While eyes are on Russia, Sessions dramatically reshapes the Justice Department

The Washington Post reports: For more than five hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sat in a hearing room on Capitol Hill this month, fending off inquiries on Washington’s two favorite topics: President Trump and Russia.

But legislators spent little time asking Sessions about the dramatic and controversial changes in policy he has made since taking over the top law enforcement job in the United States nine months ago.

From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views — moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.

Sessions has implemented a new charging and sentencing policy that calls for prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible, even if that might mean minority defendants face stiff, mandatory minimum penalties. He has defended the president’s travel ban and tried to strip funding from cities with policies he considers too friendly toward undocumented immigrants.

Sessions has even adjusted the department’s legal stances in cases involving voting rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a way that advocates warn might disenfranchise poor minorities and give certain religious people a license to discriminate.

Supporters and critics say the attorney general has been among the most effective of the Cabinet secretaries — implementing Trump’s conservative policy agenda even as the president publicly and privately toys with firing him over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia case. [Continue reading…]

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If Flynn is cooperating with Mueller, then case against Trump gets much more serious

Barbara McQuade writes: The report by the New York Times that Michael Flynn has withdrawn from a joint defense agreement with President Donald Trump might indicate that he is cooperating with Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. If so, this could be a significant turning point in the investigation.

First, what is a joint defense agreement? A joint defense agreement is a pact among attorneys for multiple targets or subjects in a criminal case in which they agree to share information. The agreement may be written or unwritten. Any joint defense agreement will be defined by its explicit terms, but generally, under such an agreement, attorneys have a duty to keep the confidences of all of the clients covered by the agreement. The attorneys also have a duty to avoid conflicts of interest as to any of the clients. The attorneys can compare notes, allocate work efficiently by dividing tasks and avoiding duplication, and develop a unified strategy.

The main advantage of joint defense agreements is that the information that they share is protected by a form of the attorney-client privilege, known by some courts as a joint interest privilege. These agreements can help targets or subjects sidestep the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which they must decide in a vacuum whether to help each other by remaining silent or betray each other by cooperating with authorities. When subjects or targets form a unified defense strategy, it is more difficult for prosecutors to “flip” targets, and use them as cooperators against their co-conspirators. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller might be the one who’s ‘draining the swamp’

The Washington Post reports: President Trump famously promised that, if elected president, he would “drain the swamp” — upending the culture in Washington that favors the well-connected.

It is special counsel Robert S. Mueller III whose work seems to be sending shock waves through the capital, by exposing the lucrative work lobbyists from both parties engage in on behalf of foreign interests.

The Mueller probe has already claimed its first K Street casualty: Tony Podesta. His lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, a Washington icon of power and political influence, notified its employees recently that the enterprise is shutting its doors.

Since Mueller was appointed, more people and firms have either filed or amended registrations that make public their work on behalf of foreign interests than had done so over the same time period in each of at least the past 20 years. Lobbyists, lawyers and public relations professionals who work for foreign companies and governments say Mueller’s probe has spooked K Street, and firms are likely to be more careful in their compliance with public disclosure standards. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn’s lawyers have terminated their agreement to share information with Trump’s lawyers

The New York Times reports: Lawyers for Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, notified the president’s legal team in recent days that they could no longer discuss the special counsel’s investigation, according to four people involved in the case, an indication that Mr. Flynn is cooperating with prosecutors or negotiating such a deal.

Mr. Flynn’s lawyers had been sharing information with Mr. Trump’s lawyers about the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is examining whether anyone around Mr. Trump was involved in Russian efforts to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

That agreement has been terminated, the four people said. Defense lawyers frequently share information during investigations, but they must stop when doing so would pose a conflict of interest. It is unethical for lawyers to work together when one client is cooperating with prosecutors and another is still under investigation.

The notification alone does not prove that Mr. Flynn is cooperating with Mr. Mueller. Some lawyers withdraw from information-sharing arrangements as soon as they begin negotiating with prosecutors. And such negotiations sometimes fall apart.

Still, the notification led Mr. Trump’s lawyers to believe that Mr. Flynn — who, along with his son, is seen as having significant criminal exposure — has, at the least, begun discussions with Mr. Mueller about cooperating. [Continue reading…]

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Mike Flynn business partner Bijan Kian now subject of Mueller probe

NBC News reports: A former business associate of Michael Flynn has become a subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for his role in the failure of Flynn’s former lobbying firm to disclose its work on behalf of foreign governments, three sources familiar with the investigation told NBC News.

Federal investigators are zeroing in on Bijan Kian, an Iranian-American who was a partner at the now-dissolved Flynn Intel Group, and have questioned multiple witnesses in recent weeks about his lobbying work on behalf of Turkey. The grand jury convened for the investigation will soon have a chance to question some of those witnesses, the sources say.

Mueller recently indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates simultaneously. Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty. Both Flynn’s and Manafort’s lobbying firms have come under investigation for failing to disclose lobbying work on behalf of foreign governments. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner wonders whether Mueller’s probe will ‘get the president?’

Gabriel Sherman writes: As [Jared] Kushner’s Russia troubles mount—last Friday the Senate disclosed that he had not turned over e-mails about WikiLeaks, a claim his attorney, Abbe Lowell, denied—insiders are again speculating, as my colleague Emily Jane Fox reported last month, about how long Kushner and Ivanka Trump will remain in Washington. Despite Kushner’s efforts to project confidence about Robert Mueller’s probe, he expressed worry after the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates about how far the investigation could go. “Do you think they’ll get the president?” Kushner asked a friend, according to a person briefed on the conversation.

According to two Republicans who have spoken with Trump, the president has also been frustrated with Kushner’s political advice, including his encouragement to back losing Alabama G.O.P. candidate Luther Strange and to fire F.B.I. Director James Comey, which Kushner denies. (For what it’s worth, Kushner’s choice of Strange prevented Trump from the embarrassment of inadvertently supporting Roy Moore.) Trump, according to three people who’ve spoken to him, has advocated for Jared and Ivanka to return to New York in part because they are being damaged by negative press. “He keeps pressuring them to go,” one source close to Kushner told me. But as bad as the Russia investigation may be, it’s not clear a New York homecoming would be much better for Kushner, given that his family’s debt-ridden office tower at 666 Fifth Avenue could be headed for bankruptcy. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller probes Jared Kushner’s contacts with foreign leaders

The Wall Street Journal reports: Robert Mueller’s investigators are asking questions about Jared Kushner’s interactions with foreign leaders during the presidential transition, including his involvement in a dispute at the United Nations in December, in a sign of the expansive nature of the special counsel’s probe of Russia’s alleged meddling in the election, according to people familiar with the matter.

The investigators have asked witnesses questions about the involvement of Mr. Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, in a controversy over a U.N. resolution passed Dec. 23, before Mr. Trump took office, that condemned Israel’s construction of settlements in disputed territories, these people said.

Israeli officials had asked the incoming Trump administration to intervene to help block it. Mr. Trump posted a Facebook message the day before the U.N. vote—after he had been elected but before he had assumed office—saying the resolution put the Israelis in a difficult position and should be vetoed.

Mr. Trump also held a phone conversation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, whose government had written a draft of the resolution. Egypt proceeded to call for the vote to be delayed, but the resolution passed the following day, with then-President Barack Obama’s administration declining to block it.

Israeli officials said at the time that they began reaching out to senior leaders in Mr. Trump’s transition team. Among those involved were Mr. Kushner and political strategist Stephen Bannon, according to people briefed on the exchanges.

The White House referred questions to Mr. Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, and to a White House lawyer.

The motivation for the Mueller team’s questions about the U.N. is unclear. [Continue reading…]

It seems likely that the focus here is not the legality of these diplomatic exchanges but instead a pattern of deception — Kushner’s apparent habit of withholding information and providing false or deceptive answers while being questioned under oath.

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Russia regarded Rep. Dana Rohrabacher as an intelligence source worthy of a Kremlin code name

The New York Times reports: For two decades, Representative Dana Rohrabacher has been of value to the Kremlin, so valuable in recent years that the F.B.I. warned him in 2012 that Russia regarded him as an intelligence source worthy of a Kremlin code name.

The following year, the California Republican became even more valuable, assuming the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee that oversees Russia policy. He sailed to re-election again and again, even as he developed ties to Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

Then came President Trump.

As revelations of Russia’s campaign to influence American politics consume Washington, Mr. Rohrabacher, 70, who had no known role in the Trump election campaign, has come under political and investigative scrutiny. The F.B.I. and the Senate Intelligence Committee are each seeking to interview him about an August meeting with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, Mr. Rohrabacher said. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is said to be interested in a meeting he had last year with Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s short-lived national security adviser.

At the same time, fellow Republicans — questioning his judgment and intentions — have moved to curtail his power as chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. And back home in Southern California, where Democrats and Republicans alike smell blood, the 15-term congressman is facing his toughest re-election contest in decades, with well-funded candidates from both parties lining up to unseat him. [Continue reading…]

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FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for U.S. nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One

The Hill reports: An FBI informant gathered extensive evidence during his six years undercover about a Russian plot to corner the American uranium market, ranging from corruption inside a U.S. nuclear transport company to Obama administration approvals that let Moscow buy and sell more atomic fuels, according to more than 5,000 pages of documents from the counterintelligence investigation.

The memos, reviewed by The Hill, conflict with statements made by Justice Department officials in recent days that informant William Campbell’s prior work won’t shed much light on the U.S. government’s controversial decision in 2010 to approve Russia’s purchase of the Uranium One mining company and its substantial U.S. assets.

Campbell documented for his FBI handlers the first illegal activity by Russians nuclear industry officials in fall 2009, nearly an entire year before the Russian state-owned Rosatom nuclear firm won Obama administration approval for the Uranium One deal, the memos show.

Campbell, who was paid $50,000 a month to consult for the firm, was solicited by Rosatom colleagues to help overcome political opposition to the Uranium One purchase while collecting FBI evidence that the sale was part of a larger effort by Moscow to make the U.S. more dependent on Russian uranium, contemporaneous emails and memos show.

“The attached article is of interest as I believe it highlights the ongoing resolve in Russia to gradually and systematically acquire and control global energy resources,” Rod Fisk, an American contractor working for the Russians, wrote in a June 24, 2010, email to Campbell. [Continue reading…]

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Trump tweets on CNN could muddy AT&T-Time Warner lawsuit

Politico reports: The Justice Department’s decision to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger sets up another high-profile lawsuit in which President Donald Trump’s prolific and opinionated tweets could complicate his administration’s agenda.

The DOJ announced Monday that it would seek to derail the $85 billion deal because the combined company could charge competitors hefty fees to distribute Time Warner content, providing an unfair advantage to AT&T-owned DirecTV. But questions about political meddling by the Trump administration have dogged the merger throughout the government’s review process — and those concerns could now factor into arguments the companies make in court challenging the rejection of their proposed union.

“Donald Trump’s dangerous talk about CNN cast a shadow over their actions,” said Craig Aaron, president of advocacy group Free Press, which opposes the merger. While Aaron called AT&T-Time Warner a “huge merger with clear consumer harms,” he warned: “If there’s any evidence the White House interfered because it dislikes CNN’s journalism, that would be a disaster.”

The president’s tweets have come up in the legal arguments of those battling his other policies, including his administration’s restrictions on travelers from Muslim countries, decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and ban on openly transgender soldiers. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller sends wide-ranging request for documents to Justice Department

ABC News reports: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating whether President Donald Trump sought to obstruct a federal inquiry into connections between his presidential campaign and Russian operatives has now directed the Justice Department to turn over a broad array of documents, ABC News has learned.

In particular, Mueller’s investigators are keen to obtain emails related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the earlier decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the entire matter, according to a source who has not seen the specific request but was told about it.

Issued within the past month, the directive marks the special counsel’s first records request to the Justice Department, and it means Mueller is now demanding documents from the department overseeing his investigation. [Continue reading…]

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Hope Hicks may hold the keys to Mueller’s Russia puzzle

Politico reports: Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is preparing to interview the woman who’s seen it all: Hope Hicks.

She’s been part of Donald Trump’s inner circle for years, first at Trump Tower and then as an omnipresent gatekeeper and fixer who could get emails or other communications directly to the boss during the 2016 campaign.

As a senior White House adviser and now as communications director, she’s been in the room for moments critical to Mueller’s probe, which has grown to include the president’s response to the Russia investigation itself.

Hicks’ history with Trump makes her one of the more useful witnesses for Mueller as he looks for insights into the president’s habits and moods. She also is one of the few people well positioned to recount the president’s reactions at various moments as the Russia scandal has sidetracked his presidency — including the Mueller appointment itself.

Mueller’s decision to request an interview with Hicks — who hasn’t been named in any criminal wrongdoing — also indicates he’s reached a critical point in the overall investigation, according to former prosecutors and veterans of past White House investigations. Typically, conversations with such senior-level aides are saved for near the end of a probe. [Continue reading…]

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Does cooperating witness have info on Flynn tie to Turkey?

NBC News reports: A gold trader who is close to Turkish President Recep Erdogan is now cooperating with federal prosecutors in a money-laundering case, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter, and legal experts say prosecutors may be seeking information about any ties between the Turkish government and former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.

Reza Zarrab, a dual Turkish-Iranian national, faces charges in federal court in Manhattan for skirting sanctions on Iran by allegedly moving hundreds of millions of dollars for the Iranian government and Iranian firms via offshore entities and bank accounts.

But Zarrab is now out of jail and speaking to prosecutors — a move President Erdogan had been desperately hoping to avoid. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller issued subpoena for Russia-related documents from Trump campaign officials

The Wall Street Journal reports: Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in mid-October issued a subpoena to President Donald Trump’s campaign requesting Russia-related documents from more than a dozen top officials, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The subpoena, which requested documents and emails from the listed campaign officials that reference a set of Russia-related keywords, marked Mr. Mueller’s first official order for information from the campaign, according to the person. The subpoena didn’t compel any officials to testify before Mr. Mueller’s grand jury, the person said.

The subpoena caught the campaign by surprise, the person said. The campaign had previously been voluntarily complying with the special counsel’s requests for information, and had been sharing with Mr. Mueller’s team the documents it provided to congressional committees as part of their probes of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election.

The Trump campaign is providing documents in response to the subpoena on an “ongoing” basis, the person said. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election was a performance mostly for the benefit of non-American publics

Earlier this month, Ivan Krastev wrote: if we want to figure out why the Russians did what they did, we need to leave the terrain of spy games and move to the realm of foreign policy.

Here, we can start with a simple observation: While Russia’s meddling was a shock in the West, in Russia it was neither surprising nor scandalous. In my recent discussions with Russian foreign policy experts, they have made clear that if Moscow wants to be a world power, on an equal footing with Washington, it should be able and willing to match the United States. Russian leaders believe that Washington interferes in their domestic politics and that the United States intends to orchestrate a regime change in Moscow. So if they take that as given, the Kremlin should be able to similarly meddle and to show the world that it has the capabilities and will to do so. Reciprocal action is, after all, how you gain the respect of your enemies and the loyalty of your allies.

The common sense in Moscow foreign policy circles today is that Russia can regain its great power status only by confronting the United States, not by cooperating with it. [Continue reading…]

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Secret finding: 60 Russian payments ‘to finance election campaign of 2016’

BuzzFeed reports: On Aug. 3 of last year, just as the US presidential election was entering its final, heated phase, the Russian foreign ministry sent nearly $30,000 to its embassy in Washington. The wire transfer, which came from a Kremlin-backed Russian bank, landed in one of the embassy’s Citibank accounts and contained a remarkable memo line: “to finance election campaign of 2016.”

That wire transfer is one of more than 60 now being scrutinized by the FBI and other federal agencies investigating Russian involvement in the US election. The transactions, which moved through Citibank accounts and totaled more than $380,000, each came from the Russian foreign ministry and most contained a memo line referencing the financing of the 2016 election.

The money wound up at Russian embassies in almost 60 countries from Afghanistan to Nigeria between Aug. 3 and Sept. 20, 2016. It is not clear how the funds were used. At least one transaction that came into the US originated with VTB Bank, a financial institution that is majority-owned by the Kremlin. [Continue reading…]

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Sessions insists ‘factual basis’ will determine appointment of counsel, not Trump

The New York Times reports: President Trump did not need to send a memo or telephone his attorney general to make his desires known. He broadcast them for all the world to see on Twitter. The instruction was clear: The Justice Department should investigate his defeated opponent from last year’s campaign.

However they were delivered, Mr. Trump’s demands have ricocheted through the halls of the Justice Department, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now ordered senior prosecutors to evaluate various accusations against Hillary Clinton and report back on whether a special counsel should be appointed.

Mr. Sessions has made no decision, and in soliciting the assessment of department lawyers, he may be seeking a way out of the bind his boss has put him. At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, he pushed back against Republicans impatient for a special counsel. But if he or his deputy ultimately does authorize a new investigation of Mrs. Clinton, it would shatter post-Watergate norms intended to prevent presidents from using law enforcement agencies against political rivals.

The request alone was enough to incite a political backlash, as critics of Mr. Trump quickly denounced what they called “banana republic” politics of retribution, akin to autocratic nations where election losers are jailed by winners.

“You can be disappointed, but don’t be surprised,” said Karen Dunn, a former prosecutor and White House lawyer under President Barack Obama who advised Mrs. Clinton during her campaign. “This is exactly what he said he would do: use taxpayer resources to pursue political rivals.” [Continue reading…]

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Is Trump turning the Justice Department into his own political attack dog?

The Washington Post reports: Attorney General Jeff Sessions is entertaining the idea of appointing a second special counsel to investigate a host of Republican concerns — including alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia — and has directed senior federal prosecutors to explore at least some of the matters and report back to him and his top deputy, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

The revelation came in a response by the Justice Department to an inquiry from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who in July and again in September called for Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to investigate concerns he had related to the 2016 election and its aftermath.

The list of matters he wanted probed was wide ranging but included the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, various dealings of the Clinton Foundation and several matters connected to the purchase of the Canadian mining company Uranium One by Russia’s nuclear energy agency. Goodlatte took particular aim at former FBI director James B. Comey, asking for the second special counsel to evaluate the leaks he directed about his conversations with President Trump, among other things.

In response, Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote that Sessions had “directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate certain issues raised in your letters,” and that those prosecutors would “report directly to the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, as appropriate, and will make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of a Special Counsel.” [Continue reading…]

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