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Power Up: Washington’s sphinx: Mueller still has us guessing in Russia probe

Power Up: Washington’s sphinx: Mueller still has us guessing in Russia probe

Power Up: Washington’s sphinx: Mueller still has us guessing in Russia probe

Power Up: Washington’s sphinx: Mueller still has us guessing in Russia probe

Power Up: Washington's sphinx: Mueller still has us guessing in Russia probe

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At the White House

WASHINGTON'S SPHINX: We got some sense of what special prosecutor Robert Mueller is thinking with the sentencing memo he filed this week recommending that President Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn get no jail time after 19 interviews with the prosecutor's team. But the heavily redacted memo also left us with a lot of new questions.

And documents slated to be filed Friday regarding ex-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and longtime Trump fixer Michael Cohen are likely to do the same. In the case of Manafort, anyway, the filings are bound to present a direct contrast to the description of Flynn as an impeccable cooperating witness. 

It seems inevitable that Mueller, the opaque and skilled prosecutor running an impressively tight ship, will continue to surprise us with his findings and the broad scope of his investigation.

The biggest question mark still outstanding is whether Trump (a.k.a. “Individual No. 1") himself will be implicated in any wrongdoing. The Mueller probe has already sparked guilty pleas from five individuals connected to the then-candidate and now president, and the Flynn memo suggested there were at least three ongoing investigations: the Russia-related probe we know about; an unknown criminal probe in which Flynn has been helpful; and another mysterious matter. 

Let's take a look at what we know so far — and what we don't:

  • Big picture: Mueller is focused on five “distinct investigative avenues,” laid out by Wired contributor and Mueller biographer Garrett Graf
    1. “Money laundering and Russian-linked business deals”
    2. “The Russian government’s cyberattack on the DNC, other entities, and state-level voting systems”
    3. The Russian government's “related online information influence operations, by the Internet Research Agency”
    4. “Sketchy contacts by Trump campaign and transition officials with Russia”
    5. “and the separate question of whether Trump himself, or others, actively tried to obstruct justice by impeding the investigation of the above.” 
  • By the numbers:
    1. Two more public filings will be released on Friday. 
    2. Over 300: The number of pages already written and released by Mueller via court filings. 
    3. Nineteen: the number of interviews Flynn participated in with the special counsel and Justice Department officials. 

What we will learn on Friday:

  • More details on Cohen's business dealings for the Trump Organization involving the Kremlin. Cohen pleaded guilt last week about lying to Congress concerning a “Moscow real estate project that Trump and his company pursued at the same time he was securing the GOP nomination in 2016.”
  • Plus, what Paul Manafort allegedly chose to lie about: This memo will — we hope!  — shed more light on why the plea agreement between Manafort and Mueller's team was abruptly halted and what Mueller thinks Manafort hasn't been honest about.

Meanwhile in New York, the Associated Press's Eric Tucker, Desmond Butler and Chad Day report on a new probe: " . . . prosecutors are ramping up their investigation into foreign lobbying by two major Washington firms that did work for [Manafort], according to people familiar with the matter. The investigation had been quiet for months since [Mueller] referred it to authorities in Manhattan because it fell outside his mandate of determining whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia." 

  • Swamp draining: DOJ prosecutors “in the last several weeks have begun interviewing witnesses and contacting lawyers to schedule additional questioning related to the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs, the people familiar with the inquiry said.”

  • The key quote: “The New York work underscores the broad effects of Mueller’s investigation, extending well beyond the central question of [Trump] and collusion. Mueller has made clear he will not turn away if he discovers alleged crimes outside the scope of his inquiry; instead, he refers them out in investigations that may linger on even after the special counsel’s work concludes,” the AP reports. 

  • Remember Maria Butina?: The Daily Beast's Betsy Woodruff and Erin Banco report that “Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican politico whose Russian girlfriend is in jail on charges she acted as a covert foreign agent, has been informed that he may face similar accusations.”

  • More: “The Daily Beast reviewed a 'target letter' that federal investigators sent Erickson’s lawyer, which said they are considering bringing charges against him under Section 951 of the U.S. code—the law barring people from secretly acting as agents of foreign governments ... If prosecutors bring the charges named in the letter, Erickson would be the first American embroiled in the 2016 Russia investigation charged under a statute that Justice Department lawyers describe as 'espionage-lite,'" the Beast reports. 

  • What about Jared Kushner?: Bloomberg's Tim O'Brien writes that Mueller's Flynn memo should worry Kushner as Mueller has honed in on conversations in which the first son-in-law was reportedly involved. Read more here

  • One man (Republican) band plays on: Outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) continued to force the postponement of votes on federal judges as he demands that Mitch McConnell bring to the floor legislation protecting Mueller's probe in Congress.. 

Power Up touched base with Richard Ben-Veniste, a special prosecutor during Watergate, for a bit of historic context as Mueller's office continues toil away. 

  • Mueller is a pro: Ben-Veniste described Mueller's airtight strategy that he thinks has insulated the probe from accusations of partisanship, despite Trump's "witch hunt" tweets. “Mueller is moving as expeditiously as he can throughout his investigation,” Ben-Veniste told us. “What he hasn’t done is, contrary to investigations since Watergate, leak to the press or use extrajudicial means to signal findings of his operation. He has operated in a completely professional manner. Only through appropriate files and speaking indictments has he revealed information about the results of his investigation to date.” 

  • Mueller is fighting an uphill battle for the truth: Ben-Veniste, who was also a member of the 9/11 commission, said that a major difference between Watergate and now is the fact that Watergate was “a much more comprehensive government effort to get to the truth."

  • “Up to his point, it’s been the media who has been active in those contributions and fact finding,” Ben Viste told Power Up. “I think Mr. Mueller follows in the footsteps of Archibald Cox [the Watergate special prosecutor fired by President Nixon] and Leon Jaworski [a second Watergate special prosecutor] . . . He has not been distracted by attempts which are much more brazen and obvious than those that occurred in Watergate to in various ways to discredit and complicate the facts rather than cooperate and illuminate them.”

From The Post's FBI beat reporter:

But in all seriousness, Zapotosky emailed Power Up his guidelines for sifting through Mueller's memos. He writes: 

  • Key questions: “For Flynn, the big thing I was looking for was, 'What did the president-elect know about these conversations with [Russia's former ambassador to the U.S. Sergey] Kislyak?' With Manafort, it will be, 'What exactly does the special counsel say he lied about?' With Cohen, it will be, 'Did the President know about his admitted lies to Congress, and when did he know?'  
  • Matt's mantra: “Generally, though, with these and all high profile court filings, my mantra is this: Scrutinize everything. Don’t automatically believe what you’re being told, even if it’s from law enforcement. And, most of all, don’t let Twitter dictate how important something is.” That's good advice.
 

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On The Hill

THE LIFE-CYCLE OF A SCANDAL: The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman, has returned to Washington. It’s his first appearance here since Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing and some observers took his arrival as a signal the kingdom assumes the controversy surrounding Khashoggi’s death — and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in it — has blown over.

But if the events of the past week are any indication, that doesn't seem to be the case — in fact, the scandal, and the White House’s response to it, has been one of the longest-running stories of the frenzied media landscape (admittedly, that's not saying much).

  • Not so fast: “The return of Prince Khalid suggests that Riyadh thinks the crisis is over,” Simon Henderson, a Saudi expert at the Washington Institute, told The Post’s John Hudson. “Congress probably has a different view.”

  • ‘Zero chance’: After meeting with CIA director Gina Haspel on Tuesday, top senators in both parties denounced the crown prince and Trump’s handling of U.S.-Saudi relations. “It is zero chance, zero, that this happened in such an organized fashion without the crown prince,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

  • Sanctions may be coming: Lawmakers have called on Trump to make a determination “specifically addressing” whether MBS is responsible for Khashoggi’s death — something Trump has been reticent to admit — for the purposes of imposing new sanctions.

  • Or, at least, condemnation: “A bipartisan group of senators filed a resolution Wednesday to condemn [MBS] as responsible for the killing of [Khashoggi], directly challenging [Trump] to do the same,” The Post's Karoun Demirjian reported. 

  • A warning: In a historic move, the Senate took up a resolution last week to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. It was seen as a warning shot to Trump, a move intended to urge him to condemn MBS or withhold military support from the Saudis.

  • Meanwhile, in Turkey: “A Turkish court issued arrest warrants Wednesday for two close aides to [MBS], after prosecutors accused the aides of helping plan the killing of [Khashoggi],” The Post’s Kareem Fahim reported from Istanbul

On another matter, lawmakers pressure GM CEO: Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R) met with GM CEO Mary Barra on Wednesday to discuss the automakers planned job cuts and plant closures.

In a news conference after their closed-door meeting, the senators said they “pushed her hard” to repurpose the GM factory in Lordstown, and the others on the chopping block. “She is going to keep an open mind but does not want to raise expectations,” Portman said of Barra.

On K Street

INTERESTING TIMING: While Trump continues to ignore the assessment of his own intelligence agency on Saudi Arabia, The Post's David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O'Connell broke the  story that “Lobbyists representing the Saudi government reserved blocks of rooms at President Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel within a month of Trump’s election in 2016 — paying for an estimated 500 nights at the luxury hotel in just three months, according to organizers of the trips and documents obtained by The Washington Post.”

  • The key quote: "At the time, these lobbyists were reserving large numbers of D.C.-area hotel rooms as part of an unorthodox campaign that offered U.S. military veterans a free trip to Washington — then sent them to Capitol Hill to lobby against a law the Saudis opposed, according to veterans and organizers," according to the report... 
  • The other key quote: "At first, lobbyists for the Saudis put the veterans up in Northern Virginia. Then, in December 2016, they switched most of their business to the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington. In all, the lobbyists spent more than $270,000 to house six groups of visiting veterans at the Trump hotel, which Trump still owns.”
  • Swampy: “Those bookings have fueled a pair of federal lawsuits alleging Trump violated the Constitution by taking improper payments from foreign governments,” Fahrenthhold and O'Connell report. 
  • In the dark: “Some of the veterans who stayed at Trump’s hotel say they were kept in the dark about the Saudis’ role in the trips. Now, they wonder if they were used twice over: not just to deliver someone else’s message to Congress, but also to deliver business to the Trump Organization.”

The People

SEUNG MIN KIM'S MINUTES: Presidential funerals are historic, national events — yet only a few hundred people actually get to witness them in person. The Post's own Seung Min Kim, a White House reporter, was one of those people on Wednesday, when she attended the service for former president George H.W. Bush. Power Up touched base with Seung Min for an inside look at the proceedings. Here she is: 

  • “First of all, those watching 41’s memorial service almost surely had a better view of the ceremony than I did, perched inside the south balcony in the cathedral with a slew of other writers and photographers. (Case in point: my awful iPhone photo of the former presidents of the United States, before President Trump arrived).
  • But what the TV cameras didn’t capture was the mingling among the political dignitaries before and after the ceremony, serving up the kind of spottings that could be found only at an event like a presidential funeral. Where else can you see Justice Sonia Sotomayor exiting the services, followed shortly behind by Prince Charles?
  • We did have a prime view of the senators and members of the Supreme Court, who sat directly below us in the press balcony. One conversation I would loved to have been a fly on the wall for was with acting attorney general Matt Whitaker, who was talking to former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin (like Whitaker, an Iowan), former senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) got chatty with Justice Elena Kagan, while Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) had friendly looking conversations with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito. When Flake arrived, he shook hands with the newest member of the court, Brett Kavanaugh — whose nomination Flake publicly waffled on before he ultimately voted to confirm him.
  • One ex-president I did get a good glance at: Jimmy Carter, who didn’t exit the cathedral until he had a chance to greet members of Congress seated below us. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave Carter a warm embrace, and the former president greeted at least two dozen others before he eventually left."

41 VS. 45: President Trump “seemed most out of place” at H.W.'s funeral, our Philip Rucker writes. Sitting in president row in the front pew at an event “carefully orchestrated to be about one man and his milestones — Bush the father, the friend, the war hero and the lifelong public servant. But inevitably it became about Trump, too, for it was impossible to pay tribute to the 41st president without drawing implicit contrasts with the 45th.” More from Phil's piece: 

  • The outsider: “From the moment he crossed the transept of the soaring Washington National Cathedral, tore off his overcoat and took his seat in the front pew, [Trump] was an outsider. When the others sang an opening hymn, his mouth did not move. When the others read the Apostles’ Creed, he stood stoically. And when one eulogist after another testified to George H.W. Bush’s integrity and character and honesty and bravery and compassion, Trump sat and listened, often with his lips pursed and his arms crossed over his chest."
  • Silent rebuke: “The mourners did not deliver the searing rebukes of Trump the nation witnessed in September for the funeral of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But despite being crafted to honor Bush’s legacy, their words also served to underscore the singular nature of Trump’s presidency.”

  • Uncomfortable seating arrangement: “First was the president Trump said was illegitimate (Barack Obama); then the first lady he called a profligate spender of taxpayer dollars (Michelle Obama); then the president he called the worst abuser of women (Bill Clinton); then the first lady and secretary of state he said should be in jail (Hillary Clinton); and then the president he said was the second-worst behind Obama (Jimmy Carter) and his wife, Rosalynn.” 

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