Bette Browne reviews the key issues and cast of characters in the unfolding scandals at the heart of the Trump presidency which make Richard Nixon’s infamy look tame by comparison
Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s presidency and whether there was collusion with Russia in his election campaign has become like a giant octopus with tentacles reaching into every corner of the White House and beyond, ready at any moment to seize new prey.
It could be the US president’s son, Donald junior, or it might even be the president himself, but regardless of who might next be ensnared, when the probe ends in the coming months its revelations are certain to rock the American political foundations.
What is already emerging from those convicted or imprisoned in the investigation is a tale of illegality and deception on such a grand scale it makes the 1972 Watergate scandal, which toppled President Richard Nixon, seem tame by comparison.
President Trump denies any collusion with Russia and calls the investigation a “witch hunt.”
It’s been going on far too long, he says, and frequently demands it should end. But the Nixon-era probe over the break-in attempt to plant listening devices at the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate hotel lasted over two years, while the 1994 investigation that led to president Bill Clinton’s impeachment went on for four years. Now all the signs are that the Mueller probe is fast approaching the finish line.
On May 17, 2017, Mueller was appointed special counsel by the US Department of Justice to oversee the FBI investigation into how Russia had influenced the 2016 election, in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, and whether there was any collusion with Russia by Trump or his associates.
On August 3, 2017, Mueller empaneled a grand jury in Washington with power to subpoena documents, require witnesses to testify under oath, and issue indictments for people who might be criminally charged. Mueller was also authorised to investigate any other issues that might emerge in the course of his probe. This was crucial because a number of other issues have been emerging as more and more Trump associates have cut plea deals to avoid or reduce any jail time.
Mueller has accused or brought criminal charges against 37 people and entities. The group is made up of six former Trump advisers or campaign associates, 26 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, one California man, and one lawyer.
Seven of these people, including five of the six former Trump advisers, have have pleaded guilty to crimes and four have been sentenced to prison, sending shockwaves through the political world and imperiling the Trump presidency.
The six Trump advisers or campaign team’s associates who pleaded guilty are: Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, and Alex van der Zwaan. Four sentenced to prison are: Cohen, Papadopoulos, Van der Zwaan and Richard Pinedo. Manafort will be sentenced on March 13.
The US government announced in October 2016, a month before the election, that Russia had interfered in the campaign. Court documents later revealed the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” based in St Petersburg, Russia, engaged in a campaign to use social media to divide Americans, promote Trump and hurt Clinton.
Mueller is probing whether Trump or his campaign associates were involved. The investigation is also focusing on the hacking of Democratic emails from the Clinton campaign, which were released by WikiLeaks at 4.32 pm on October 7, 2016, just 30 minutes after the Washington Post revealed a damning tape of Trump boasting about being able to sexually assault women.
Just last month, Trump associate Roger Stone was arrested in connection with the WikiLeaks probe and charged with seven counts, including obstruction of justice, to which he has pleaded not guilty.
Mueller is investigating any evidence of conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia that could be related to contacts between Trump’s associates and people working on behalf of Moscow in a possible coordinated effort to interfere in the election. This is focusing on Russian entities as well as Trump’s associates.
Mueller is looking into meetings and communications between the Russians and Trump officials during the transition period after Trump was elected in 2016 but before his inauguration in January 2017. These officials include Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, the President’s son, Donald junior, and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE
Mueller is also said to be examining whether actions by Trump and his associates after he took office indicate an effort to obstruct the Russia investigation, for example the firing on May 9, 2017, of FBI director James Comey. The president said on May 11 that he’d sacked Comey over what he called “this Russia thing.”
Mueller is examining the financial dealings of President Trump’s associates, including previous consulting work carried out in Ukraine by his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and whether the work could have involved money laundering.
He is also investigation the president’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen over whether campaign funds were illegally used to silence women who alleged they had affairs with Trump. Cohen pleaded guilty last August to a series of crimes, including campaign finance violations.
Cohen claimed the payments were made “in coordination with and at at the direction of” Trump, who was referred to as “Individual 1,” and were made to “influence” the 2016 election, buying the women’s silence before the vote.
The explosive allegation, which effectively implicated Trump in a crime, were seen as the most serious to emerge so far in relation to the president. For his part, the president denied the affairs but admitted on August 22 that the payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal “came from me” but dismissed suggestions of wrongdoing with campaign funds.
He also suggested in tweets that Cohen had decided to “make up stories” in an attempt to secure a deal with prosecutors and reduce his jail sentence. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, said: “The president has done nothing wrong, there are no charges against him.”
Cohen admitted the payments he made broke campaign finance laws and pleaded guilty, and on December 12 he was sentenced to three years in jail.
TRUMP’S TAX RETURNS
A separate but central questions that has emerged in relation to Trump’s financial dealings is whether or not he sought to win Russian support to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and how this could have influenced his political and financial dealings with Russia before, during or after his election.
Unlike all previous US presidents in modern times, Trump has refused to release his tax returns, which could throw more light on this area. There is now a move under way in Congress to compel him to release these documents.
Under a 1924 provision in the Internal Revenue Service code, the chair of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee can request that the Treasury Department turn over a president’s income tax returns.
A private intelligence report comprising memos written between June and December 2016 by Christopher Steele, a former head of the Russia Desk for British intelligence, for the private investigative firm Fusion GPS, has also become the focus of attention.
The controversial 35 pages of intelligence memos — including salacious claims linking Trump with prostitutes — paint an overall picture of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
The president’s critics and some Democrats charge the documents tell a story that could amount to treason, while Trump’s defenders say the dossier was flawed from its inception and abused by the FBI to pursue an investigation into Trump’s team that preceded Mueller’s appointment.
Trump has said the memos are “phony” and full of lies and he and his associates who were named in the dossier continue to vehemently deny any collusion.
When the allegations in the dossier were first published on January 10, 2017, there was no indication that Trump’s company was involved in Russia beyond the Miss Universe pageant that he hosted in Moscow in 2013.
But it has recently become public knowledge that Trump pursued a lucrative project in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign, and that his then-attorney Michael Cohen sought help from the Kremlin to move the project along. Cohen admitted these details when he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow proposal, which never came to fruition.
Mueller is also investigating contributions to Trump’s inauguration fund from donors with ties to foreign countries. His team has talked to witnesses about millions of dollars in contributions from donors with links to Russia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Federal law prohibits foreign donations to federal campaigns, political action committees and inaugural funds.
Trump (72) has insisted repeatedly that he and his campaign did not collude with Russia during the campaign to swing the November 2016 election in his favour. Neither, he has insisted, did his team play any part in the hacking of Democratic emails to hurt his opponent Hillary Clinton.
As early as July 2016 he raised eyebrows when he said he hoped Russia would find 30,000 emails missing from Clinton’s private email server during her time as secretary of state, an issue that had dogged her campaign from the start.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said at a Florida news conference on July 27, 2016. He later tweeted that if Russians did have the emails, they should share them with the FBI. Clinton’s campaign immediately accused him of actively encouraging “a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.” Trump said he was only joking.
Mueller has asked to interview the president about such matters as his reasons for firing FBI Director James Comey over “the Russia thing” but so far the president has responded to Mueller’s team with written replies only.
Stone (66), a self-described “dirty trickster” and a longtime associate and former informal adviser to the president, is the most recent of the key players to be charged in the Mueller investigation.
He was arrested on January 25 and charged with seven counts: one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false statements, and one count of witness tampering, to all of which he pleaded not guilty.
His arrest is tied to efforts, allegedly made by Trump campaign members, to learn about plans by WikiLeaks to release hacked emails that could have hurt the Clinton campaign. Stone, who practised what he calls the “dark arts” for Nixon’s 1972 campaign and sports a tattoo of a smiling Nixon on his back, is accused of lying to Congress about his communications with top Trump campaign officials regarding WikiLeaks’ releases of its hacked information.
Stone has consistently denied collusion with Russia during the campaign. He was released on $250,000 (€219,000) bond on the same day he was arrested. He case is not expected to come to trail for a number of weeks.
Manafort (69) is Trump’s former campaign manager. Manafort, along with Roger Stone, whom he first met during election campaigns for Ronald Reagan, helped found a successful lobbying firm and became very wealthy in the process.
The firm became known for its willingness to take on authoritarian clients like Mobutu Sese Seko in the Republic of the Congo and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Manafort, who once represented Vladimir Putin ally and former Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych, was Trump’s campaign manager from March 2016 until August 2016 when he resigned after The New York Times reported a Ukrainian government corruption probe alleged he had received nearly $13 million (€11m) off the books from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party.
On August 21, 2018, a jury in federal court in Virginia found Manafort guilty on eight of 18 charges of filing false tax returns, failing to disclose his offshore bank accounts and bank fraud.
In a second case against him in Washington, on September 14, 2018, Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice in connection with the Mueller investigation.
However, his plea deal was voided in November after Mueller claimed Manafort repeatedly lied, and last month Mueller’s team filed documents formally alleging Manafort lied to investigators. Manafort has been in jail since June 15, 2018, when a federal judge in Washington, revoked his $10 million (€8.8m) bond in the first indictment he faced. He will be sentenced on March 13 and could face a decade in jail.
Cohen (52), Trump’s former personal lawyer and long-time “fixer”, once said he’d “take a bullet” for the president. But instead, facing prison himself, he turned on the president and left him in grave peril.
In response, the president in a tweet called Cohen a “rat”. On August 21, 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of crimes, including campaign finance violations by arranging hush money payments ahead of the 2016 election to two women, porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed to have had extramarital affairs with Trump.
He claimed he made the payments at the direction of “individual 1”, a reference to Trump. The US president, who denied the affairs, said the funds had come “from me” and not his campaign.
In a further court appearance on November 29, 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a Trump Tower real estate project in Russia. On December 12, he was sentenced to three years in prison. He has promised to keep co-operating with Mueller
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (60) was a former national security adviser to Trump. He was often at Trump’s side during his election rallies, leading the crowd with chants of “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton.
He resigned as Trump’s national security adviser in February 2017 over revelations about contacts he had had with the Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, during the transition about sanctions that President Barack Obama had just placed on Russia.
On December 1, 2017, he pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russia and agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation and give information about other senior aides in the probe into who directed him to make contact with Russian officials.
Other senior members of the transition team included Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was one of Trump’s senior advisers on foreign policy during the campaign and transition. Mueller’s team recommended no prison time for Flynn, but a sentencing hearing for him was postponed last month, with the judge warning he might face jail.
Kushner (38) is Senior White House Adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law. He has said he met four times with Russian officials. In June 2016, he was one of eight people who attended the meeting between Trump’s son, Donald Jr, and a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
In December 2016, he met with Kislyak and Michael Flynn at Trump Tower in Manhattan. The White House said they spoke about “potentially establishing a more open line of communication in the future.”
The same month, he also met with Sergey Gorkov, the head of the Russian state investment bank Vnesheconombank. On July 24, 2017, Kushner testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that his meetings with Russians the year before were “proper” and not an attempt to collude with them to win the election.
Kushner has come under scrutiny for not disclosing the meetings on a questionnaire, which he submitted as part of his security clearance. He said his assistant submitted the form before he had had a chance to review it. The Trump Tower meeting has been a key focal point for Mueller’s probe.
DONALD TRUMP JUNIOR
Donald Trump Junior (41) is the President’s eldest son and most of the focus on his alleged involvement with Russia has been on his June 2016 meeting with the Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who said she had damaging information about Clinton.
Eight people attended that meeting, which started with an email from British music publicist Rob Goldstone to Trump Jr.
In it, Goldstone offered to arrange a meeting between Trump Jr and Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom he described as a “Russian government attorney.”
Goldstone said the lawyer wanted to give Trump Jr information about Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.” Trump Jr agreed to go, saying: “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.”
Trump Jr later said Veselnitskaya made “vague” statements that “made no sense” related to alleged information she had that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee in support of Clinton.
He said Veselnitskaya’s “true agenda” was to discuss the US adoption programme of Russian children. On September 7, 2017, Trump Jr had a private meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee when he said he’d attended the Trump Tower meeting because Veselnitskaya promised “information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications” of Clinton.
Papadopoulos (31), a former Trump campaign adviser, was the first person indicted under Mueller’s investigation. He pleaded guilty on October 5, 2017, and served a two-week prison sentence for lying to the FBI about the timing and significance of his Russia contacts, including a professor who told him the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton. According to documents released by Mueller’s team, Papadopoulos offered to help set up a meeting with then-candidate Trump and President Putin.
Gates (46), a former deputy Trump campaign chairman and a business partner of Paul Manafort, was indicted in October 2017. He pleaded guilty in February 2018 to conspiracy against the United States and lying to investigators. He agreed to cooperate with Mueller and he testified against Manafort.
Page (47) was an unpaid foreign policy adviser to Trump during his campaign. A surveillance application filed by the FBI in October 2016, a month before the presidential election, said: “The FBI believes that Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government” to undermine the election. Page has consistently denied working as an agent of Russia and has not been charged with any crime.
Patten (47), an American who is the business partner of a Russian national accused by the Mueller investigation of having ties to Russian intelligence, pleaded guilty on August 31, 2018, to unregistered lobbying for a pro-Kremlin political Ukrainian party. He also agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Pinedo (28), from California, pleaded guilty on February 16, 2018, to an identity theft charge in connection with the Russia probe. He has agreed to cooperate with Mueller. On October 10, 2018, he was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of home detention.
ALEX VAN DER ZWAAN
Van der Zwaan (34), a lawyer who once worked closely with Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, pleaded guilty in February 2018 to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Gates and another unnamed person based in Ukraine.
On April 3, 2018, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail and has completed his sentence. Van der Zwaan is the Dutch son-in-law of one of Russia’s richest men.
Kilimnik (49), a Manafort aide in Ukraine and political operative with alleged ties to Russian intelligence, was charged on June 8, 2018, with attempting to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses in Manafort’s case.
Twelve Russian intelligence officers were accused by a federal grand jury on July 13, 2018, of the hacking of Democratic Party computer networks and the leaking of leading Democrats’ emails in 2016.
RUSSIAN NATIONALS, ENTITIES
Thirteen Russians and three Russian entities were accused in Mueller’s investigation in February 2018 of tampering in the 2016 election to support Trump.
The group includes Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a caterer dubbed “Putin’s chef” because of his close ties to President Putin.
He has been identified by Russian media as the financial backer of the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm in St Petersburg, which is accused of carrying out an internet propaganda campaign to interfere with the election.
The Russian government has repeatedly denied meddling in the US election.