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from Just Security.
The House Intelligence Committee hearings on the first volume of the Mueller report and the FBI’s underlying counterintelligence probe are scheduled to begin Wednesday with the testimony of two former senior Bureau officials and a former Assistant US Attorney. As one of these witnesses, Stephanie Douglas, has written of Russia’s election interference efforts in Just Security, “I am not sure there are many intelligence plans which work any better than this one.” The use of the present tense is unlikely to be accidental.
Despite its thoroughness in investigating certain aspects of Russia’s election interference, the Mueller report addresses only a narrow slice of a larger intelligence story that is still unfolding. President Donald Trump’s curious relationship with Russia did not begin with the Trump Tower Moscow deal and it has not ended with his inauguration—more or less the time frame analyzed in the first volume of the report. Chairman Adam Schiff’s committee’s oversite mandate certainly includes the activities and relationships described in volume one, but is not limited to them. There are many questions to be asked, therefore, not only about why Mueller framed his investigation as he did, but also about what he left outside of the picture entirely.
So what exactly are the potential lines of further inquiry for Congress to pursue?
Questions for Mueller
Mueller’s statement on May 29 that he would provide no new information to Congress beyond what he has already concluded in writing appeared to back-foot Democrats who had hoped to make his testimony the showpiece of their enquiry. They were naïve if their surprise was genuine. Over two years, the Mueller investigation was a model of professionalism, with prosecutors maintaining essentially absolute silence in the knowledge that even the smallest verbal misstep could undermine their final report. The notion that Mueller would now affirmatively embrace testifying in a politicized public forum, in which verbal missteps are easy to make, seemed improbable. Nevertheless, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler has indicated that he may subpoena Mueller in the coming weeks or days, and his committee may not be the last to do so.
Volume one of the report raises numerous questions for which Mueller alone is the most appropriate witness, whether or not he feels able to answer. These questions include many of those proposed by the minority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but their list is only the beginning.
As a threshold matter, Congress and the country require a clearer explanation of exactly why Mueller’s inquiry into Russian electoral interference took the form that it did—the narrow investigation of evidence of conspiracy in Moscow’s social media interference and hacking and release of Clinton campaign emails. Specifically, what Justice Department directives or other considerations led the Special Counsel’s Office to focus only on these facets of Russia’s electoral interference and Americans’ potential involvement in those particular activities, while overlooking other activities or referring them to FBI counterintelligence?
That line of questioning seems particularly acute when Mueller’s apparent lack of investigation into the finances of candidate Trump are compared with the special counsel’s extensive forensic analysis of Paul Manafort’s accounts. At its root, Russia’s election interference was an effort to aid and compromise the Trump Organization and campaign. Trump’s personal eagerness to solicit Russian help was damning, but not necessarily compromising at least insofar as it was out in the open. Trump’s personal finances are another matter. Just as Manafort’s business dealings put him at the center of both criminal and reportedly counterintelligence investigations, an understanding of the president’s finances and potential business ties to Russia prior to the campaign are a crucial starting point for understanding the scope of the Russian effort. Mueller didn’t give us that.
Opening the House Intelligence Committee hearings with an overview of counterintelligence more generally is a wise move. Schiff would do well to ask his witnesses to lay out clearly what such an investigation consists of, how it is predicated, and how its standards differ from those of a criminal prosecution. The committee should also elicit clear answers as to when and how information learned through counterintelligence can be legally used to establish criminal predicates. Finally, the witnesses’ testimonies will hopefully emphasize the importance of counterintelligence operations to national security regardless of whether they result in prosecutions.
Any counterintelligence inquiry, much less one into the President of the United States, risks both taxing Congress’ investigatory powers and creating the appearance of a partisan fishing expedition. For that reason, the Intelligence Committee must be able to clearly articulate, for itself and for the American people, its justifications for its subpoenas of witnesses and documents.
At least four substantial lines of inquiry easily satisfy that requirement without duplicating the work of the Mueller report.
Trump family finances
First, recent reporting by the New York Times and ProPublica on Trump’s toxic relationship with Deutsche Bank over the same period of time that it facilitated the laundering of at least $10 billion worth of rubles would be a good place to start. The House Intelligence Committee’s subpoena of Trump’s records with the bank indicates that it agrees, but it would also do well to examine Jared Kushner’s accounts, which have also been identified in Russian transactions. In conjunction with the likely eventual release of Trump’s New York State tax returns and, in time, his federal returns, Deutsche Bank’s records should provide a much clearer picture of the president’s finances, obligations, and potential exposure to foreign influence. No other modern president has been at once so boastful and so secretive about his wealth, and certainly none in modern times have refused to release their tax returns. That Trump has attempted in the past to draw a red line around his personal and company finances might as well serve as a red blinking arrow to Congressional investigators who cannot be fired by the chief executive or controlled by his political appointees.
Second, the negotiations over Trump Tower Moscow and any other projects in the region involving potentially illicit finance deserve deeper scrutiny. Trump’s interest in Moscow real estate development dates to the late Soviet era, and his latest efforts must be understood as part of a long-term strategic campaign on both sides to court one another. Since the mid-2000’s, the Trump Organization has focused largely on foreign licensing deals and extensively targeted the former Soviet republics, largely with the assistance of figures such as Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. Trump pursued but failed to execute deals in Georgia, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. In Baku, Azerbaijan, a Trump tower went up, with the design closely overseen by Ivanka Trump personally and the Trump Organization evidently unconcerned that its partners on the ground were the close family of Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov, a man described in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.”
One need not, however, license a tower in Baku to engage in corruption through luxury real estate. All-cash deals for overpriced properties is money laundering 101, a phenomenon Eric Trump is reported to have inadvertently described while bragging about Trump SoHo. “As the experience of the past few years shows, the best property buyers now are Russian,” he said. “They’re different in that they can go around without a mortgage loan from American banks, that require income checks and they can buy apartments with cash.” The journalist Craig Unger has identified numerous instances of Russian criminals laundering assets through Trump apartments and casinos since at least 1984, but notes, “no one has ever documented that Trump was even aware of any suspicious entanglements….”
The particular incarnation of Trump Tower Moscow at issue in the Mueller report is, of course, especially incriminating because it was contemporaneous with Trump’s campaign for president. Mueller’s conspiracy inquiry did not include within its scope any possible quid pro quo understanding that arose from these negotiations, but the timing is highly reminiscent of Russia’s apparent financial support offered to other populist movements such as Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s party in France, and Italy’s Lega Nord.
The vehicle for such support may well have been Genbank, which was prepared to support a visa application for a 2016 Trump visit. Arising swiftly from obscurity when it became a leading bank in Russian occupied Crimea, Genbank is under sanction by the Treasury Department. What’s more, the bank is partially owned by Evgeny Dvoskin, who was deported from the United States after pleading guilty in federal court to tax evasion charges. Dvoskin previously lived in Brighton Beach in much the same milieu as Sater.
As former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told ProPublica/WNYC in a recent podcast, “From a strictly counterintelligence perspective, these are exactly the sort of connections and historical overlaps that you look for when you’re trying to determine whether or not a person or an organization could be subject to foreign influence …. Why is it that there are so many … people who have official connections to sanctioned entities or banks in Russia who are interacting with the president, with his associates, with his family members. Have we ever seen that before …?”
Neither a quid pro quo relationship with the Kremlin nor corrupt financing arrangements or money laundering are necessary, however, for Trump’s behavior to pose a national security threat. His lies were probably sufficient. That a major party candidate was pursuing a sweetheart real estate deal with a foreign hostile power while seeking the personal support of that regime’s president is bad enough. Just as dangerous was the leverage given to Russia by the Trump Organization’s eagerness to come to an agreement while lying about it repeatedly to the American public. That President Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov was even in a position to lie to the American press on behalf of the U.S. president is deeply concerning and raises the obvious question of what else is being kept from the public.
Secret communication channels
Third, while Mueller’s report identifies several backchannels attempted between the Trump campaign and transition teams and Russia, the broader counterintelligence probe must also consider Trump’s relationship with Russia while in office. Although close congressional monitoring of the executive branch’s foreign policy deliberations is atypical, this is an atypical case of a president’s diplomacy constituting a potential intelligence threat.
Consider the case of Jared Kushner, who, according to the Mueller report when informed by Michael Flynn “that there was no secure line in the Transition Team offices,” asked Ambassador Kislyak, “if they could communicate using secure facilities at the Russian Embassy. Kislyak quickly rejected that idea.” That’s where the Mueller report leaves it, and where Congress can surely pick up the thread.
Any efforts by the president to establish further backchannels while in office should be examined alongside his practice of meeting with the Russian president without note takers. In January, the Washington Post reported that “US officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years.” The White House called this “outrageously inaccurate,” without denying its substance.
Fourth and finally, conspicuous by their absence from the report are the storylines of the National Rifle Association’s connection with Russian spy Maria Butina and of Cambridge Analytica’s potential connections to WikiLeaks and Russians. The latter has already been issued document requests by the House Judiciary Committee, but both are fundamentally matters of counterintelligence. Congress can and should investigate the roles these entities played in the 2016 election.
Volume One and the Investigation Moving Forward
Chairman Schiff has his work cut out for him both in ensuring that his committee does not descend into partisan hysterics and in finding suitable witnesses to address a complex counterintelligence investigation that has now occupied the FBI for several years. Whereas the Judiciary Committee’s hearings on obstruction perhaps suffer from the surfeit of evidence in the report—evidence both damning and quite clear, if not accepted as reality by many Republicans—much of the intelligence committee’s work will need to break new ground. On Wednesday, perhaps we will get a hint of how deep they think they can dig.