From Russia, With Oil

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In the past week, there have been several startling revelations about the investigations into Donald Trump, his closest allies, and their ties to Russia. Not only has the existence of two investigations, one by the FBI and one by the House Intelligence Committee, been confirmed, but there is increasing information as to just what is being investigated: an alleged deal for Trump to advance Russian interests as President in exchange for 19% of the Russian state oil company Rosneft and Russian intelligence assistance in winning the election.

This news has been spread over a tremendous number of articles and even Twitter threads, rather than in a single big headline. So today I would like to pull together all of these reports, and make it clear what things are known for certain, what things have been reported and sourced but not confirmed, and what things are still speculation.

In, and Out, Like Flynn

Why a former three-star general may be turning state’s evidence

At the center of today’s news is Michael Flynn, a retired three-star U.S. Army general, who later worked on Trump’s campaign as a private citizen, and then served for 24 days as National Security Advisor. While he was working for Trump’s campaign, he was also a highly-paid agent of the Turkish government, receiving over $500,000 to represent their interests. (He admitted this after it became known online earlier this month, and last week filed the paperwork to retroactively declare himself as a foreign agent as required by law.)

He is also under investigation by the Army as to whether he was being paid (illegally) by the Russian government in 2015. (Even though he retired in 2014, military officers may be called back to active duty at any time, and so are not allowed to act as foreign agents without Congressional approval.) It is definitely known that he was paid over $33,000 by Russia Today for a “speaking engagement” back in December 2015; it’s a question for the lawyers whether such payments alone would qualify him as a foreign agent, since RT is only a quasi-official arm of the government. The Army investigation is separate and predates this.

Flynn was caught on (legal) FBI wiretaps, illegally discussing U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador last December. Worse for him, he lied about it to quite a few people, and when it came out, this forced his resignation as National Security Advisor.

Flynn’s Turkey angle is even more fascinating. The Wall Street Journal reported, per the testimony of former CIA Director James Woolsey — who was present as an advisor to Flynn’s company — that during the campaign, Flynn attended a meeting with senior ministers from the Turkish government where they discussed (illegally) kidnapping enemies of Turkish President Erdogan living in the United States, and shipping them over to Turkey in the dead of night — including Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric (who now lives in Pennsylvania) that Erdogan considers his greatest political enemy.

The reason Flynn’s work as a double, and possibly triple, agent is so interesting (apart from the obvious) is that in the past few days, several sources have started to report that Flynn has flipped and decided to turn state’s evidence. Through a spokesman, Flynn has stated “no comment.”

What makes this so interesting, of course, is that investigators don’t flip witnesses unless there are bigger fish to fry. And there are few fish bigger than the National Security Advisor.

The Mayflower Meetings

Central to the question of who these bigger fish might be is the so-called “Mayflower Meeting.” This was eloquently summarized by journalist Seth Abramson in a detailed (and heavily-sourced) Twitter thread on March 23rd.

The “Mayflower Meeting” was an April 27th meeting at the Mayflower Hotel, immediately before Trump gave his first foreign policy speech. In this speech, written by Russian lobbyist Richard Burt, Trump promised to “make a deal under my administration that’s great for America but also good for Russia.”

The speech, and the meeting before it, were organized by Trump’s newly-minted campaign chair Paul Manafort and Jacob Heilbrunn, the event coordinator for the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think-tank closely aligned with the Kremlin. The meeting was a 24-person “cocktail hour” held in the Mayflower’s VIP Senate Room. Trump was there, and according to Heilbrunn, so were (now Attorney-General) Jeff Sessions, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump’s previous campaign chair Corey Lewandowski, Iran-Contra figure (!) Bud McFarlane, and Paul Manafort. Also present were four ambassadors — from Russia, Italy, Singapore, and the Philippines — and key figures from Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company. (The Philippines are one of Rosneft’s primary expansion targets for coming years.)

(Paul Manafort is an interesting character: prior to being Trump’s campaign manager, he worked as a “fixer” for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, for the (pro-Russian) Ukrainian government, and for Ferdinand Marcos’ regime in the Philippines. Manafort has been under investigation since last August for laundering illegal payments he received from the Ukrainian government, and documents provided to CNN last week by a Ukrainian lawmaker may prove to be a smoking gun.)

It is not clear precisely what was discussed at this meeting, but several things are known for certain. Between December 5th and 7th of 2016, 19.5% of Rosneft was sold through a labyrinth of shell companies to parties unknown. The key brokers in this deal were Singapore, Italy, and the Qatari company Gencore, which on December 10th stated that it had received 0.54% of the company as its fee for facilitating the deal. What was particularly surprising about this number was that back in July of 2016, the Steele Dossier reported that Putin had offered Trump 19% of Rosneft in exchange for lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia. While there has been a great deal of talk about how nobody should trust the Steele Dossier, it’s very curious that the exact amount of the missing Rosneft shares was described publicly by this dossier five months before the deal.

The allegation is an explicit quid pro quo: Trump would as President further Russian interests, eliminating oil sanctions and ratifying Russian control of parts of Ukraine, in exchange for 19% of Rosneft and Russian intelligence assistance in winning the election.

A few other things were happening during those same few days in early December. Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak were meeting secretly in Trump Tower — so secretly that Kislyak was smuggled in through a freight elevator. (This meeting between Flynn and Kislyak was one of the ones which led to Flynn’s resignation.) President Obama announced that he intended to impose sanctions on Russia, in retaliation for Russian interference in the election; he did so on the 29th. Putin, to everyone’s surprise, did not retaliate as he had threatened to do. It has been widely speculated that Flynn’s reassurances were key to this.

(It is also noteworthy that during his confirmation hearing as Attorney-General in February, Jeff Sessions denied any meetings with Russian representatives during the campaign. When Sessions admitted that this was false after it was revealed that he had done so at least twice, his revised statement to Congress still did not disclose the Mayflower Meeting.)

The Russian interference in the election which Obama was retaliating for was the hacking of e-mail servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton campaign, and the release of embarrassing e-mails at various times throughout the election. (For example, revealing the DNC leadership’s preference for Clinton over opponent Bernie Sanders immediately prior to the Democratic Convention in July, or the releases via WikiLeaks of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mails in October.) According to the White House, the Treasury Department, and the CIA, these hacks were the joint work of the FSB (the Russian equivalent of the FBI) and the GRU (Russian military intelligence).

The above is what we know for certain about the Mayflower Meeting. The allegation which Abramson suspects may be at the center of the FBI investigation is that the meeting is where an explicit quid pro quo was negotiated: Trump would as President further Russian interests, eliminating oil sanctions and ratifying Russian control of strategic territory in Ukraine, in exchange for 19% of Rosneft and Russian intelligence assistance in winning the election. We do not know that this is true; what we have above is a collection of very interesting circumstantial evidence. It will be detailed investigation by professionals, and testimony of witnesses (like Michael Flynn) who may have been present in person for parts of this, which determines whether or not this is the case.

The Investigations

There appear to be two primary investigations going on right now: one by the FBI, which FBI Director James Comey testified about to Congress a few days ago, and one by the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Devin Nunes, a close ally of Trump’s.

These two investigations have very different tones. The Congressional one is (unsurprisingly) highly political. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get weird; last Tuesday night, Nunes was traveling in an Uber with one of his aides when he received a message on his phone. He promptly got out of the car and vanished, only to turn up Wednesday morning announcing that, after reviewing classified reports, he found that “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.” He then went over to the White House to brief Trump.

That last part is really the key to the story; Nunes’ independence from Trump has been, to say the least, questioned. Nunes was on Trump’s transition team, and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have suggested that his source for this information was the White House itself (!), released to create a distraction from Comey’s testimony that Monday.

The FBI investigation, on the other hand, has happened mostly quietly, as investigations usually do — except for a surprising number of leaks, such as the revelation of Flynn’s telephone conversations with Kisylak which prompted Flynn’s resignation. This may be related to the political pressures on that investigation: the FBI, after all, reports to Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, one of the figures at the center of the investigation. Despite Sessions’ agreement to recuse himself from this investigation, there is likely to be considerable pressure not to release anything which may be harmful to the administration.

As a result, there are two investigations with very different political flavors, and it is quite possible that they will act at cross-purposes in the coming months.

If Flynn flipped, it seems that he has been flipped by the FBI investigation — which makes it interesting that immediately afterwards, Paul Manafort announced that he would testify to the Congressional investigation.

In Summary

The things we know for certain:

  • Michael Flynn was a Turkish foreign agent during the Presidential campaign. He also received money from Russia, and the Army is investigating whether he was in fact a Russian agent as well. During this time, and while a private citizen, he negotiated with the Russian ambassador about lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia. Revelations of these negotiations (and his deceit about their existence) prompted his resignation as National Security Advisor.
  • Paul Manafort, prior to being head of Donald Trump’s campaign, was a long-time political operative for a Russian oligarch, for the (pro-Russian) Ukrainian government, and for Ferdinand Marcos’ regime in the Philippines. He is the subject of a Ukrainian investigation into receiving illegal payments and money laundering.
  • On April 27th, Trump, several of his senior aides, and the ambassadors of Russia, Italy, Singapore, and the Philippines met at the Mayflower Hotel. Shortly afterwards, Trump gave his first foreign policy speech, with a strongly pro-Russian message. The speech was written by Richard Burt, a former Russian oil lobbyist.
  • In July, the Steele Dossier reported that Putin had offered Trump 19% of Rosneft in exchange for lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia. This information was impossible to verify at the time and received little attention.
  • Also starting in July, a sequence of leaks of information stolen in computer hacks of the DNC and Clinton campaign were released at strategic moments, such as just before the Democratic Convention and just before the general election. Several branches of the U.S. government stated that these hacks were executed by Russian intelligence, and Obama imposed sanctions on Russia in retaliation.
  • In early December, 19.5% of the Russian state oil company Rosneft was sold to a web of shell companies, with Italy, Singapore, and Qatar acting as brokers. The Qatari brokers said that they received 0.54% of the company as their commission. The actual owners of the remaining 19% are unknown. During the same dates, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak were having secret meetings at Trump Tower.
  • Jeff Sessions, then a U.S. Senator and senior Trump campaign member, and now Attorney-General, lied to Congress by saying that he did not meet with representatives of the Russian government during the campaign. After he admitted this and disclosed the meetings, the disclosures did not include the Mayflower Meeting, even though the event organizer has stated unequivocally that Sessions was there.

The things which have been reported with evidence, but which are not fully confirmed:

  • During the campaign, Michael Flynn attended a meeting with senior Turkish leaders, where the subject was planning to (illegally) kidnap enemies of the Turkish government living in America, and bring them over to Turkey. The evidence for this is former CIA Director James Woolsey’s description of the event (at which he was present) to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Michael Flynn may have decided to turn state’s evidence and testify as part of the FBI investigation. Reports of this have circulated online, and Flynn has responded with a “no comment.” The truth of this remains unclear.

The things which are suspected, and which are possibly the ultimate meat of the investigations:

  • The Mayflower Meeting, and the related meetings at Trump Tower, included an explicit quid-pro-quo deal in which Donald Trump would further Russian interests as President, in exchange for personally receiving some fraction of Rosneft, as well as operational assistance from Russian intelligence (in the form of timed releases of stolen information) to win the election.

This allegation is by far the most extraordinary one ever leveled against a U.S. President. Nixon was accused of covering up a burglary; Reagan, of running illegal arms deals to funnel covert money to insurgents. Never before has there been the suggestion that a sitting president has actually been suborned by a foreign power, much less that this foreign power actively worked to install him in office.

The information the public has so far is very damning against some Trump aides (such as Flynn), potentially very damning against others (such as Manafort), and is “circumstantial but intriguing” with respect to the core allegation. What needs to happen next is an open and public investigation of these matters: specifically, of the conduct of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump, and their other allies and associates with respect to illegal payments from the Russian government.

The practical question which comes next is how the investigations will proceed. If the Nunes investigation is politically compromised, it might try to do a public “investigation” whose purpose is to exonerate the administration and focus blame on individuals such as Flynn in order to discredit their testimony elsewhere. The FBI investigation’s greatest risk is that the FBI, and the prosecutors who would pursue a case, ultimately report to Attorney-General Sessions, and one can expect substantial open and covert pressure from the administration not to release any damaging information. (It is fair to suspect that such pressure already exists, and may be related to the unusually high number of leaks from that investigation.) If a damning report were to be released by this investigation, it might put sufficient pressure on Congress that the course of its investigation might change considerably. (And, of course, only Congress is empowered to act against a sitting President, via impeachment and trial)

We must watch these developments diligently.

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