Trump on the attack over Mueller probe

Khaled Dawoud , Friday 23 Feb 2018

US President Donald Trump escalated his attacks on the FBI this week after Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians of conspiring to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections

Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state and local officials about infrastructure on Monday (Photo: AP)

US President Donald Trump’s attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hit a new low this week, when he suggested in a tweet on Saturday that it had failed to prevent last week’s shooting at a Florida high school because of its ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Trump’s tweet came one day after the office of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleged that a Russian propaganda arm had overseen a criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the 2016 US presidential campaigns to support Trump and disparage his Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton.

The indictment released by Mueller on Friday revealed more details than had been previously known about Moscow’s purported efforts to interfere in the elections. Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies, including the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency known for its trolling on social media, of taking part in the conspiracy.

The official who oversees Mueller’s work said the investigation was not finished.

Court documents said those accused “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential elections.”

The indictment said the Russians had adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, travelled to the United States to collect intelligence, visiting 10 states, and staged political rallies while posing as Americans. In one case, it said, the Russians had paid an unidentified person to build a cage aboard a flatbed truck and another to wear a costume “portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.”

The surprise 37-page indictment could alter the divisive US domestic debate over Russia’s alleged meddling in the elections, undercutting some Republicans who, along with Trump, have attacked Mueller’s investigation.

“These Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system. It was a conspiracy to subvert the process and take aim at democracy itself,” said Paul Ryan, the Republican Party speaker of the House of Representatives.

The indictment is silent on the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin, which Mueller is investigating.

In a tweet on Friday, Trump gave his most direct acknowledgement yet that Russia had meddled in the elections, which he has frequently disputed. “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion,” Trump wrote.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the allegations as “absurd” and ridiculed the notion that so few Russian nationals could undermine US democracy.

“13 against the billions [spent on the] budgets of the secret services,” she asked in a Facebook post.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined to comment on Saturday on the US indictments, telling a security conference in Munich that US Vice President Mike Pence and others had raised questions about the investigation.

“You may publish anything you want to. Until we see the facts, everything else is just blather,” Lavrov said.

The accused Russians are unlikely to be arrested or appear in a US court on the charges, which include conspiracy to defraud the United States, wire fraud, bank fraud and identity theft, as there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Russia.

The indictment broadly echoes the conclusions of a January 2017 US intelligence assessment, which found Russia had meddled in the elections, and that its goals had eventually included aiding Trump. In November 2016, Trump won a surprise victory over Democratic Party candidate Clinton.

Mueller’s indictment did not tie the meddling efforts to the Russian government. But the earlier US intelligence assessment said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a campaign to influence the US elections.

Trump has never unequivocally accepted the US intelligence report and has denounced Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt”. Some of those charged, posing as Americans, had “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” the indictment said.

Last year, Mueller charged Trump’s former campaign manager and his deputy with money-laundering and other crimes, and accepted guilty pleas from two former foreign policy aides for lying to the FBI.

Friday’s indictment of the Russians, coupled with the FBI disclosure that it had failed to heed a warning about the Florida high school shooter, were blows to the White House, still reeling from the fallout of a scandal involving a former aide accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives.

US Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein told a press conference that the defendants had allegedly conducted “what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.”

The indictment describes a sophisticated and well-funded multi-year operation, dubbed “Project Lakhta”, by Russian entities to influence the elections, beginning as early as May 2014.

The Russians had unlawfully used stolen social security numbers and the birth dates of Americans to open accounts on the PayPal digital payment platform and to post on social media using fake identities, the indictment said.

The Russians had sought to measure the impact of their online social media operations, tracking the size of US audiences reached through posts and other types of engagement, such as likes, comments and reposts, according to the indictment.

Facebook said in a statement that it had previously disclosed the Internet Research Agency’s activity on its platform. “We know we have more to do to prevent future attacks,” said Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy.

Twitter, whose platform was also used, echoed that view, saying in a statement that “any activity of this kind is intolerable, and we all must do more to prevent it”.

However, for Trump the indictment issued by Mueller provided an opportunity to renew his attacks on the FBI, which he has long accused of siding with the Democrats.

While it is true that the FBI had been alerted about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who killed 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last Wednesday, there is no evidence that it missed anything because of its investigation into the Trump team’s possible collusion with Russia.

“Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable,” Trump wrote. “They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign — there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud,” he wrote.

The FBI acknowledged on Friday that a person close to Cruz had contacted its tip-off line on 5 January a month before the shooting to provide information about his gun ownership, desire to kill people and disturbing behaviour. FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement that he was investigating what had happened.

Trump has reportedly considered ending Special Counsel Mueller’s assignment, but has been warned against it by White House lawyers. The confrontation between the two is likely to escalate after CNN reported on Tuesday that Mueller was expanding his investigation into the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s contacts with Russia, and that it would now include Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for his company from foreign investors during the presidential transition, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

This is the first indication that Mueller is exploring Kushner’s discussions with potential non-Russian foreign investors, including in China.

US officials briefed on the probe told CNN in May that points of focus related to Kushner, a White House senior adviser and son-in-law of President Donald Trump, and included the Trump campaign’s 2016 data analytics operation, Kushner’s relationship with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and his contacts with the Russians.

Mueller’s investigators have been asking questions, including during interviews in January and February, about Kushner’s conversations during the transition to shore up financing for 666 Fifth Avenue, a Kushner Companies-backed New York City office building reeling from financial troubles, according to people familiar with the special counsel investigation.

During the presidential transition, Kushner was a lead contact for foreign governments, speaking to “over fifty contacts with people from over fifteen countries,” according to a statement he gave to congressional investigators.

Before joining the administration, Kushner was also working to divest his interests in Kushner Companies, the family company founded by his father. In early 2017, Kushner divested from the 666 Fifth Avenue property that his family’s company had purchased in 2007 for $1.8 billion. The interests were sold to a family trust that Kushner does not benefit from, a spokesperson said at the time.

One line of questioning from Mueller’s team involves discussions Kushner had with Chinese investors during the transition, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.

A week after Trump’s election, Kushner met with the chairman and other executives of Anbang Insurance, a Chinese conglomerate that also owns the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, according to the New York Times.

At the time, Kushner and Anbang Chairman Wu Xiaohui were close to finishing a deal for the Chinese insurer to invest in the flagship Kushner Companies property. Talks between the two companies collapsed in March, according to the Times.

Mueller’s team has also asked about Kushner’s dealings with a Qatari investor regarding the same property, according to one of the sources. Kushner and his company were negotiating for financing from prominent Qatari investor former prime minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani.

But as with Anbang, these efforts stalled, the source said.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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