecting sources and methods. Is there a Cozy Bear shoe still to drop or did the FSB play some larger role in the plot that will become clear in time?
8. Who is the Atlanta traveler? In some ways, the deeply detailed nature of Mueller’s filings make the details he doesn’t include just as interesting. In the Internet Research Agency indictment, he laid out how three IRA employees traveled to the US in 2014. Mueller indicted two of them in February, but left unindicted someone from the Internet Research Agency who evidently traveled to Atlanta as part of the operation for four days in 2014. It’s not for a lack of knowledge. Mueller makes clear in the indictment that he knows the precise IRA official who this unnamed, evidently male traveler filed “his” Atlanta expenses to after the trip—so if this traveler is remaining anonymous, you can bet there's a good reason. Does Mueller have a cooperator from inside the Internet Research Agency?
9. Why was Trump’s team so concerned about the transition documents? It’s easy to lose track of threads of the Trump case, as it sprawls across numerous characters, plots, and subplots, so it’s easy to forget at this point just how much material Mueller has accumulated in his investigation. Fully a year ago, a controversy erupted over how Mueller had (legally) obtained emails from Trump’s presidential transition team. Mueller was using the emails, including those from Jared Kushner, to question witnesses, causing concerns among the president’s lawyers. What was in the documents, and what were the questions, that raised such objections? What did Mueller’s team know that the president’s lawyers had hoped to keep out of their hands?
10. How much more of the Steele Dossier is true? The explosive and infamous “dossier” compiled on Trump’s business activities by one-time MI6 operative Christopher Steele has been the source of controversy since even before BuzzFeed published it for the world to see. Yet as much as Fox News, conservative pundits, and Trump allies have attacked it, much of the dossier—which its creator has always said was meant to reflect merely “raw” intelligence, and not necessarily an endorsement of the information’s veracity—has proven true as we learn more about Trump’s ties to Russia. As former director of national intelligence James Clapper said in May, “As time has gone on, more and more of it has been corroborated.” We’re obviously a long way from knowing whether the most salacious details are true, but thanks to Cohen’s plea agreement, we do know that Russia possessed compromising information about the Trump Organization during the course of the campaign, mainly that it was engaging in business deals in secret in the midst of the election. It’s no longer impossible to imagine that that’s not the only “kompromat” that Russia had.
11. Is it a coincidence that the IRA scheduled a “Down with Hillary” rally in New York, weeks in advance, for the day after WikiLeaks dumped the DNC emails? Bob Mueller’s court filings are filled with interesting dates and nuggets, all pointing to the conclusion that he knows far more—and possesses far more intelligence—than we imagine. He notes without comment, for instance, that Michael Cohen decided to scrap pursuing the Trump Tower Moscow project on June 16, 2016, which happens to be the same date the DNC hack first became public. A similar “date coincidence” appears in the IRA indictment: If the Internet Research Agency knew the date that the Clinton emails would drop on WikiLeaks weeks in advance, how closely did Russia coordinate with WikiLeaks? And how closely did WikiLeaks coordinate with people affiliated with the Trump campaign, given the flurry of attention over the last two weeks around Assange, Corsi, and Stone, all of whom appear to be in prosecutors’ sights?
12. Why isn’t Mueller prosecuting Maria Butina and Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova? The cases of the gun-loving Russian operative, arrested this summer in Washington, and the purported accountant for the Internet Research Agency, charged this fall with interfering with US elections, both have been handled by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, which traditionally handles counterintelligence cases, even though both cases appear to fall squarely in Robert Mueller’s mandate—and he did charge many of Khusyaynova’s IRA colleagues earlier this year. Reporting at the time indicated that the investigation of Butina predated Mueller’s appointment, which could be one reason Mueller didn’t handle her case. Yet given her ties to the NRA and Mueller’s apparent interest in the sources of the NRA’s funding and Russian banker (and alleged Butina handler) Alexander Torshin, it seems like she’d be of great interest to him. Similarly, why was Khusyaynova only charged this fall, when she clearly could have been part of the February indictment? The odd manner in which her case was filed and then unsealed a month later offers intriguing possibilities: Did US officials think they had a chance to catch her overseas somewhere? Both of these cases—and the incongruent manner in which they were handled—point to puzzle pieces we haven’t been shown yet.
13. Why is Mueller charging Michael Cohen? Just as we’re missing puzzle pieces in the Butina and Khusyaynova prosecutions, it’s not fully clear why Mueller handled Michael Cohen’s plea agreement last week. As legal scholar par excellence Paul Rosenzweig noted last week, Cohen’s earlier August case was actually referred out of Mueller’s office to federal prosecutors in New York. The more recent charge of lying to Congress would be typically handled by the US Attorney for the District of Columbia. So the fact that Mueller himself brought Cohen’s latest plea agreement back into his office appears to have significance beyond what we currently understand. Regardless, charging people who lied to Congress as part of its Russia investigation opens new avenues for Mueller. Congressional investigators are already discussing how others might face similar prosecution, including perhaps Donald Trump, Jr. himself. However, it might also mean that Cohen’s discussions about the Trump Tower Moscow project more directly tie into the larger questions about Russia’s influence on the election. Understanding this puzzle piece would also presumably help answer another core question: How intimately ensnared are Don Jr. and Jared Kushner?
14. Was the Guardian correct in reporting that Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange? It’s been a full week since the Guardian’s bombshell report that Trump’s campaign chairman met in person with the founder of WikiLeaks, an incredible story to emerge so late in the investigation. It was seemingly well-sourced, down to misspellings in intelligence documents and the precise outfit Manafort was said to be wearing, yet in the subsequent week, no other news outlet has matched the reporting, despite frantic attempts to. While that’s not necessarily dispositive on its own, there's an old journalism maxim: “Every reporter wants an exclusive, just not for too long.” Meanwhile, the Guardian itself softened some of the language post-publication. Regardless, the Guardian report should be easy for intelligence sources to confirm one way or the other; London is the most surveilled city in the western world, and its blanket of CCTV cameras surely would have proof of Manafort approaching the embassy. The lack of corroboration has led some to wonder: Did someone go out of their way to plant true “fake news?”
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the co-author of Dawn of the Code War: America's Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. He can be reached at email@example.com.