Credit to Author: Garrett M. Graff| Date: Wed, 06 Feb 2019 21:19:17 +0000
It’s only Wednesday, but the increasingly sprawling investigations surrounding President Donald Trump this week have already sprawled even further. News came Monday that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York served a wide-ranging subpoena digging into the finances of the Trump inaugural committee. Then, Wednesday morning, the House Intelligence Committee—in its first meeting of the new congress—voted to hand over witness transcripts from its own Russia investigation to special counsel Robert Mueller, a move widely understood to be motivated by the belief of Democratic members that various witnesses, including perhaps Donald Trump Jr., have lied to them.
Meanwhile, Roger Stone—himself indicted, in part, because of his alleged lies to Congress and witness tampering that encouraged his associates “to do a ‘Frank Pentangeli,’” a reference to a Godfather Part II character who lied to Congress—continues his bizarre post-indictment media road show.
A close reading of the Stone indictment shows the odd hole at the center of the Mueller investigation so far. It followed a now familiar pattern: Mueller’s court filing included voluminous detail, including insight into the internal decisionmaking process of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—and yet the indictment stopped short of alleging that Stone was part of a larger conspiracy.
Given how much Trump says, in all settings, all the time, his silences are just as conspicuous as Mueller’s.
All told, according to a recent tally by The New York Times, “more than 100 in-person meetings, phone calls, text messages, emails and private messages on Twitter” took place between Trump associates and Russians during the campaign and transition. But while we’ve seen a lot of channels, we’ve thus far from Mueller’s court filings seen near silence about what was said during those contacts—and why. In court filings that are remarkable for their level of detail and knowledge, Mueller’s conspicuous silence about those conversations stands out.
Of course, one possible explanation is that the content of the conversations was completely innocent—totally normal directions and innocent chitchat about “adoptions,” sanctions, potential business deals, and geopolitical diplomacy. That could explain why Mueller thus far has only charged individuals, including Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Roger Stone, with lying about those contacts, not the underlying behavior.
Yet the evidence against such innocence seems clear too, in the form of consistent lies, omissions, and obfuscations about the numerous meetings, conversations, and contacts with Russians throughout the Trump campaign, transition, and presidency.
To take just two examples: Donald Trump lied extensively, for more than two years, about his dealings with Russia concerning the Trump Tower Moscow project, which suggests that he knew something about it was shady. If he’d really believed the project was on the up-and-up, it’s easy to imagine Trump as a candidate making a public to-do about the deal—arguing that he felt America’s relationship with Russia was off-track, and that as the world’s smartest businessman, he alone could set it right. Trump could have made the case on the campaign trail that he alone could make deals with Putin because he alone was making deals with Putin. Yet he didn’t make that argument, and remained entirely silent about the deal for years, even lying about his interest in Russia. Given how much Trump says, in all settings, all the time, his silences are just as conspicuous as Mueller’s.
And then there’s the continued controversy over Trump’s private conversations with Vladimir Putin at geopolitical gatherings, from Hamburg to Helsinki to Buenos Aires. Under normal circumstances and operations, US leaders meet with Russian leaders to advance geopolitical conversations, and then they “read out” those meetings to staff in order to execute the work and vision hashed out one-on-one. The entire point of those head-of-state conversations is to generate follow-up work for staff later—to come to agreements, to advance national interests, and to find common ground for action on areas of shared concern. And yet in city after city, President Trump has had suspicious conversations with Putin, where he goes out of his way to ensure that no American knows what to follow up on. In Hamburg he confiscated his translators’ notes. In Buenos Aires, he cut out American translators entirely.
If he’s truly advocating for the United States in these meetings, there’s no sign those conversations have translated into any action by White House or administration staff afterwards. Instead, quite the opposite. Trump has emerged from those conversations to spout Kremlin talking points, even, apparently, calling The New York Times from Air Force One on the way back from Hamburg to argue Putin’s point that he didn’t interfere with the 2016 election.
Mueller presumably has far more knowledge about the “why” and the “what” of the interactions between Trump’s orbit and Russia than he’s shared so far. The Stone indictment is the latest court filing to show two-way conversation, flowing from Trump to WikiLeaks or Trump to Moscow and back again, without ever making clear what, precisely, was flowing back or forth.
In fact, the one thing that remains clear is just how much Mueller knows: He’s uncovered “track changes” in individual Microsoft Word documents, he’s referenced what specific words Russian military intelligence officers Googled three years ago, and even what the hired trolls inside the Internet Research Agency wrote to family members. Long before the House Intelligence Committee today kicked over a few dozen transcripts, Mueller amassed some 290,000 documents from Michael Cohen, tons more from the Trump transition team, and what the White House says is 1.4 million documents it turned over voluntarily, among countless other files, documents, reports, and classified raw intelligence.
Given that foundation of knowledge, it’s worth examining some of the “known unknowns,” places where Mueller has been silent but where he presumably knows far more than he’s chosen to say. To single out just five examples:
Who directed the campaign’s contact with Roger Stone—and what flowed back and forth?
Much has been made in the days since the Stone indictment about paragraph 12 of the court filing, which says “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information [Wikileaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” That simple “was directed” appears to indicate Mueller knows about the internal decisionmaking of the Trump campaign—and that he knows who directed the campaign’s contact to Stone, a pool of officials that has to be quite small. Mueller could have easily written the sentence in a thousand less indicative ways, saying simply that Stone was contacted by a senior Trump campaign official or that someone “suggested” or “told” that official to contact Stone. Instead, by saying “was directed,” Mueller implies a level of authority and even hints at a possible internal conspiracy to make contact with Stone, if it was for nefarious purposes—but Mueller stops short of saying who or why.
What more is there in the Flynn case that’s worth knowing?
Similarly, Mueller stops short of confirming whether Stone and his associates, Jerome Corsi or Randy Credico, actually ever did have contact with WikiLeaks or Julian Assange, a hole in the indictment so gaping that its absence is inexplicable unless it’s being saved for some future court filing. Similarly, Mueller only outlines Stone’s requests for stolen emails, not whether anything flowed back to Stone from WikiLeaks. Again, we’re left with the puzzle: Why would Roger Stone have allegedly continued to lie so long about being in contact with WikiLeaks if either he (a) never was or (b) the contacts were entirely routine and aboveboard? Mueller, though, says Stone “falsely denied possessing records that contained evidence of these interactions,” a phrase that seems to indicate much more.
How did Donald Trump and the Trump Organization react to the progress of the Trump Tower Moscow project?
Michael Cohen’s plea agreement only lays out that the president’s former lawyer and fixer repeatedly briefed Trump and members of the Trump Organization’s leadership on his progress on the Trump Tower Moscow project. But he stops short of saying anything about how the Trump team reacted—or what instructions, if any, they gave Cohen. Mueller also points out in Cohen’s plea that Cohen appears to have scuttled a trip to Russia to work on the deal on the very day that the DNC announced it had been hacked, odd timing at least.
Who directed Michael Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak?
There remains much to understand about former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s plea agreement, which states that he lied to FBI agents about conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. Two things, in particular, stand out in the facts of the case: First, that his contacts with Kislyak were directed by a “very senior member” of the Trump transition, an official identified in media reports as Jared Kushner, and second, if Flynn truly believed that he’d been properly directed by the president-elect or his designee to have the communications with Kislyak, why would he lie about them? Mueller has provided no answers yet here, either. But it’s worth noting, again, the oddity of Flynn’s aborted sentencing at the end of last year—where the judge, privy to more information than the public has, exploded at Flynn and finally prompted him to postpone the sentencing and continue cooperating. What more is there in the Flynn case that’s worth knowing?
Why did Manafort turn over polling data to Konstantin Kilimink? And what are Konstantin Kilimnik’s ties to Russian intelligence?
Mueller’s court filings have laid out that the special counsel believes that Kilimnik, Paul Manafort’s business partner and codefendant, had ties to Russian intelligence in 2016. Yet we haven’t seen evidence of why Mueller believes that—and, more important, what relevance that has to the Trump campaign. And we have only learned about the polling data from Manafort’s ongoing tech foibles, so why hasn’t Mueller brought that charge into the open yet?
Why the “first time”?
In last summer’s GRU indictment, Mueller seemed to say more than he needed to—just like he did with “was directed” in the Stone indictment—in pointing out that “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.” Mueller doesn’t note in the document that this was the same day Trump invited Russia to hack Clinton’s email, but in writing about the day Mueller adds two seemingly unnecessary details: First, that the GRU did it “after hours,” which, accounting for the time difference, would mean after Trump’s campaign trail comments. And second, that the attack on Clinton’s email directly was “for the first time,” a fact that Mueller would have to prove in a trial, meaning he has evidence that makes him confident the action was new in Russia’s strategy. Mueller is only making his own potential case and evidentiary burden higher by singling out “after hours” and “for the first time,” so that obviously must mean something to his prosecuting team.
Mueller is clearly picking and choosing his charges carefully, so far. But there’s a lot more he’s not telling us, and if you add up all those missing puzzle pieces, it certainly seems possible—perhaps even probable—that Mueller is building towards a conspiracy indictment that he’s already told us about, one that brings together many of these open threads and players into one coherent narrative.
In thinking through what that might look like, it’s worth remembering the second paragraph of his indictment last July, the case that targeted the GRU officials, which lays out three distinct stages of alleged conspiracy: hacking the Democratic computers, stealing documents, and then “stag[ing] releases” to “interfere” with the election. The latter could easily encompass some of the actions already described in the Stone indictment.
The “who” and “why” of that broader conspiracy remain open questions, but it’s notable the extent to which so many threads of the Russia story increasingly appear to overlap. For instance, Russian lawyer Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, a key player in the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, was charged earlier this year with obstruction relating to a separate, older money laundering case relating to her role in helping Prevezon Holdings, an entity owned by Russian oligarch Denis Katsyv. Buzzfeed reported this week that one of the other attendees at that Trump Tower meeting, a former Russian soldier and current lobbyist named Rinat Akhmetshin, “received a large payment that bank investigators deemed suspicious from Denis Katsyv.” So here we have Veselnitskaya, the lawyer from Prevezon Holdings, helping to organize a meeting at Trump Tower, while one of the other attendees received money contemporaneously from the same entity.
Each revelation from Mueller and the other investigations around Trump appears actually to point in a consistent direction: a relatively small and regularly overlapping circle of people, both American and Russian, constantly lying and covering up their contacts together. Now, we’re just waiting for Mueller to tell us precisely why—and who.
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and coauthor 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.