Trump requested and received the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions the day after the 2018 midterm elections, following months of criticizing Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation, stating in July 2017, "if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else." Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker, Sessions' chief of staff since September 2017, as Acting Attorney General. While Whitaker was Sessions' chief of staff, White House chief of staff John Kelly described him as the West Wing's "eyes and ears" in the DOJ, which Trump considered hostile to him. Prior to joining the Justice Department, Whitaker had publicly criticized the Mueller investigation on several occasions, asserting it was "going too far", referring to it as a "lynch mob", and suggested it could be impeded by cutting its budget. Trump had seen Whitaker's supportive commentaries on CNN during the summer of 2017 and that July Whitaker was interviewed by White House counsel Don McGahn to join the Trump legal team as an "attack dog" against Mueller. During an interview with The Daily Caller on November 14, 2018, Trump was asked who he might be considering to assume the permanent attorney general position, mentioning Whitaker. Unprompted, Trump stated, "as far as I'm concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought...It's an illegal investigation".
Mueller investigated the meeting on June 9, 2016, in Trump Tower in New York City between three senior members of Trump's presidential campaign—Kushner, Manafort, and Donald Trump Jr.—and at least five other people, including Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist and former Soviet army officer who met senior Trump campaign aides, Ike Kaveladze, British publicist Rob Goldstone, and translator Anatoli Samochornov. Goldstone had suggested the meeting to Trump Jr., and it was arranged in a series of emails later made public. In one email exchange of June 3, 2016, Goldstone wrote Trump Jr. that Aras Agalarov "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father", adding that it was "very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump" that he could send to Donald Trump's assistant Rhona Graff. Trump Jr. responded minutes later "Thanks Rob I appreciate that" and "if it's what you say I love it." Trump Jr. initially told the press that the meeting was held to discuss adoptions of Russian children by Americans, but after contrary media reports he added that he agreed to the meeting with the understanding that he would receive information damaging to Hillary Clinton. Mueller's team investigated the emails and the meeting, and whether President Trump later tried to hide the meeting's purpose. On July 18, 2017, Kaveladze's attorney said that Mueller's investigators were seeking information about the meeting in June 2016 from his client, and on July 21, Mueller asked the White House to preserve all documents related to the meeting. It has been reported that Manafort had made notes during the meeting. CNN reported on July 26, 2018, that anonymous sources stated that Michael Cohen was prepared to tell the Mueller investigation that Trump was aware of and approved of the June 9, 2016, meeting in advance, which Trump and Trump Jr. have repeatedly denied. CNN reported in the same story that Cohen attorney Lanny Davis had declined to comment for the report. The following day, The Washington Post reported a similar story coming from one anonymous source, although the paper did not specifically mention Russians. One month later, Davis identified himself as that source, clarifying that he could not be certain of Cohen's knowledge in the matter. Davis also asserted he had been a source for the CNN story. A CNN spokeswoman stated, "We stand by our story, and are confident in our reporting of it."More Info
The New York Times reported on February 14, 2017, that phone records and communications intercepts showed that Trump associates—including members of the Trump campaign—had "repeated contacts" with senior Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 campaign. Paul Manafort was the only Trump associate who was specifically identified as participating in these communications. In addition, some senior Trump associates, including Kushner, Trump Jr., Sessions, Flynn and Manafort, had direct contacts with Russian officials during 2016. In congressional testimony the following June, Comey stated the Times report was "in the main" not true. The Times reported that during the intervening months, its sources continued to believe the reporting was "solid." In July 2020, the Senate Judiciary Committee released notes taken contemporaneously with the Times report by FBI Counterintelligence Division chief Peter Strzok indicating his skepticiam about the Times' reporting, writing, “We have not seen evidence of any officials associated with the Trump team in contact with [intelligence officers]" and "“We are unaware of ANY Trump advisors engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.” The Times stood by its account, subsequently reporting that the released notes did not provide a fully accurate representation of Strzok's knowledge. Michael Flynn was forced to resign as National Security Advisor on February 13, 2017, after it was revealed that on December 29, 2016, the day that Obama announced sanctions against Russia, Flynn had discussed the sanctions with Russian ambassador Kislyak. Flynn had earlier acknowledged speaking to Kislyak but denied discussing the sanctions. Also in December 2016, Flynn and presidential advisor Jared Kushner met with Kislyak hoping to set up a direct, secure line of communication with Russian officials about which American intelligence agencies would be unaware. Jared Kushner also met with Sergei Gorkov, the head of the Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank (VEB), which has been subject to U.S. economic sanctions since July 2014. Flynn and Kushner failed to report these meetings on their security clearance forms.More Info
Yahoo News reported that Mueller's team was examining whether the joint RNC–Trump campaign data operation—which was directed on Trump's side by Brad Parscale and managed by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner—was related to the activities of Russian trolls and bots aimed at influencing the U.S. electorate. Also that month, the Democratic ranking members of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees asked their respective Republican chairmen to subpoena two of the data firms hired by Trump's campaign for documents related to Russia's election interference, including the firm headed by Parscale. On February 27, 2018, Trump selected Parscale to serve as campaign manager on his 2020 reelection campaign. NBC News reported on February 28, 2018, that Mueller's investigators asked witnesses pointed questions about whether Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release. This is the first reported indication that Mueller's investigation is specifically examining whether Trump was personally involved in collusive activities.More Info
U.S. intelligence agencies in January 2017 concluded "with high confidence" that the Russian government interfered in the election by hacking into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarding their contents to WikiLeaks, as well as by disseminating fake news promoted on social media, and by penetrating, or trying to penetrate, the election systems and databases of multiple U.S. states. de Volkskrant reported on January 25, 2018, that Dutch intelligence agency AIVD had penetrated the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear in 2014 and in 2015 observed them hack the DNC in real time, as well as capturing the images of the hackers via a security camera in their workspace. The New York Times reported on July 18, 2018, that American, British and Dutch intelligence services had observed stolen DNC emails on Russian military intelligence networks. NBC News reported on March 1, 2018, that Mueller was assembling a case for criminal charges against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking. Those charges were brought on July 13, 2018.More Info
The Trump Organization pursued a luxury hotel and condominium project in Moscow—dubbed the Trump Tower Moscow—during the Trump presidential campaign. This project was facilitated by Michael Cohen, then an attorney for the Trump Organization, and from January 2017 to May 2018 Trump's personal attorney. Trump signed a nonbinding "letter of intent" dated October 13, 2015, to proceed with the project. The letter, also signed by Russian investor Andrei Rozov, was forwarded to Cohen by Russian-American real estate developer Felix Sater, who had worked with The Trump Organization on prior deals, including Trump SoHo and Trump International Hotel & Residence. Sater has also been involved in criminal activities involving organized crime and has served as an informant to the FBI relating to those activities. He boasted to Cohen about his connections to Vladimir Putin, saying in an email to Cohen on November 13, 2015, "Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this. I will manage this process." He also asserted that he had secured financing for the project through the Russian state-owned VTB Bank, which was under sanctions by the United States government. Cohen emailed Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016 to request assistance in advancing the project and later stated he didn't recall receiving a response. Cohen told the Senate Intelligence Committee in September 2017 that the deal was abandoned in January 2016, but in November 2018 admitted in a guilty plea that he had minimized Trump's role in the plans "to be consistent with [Trump's] political messaging" and that negotiations had actually extended through June 2016. Cohen also admitted that Peskov's office had, in fact, replied to his January 2016 email and discussed the deal with him on the phone. In a sentencing memorandum filed the day after his guilty plea, Cohen's attorneys stated he kept Trump "apprised" of the "substantive conversation" Cohen had with the Russian official, and discussed with Trump traveling to Russia to advance the project during the summer of 2016. BuzzFeed News reported on March 12, 2018, that Mueller's investigators had questioned Sater, and on April 13, 2018, reported that a former Russian spy had helped secure financing for the project. In 2010, Sater was provided business cards describing himself as "Senior Advisor to Donald Trump" with an email address at TrumpOrg.com. In a 2013 sworn affidavit, Trump said "If [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like," and in 2015 he stated "Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I'm not that familiar with him."More Info
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