The Special Counsel is also investigating whether the Central Bank of Russia's deputy governor, Aleksandr Torshin, illegally funneled money through the National Rifle Association to benefit Trump's campaign. On May 16, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report stating it had obtained "a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign" through Torshin and his assistant Mariia Butina, and that "The Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump's campaign." The NRA reported spending $30 million to support the Trump campaign—triple what they devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors. Torshin, a lifetime NRA member, reportedly sought to broker a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin in May 2016, but was rebuffed by Kushner. Torshin claims to have met with Trump at a Nashville NRA event in April 2015; he tweeted about the encounter in August, saying that Trump is "a proponent of traditional family values". Torshin spoke with Donald Trump Jr. during a gala event at the NRA's national gathering in Kentucky in May 2016, which Trump Jr.'s attorney Alan Futerfas characterized as "all gun-related small talk". Spanish authorities have implicated Torshin in money laundering and have described him as a "godfather" in Taganskaya, a major Russian criminal organization. On July 14, 2018, Butina was charged by the national security unit of the Justice Department with being an unregistered Russian agent who had attempted to create a backchannel of communications between American Republicans/conservatives and Russian officials by infiltrating the NRA, the National Prayer Breakfast and conservative religious organizations. On December 13, 2018, she pleaded guilty to conspiring with Torshin in this effort. The New York Times reported on July 17, 2018, that Torshin was scheduled to visit the White House in 2017, but the meeting was canceled after a national security aide noted Torshin was under investigation by Spanish authorities for money laundering.
The FBI launched an investigation of Trump for obstruction of justice a few days after the May 9 firing of Comey. The special prosecutor's office took over the obstruction of justice investigation and has reportedly interviewed Director of National Intelligence Coats, Director of the National Security Agency Rogers, and Deputy Director of the NSA Richard Ledgett. ABC News reported in June that Mueller was gathering preliminary information about possible obstruction of justice, but a full-scale investigation had not been launched. On June 16, Trump tweeted: "I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt." However, Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow said Trump's tweet was referring to the June 14 Washington Post report that he was under investigation for obstruction of justice, and that Trump has not actually been notified of any investigation.More Info
Mueller's investigators also asked about the relationship between Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and why Trump took policy positions favorable to Russia. Stone, a longtime Republican "dirty trickster" and Trump confidant repeatedly discussed his backchannel communications with Assange and claimed knowledge of forthcoming leaks from Wikileaks. He also exchanged Twitter private messages with Guccifer 2.0, which American intelligence connected to two Russian intelligence groups that cybersecurity analysts have concluded hacked Democratic National Committee emails. The New York Times reported on November 1, 2018, that Stone and Steve Bannon exchanged emails in October 2016 about Assange's intent to release documents, and that Bannon and other former senior Trump campaign officials told Mueller's investigators of Stone's assertions that he was a conduit to Wikileaks and seemed aware of imminent document releases, although the "top tier" of the campaign was skeptical of Stone's claims. Reuters reported on May 16, 2018, that Mueller's office subpoenaed Stone's social media strategist, Jason Sullivan, the prior week to testify before a grand jury on May 18 and to provide documents, objects and electronically stored information. Reuters reported the next day that John Kakanis, Stone's driver, accountant and operative, was also subpoenaed.More Info
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".More Info
The Special Counsel investigation expanded to include Trump's and his associates' financial ties to Russia. The FBI is reviewing the financial records of Trump himself, The Trump Organization, Trump's family members, and his campaign staff, including Trump's real estate activities, which had been under federal scrutiny before the campaign. According to CNN, financial crimes may be easier for investigators to prove than any crimes stemming directly from collusion with Russia. Campaign staff whose finances are under investigation include Manafort, Flynn, Carter Page, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. At a New York real estate conference in September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. stated: "And in terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." McClatchy reported on April 6, 2018, that Mueller's investigators that week arrived unannounced at the home of an unnamed business associate of the Trump Organization who had worked on foreign deals for the company in recent years. The investigators had warrants for electronic records and to compel sworn testimony, and were reported to be particularly interested in transactions involving Trump's attorney Michael Cohen.More Info
Mueller is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Republican activist Peter W. Smith, who stated that he tried to obtain Hillary Clinton's emails from Russian hackers, and that he was acting on behalf of Michael Flynn and other senior Trump campaign members. Trump campaign officials have denied that Smith was working with them. In fall 2017, Mueller's team interviewed former Government Communications Headquarters cybersecurity researcher Matt Tait, who had been approached by Smith to verify the authenticity of emails allegedly hacked from Clinton's private email server. Tait reportedly told House Intelligence Committee investigators in October 2017 that he believed Smith had ties to members of Trump's inner circle—including Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway—and may have been helping build opposition research for the Trump campaign. Smith committed suicide in May 2017, several days after talking to The Wall Street Journal about his alleged efforts. Aged 81 and reportedly in failing health, he left a carefully prepared file of documents, including a statement police called a suicide note. An attorney for Smith's estate said in October 2017 that some of Smith's documents had been turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 7, 2018, that Smith had raised at least $100,000 from donors in his pursuit of the Clinton emails, that his estate had provided documents to the Mueller investigation, and that associates of Smith had been questioned by Mueller's investigators or a grand jury. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 10, 2018, that Smith had established a "professional relationship" with Flynn as early as 2015, and during the campaign was using Flynn's contacts to assist with his search for the Clinton emails. The Journal reported on October 19, 2018, that the Mueller investigation has evidence Smith may have had prior knowledge of the Guccifer 2.0 hacks. The Mueller report later confirmed significant aspects of Smith's efforts to locate the Clinton emails, including his communications about it with Flynn and campaign co-chair Sam Clovis, as well as Flynn's actions to spearhead the effort at Trump's repeated requests. In May 2019, an unredacted version of a December 2018 government sentencing memo for Flynn showed he had advised investigators that members of the Trump campaign had discussed whether to contact WikiLeaks about the release of emails.More Info
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