Trump v Russia
June 15, 2017

When The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice, since corroborated by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, it also noted that "investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates," including "possible contacts with Russian operatives as well as any suspicious financial activity related to those individuals." The New York Times offers more details:

A former senior official said Mr. Mueller's investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates. The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials would most likely have been in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payments, probably by routing them through offshore banking centers. [The New York Times]

Mueller is overseeing multiple investigations into not just Trump but people who are or used to be in his orbit; the investigation shifted from just Russian meddling in the 2016 election to obstruction of justice a few days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9; Mueller was appointed special counsel on May 17. Mueller is reportedly going to interview three intelligence officials as early as this week: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, and Rogers' former deputy director, Rick Ledgett.

Before he retired, The Wall Street Journal reports, Ledgett "wrote a memo documenting a phone call that Mr. Rogers had with Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. During the call, the president questioned the veracity of the intelligence community's judgment that Russia had interfered with the election and tried to persuade Mr. Rogers to say there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russian officials." Rogers declined, but has testified he did not feel pressured by Trump to push back against collusion allegations. A spokesman for Trump's personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, criticized all the revelations from Mueller's close-to-the-vest investigation: "The FBI leak of information regarding the president is outrageous, inexcusable, and illegal." Peter Weber

March 6, 2017

President Trump did not get a bump in the polls from his big speech to Congress last week, and in fact his favorability and job approval ratings have proved pretty steady since his inauguration — both numbers up to 45 percent, from 44 percent in January — according to a CNN/ORC International poll released Monday. But a prospective special prosecutor to investigate any ties between Russia and Trump's campaign or business interests has gotten a boost, with 65 percent of American adults backing a special prosecutor to handle the investigation versus 35 percent who think Congress can handle it.

A majority of respondents, 55 percent, say they are very (37 percent) or somewhat (18 percent) concerned about the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russian operatives, with 17 percent saying they are not very concerned and 28 percent saying they are not concerned at all. Political party affiliation drives that split, with Democrats and independents strongly worried about any Trump-Russia ties and Republicans largely blasé. That polarization on Trump and Russia has increased since his inauguration.

If Trump's favorability numbers have held steady, Congress and Vice President Mike Pence have gotten notably more popular. Congress' favorability numbers are up to 28 percent from 20 percent, while Pence is now viewed more favorably than Trump, with a 47 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable rating, up from his 40/37 percent split in January. The poll was conducted March 1-4 among 1,025 adults, and has a sampling error of ±3 percentage points. Peter Weber

March 3, 2017

Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak is, by all accounts, genial, fiercely protective of Russian policy and international prestige, an avid and successful social networker, and a diplomat who prefers private meetings and dinner parties to public events. He is also, to his and President Trump's discomfort, a central figure in Washington right now, due to his several meetings during the presidential campaign with several top Trump advisers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Kislyak is a veteran diplomat with a background in arms control, and he has been Russia's top diplomat in Washington since 2008. Given his new high profile and the mounting questions about Trump's connections to Russian officials — and the Trump team's evasiveness on the subject — there's a new question: Is Kislyak a spy? NBC's Katy Tur asked that question to Peter Baker, New York Times chief White House correspondent and a former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, on Thursday. "Well, look, in the Russian system it's a distinction without a difference," he said.

Some other Russia experts and analysts agree. Spy or diplomat? "For them it's much grayer," Steven Hall, former head of Russia operations at the CIA, tells The Washington Post. "I would say [Kislyak] is most definitely both. In the Russian system, it's simply assumed that they're all collecting and doing whatever they can either covertly or overtly." That's not a view everyone shares. The idea that Russia's ambassador is a top recruiter for its SVR foreign intelligence agency "strikes me as pretty odd," Steven Pifer, a former State Department official, tells The Guardian. "Everything I've seen, he's been a Russian diplomat." Russia, unsurprisingly, is pushing back against the idea.

Either way, Kislyak has said he will leave Washington soon, likely replaced by a hard-line Russian general, though his replacement has not been announced. Moving on is probably all right for Kislyak, because Russia is so toxic now in Washington, The New York Times reports: "It has become lonely, and he has told associates that he is surprised how people who once sought his company were now trying to stay away." Peter Weber

February 21, 2017

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that President Trump's personal legal counsel, Michael Cohen, met last month with a colorful Russian-American former Trump business associate, Felix Sater, and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian lawmaker, then delivered a sealed envelope from them to Michael Flynn, Trump's then-national security adviser, with a "peace plan" for Ukraine. The peace deal, proposed by Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko, would lead to formalizing Russia's occupation of Crimea as a lease and lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Cohen and Sater confirmed the meeting and the envelope delivery. Then on Monday, Cohen backpedaled, telling The Washington Post and NBC News that "the brief meeting took place," but "emphatically" denying "discussing this topic or delivering any documents to the White House and/or General Flynn." He agreed to meet with Sater for coffee, he added, because he's "known Felix for years," and didn't know Sater's friend "would be a guy who wants to run for president of Ukraine." The Times stood by its story, telling The Washington Post that Cohen said "in no uncertain terms that he delivered the Ukraine proposal to Michael Flynn's office at the White House."

The back-channel diplomacy effort is not illegal, though it is unusual and maybe inconvenient amid federal investigations into Trump's business and political ties to Moscow. The reappearance of Sater is interesting, in any case, not least because he has a colorful history that includes arrests for stabbing a man in the face with a broken glass in a bar fight and for a Mafia-linked stock-fixing scheme, and avoiding jail by working for the CIA and FBI.

Sater's long business history with Trump includes working on several Trump-licensed projects, including the Trump SoHo building and — a decade ago and again in 2015 — a proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Sater's name has popped up a couple of times in the campaign, but despite evidence of their close ties, Trump has sworn in depositions that he wouldn't even recognize Sater's face, as shown in this December 2015 report from ABC News.

The peace proposal did not meet with a positive response in either Kiev or Moscow; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the plan "absurd," and Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly said that Artemenko "is not entitled to present any alternative peace plans on behalf of Ukraine to any foreign government." Peter Weber

February 3, 2017

On Thursday, in her first remarks to the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley issued the Trump administration's first condemnation of Russia's actions in Ukraine, including its seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. "I consider it unfortunate on the occasion of my first appearance here I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia," she said. "We do want to better our relations with Russia. However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions."

Because of President Trump's praise of and refusal to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, there has been the expectation that he might lift U.S. sanctions against Russia and some Russian officials. Haley suggested otherwise, at least the 2014 sanctions over Ukraine. "Eastern Ukraine of course is not the only part of the country suffering because of Russia's aggressive actions," she said. "The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea." Since Trump's phone call with Putin, pro-Russia separatists have launched ongoing attacks in eastern Ukraine.

Haley's remarks, while out of step with Trump's, are in line with what she and other Trump nominees — notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis — said in their confirmation hearings. Western allies are not sure where that leaves them on crucial issues like NATO, though The New York Times suggests that Haley's speech, combined with the White House asking for a halt in Israeli settlements and threatened sanctions on Iran, signals that Trump "is embracing some key pillars of the former administration's strategy."

At the same time, on Thursday the Treasury Department eased sanctions against Russian spy agency FSB that Obama had put in place to hit back against Russia's interference in the 2016 election. A Treasury official described it as "a very technical fix" to help consumer technology companies export products into Russia. FSB issues import licenses for tech products, and the fix, in the works since Jan. 20, will allow them to request those documents. Trump said Thursday that he's "not easing anything," but even supporters of the shift said the timing is lousy. "It's probably not a huge deal, but it is tone deaf," a Republican aide who is hawkish on Russia told The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

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