Mueller is now looking into ties between Russia and Trump’s business transactions / Boing Boing Friday July 21st, 2017 at 1:11 PM

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Mueller is now looking into ties between Russia and Trump’s business transactions / Boing Boing

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U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has widened his investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Mueller is looking into Trump’s financial dealings with with unsavory Russian businessman, including mobsters and corrupt Kremlin officials.

Mueller has his work cut out for him — the August/September issue of The New Republic has an in-depth article about Trump’s decades-long ties to Russian mafia.” Only someone brainwashed by ideology could read this article and not think Trump has been up to no good for a very long time.

From The New Republic’s press release:

In “Trump’s Russian Laundromat,” veteran journalist Craig Unger details how the Russian mafia has used the president’s properties—including Trump Tower and the Trump Taj Majal—as a way to launder money and hide assets. “Whether Trump knew it or not,” writes Unger, “Russian mobsters and corrupt oligarchs used his properties not only to launder vast sums of money from extortion, drugs, gambling, and racketeering, but even as a base of operations for their criminal activities. In the process, they propped up Trump’s business and enabled him to reinvent his image. Without the Russian mafia, it is fair to say, Donald Trump would not be president of the United States.”

Based entirely on the extensive public record, the piece offers the most comprehensive overview of the deep debt that the president owes the Russian mafia. “The extent of Trump’s ties to the Russian mafia—and the degree to which he relied on them for his entire business model—is striking,” says Eric Bates, editor of the New Republic. “After reading this story, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the president continues to exhibit a deep loyalty to the world of shady Russian operatives who have invested vast sums in his properties.”

Trump’s lawyer says the new direction Mueller is moving leads to a forbidden zone. From Bloomberg:

John Dowd, one of Trump’s lawyers, said on Thursday that he was unaware of the inquiry into Trump’s businesses by the two-months-old investigation and considered it beyond the scope of what Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be examining.

Those transactions are in my view well beyond the mandate of the Special counsel; are unrelated to the election of 2016 or any alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and most importantly, are well beyond any Statute of Limitation imposed by the United States Code,” he wrote in an email.

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Is Robert Mueller Examining Trump’s Links to Mogilevich?

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800x-1Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Dmitry Firtash (right)

As we noted earlier here and here, among the many dictators, despots, and shady foreigners who called Trump Tower home were members of the Russian Mafia with connections to Semion Mogilevich, said to be the most dangerous Mobster in the world.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Trump’s links to Russia, may also be taking an interest in Trump’s ties to Mogilevich, a man the FBI says is involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.

As described in Wired, among the prosecutors and investigators hired by Mueller, is one Lisa Page:

Also, while the Special Counsel’s office has yet to make any formal announcements about Mueller’s team, it appears he has recruited an experienced Justice Department trial attorney, Lisa Page, a little-known figure outside the halls of Main Justice but one whose résumé boasts intriguing hints about where Mueller’s Russia investigation might lead. Page has deep experience with money laundering and organized crime cases, including investigations where she’s partnered with an FBI task force in Budapest, Hungary, that focuses on eastern European organized crime. That Budapest task force helped put together the still-unfolding money laundering case against Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash…

The hiring of Page, which was confirmed by a Mueller spokesman in The New York Times, gives the special counsel a team member with knowledge of not only Dmitry Firtash, but of the man who is believed to stand behind him: Semion Mogilevich.

Full disclosure: Firtash hired the Washington law firm Akin Gump to clear him of links to Mogilevich. I profiled Akin Gump partner Mark MacDougall in this 2008 piece.

Firtash, pictured above, made his fortune in the 2000s in the natural gas sector. In 2004, Firtash and a minority partner emerged with 50 percent ownership of a murky Swiss company called RosUkrEnergo (RUE). RUE extracts gas from Central Asia and acts an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine for the delivery of gas.  The other half of RUE is held by Gazprom, the gas giant controlled by the Russian government, which shows that Firtash has close ties with the Kremlin.

Billions of dollars flowed through RUE and some of that money was allegedly siphoned off by Semion Mogilevich, who U.S. government officials say (see here) is the man behind the curtain at the gas company. One of the few willing to say this publicly was Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, a political enemy of Firtash, who got thrown in jail for her troubles. Notably, Firtash’s stake in RUE remained a secret for two years.

Intelligence Online, a Paris-based news organization with deep sources in the spy world, published this handy chart of the Firtash/Mogilevich connections, under the headline “The Tip of the Mogilevich Iceberg:”

Mog:RUE

Firtash admitted to William Taylor, the US ambassador to the Ukraine, that he has had dealings with Mogilevich, according to a 2008 State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks:

(S) The Ambassador asked Firtash to address his alleged ties to Russian organized crime bosses like Semyon Mogilievich. Firtash answered that many Westerners do not understand what Ukraine was like after the break up of the Soviet Union, adding that when a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by “the laws of the streets.” He noted that it was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member at the same time. Firtash acknowledged that he needed, and received, permission from Mogilievich when he established various businesses, but he denied any close relationship to him.

And in this October 2009 press release, the FBI took note of Mogilevich’s control of natural gas supplies. “Through his extensive international criminal network, Mogilevich controls extensive natural gas pipelines in Eastern Europe,” the bureau wrote in a veiled reference to RUE.

The question is what is the nature of the relationship between Firtash and Mogilevich. Is it a thing of the past, as Firtash insists? Or is Firtash a front man for Mogilevich?

Presumably, the FBI — and, by extension, Lisa Page — knows the answer. The bureau has been investigating Firtash since 2006, according to The New York Times. A year before that, the FBI passed their counterparts in the Austrian police a confidential report naming Firtash as a “senior member” of the Semion Mogilevich Organization, according to a  2008 report by Roman Kupchinsky, an analyst with Radio Free Europe.

Page’s work in Budapest involved her deeply in the Firtash/Mogilevich world. The Wired article suggests she worked on the case that led to Firtash’s arrest in Vienna in 2014. Firtash was indicted by a federal grand jury in Chicago on charges of plotting a bribery scheme to set up a $500 million titanium business in India. He remains free after a Russian billionaire friend posted bail of $174 million but cannot leave Austria.

And Budapest is also a home of sorts for Mogilevich. He resided in Budapest when he ran a pump-and-dump scheme through a publicly traded front company called YBM Magnex Inc. Mogilevich was indicted in 2003 on charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering in YBM Magnex.

So, what does this have to do with President Trump?

Firtash was a business partner of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was deeply involved in Ukrainian politics. Manafort advised Viktor Yanukovych on his successful 2010 campaign for the presidency of Ukraine. He resigned from the Trump campaign after The New York Times found a handwritten ledger showing that Yanukovych paid Manfort $12.7 million in cash.

While he was assisting Yanukovych, Manafort became business partners with Firtash. The two men explored developing a 65-floor tower on the site of the Drake Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

A 2011 lawsuit filed in New York by Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, called this partnership between Firtash and Manafort a means of laundering the proceeds of gas deals between the Ukraine and Russia. Firtash says that the lawsuit was full of lies, but he confirmed to Bloomberg Businessweek that he did put $25 million in an escrow account for the developers of the Drake project that Manafort helped him set up. The deal collapsed and the tower was never built.

It’s a good bet to say that we only know a little of this story, which is buried in the files of the FBI and the US intelligence community. But Trump Tower’s role as a home away from home for Russian mobsters with Mogilevich and his unhinged, self-destructive reactions to anyone probing into Russia suggests that there is more, much more to come. Stay tuned.

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Some of President Trump’s lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest and discussing the president’s authority to grant pardons, according to people familiar with the effort.

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.

One adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller’s investigation.

“This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself,’ ” a close adviser said.

Fact Check: Do the political preferences of Mueller’s team risk its independence?

President Trump suggested the special prosecutor’s team might not be fair, impartial investigators because of previous political contributions, legal clients and personal friends. President Trump suggested the special prosecutor’s team might not be fair, impartial investigators. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

(Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

With the Russia investigation continuing to widen, Trump’s lawyers are working to corral the probe and question the propriety of the special counsel’s work. They are actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work, according to several of Trump’s legal advisers.

A conflict of interest is one of the possible grounds that can be cited by an attorney general to remove a special counsel from office under Justice Department regulations that set rules for the job.

Responding to this story on Friday after it was published late Thursday, one of Trump’s attorneys, John Dowd, said it was “not true” and “nonsense.”

“The President’s lawyers are cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller on behalf of the President,” he said.

Other advisers said the president is also irritated by the notion that Mueller’s probe could reach into his and his family’s finances.

Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face. His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.

Trump has repeatedly refused to make his tax returns public after first claiming he could not do so because he was under audit or after promising to release them after an IRS audit was completed. All presidents since Jimmy Carter have released their tax returns.

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[Analysis: Asking about a pardon for himself is a quintessentially Trumpian move]

Further adding to the challenges facing Trump’s outside lawyers, the team’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, resigned on Thursday, according to two people familiar with his departure. Corallo did not respond to immediate requests for comment.

“If you’re looking at Russian collusion, the president’s tax returns would be outside that investigation,” said a close adviser to the president.

Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s private lawyers, said in an interview Thursday that the president and his legal team are intent on making sure Mueller stays within the boundaries of his assignment as special counsel. He said they will complain directly to Mueller if necessary.

“The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Sekulow said. “The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object.”

Sekulow cited Bloomberg News reports that Mueller is scrutinizing some of Trump’s business dealings, including with a Russian oligarch who purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for $95 million in 2008.

“They’re talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago,” Sekulow said. “In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.”

The president has long called the FBI investigation into his campaign’s possible coordination with the Russians a “witch hunt.” But now, Trump is coming face-to-face with a powerful investigative team that is able to study evidence of any crime it encounters in the probe — including tax fraud, lying to federal agents and interference in the investigation.

“This is Ken Starr times 1,000,” said one lawyer involved in the case, referring to the independent counsel who oversaw an investigation that eventually led to House impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. “Of course, it’s going to go into his finances.”

Following Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey — in part because of his displeasure with the FBI’s Russia investigation — Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in a written order. That order gave Mueller broad authority to investigate links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” and any crimes committed in response to the investigation, such as perjury or obstruction of justice.

Mueller’s probe has already expanded to include an examination of whether Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with Comey, as well as the business activities of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.

Trump’s team could potentially challenge whether a broad probe of Trump’s finances prior to his candidacy could be considered a matter that arose “directly” from an inquiry into possible collusion with a foreign government.

The president’s legal representatives have also identified what they allege are several conflicts of interest facing Mueller, such as donations to Democrats by some of his prosecutors.

Another potential conflict claim is an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011, two White House advisers said. A spokesman for Mueller said there was no dispute when Mueller, who was FBI director at the time, left the club.

Trump also took public aim on Wednesday at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, whose actions led to Mueller’s appointment. In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, the president said he never would have nominated Sessions if he knew he was going to recuse himself from the case.

[Sessions learns loyalty can be a one-way street with Trump]

Some Republicans in frequent touch with the White House said they viewed the president’s decision to publicly air his disappointment with Sessions as a warning sign that the attorney general’s days were numbered. Several senior aides were described as “stunned” when Sessions announced Thursday morning he would stay on at the Justice Department.

Another Republican in touch with the administration described the public steps as part of a broader effort aimed at “laying the groundwork to fire” Mueller.

“Who attacks their entire Justice Department?” this person said. “It’s insane.”

Law enforcement officials described Sessions as increasingly distant from the White House and the FBI because of the strains of the Russia investigation.

Traditionally, Justice Department leaders have sought to maintain a certain degree of autonomy from the White House as a means of ensuring prosecutorial independence.

But Sessions’s situation is more unusual, law enforcement officials said, because he has angered the president for apparently being too independent while also angering many at the FBI for his role in the president’s firing of Comey.

As a result, there is far less communication among those three key parts of the government than in years past, several officials said.

Currently, the discussions of pardoning authority by Trump’s legal team are purely theoretical, according to two people familiar with the ongoing conversations. But if Trump pardoned himself in the face of the ongoing Mueller investigation, it would set off a legal and political firestorm, first around the question of whether a president can use the constitutional pardon power in that way.

“This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question,” said Brian C. Kalt, a constitutional law expert at Michigan State University who has written extensively on the question.

The power to pardon is granted to the president in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, which gives the commander in chief the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” That means pardon authority extends to federal criminal prosecution but not to state level or impeachment inquiries.

No president has sought to pardon himself, so no courts have reviewed it. Although Kalt says the weight of the law argues against a president pardoning himself, he says the question is open and predicts such an action would move through the courts all the way to the Supreme Court.

“There is no predicting what would happen,” said Kalt, author of the book, “Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies.” It includes chapters on the ongoing debate over whether presidents can be prosecuted while in office and on whether a president can issue a pardon to himself.

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Other White House advisers have tried to temper Trump, urging him to simply cooperate with the probe and stay silent on his feelings about the investigation.

On Monday, lawyer Ty Cobb, newly brought into the White House to handle responses to the Russian probe, convened a meeting with the president and his team of lawyers, according to two people briefed on the meeting. Cobb, who is not yet on the White House payroll, was described as attempting to instill some discipline in how the White House handles queries about the case. But Trump surprised many of his aides by speaking at length about the probe to the New York Times two days later. Cobb, who officially joins the White House team at the end of the month, declined to comment for this article.

Some note that the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit a president from pardoning himself. On the other side, experts say that by definition a pardon is something you can only give to someone else. There is also a common-law canon that prohibits individuals from serving as a judge in their own case. “For example, we would not allow a judge to preside over his or her own trial,” Kalt said.

A president can pardon an individual at any point, including before the person is charged with a crime, and the scope of a presidential pardon can be very broad. President Gerald Ford pardoned former president Richard M. Nixon preemptively for offenses he “committed or may have committed” while in office.

Devlin Barrett and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

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