Drawn from various sources and updated frequently by our editorial team, RussiaGate Latest tracks daily developments in the coverage of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, how much of it the Trump campaign knew, and ongoing federal investigations of the matter.
FBI Fires Peter Strzok
Under immense pressure from President Donald Trump, the FBI fired senior counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok after he sent text messages critical of Trump to FBI official Lisa Page. Strzok is the third FBI official to be fired — following FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — due to his involvement in the investigations into then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server and Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election. Trump used Strzok’s firing to paint the inquiry a “rigged investigation he [Strzok] started.”
Mueller Interviews Omarosa Manigault Newman
Former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman told Katy Tur that she has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. When asked if Trump knew about the emails stolen from Clinton’s private email server before they were released to Wikileaks, Manigault Newman responded, “absolutely.” Her appearance on MSNBC corresponds with the release of her book, Unhinged, which details her experiences as Trump’s aide.
Special Counsel Prosecutors, Defense Rest Cases in Manafort Trial
Special counsel prosecutors rested their case against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort on Monday, alleging that he hid millions of untaxed income in offshore bank accounts. Prosecutors made their case after more than two weeks of testimony, with Manafort’s longtime business partner Rick Gates serving as the star witness after agreeing to a plea deal. On Tuesday, Manafort’s defense team rested their case without calling any witnesses. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all 18 counts of financial crimes, including bank and tax fraud and money laundering. Manafort’s lead attorney Kevin Downing told reporters that his client believes that “the government has not met its burden of proof.” In court, Manafort’s defense team questioned Gates’ credibility, accusing him of providing “false and misleading” information to the special counsel.
Federal Judge Dismisses Case Challenging Mueller’s Authority
Federal Judge Dabney Friedrich upheld Mueller’s constitutional authority in a case against Concord Management and Consulting — the Russian company indicted by Mueller for allegedly financially supporting the Internet Research Agency’s social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 US election. Concord Management and Consulting sought to dismiss the charges brought against them by arguing that Mueller did not have the constitutional authority to bring the case against the Russian firm, since he had not been appointed by Trump and confirmed by Congress. Friedrich explained that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had full authority to appoint Mueller and supervise the investigation.
Roger Stone Protege to Testify in Mueller Probe
Kristin Davis, a longtime associate of Trump advisor Roger Stone, testified before a grand jury on Friday in special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry. She was subpoenaed last month and has been cooperating with the special counsel team, though she said she had no “information on Russian collusion.” Widely known as the “Manhattan Madam,” Davis served time for running a prostitution ring, through which she claimed to have delivered prostitutes to former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.
But it is her relationship to Stone that will be under scrutiny in the hearing. Stone has been one of the most scrutinized peripheral figures in the Russia investigation for his contacts with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the man responsible for releasing a trove of hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign. Last week, a federal judge held another Stone associate, Andrew Miller, in contempt for refusing to testify before a grand jury.
Nunes: GOP Must Retain Grip on House to Protect Trump From Mueller
In a leaked recording, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said that Republicans have a responsibility to retain control of the House in order to protect President Donald Trump from Mueller. “If [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions won’t un-recuse and Mueller won’t clear the President, we’re the only ones,” he said. “We have to keep all these seats.” Nunes also advised against impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, lest it delays the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
The tape reveals just how deeply compromised Nunes has become as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Someone tasked with overseeing a federal investigation should not prioritize protecting the subject.
Trump Legal Team Rejects Mueller’s Terms for Interview
Trump’s lawyers rejected on Wednesday Mueller’s request for an interview with the president, countering with a deal that stipulates a narrower set of questions. The two sides have spent the past eight months negotiating terms for the interview, and neither appears ready to break the impasse. Mueller wants to determine whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election, and whether the president obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey. The lawyers, however, do not want Trump to face questions about obstruction of justice lest he perjure himself.
The two camps could soon come to a head. Earlier this year, Mueller threatened to subpoena Trump if he doesn’t agree to a voluntary interview. Earlier this week, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani once again urged the special counsel to wrap up his inquiry.
Trump Team Will Reject Mueller Interview Proposal
President Donald Trump’s legal team is composing a letter to special counsel Robert Mueller to reject his most recent offer of a presidential interview, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the Washington Post. Giuliani said that Trump’s legal team has a “real reluctance” to allowing Trump to answer questions on alleged obstruction of justice. Trump’s legal team expects the letter to continue its ongoing negotiation with the special counsel regarding the possibility and scope of an interview with Trump, stating that “the president still hasn’t made a decision” about whether he will agree to an interview. If Trump decides that he does not want to be interviewed, Mueller has suggested that he will subpoena the president to appear before a grand jury. In that event, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said “it would go to the Supreme Court.” Trump’s team intends to send the letter “sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Gates Testifies at Manafort Trial
Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates testified at former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s federal bank and tax fraud trial that he and Manafort knowingly committed several crimes. Gates told the court on Monday that he and Manafort had maintained 15 foreign financial accounts that they did not disclose to the US government, reported income wired from foreign bank accounts as loans to avoid taxes, and made false statements on loan applications. Gates agreed to cooperate with investigators after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements to the FBI, and testified against his former boss in exchange for lighter sentencing.
August 3, 2018
Trump Nearing Decision on Mueller Interview
President Donald Trump will decide whether to accept an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller within “a week to 10 days,” according to his attorney Rudy Giuliani. Trump and his legal team will take the weekend to mull over requirements and expectations set by Mueller for the questioning before making a final decision early next week. Though Trump has expressed a desire to speak with Mueller, Giuliani said his counsel may very well still decline the interview should the special counsel insist on including questions about obstruction of justice. A key component of Mueller’s inquiry has been determining whether the Trump campaign interfered with the FBI’s investigation into the campaign’s Russian connections.
August 1, 2018
Trump Orders Sessions to Pull Plug on Mueller’s Probe
In yet another inexplicable Twitter rant, President Donald Trump ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into election interference by Russia. Sessions should kill this “Rigged Witch Hunt right now,” Trump wrote, “before it continues to stain our country any further.” He accused Mueller of political bias toward Democrats, even though Mueller, who is Republican, enlisted investigators who have made donations to members of both parties. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dismissed the notion that the tweet is an attempt at obstruction of justice by saying that it isn’t “an order, it’s the president’s opinion.”
July 31, 2018
Manafort’s Trial Begins
Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s trial for alleged bank and tax fraud began today at a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Manafort is the first person to go to trial on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, and has pleaded not guilty to 18 charges.
The jury will examine Manafort’s nine-year history of consulting work for Ukraine and its former leader Viktor Yanukovych in light of accusations that Manafort failed to register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department and funneled income from this work to offshore accounts without reporting it to the IRS. Manafort and longtime aide Rick Gates allegedly leveraged real estate to withdraw $20 million in loans.
During opening arguments, Manafort’s attorney Tom Zehnle told jurors that his client made a mistake by “placing his trust in the wrong person,” referencing Gates, who has pled guilty and now cooperates as a witness in the federal investigation.
Facebook Removes 32 Pages Related to Political Influence Operation
Facebook announced that it removed 32 Facebook and Instagram pages and accounts connected to influence campaigns designed to exploit political tensions in the US. These accounts engaged in coordinated activity related to the August 2017 “Unite the Right” white-supremacist riots in Charlottesville, VA, and to the #AbolishICE movement. Facebook told reporters that it did not have the technical evidence to determine who was behind the influence campaign, but company officials said in a briefing on Capitol Hill that Russia was possibly involved. Top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (D-VA), considered the disclosure “further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.”
July 30, 2018
Giuliani Suggests That Collusion Is Not a Crime
President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani suggested that collusion is not a crime during morning show appearances on Fox News and CNN. Following reports that Trump knew of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, in which his senior campaign staff hosted a Kremlin-linked lawyer, Giuliani expressed doubt that working with Russians to influence an election is in fact a crime. Hacking, on the other hand, does make the cut.
Mueller: Manafort Made $60 Million From Ukraine Consulting Work
Special counsel Robert Mueller said that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort made $60 million as a political consultant in Ukraine. His team has gathered more than 50 exhibits, including “memoranda, emails, and photos” on Manafort’s work in Ukraine. Manafort’s defense team asked that the judge disallow the exhibits to be used as evidence, claiming that they are irrelevant and prejudicial. Prosecutors, meanwhile, argued that the exhibits “establish the breadth of the work that Manafort performed,” and allege that the latter avoided paying taxes on a significant portion of his $60 million in income by disguising it as a loan from offshore shell companies.
July 28, 2018
Vulnerable Democratic Senator Victim of Unsuccessful Russian Hack
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was the victim of a hacking attempt by Fancy Bear, the same division of Russia’s GRU intelligence services that hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails in the 2016 presidential campaign. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, it indicates Russia’s interest in helping the GOP maintain control of Congress. McCaskill is currently only one point up on her Republican opponent; her defeat would make it much more difficult for Democrats to win majority. This comes only a week after President Donald Trump tweeted that Russia is supporting Democrats in the midterms.
Fancy Bear used the same phishing method as the Clinton hacks. Each of McCaskill’s staffers received an email requesting password renewal at an attached link, which led to a replica of a Microsoft website that actually hijacked their login. This method has become easier to stop since an August 2017 court ruling allowed Microsoft to shutdown any websites that employs the company’s trademarked logos.
Trump Convenes Advisors for Token Discussion on Election Security
Trump finally convened his most senior national security advisers on Friday to discuss election security ahead of the midterms, which are less than four months away. The meeting, which lasted less than an hour, didn’t include any new plans to prevent meddling in November. Instead it was a recap of the steps taken by federal and state agencies so far.
Reports last week of three thwarted Russian hacks targeting senators and intelligence services alarmed Washington. Many were expecting more to come from the meeting. However, the lack of an action plan from the White House on election security has been standard procedure since Trump’s election, leaving the onus on the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.
Trump released a statement after the meeting declaring “that his administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation state or other malicious actors.” Interestingly, this statement didn’t mention Russia at all.
Trump Open to Visiting Russia, Putin Still Intends to Visit DC in 2019
Just three days after postponing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Washington until 2019, Trump stated he is “open to visiting Moscow.” Although the White House said no official invitation has been received, Putin maintains the Trump has already been invited. Putin spoke of his desire for more face-to-face meetings with Trump and touched on “necessary conditions” for the visit, though he didn’t specify what they are.
July 27, 2018
Cohen Claims Trump Knew About Trump Tower Meeting
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former attorney and confidant, said that his boss knew in advance about the infamous Trump Tower meeting in which Russians offered his son Donald Trump Jr. and other aides incriminating information on Democrat Hillary Clinton. It may be the strongest evidence yet that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election. And Cohen said he’s willing to divulge this knowledge with special counsel Robert Mueller — a remarkable metamorphosis for a man who once said he would take a bullet for Trump.
Trump has emphatically denied any knowledge of the June 2016 meeting since the New York Times broke the news a year ago. He maintained his innocence Friday morning while highlighting Cohen’s own skeletons: The accusation, he said, sounded like “someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?).”
July 26, 2018
Trump-Backed DOJ Official Under Scrutiny for Russia Tie
Senate Democrats are probing the background and motives of Brian Benczkowski, a newly minted Justice Department official and attorney who once represented Russia’s biggest private bank. Experts detected computer traffic between that bank — Alfa Bank — and the Trump Organization during the 2016 presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump appointed Benczkowski to head the Justice Department’s criminal division in June 2017, just as the special counsel inquiry into Russia’s election interference began to gather steam. Though the Senate narrowly confirmed Benczkowski’s nomination two weeks earlier, top Democrats argued that his tie to Alfa Bank — and his close relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions — compromises his status as an impartial investigator. (Some worry that Benczkowski may leak to information to Sessions about special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s election interference.)
In a forthcoming letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, 14 Senate Democrats — including Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) — demanded to know whether Benczkowski will recuse himself from all matters related not just to Alfa Bank, but also to its parent company, Alfa Group.
Mueller Investigating Trump’s Tweets
Mueller is now looking at Trump’s primary mode of communication, Twitter, to determine whether he obstructed justice. Of particular interest to the special counsel are the tweets about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the ex-FBI director James Comey. As Mueller’s escalating inquiry closes in on the president’s inner circle, the pair have become scapegoats subject to endless tirades from Trump — Sessions for recusing himself from said inquiry, Comey for refusing to call off a separate FBI investigation. Trump’s decision to fire Comey, ostensibly for mishandling the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email servers, is considered by many as an attempt to interfere with the investigation.
Trump’s attorneys, however, argue that threats don’t constitute obstruction unless Mueller can prove “criminal intent.” It’s a notoriously difficult task that Mueller said he can only accomplish after he interviews Trump — a request that the latter’s legal team has denied. Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani dismissed Mueller’s approach as “desperate” and flawed. “If you’re going to obstruct justice,” he said, “you do it quietly and secretly, not in public.”
July 25, 2018
Trump-Putin Meeting Postponed Till 2019
President Donald Trump will not meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Washington until 2019 — or after the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into election interference by Russia. After last week’s widely criticized Helsinki summit — in which Trump initially supported Putin’s denials of the Kremlin’s involvement in the 2016 US election — the announcement may indicate that the Trump administration is prepared to take a tougher line on Russia.
Though Trump, who has repeatedly labeled the Russia investigation a “witch hunt,” puts the next meeting anytime after New Year’s Day, Mueller is under no obligation to wrap up his probe by a specific date. Judging by the frequency and severity of his indictments, it certainly doesn’t look like this saga will be over by end of the year.