USA Justice Briefing

Russia investigation: An eventful week, and what happens next

New details emerged this week in the broadening investigation into alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill in Washington on June 21, 2017.
Andrew Harnik/AP
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New details emerged this week in the broadening investigation into alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Among developments:

• The cofounder of the firm that produced the so-called Trump dossier told members of Congress in November that he suspected a number of Trump real estate deals may have been a vehicle for Russian money laundering operations.

Glenn Simpson voiced his suspicions in a 165-page transcript released to the public on Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee. He was asked if he had discovered “evidence” of criminal activity linking Russia and Trump.  

“Evidence is a strong word,” Mr. Simpson told the committee. “I think we saw patterns of buying and selling that we thought were suggestive of money laundering.”

• Simpson was also asked about reports that Russians in key positions in Moscow had been imprisoned or died following the public release of the Trump dossier. He was asked if one of the sources for the dossier had been killed.

“That’s not my information,” he said, according to the transcript. “I mean there was a series of episodes where people were arrested or died mysteriously that came shortly after the disclosure of the existence of this information,” he said. “And I do believe there was a bit of an old fashioned purge.”

He added: “But to my knowledge it wasn’t any one who helped us.” He said the targets of the “purge” were more likely people who had been falsely accused or who were sources of the US intelligence community.”

In an August interview with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Simpson’s lawyer made a comment that suggested that someone had been killed as a result of publicity surrounding the dossier.

“He wants to be very careful to protect his sources,” the lawyer said, referring to Simpson. “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work,” according to a transcript of that interview.

There were no follow up questions about who had been killed and under what circumstances.

• On Tuesday, former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon appeared before the House Intelligence Committee presumably to answer questions about his knowledge – if any – of alleged collusion between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and Russia-directed operatives who are accused of meddling in the 2016 election.

Mr. Bannon agreed to speak to the committee voluntarily. But the 10-hour session quickly degenerated into a test of wills when questions touched on areas that Bannon and White House lawyers felt were off limits.

Bannon was willing to answer questions about activities during the 2016 campaign, but White House lawyers opposed efforts to probe events during the presidential transition and within the Trump White House. Their posture raised questions about whether there would be an assertion of executive privilege.

Lawmakers countered with a highly unusual tactic, they issued a subpoena on the spot to compel Bannon to answer their questions.

Bannon resisted, further angering both Democrats and Republicans on the committee, according to press reports.

There was discussion that Bannon should be forced by subpoena to return to the panel on Thursday afternoon to face more questions – and provide actual answers. Ultimately an agreement was reached that gave Bannon until the end of the month to schedule and complete his interview.

It is unclear whether Bannon possesses evidence of wrongdoing by the Trump campaign or by the Trump administration.

Bannon’s reluctance to answer certain questions may simply be a reflection of an intent by White House lawyers at some point to make a claim of executive privilege in the face of questioning by members of the legislative branch of government.

Bannon’s potential importance in the special counsel’s investigation rose at least momentarily two weeks ago following publication of author Michael Wolff’s tell-all book “Fire and Fury.” Bannon was quoted in the book as suggesting that the decision by the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and others to meet with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign was “treasonous.”

Mr. Wolff also quoted Bannon as saying that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would “crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV.”

The comments related to a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Jr., Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a key adviser, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort with a Russian lawyer who had suggested she could share dirt on Hillary Clinton that might undercut her candidacy.

Investigators are examining whether the meeting is evidence of a criminal conspiracy to collude with a foreign power to interfere in the US election.

Bannon has since backed away from his quotes in the book, saying that his comments were aimed at Mr. Manafort rather than at the president’s son. He later called Donald Trump, Jr. “a patriot and a good man.”

Mueller and several committees in Congress are investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Russia has denied any involvement in alleged meddling. President Trump has called the investigations a “witch hunt.”

In addition, Mueller’s team of agents and prosecutors is investigating whether the president engaged in obstruction of justice when he fired former FBI Director James Comey last May.

Last week Bannon received a subpoena to testify before a grand jury assembled as part of the Mueller investigation. But under an agreement negotiated with the special counsel’s office, Bannon will be allowed to participate in a voluntary interview with investigators rather than making a formal appearance before the grand jury.

In contrast to his stormy appearance in the closed session in the House Intelligence Committee, Bannon is expected to cooperate and testify fully during questioning by the special counsel’s office.

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