The Special Counsel focuses on the heart of the Russia investigation (updated)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is beginning to ask direct questions about whether Donald Trump knew about the stolen Democratic emails from the 2016 presidential election before their theft became public knowledge — as well as whether he was in any way involved in how they were released during the campaign. Mueller asking if Trump knew about hacked Democratic emails before release:

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is asking witnesses pointed questions about whether Donald Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.

Mueller’s investigators have asked witnesses whether Trump was aware of plans for WikiLeaks to publish the emails. They have also asked about the relationship between GOP operative Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and why Trump took policy positions favorable to Russia.

The line of questioning suggests the special counsel, who is tasked with examining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, is looking into possible coordination between WikiLeaks and Trump associates in disseminating the emails, which U.S. intelligence officials say were stolen by Russia.

In one line of questioning, investigators have focused on Trump’s public comments in July 2016 asking Russia to find emails that were deleted by his then-opponent Hillary Clinton from a private server she maintained while secretary of state. The comments came at a news conference on July 27, 2016, just days after WikiLeaks began publishing the Democratic National Committee emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said.

Witnesses have been asked whether Trump himself knew then that Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, whose emails were released several months later, had already been targeted. They were also asked if Trump was advised to make the statement about Clinton’s emails from someone outside his campaign, and if the witnesses had reason to believe Trump tried to coordinate the release of the DNC emails to do the most damage to Clinton, the people familiar with the matter said.

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What did Roger Stone know?

Investigators are also asking questions about Trump’s longtime relationship with Stone, the Republican operative, according to witnesses. Investigators have asked about Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks during the campaign and if he’s ever met with Assange.

“They wanted to see if there was a scheme. Was Stone working on the side for Trump?” after he officially left the campaign, one person interviewed by the special counsel’s office said, adding that it seemed investigators wanted to know, “Was this a big plot?”

Russia stole emails from the DNC and Podesta, according to U.S. intelligence officials, and released batches of them through WikiLeaks starting in July 2016 and up until the election.

As part of his plea agreement with the special counsel, former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos revealed that in a conversation in late April 2016, he was told by a professor with ties to Russian officials that they had “dirt’ on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”

The latest: Mysterious European professor entangled in the Trump-Russia probe has seemingly disappeared: The shadowy professor, Joseph Mifsud, first made headlines when his name was listed in court records unsealed by special counsel Robert Mueller last fall. After Mueller’s revelations, Mifsud’s name was scrubbed from the website of an Italian university he used to teach at, and he abruptly quit his job at another university. His social media pages went dead and journalists attempting to reach him or his associates have struck out. Mifsud’s fiancée, a 31-year-old Ukrainian woman who only identified herself as Anna, said Mifsud cut all ties with her after his name started making international headlines. Anna, who was seven months pregnant at the time, became furious. Anna alleges that Mifsud, 57, has ties to the very top tiers of the Russian government. He used to boast about dining with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, she said. Anna also said Mifsud was questioned by the FBI in April 2017. “He said they wanted to talk about connections he set up between people in Britain and Russia,” she said.

A 10-page memo from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released Saturday noted that the Justice Department’s October 2016 application for a FISA warrant on another Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, included the fact that Russian agents had previewed their hack and dissemination of stolen emails to Papadopoulos.

UPDATE: Ryan Goodman at Slate explains the significance of The New Nugget Hidden in the Schiff Memo:

The memo went a legally significant step further. As Rep. Adam Schiff recently told Chris Hayes, “our memo discloses for the first time that the Russians previewed to Papadopoulos that they could help with disseminating these stolen emails.” …  The memo also refers to this part of the record in stating, “We would later learn in Papadopoulos’s plea that that[sic] the information the Russians could assist by anonymously releasing were thousands of Hillary Clinton emails.”

A legally important question is what the Trump campaign did after the Russians previewed that they could help disseminate the stolen emails. If Trump campaign officials consulted with the Russians on their plans to disseminate the emails, it could involve direct violations of campaign finance laws. (See the statement below from leading election-law expert Paul Seamus Ryan.) If Trump campaign officials gave tacit assent or approval or support, it could directly implicate them in the “conspiracy to defraud the United States” by evading the Federal Election Commission—the very conspiracy for which Mueller has already indicted 13 Russian officials. (See the statement below by former White House official and also top election-law expert Bob Bauer.) If Papadopoulos intentionally encouraged the Russians and if he was instructed to do so by other campaign officials, they could be liable as accomplices. (See statements below from law professors and former federal prosecutors Barbara McQuade and Alex Whiting.) The Trump campaign as an organization could also be criminally liable (See statement below from McQuade.) Finally, if members of the Trump campaign tried to conceal the facts of a crime (potentially including either the original DNC hack or the dissemination of the stolen emails) they could be guilty of “misprision of a felony.” (See statements below by former federal prosecutors including Renato Mariotti.)

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So what do we know about Trump associates’ actions subsequent to the Russians’ previewing their plan to disseminate the stolen emails? Rep. Schiff highlighted the potential connections with Donald Trump’s calling on the Russians to hack and disseminate Clinton’s emails, and Don Trump Jr.’s positive response to being offered dirt on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” One could add to those instances Don Jr.’s direct communications with WikiLeaks, Roger Stone’s communications with Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks, and the head of Cambridge Analytica reaching out to Wikileaks to help release Clinton emails. There is, of course, also a long series of former Trump campaign officials misleading federal authorities about the campaign’s contacts with the Russians, and recent reporting that Hope Hicks allegedly said that Don. Jr. emails “will never get out” in discussions with President Trump about releasing a false statement to cover up the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians.

In short, the new revelation in the Schiff memo adds an important piece to the puzzle and helps explain why Mueller’s team is asking former campaign associates what they knew about the Russian hack and plans to disseminate stolen emails and when they knew it.

Investigators were interested in statements Stone made in the final month of the 2016 campaign that strongly suggested he was aware of information the group had before it became public and when it might be released. In one instance, he wrote on Twitter that “it would soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Weeks later Podesta’s stolen emails were released by WikiLeaks.

As WikiLeaks was strategically publishing stolen emails in the closing months of the campaign, Trump also publicly said he loved the group. Trump mentioned WikiLeaks 145 times during the last month of the 2016 campaign. [At one point he publicly urged “Russia” to find and release emails Trump believed were missing from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s private server.] In 2017, President Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, would label the group a hostile non-state actor.

Investigators also have shown interest in any connections Stone has to WikiLeaks and Assange, its founder. Stone has said he communicated with Assange and WikiLeaks through an intermediary he described as a journalist.

The Atlantic reported this week that Stone exchanged direct messages on Twitter with WikiLeaks. (See Natasha Bertrand at The Atlantic, Roger Stone’s Secret Messages with WikiLeaks: Transcripts obtained by The Atlantic show Donald Trump’s longtime confidante corresponded with the radical-transparency group.) Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has said his committee should subpoena Twitter to produce any direct messages “from and between the Twitter handles identified as relevant to the Russia investigation,” including WikiLeaks, Assange and Stone. According to Schiff, Twitter has told the committee it won’t produce such messages “absent compulsion.”

Mueller’s team has asked witnesses if Stone ever met with Assange. Stone has denied ever communicating directly with Assange.

Stone served briefly on the Trump campaign in 2015, leaving in August of that year. At the time he said he quit, while the campaign said he was fired.

Investigators have asked witnesses about Stone’s time on the campaign and what his relationship was like with Trump after he left.

“How often did they talk? Who really fired him? Was he really fired?” a witness said, describing the line of questioning.

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Stone appeared before the House Intelligence Committee for [only] four hours last September. In his prepared opening statement, which he also delivered publicly on the InfoWars YouTube channel, Stone denied that he ever engaged “in any illegal activities on behalf of my clients, or the causes which I support.” He denied having direct contact with Assange and called any exchanges with Guccifer 2.0, which took credit for hacking the DNC, “innocuous.”

And he said his tweet predicting that Podesta would spend time in the “barrel” was in the context of the coverage of the resignation of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, whom he called his “boyhood friend and colleague,” over allegations about business activities in Ukraine.

Witnesses also have been asked about Stone’s connections to Manafort.

Pro Tip: Virtually everything GOP ratfucker Roger Stone says is a lie. Nothing he says is to be believed without independent corroborating evidence.

Trump’s policy positions

At that same July 2016 news conference where he referenced Clinton’s missing emails, candidate Trump said he was open to lifting sanctions on Russia and possibly recognizing its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. The U.S. and its European allies had sanctioned Russia because of its intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, which the Obama administration refused to recognize.

Investigators have asked witnesses why Trump took policy positions that were friendly toward Russia and spoke positively about Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to people familiar with the probe.

Investigators have also inquired whether Trump met with Putin before becoming president, including if a meeting took place during Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow for his Miss Universe pageant. Trump has given conflicting responses on when he first met Putin.

At least one witness was asked about Trump’s business interests in Moscow and surmised afterward that the special counsel investigation may be focused on business dealings that took place during the campaign.

CNN has more on Special Counsel Robert Mueller asking witnesses about Donald Trump’s business activities in Russia prior to and during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mueller team asks about Trump’s Russian business dealings as he weighed a run for president: “Questions to some witnesses during wide-ranging interviews included the timing of Trump’s decision to seek the presidency, potentially compromising information the Russians may have had about him, and why efforts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow fell through, two sources said.”

NBC News reports that the Special Counsel is focusing on the heart of the Russia investigation. Mueller eyes charges against Russians who stole, spread Democrats’ emails:

Special counsel Robert Mueller is assembling a case for criminal charges against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking of private information designed to hurt Democrats in the 2016 election, multiple current and former government officials familiar with the matter tell NBC News.

Much like the indictment Mueller filed last month charging a different group of Russians in a social media trolling and illegal-ad-buying scheme, the possible new charges are expected to rely heavily on secret intelligence gathered by the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), several of the officials say.

Mueller’s consideration of charges accusing Russians in the hacking case has not been reported previously. Sources say he has long had sufficient evidence to make a case, but strategic issues could dictate the timing. Potential charges include violations of statutes on conspiracy, election law as well as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. One U.S. official briefed on the matter said the charges are not imminent, but other knowledgeable sources said they are expected in the next few weeks or months. It’s also possible Mueller could opt not to move forward because of concerns about exposing intelligence or other reasons — or that he files the indictment under seal, so the public doesn’t see it initially.

The sources say the possible new indictment — or more than one, if that’s how Mueller’s office decides to proceed — would delve into the details of, and the people behind, the Russian intelligence operation that used hackers to penetrate computer networks and steal emails of both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

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DHS and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a joint statement in the month before the 2016 election saying officials were “confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises” that led to leaked emails being published by DCLeaks.com, WikiLeaks and an online persona known as Guccifer 2.0. — all considered to have been acting as Russian agents.

No criminal charges have been filed, however. In July 2016 the FBI began a counterintelligence investigation into how the Russians carried out the operation and whether any Americans, including members of the Trump campaign, were involved. Mueller took over the probe in May 2017. His office has filed more than 100 criminal charges against 19 people and three companies, securing guilty pleas and cooperation agreements from three members of the Trump campaign.

It is unlikely that the United States would be able to extradite alleged Russian hackers or their paymasters, but an indictment would “send a signal” both to Russia and to any Americans who may have participated, a government official said.

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It could not be learned to what extent, if at all, Mueller’s office would make allegations in the possible indictments about the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in ordering and supervising the operation. NBC News has reported that U.S. intelligence agencies have evidence Putin was closely involved, but sources say the intelligence underlying that conclusion is extremely sensitive.

The CIA long ago turned over all the relevant intelligence it had on the Russian operation to FBI investigators, officials said. The NSA, DHS and the ODNI have also passed along to Mueller analysis and forensic information connected to the hacks, including telltale “signatures,” malware and methods.

Another question is whether Mueller will charge Russian intelligence officers alleged to have supervised the operation. Often, the people who do the hacking for the Russian government are private freelancers. A former FBI official briefed on the matter said it was likely Russian government officials would be charged — but that Mueller would have to consult widely in the government about that decision.

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Last November, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department had identified more than six members of the Russian government involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and swiping sensitive information that became public during the 2016 presidential election, and that prosecutors and agents have assembled evidence to charge the Russian officials.

Another major unanswered question is whether Mueller’s grand jury will charge any Americans as witting participants in the hacking and leaking scheme — including anyone associated with Trump’s presidential campaign. Americans referenced in Mueller’s previous indictment of Russians were described as “unwitting.”

This should include Aaron Nevins, a GOP political operative in Florida, who freely admitted to advising Guccifer 2.0 (Russian intelligence) what the stolen documents were and then used them in Florida congressional races. Nevins also forwarded the stolen documents to Roger Stone. GOP operative colluded with Guccifer 2.0 – Russian stolen info was used by the GOP.

One source suggested that a new indictment could include unnamed American co-conspirators as part of a strategy to pressure those involved to cooperate. The previous Mueller indictment involving the Russian social media operation cited a co-conspirator that it did not name.

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The bulk of the stolen Democratic emails ultimately were made public through WikiLeaks, the self-described transparency organization that CIA Director Mike Pompeo has branded as a “hostile nonstate intelligence service” that “collaborated” with Russia. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange disputes that his organization got the emails from the Russians. Another big question is whether Mueller will seek to charge anyone associated with WikiLeaks, who may claim in defense that they were acting as journalists.

For those Trump Trolls who complain about the length of this investigation and that criminal charges have not (yet) been filed on the key elements of the investigation, this is a massive undertaking by the Special Counsel who needs to turn over every rock to make certain that he has not missed anything. Mueller is methodically doing his job, and further criminal charges are coming.

Mueller wants to tell the truth of what occurred in 2016 as fully and completely as can be learned. He should be allowed to do his job unimpeded, because our Tea-Publican controlled Congress has no interest in ever revealing the truth, and in the case of Rep. Devin Nunes and the House Intelligence Committee, are actively involved in a cover-up and obstruction of justice.

One response to “The Special Counsel focuses on the heart of the Russia investigation (updated)

  1. For Sure Not Tom

    Bobby Three Sticks is moving on Trump like a bitch.