TrumpWatch, Day 134: Special Counsel Expands Trump-Russia Inquiry

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee June 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Mueller confirmed that the FBI uses drones for domestic surveillance during the hearing on FBI oversight. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Robert Mueller (pictured) to take over criminal investigations of Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn


Developments on Day 134 of the Trump Administration:

See also Podcast: Trump Administration Seeks Regime Change in Iran
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Mueller Widens Inquiry Into Manafort and Possibly Sessions

Special counsel Robert Mueller widens the inquiry into links between Trump associates and Russian officials to take over a criminal investigation of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Mueller may also delve into the roles of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein into May’s firing of James Comey, Mueller’s successor as FBI director.

The Justice Department’s criminal investigation into Manafort, who left the Trump campaign in August over questions about his past business dealings with pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, was opened before the escalation of the FBI and investigation of possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s inner circle.

Three sources also said Mueller is taking control of a grand jury investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

The special counsel will consider the $530,000 paid to Flynn between September and November 2016 by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin, who also has connections to the Kremlin.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia have been investigating the deal, nominally for Flynn’s consultancy to produce research and a documentary on ethullah Gulen, the self-exiled Turkish cleric living in the US. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused his former ally Gulen of responsibility for a failed coup in July 2016.

The Virginia grand jury’s subpoenas included the bank records, documents, and communications related to Flynn, his company Flynn Intel Group, and Alptekin and his Dutch-based firm Inovo.

Flynn has refused to hand over material to the Senate Intelligence Committee, invoking the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination. The committee has responded by issuing subpoenas for the records of two Flynn businesses.


Report: Kushner $1.2 Billion Debt May Have Led to Meeting With Russian Banker in Mid-December

Congressional investigators are trying if establish if Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, was vulnerable to Russian influence because of debts over a Manhattan skyscraper purchased at the height of the real estate boom.

Officials said the inquiry is looking at a meeting that Kushner had — but did not initially declare — with Sergei Gorkov, the head of Russia’s Vnesheconombank and an ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Jackie Speier, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said:

It’s very peculiar that of all the people he could be talking to in a transition period where you’ve got lots of balls in the air, that you end up talking to a Russian banker who is under sanction and who is related to Putin and has a KGB background.

I think the question has to be asked, was this about you trying to get financing for your troubled real estate that you have in New York City?

On Friday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway repeatedly refused to explain the nature of Kushner’s meeting with Gorkov: “Jared has said that he’s willing to go and share whatever information he has. He actually has made that clear for many months now, and he looks forward to doing that.”

Kushner’s first major acquisition, a 5th Avenue office tower signifying his family’s move from New Jersey into Manhattan real estate, is carrying $1.3 billion in loans which are due in two years, and it is not bringing in sufficient rental income to cover the debt. An attempt by Kushner at a deal with a Chinese company to refinance and redevelop the building fell through shortly after the election.

The White House advisor bought the skyscraper for $1.8 billion in 2007.

In March, a White House declaration said Kushner and his wife, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, are worth more than $700 million.

A “senior White House official” said that the Kushner-Gorkov conversation was “general and inconsequential” and that Kushner took the meeting as part of his campaign role of interactiing with foreign dignitaries. However, the bank, said the meeting was part of “negotiations” in which “the parties discussed the business practices applied by foreign development banks, as well as most promising business lines and sectors”.

Gorkov refused to answer further questions on Thursday. A spokesman for Kushner dismissed the meeting as unimportant.


Putin: US Hackers Might Have Framed Us Over 2016 Election Interference

In his latest attempted diversion from Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, Vladimir Putin has suggested that US hackers framed Moscow.

Earlier this week, Putin tried the line that “patriotic” Russians, without any involvement by the Kremlin, might be responsible.

However, in an interview to be broadcast on the American outlet NBC on Sunday night, the Russian President shifted his pitch:

Hackers can be anywhere. They can be in Russia, in Asia…even in America, Latin America. They can even be hackers, by the way, in the United States who very skillfully and professionally shifted the blame, as we say, onto Russia. Can you imagine something like that? In the midst of a political battle?

By some calculations it was convenient for them to release this information, so they released it, citing Russia. Could you imagine something like that? I can.


Office of Government Ethics to Press Trump Over 14 White House Waivers

The Office of Government Ethics will press the White House to clarify when it issued 14 ethics waivers to staff, allowing them to interact with former employers or clients despite possible conflicts of interests.

Of the 14 waivers disclosed this week, 10 are undated and unsigned.

Experts on ethics noted that a blanket waiver allowing White House appointees to communicate with media organizations where they previously worked — such as chief strategist Steve Bannon with Breitbart — was described as “retroactive”, a practice not allowed by the OGE.

Under the ethics pledge mandated by Donald Trump, Bannon was barred for two years from participating in matters directly related to Breitbart or other former employers or clients.

Other officials granted waivers include four former registered lobbyists. These include Michael Catanzaro, the Special Assistant to the President for domestic energy and environmental policy, who represented oil and gas companies for years; Andrew Olmem, a Special Assistant to the President for financial policy, who represented MetLife , American Express, and other financial companies; and Shahira Knight, a former lobbyist for Fidelity Investments on tax and retirement policy issues.

Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway also received waivers related to their past work for the Republican National Committee and other political organizations.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, had asked the OGE to stop gathering the data, questioning the agency’s legal jurisdiction. Walter Shaub, the OGE director, declined the request and produced hundreds of pages of material to back up his position.


White House to Agencies: Ignore Oversight Requests from Democrats

The White House is telling federal agencies to ignore oversight requests from Democratic lawmakers, according to “Republican sources inside and outside the administration”.

White House lawyer Uttam Dhillon reportedly told agencies this spring not to cooperate.

Democrats have complained that their oversight letters requesting information from agencies have gone unanswered since January.

A White House spokeswoman said the policy of the administration is “to accommodate the requests of chairmen, regardless of their political party”.

That answer is irrelevant, since there are no Democratic chairmen in a Congress controlled by Republicans. But the spokeswoman continued, “Multiple agencies have, in fact, responded to minority member requests. No agencies have been directed not to respond to minority requests.”


Trump’s “Pittsburgh, Not Paris” to Pursue 100% Renewable Energy

The mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — invoked by Donald Trump to justify his withdrawal from the Paris Accords for climate change — has put out another firm response to the President.

Trump asserted on Thursday, “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris”, bring Mayor Bill Peduto’s response, “I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy, and future.”

Peduto followed up on Friday with the aim to move to 100% renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by 2035.

Peduto said he is joining Mayors for 100% Clean Energy, which intends to uphold the Paris Agreement.


Schwarzenegger’s Clean Energy Message to Trump

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Governor of California, adds his message to Donald Trump after the White House’s Thursday announcement of withdrawal from the Paris Accords on Climate Change, “One man cannot stop our progress”:


Essential Reading: Trump Asks Reverends “Are Presbyterians Christians?”

Writing for CNN, M.J. Lee describes Donald Trump’s meeting in Trump Tower, two days before his inauguration, with Reverend Patrick O’Connor and Reverend Scott Black Johnston of Presbyterian churches in New York City.

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation — previously unreported comments that were described to me by both pastors.

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”


Is Trump Administration Hiding Detailed Report of Bush-Era Torture?

The Trump Administration is returning copies of a 6,700-page Senate report about the CIA program of torture in secret prisons during the years of President George W. Bush.

Congressional officials said Friday that the administration is sending back the copies, possibly to be locked in Senate vaults indefinitely or even destroyed.

The 2104 report was the outcome of a lengthy investigation by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee about the CIA’s capture and interrogation of detainees in prisons beyond the US judicial system after September 11, 2001. It concluded that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other methods of torture were far more brutal and less effective than the CIA described to policymakers, Congress, and the public.

The GOP chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, has asked for the return of copies of the report, claiming it is shoddy and excessively critical of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

Officials who played important roles in the CIA detention program are still at the agency. They include Deputy Director Gina Haspel and the former head of the counter-terrorism center, Michael D’Andrea, who has just been named head of Iran operations.

See Podcast: Trump Administration Seeks Regime Change in Iran

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

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