This article has been updated.
While the country rightly focused on the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, a number of new reports emerged centered on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — and any other wrongdoing orbiting nearby.
In the interest of making sure readers are up-to-speed on the developments unearthed this week, we’ve compiled them below.
A lawyer from Trump’s company — who acted as a surrogate for the campaign — emailed an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin last year for help with a development project. The Washington Post reported this week that Michael Cohen — whose interview about the campaign with CNN last summer went viral online — had emailed Putin’s personal spokesman in January 2016, asking for his help advancing a stalled development project in Moscow.
“As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance. I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals,” Cohen wrote in the email. “I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon.”
Assistance on the development project was not forthcoming, and the project was abandoned shortly before the primaries began.
The news that Trump’s business was trying to build a Trump Tower in Russia during the campaign — and had reached out to Putin’s spokesman for help — will likely draw Mueller’s attention, specifically on the question of whether the president obstructed justice, said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a white collar lawyer who represented Clinton White House officials during Whitewater.
“Throughout the recent past, Trump and others have been denying that there were any business dealings in Russia,” he said. “… That is a perfect example of something someone might be trying to hide.”
Mueller’s team is working with the New York attorney general in investigating former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The most interesting development of the week was a report from Politico that Mueller’s investigators were working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on investigating Manafort. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Manafort was being investigated by Mueller for possible money laundering charges. That report came a few months after news broke that Manafort had purchased several properties in New York City in a way that experts suggested might indicate an effort to obscure where it came from.
There are a few reasons that Mueller teaming up with Schneiderman would be significant. The first is that it helps blunt one of the defenses Trump had at his disposal: the pardon power.
As The Post’s Fred Barbash noted on Thursday, had Mueller been close to charging Manafort with a federal crime, hoping to use that as leverage for testimony against Trump, the president could simply have pardoned Manafort to dissipate that threat entirely. But Trump can’t pardon Manafort for state crimes.
Even if there’s nothing to the money laundering question, the Mueller-Schneiderman pairing might still bear fruit. Trump Tower, and all the meetings it held, are in theory subject to New York state law, and they could be investigated by a local district attorney or the state’s top lawyer, says Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law University.
The other reason Schneiderman’s appearance on the scene is interesting is because of Trump’s long-standing annoyance with him. Schneiderman pushed for a fraud case against Trump University, settled by Trump for $25 million right before inauguration.
There’s another layer to that dispute. In early 2014, the New York Observer — then owned by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and now adviser — published a much-pilloried attack on Schneiderman. That article, published as the Trump University case was heating up, was driven by the newspaper’s editor, Ken Kurson, whose search for someone to write the piece with the appropriate focus included approaching the manager of an ice cream shop he frequented. (Kurson himself was a former political consultant who was friends with Rudolph W. Giuliani.)
The special counsel’s investigators have subpoenaed Manafort’s former lawyer and current spokesman. CNN reported this week that the special counsel’s team had subpoenaed documents and testimony from two people close to Manafort: Melissa Laurenza, an attorney who had represented him, and Jason Maloni, Manafort’s spokesman.
It’s not clear what information the investigators believe Laurenza and Maloni might be able to provide.
Manafort’s notes from the meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower include references to political contributions. On Thursday, NBC reported that notes turned over by Manafort included references to political contributions. It’s not clear what the significance of that subject might be, but it may have something to do with the information the lawyer at the center of that meeting acknowledged discussing.
You’ll recall that this meeting originated when Donald Trump Jr. was emailed by the publicist for a Russian musician whose father also happens to be a business associate of Donald Trump’s. The publicist offered a meeting with an attorney who had negative information about Hillary Clinton to share, part of the Russian government’s efforts to bolster Trump’s campaign. Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting, inviting Manafort and Kushner to join him.
The Associated Press spoke with one of the other attendees of that meeting, Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet military officer with ties to the Russian government. He told the AP that the information offered by the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, included “documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democrats,” which Akhmetshin thought “could be a good issue to expose how the DNC is accepting bad money.”
Our Aaron Blake points out that the notes themselves put the meeting in a new light. Trump Jr. had dismissed the importance of the meeting by pointing out the apparent indifference of the others in the room: Kushner left after a few minutes and Manafort was just messing around “on his phone” the whole time
The notes were captured on a smartphone, suggesting that Manafort was instead taking dutiful notes.
Akhmetshin himself testified before Mueller’s grand jury. The Financial Times reported that Akhmetshin testified for several hours earlier this month. Grand jury testimony is not public, so it’s not clear what was discussed, but it’s clear that it included the June 2016 meeting mentioned above.
Trump’s lawyers met with Mueller’s team in June to argue against pursuing obstruction of justice charges. There’s been speculation for some time that Trump’s firing of former FBI director James B. Comey in May would spur Mueller to consider possible obstruction of justice charges against the president. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s lawyers contacted Mueller’s team in June to argue against such a move.
In a pair of memos, Trump’s attorneys argued that the president has full authority to fire the director of the FBI as desired and that Comey would be an unreliable witness if charges were pursued.
“There is no indication he accepted the lawyers’ reasoning or has dropped the part of his inquiry looking at any obstruction of justice by the president,” the Journal reported.
Mueller’s team may have enlisted the help of investigators at the IRS. On Thursday, the Daily Beast reported that investigators from Mueller’s team were working with the IRS’s Criminal Investigations unit. The unit’s 2,500 investigators focus on financial crimes like tax evasion and money laundering, the site notes.
If any of his allies are accused of federal tax evasion charges, of course, Trump’s pardon power could again come into play.
Update: Shortly after this article was published, the New York Times broke another new story, as below.
Mueller obtained a copy of a letter Trump drafted but never released, explaining why he planned to fire Comey. The Times revealed on Friday that Trump had asked aide Stephen Miller to draft a letter to Comey rationalizing the firing of the FBI director before that firing took place. That letter was withheld at the request of White House counsel Don McGahn who “believed that some of its contents were problematic,” according to the Times report.
Amber Phillips contributed to this report.