Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Piecing Together the Trump-Russian Conspiracy Puzzle

by Nomad

Like an immense jigsaw puzzle, the full picture of the Trump-Russian conspiracy has often been hard to view in its entirety. There's a good reason for that. No doubt about it, it's extremely complex. But more than that, the relationship and the importance of each piece of evidence keep changing.
What seems inexplicable today can suddenly seem critical tomorrow. For an amateur investigator trying to understand what took place, it is a daunting task.
We saw that this week when Trump's former lawyer (and problem-solver) appeared in court.

The Cohen Guilty Plea

Without advanced notice to journalists, Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen showed up in court to admit that he had lied to Congress about his boss' business dealings with Russia.
He had previously informed Congressional investigators that Trump's ties were marginal. Furthermore, they had ceased altogether in the early part of the primaries. (Trump himself denied- repeatedly- that any business deal ever existed.)

In fact, the negotiations continued for at least another five months, until June, which was just after Mr. Trump had clinched the Republican nomination. (Put a pin in that and we will come back to that later.)

The New York Times reported this week,
According to the new documents released by the special counsel, Mr. Cohen lied when he told Congress last year that he had talked to Mr. Trump about the project only three times and that the proposal died in January 2016 — before the first primary in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He also concealed his interactions with Russian officials and the fact that he asked Mr. Trump to travel to Russia to promote the deal because, he said, he wanted to support Mr. Trump’s “political messaging.”
This last phrase requires a bit of clarification. "To support Mr. Trump's political messaging" appears to mean to corroborate  Donald Trump's untrue denials of any contacts with Russia. 

Actually, it is not clear what story the president is promoting at the moment. When news of Cohen's plea broke, Trump immediately claimed that Cohen’s negotiations with Russian officials and their proxies to arrange financing and permits for a Trump Tower in Moscow has never been a secret. 

Trump claimed, falsely, about his company’s covert effort was not covert at all.
“Everybody knew about it, it was written about in newspapers, it was a well-known project during the early part of ’16 and I guess even before that.”
A classic Trump lie.
The thing Trump left unsaid was that in the "before that" (2015) a business associate, Felix Sater, had boasted to Cohen in emails that, with his ties to Mr. Putin building a Trump Tower in Moscow would be a breeze and that it would "get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. "
Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this."
No wonder Trump tried to hide the details of his tower in Moscow. In light of these latest developments, it is unclear what Trump's position is.

Toppling the Post-Truth Narrative

One thing is clear: Cohen's admission now creates more problems with Trump's post-truth narrative.
Firstly, one has to ask is: why now? Why did Cohen decide to come clean at this time?

The answer to that is that Cohen pleaded guilty not because he suddenly found Jesus but because Mueller already had the evidence he needed to prove that Cohen had lied. He was given a choice, plead guilty or face the consequences. The FBI had obtained the evidence they needed when he raided Cohen's offices and homes. In other words, it was going to come out anyway.   

In response to the Cohen bombshell, President Trump did what he always does when confronted. He made up something that sounded crazy. He told reporters that his own lawyer- a man he claimed was a trusted advisor was now a disloyal liar. It's really his own defense left to him. 

However, there is a very good chance that, if what Cohen said was true, there's undeniable proof that Trump gave his lawyers orders to lie to Congress about his Russian deals. That would be tantamount to lying to a Congressional investigation, an obstruction of justice. 

Rudy Giuliani, speaking as a legal advisor for Trump, claimed that Cohen's latest revelations match with what Trump has testified to in his the written statement to FBI investigators. There was "no contradiction" to what President Donald Trump had already said to special counsel Robert Mueller's team."
Well, that sounds somewhat reasonable until you think about it. 

In this case, Mr. Giuliani seems to be saying that President Trump admitted to the FBI that he had lied about the Moscow Project to the America public, and to the RNC and, at least by implication, that he ordered Cohen to lie to Congress.

When asked about Trump's knowledge of the business deal at the time, Giuliani said,
"As far as he knew, there was a proposal -- he did discuss it with Michael Cohen and signed a non-binding letter of intent and it never went beyond that."
That's not what Trump was telling the American public. Over and over and over.
The article goes on:
Mr. Giuliani refused to disclose Mr. Mueller’s precise questions to Mr. Trump about the deal or exactly how the president responded. He said only that Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization, his company, provided the prosecutors “with every document about this from the beginning,” adding, “That’s the only reason they know about it.”
Like most things Giuliani says, that's not strictly correct. As we noted earlier, there's also Cohen's records. Indeed, Mueller has the advantage of being able to compare documentation provided by Trump Organization against material found in the Cohen raids. That fact has to be keeping Trump up at night.

By the end of last week, conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin was reporting that Giuliani himself may be called upon to testify to the Mueller team. "The lawyers,"she said, " are going to need lawyers,"

What Junior Said 

Make no mistake, Trump's lies have also put other people in trouble, namely, Trump's own family.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the end of last week that the committee had made multiple criminal referrals to Mueller, but added "we're not going to talk about any individuals."
The committee interviewed more than 200 witnesses, including Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr.
In court, Cohen admitted that he lied when he told Congress that the Moscow Project ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others in the company, (but especially not with Trump or "with any of his family), "before I made the decision to terminate further work on the proposal.”

The idea that Trump's lawyer would make such a multi-million dollar decision without even discussing with any of the management/family is just plain ludicrious. Predictably enough, Cohen's plea puts two of the president’s children in the hot seat.

According to the NYT article, a person familiar with the situation said Mr. Cohen discussed the deal with Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump. That would, obviously, make more sense.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017, the younger Mr. Trump said that he was only “peripherally aware” of the proposed venture to build a new Moscow hotel bearing the Trump name. Most of what he knew about it, he said, he had learned recently while preparing to testify. He told the committee that Mr. Cohen pursued the project in 2015 and told the House Intelligence Committee that the deal fell dormant as of June 2016 — an accurate date, according to Thursday’s court documents.
But then, if the project died before Trump was nominated, what was the purpose of all this deception? To answer this, we have to go back to what we know from the timeline.  

Putin's Emissary in Louisville

From May 19-22 of 2016, the NRA held its annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Putin was engineering a special event for the occasion.

According to the House committee final report, in an interview, Trump Jr. testified that he received an invitation from "various people at the NRA" to attend the 2016 meeting. In addition to Trump Jr.'s invitation, there were several emails sent to the Trump campaign seeking to establish a connection at the NRA meeting between an emissary of the Russian government and candidate Trump. 
That would have been a month before the Moscow project "fell dormant."

In the first email, dated May 16, 2016, a business executive and GOP activist, Paul Erickson emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn with the possibility of candidate Trump meeting with Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, the country's central bank.
Obviously, Torshin's contacts in Russia would have been invaluable in seeking financing for any ongoing Moscow Project. Reports tell us that Felix Sater boasted that he had lined up financing for a Trump Tower in Moscow with state-owned VTB Bank.
It's worth pointing out that, as of 29 July 2014, VTB bank was under the financial sanctions initiated by Obama's Executive Order 13662. If what Sater said was true, this would mean that Donald Trump’s private company was “actively negotiating” a business deal in Moscow with a sanctioned Russian bank during the 2016 election campaign.

The email from Erickson to Dearborn also mentions an "overture to Mr. Trump from President Putin." Dearborn responded with enthusiasm. He then forwarded the email to Manafort, Gates, and Kushner, noting an "interesting request." This incriminating email exchange was something that Jared Kushner failed to disclose when questioned by Congressional investigators. 

That forwarded email states that Torshin wanted to "meet with a high-level official in our campaign" during the NRA meeting to discuss "an offer he (Torshin) claims to be carrying from President Putin" to meet with candidate Trump. Torshin was designated to make "first contact" with Trump from Russia's side.

Kushner received the news but is skeptical and wary.
"A lot of people come claiming to carry messages. Very few we are able to verify. For now I think we decline such meetings."
The fact that Kushner advised a careful approach, of course, be interpreted in different ways. Did he mean the campaign ought to be careful because it could be a trap set up by Trump's opponents? Or did he mean that Kushner understood the dangerous implications of a secret Russian meeting?
In any case, a formal meeting between Torshin and Trump campaign members in Kentucky was rejected.

The email states that "President Putin's emissary" would be at the NRA convention and hoped "to make contact with candidate Trump and present Mrs. Trump with a gift." It went on to express Putin's desire to build a relationship with candidate Trump, to include a visit to the Kremlin. 

The Republicans in the House committee used this exchange in an innovative way. It showed, they concluded, that the Trump campaign did not meet with the Russian emissary in Kentucky and that was proof that no collusion took place.

The fact that Putin continued to be eager to set up what was called a  "back-channel" between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin was proof, they said, that the Russians had not been successful in contacting Trump in Kentucky.

If nothing else, it demonstrates what a sham of a Congressional investigation the Republicans conducted. 

Adventures of the Red-Headed Honey Pot

Actually, Trump Jr. did eventually meet Torshin. It was, according to Trump Jr, a brief exchange in a restaurant where they were both dining separately during the NRA event.  
Trump Jr. recalls that the quick chat was about "stuff as it related to shooting and hunting." 
There was, according to Trump's son, no exchange of contact information. 

In his brief exchange with Torshin, Trump recalls no discussion any discussion of the US presidential election. The same was true for a subsequent meeting between Trump Jr. and "Maria Batina," Torshin's assistant.  
Hit the pause button here.

In the House report, Torshin's assistant's name is misspelled. The correct spelling is Butina and that would be the very same person who was charged by the FBI with conspiracy and acting as an agent of a foreign government. At the time, Butina was the girlfriend to Paul Erickson, the person who sent emails to the Trump campaign. 

In addition, Butina claimed to "keep connections with a member of the Russian Duma.” According to some reports, she bragged that she helped the Trump campaign communicate with Russia. 
As far as the meeting between Butina and Trump Jr., no other witness came forward to support Trump's recollections. The Republican members of the House investigation were happy to take his word for it. 

The Revised Timeline

One more piece of the puzzle to fit into the overall timeline. Looking at the scenario without the camouflage and the lies, it is hard not to see the pattern in the timeline, courtesy of Politico.
Let's go back to April 2016.

That's when Trump campaign aide and foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos conducts secret meetings in London with Joseph Mifsud. He was a Maltese academic, with reportedly high-level connections to the Russian government. Mifsud reportedly told Papadopoulos that Russia had a cache of Hillary Clinton’s emails. 

Mifsud also allegedly introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian woman that he falsely claimed was Putin's niece, later identified as Olga Vinogradova. (Federal investigators came to believe that  this introduction may have been a yet another effort by Russia to infiltrate Trump’s campaign.)

In late May, the Russians try to arrange a meeting with Trump's son through the NRA in Kentucky. The goal is to establish a relationship between Trump's campaign and Putin.

On June 9, Key campaign staff meet with Russians to pass along damaging information about Hillary Clinton that originated from the highest levels of the Kremlin. Initially, Trump Jr. claimed that the subject was the adoption of Russian children and that nothing further took place.
In the room were three senior members of the 2016 Trump campaign –  Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort – and at least five other people, including Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. (She admitted in a recent interview that she was an informant for the Russian government.)

The Moscow Project dies sometime in June, according to the revised timeline. Not in January as previously reported by Trump and his lawyers. Cohen claims he terminated the project himself without the knowledge or approval of Trump or his family.

According to the Steele dossier, up until this point, the Kremlin's chief recruiting method for Trump was comprised of "offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament."

By June 2016, the Trump campaign was already in bed with the Russians. The primaries were behind him and it was, by then, clear that he had the nomination in the bag. (He had reached the number of delegates needed to secure the party's presidential nomination by the end of May.)

June 14: The DNC announces it has been the victim of an attack by Russian hackers.

June 15: A hacker going by the name Guccifer 2.0 posts documents stolen from the DNC, including the Democrats’ plan of attack against Trump. Trump releases a statement accusing the DNC of being behind the hack “as a way to distract from the many issues facing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader.”

June 21: Guccifer 2.0 posts documents stolen from the DNC on Clinton’s vulnerabilities as well as potential responses to lines of attack.

July 18-21: At the Republican national convention in Cleveland, Trump wins the party’s nomination.

July 18: Just before the Republican National Convention, the Trump campaign worked behind the scenes to change the GOP's platform on Ukraine. The campaign announced that they would not call for the U.S. to give weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces.

July 22: WikiLeaks publishes the first batch of almost 20,000 DNC emails, many of them discussing how to undermine Sen. Bernie Sander's campaign. WikiLeaks officials stated that the emails come from the accounts of "seven key figures in the DNC."

July 27: Trump invites the Russian state to search for the approximately 30,000 emails that Clinton was found to have deleted from her private server on the grounds that they were not related to government work.

According to an indictment filed by Mueller, only hours after Trump's remarks, Russian hackers attempted “for the first time” to break into email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office.

As we sort and resort the pieces of the puzzle, things become clearer and theories become more credible. One thing is certain, Robert Mueller is much further along on putting together the pieces than any of us. He has no doubt what it all means and everything fits together.

If you are aching to see the mother of all Trump-Russia timelines with hundreds of entries, covering decades of activity,  such a thing is available online, thanks to PBS. Here is the site and here is the spreadsheet.