This week in Trump-Russia news: Mueller probe looms over the president’s holiday weekend
President Donald Trump this week pardoned a couple turkeys, called LaVar Ball a “fool” and broke for Thanksgiving.
But Robert Mueller’s Russia probe hasn’t taken a break, looming large over the holiday break amid reports that the special counsel has gotten Michael Flynn to cooperate.
Here’s what went down in the Russia investigation while you were sleeping off the turkey — and what to expect next.
Kushner is reportedly worried that Trump is vulnerable
Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser, is worried that his father-in-law could be facing legal challenges as Mueller’s FBI probe heats up, Vanity Fair reported Tuesday.
“Do you think they’ll get the president?” Kushner allegedly asked a friend recently.
Trump has publicly dismissed the investigations into possible collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin as a “witch hunt.” But privately, he has reportedly begun to blame Kushner for how the probes have progressed since the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey — whose termination the adviser played a role in.
Kushner, according to Vanity Fair, has tried to put on a brave face amid the escalating FBI and congressional investigations. But the magazine reported this week that the indictments of former campaign adviser Paul Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates, were a wakeup call for the president’s son-in-law, who now fears that the probes could go all the way up to the Oval Office.
Kushner may be facing Mueller scrutiny
Of course, Kushner has his own problems to worry about.
After it was revealed last week that he failed to tell Senate investigators about a Russian “backdoor overture,” along with communications about WikiLeaks, the apparently forgetful senior adviser’s legal vulnerability has increasingly become a matter of speculation.
Specifically, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Mueller’s team is probing Kushner’s meetings with foreign leaders, suggesting that he is becoming a clearer focus of the special counsel’s investigation.
Flynn seems to have turned on Trump
The retired general’s legal team, which had previously been sharing information with that of Trump, recently cut ties with the president’s lawyers — a strong suggestion that he is now playing ball with the special counsel’s investigation.
Pressure has been mounting on Flynn for some time now.
It’s already been reported that Mueller has enough to bring charges against the retired general, and his shady activities on behalf of the Turkish government — which include an alleged kidnapping plot — are apparently being examined, as well.
Now, FBI investigators are reportedly very interested in a former employee of the Flynn Intel Group, Bijan Kian, over his work for foreign governments. Mueller’s prosecutors are said to be questioning witnesses about the Flynn associate in an attempt to find out if the Trump ally had done even more previously undisclosed work for foreign governments.
If Mueller has, in fact, flipped Flynn, that would be huge. Flynn, once rumored to be Trump’s running mate in 2016, may have had contact with the president well after he was forced to leave the administration in February.
Code name: Rep. Rohrabacher
Mueller has also reportedly been investigating a September 2016 meeting between Flynn, Kian and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) — the Trump-supporting California Republican regarded as being sympathetic to Russia.
Just how sympathetic?
According to a stunning New York Times report Wednesday, the congressman is so close to Russia, the Kremlin evidently gave him a code name.
He is facing both FBI and congressional scrutiny for his meeting with Flynn in the fall of 2016 and with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in August of this year.
Assange’s name has re-emerged in the Russia investigation following recent revelations that WikiLeaks, which published damaging documents about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats during the campaign, had exchanged secret Twitter messages with Donald Trump Jr. — the president’s eldest son.
Manafort and Gates get a holiday respite — sort of
Manafort and Gates, who pled not guilty to 12 federal counts in October, were granted limited travel permission for the Thanksgiving holiday, according to reports.
The pair, whose charges include conspiracy against the United States, will be allowed to travel locally for turkey day, but must notify the court of their exact plans, wear GPS devices and not consume any alcohol.
They surrendered on Oct. 30, the same day Mueller unsealed documents revealing that a former foreign policy adviser to the campaign, George Papadopoulos, had pled guilty to a charge of lying to FBI agents about his Russia contacts.
The White House has attempted to portray Papadopoulos as nothing but a “young, low level volunteer,” but the special counsel’s statement of the offense — along with revelations about his actual campaign activities — would seem to undercut that messaging.
Papadopoulos himself apparently spent his time on the campaign bragging to foreign officials about his role on Trump’s staff — and evidently met with international leaders, including Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, as a representative of the campaign, according to Politico.
Additionally, the publication reported, he told members of the Greek media that he had been promised a role in the then-hypothetical Trump administration — and that the Republican candidate had personally authorized him to act as a campaign surrogate.
Trump Jr. met with another Russian
Trump Jr. had yet another previously undisclosed rendezvous with a Russian, CBS News reported this week.
This time, it’s Alexander Torshin — a Kremlin-connected banker with links to organized crime who had been trying to meet with the elder Trump, but apparently had to settle for his eldest son.
According to CBS News, the meeting occurred at an NRA event in May 2016 and lasted just a few minutes.
“The conversation centered on the men’s mutual interest in firearms,” according to the outlet, and they reportedly did not discuss the campaign.
But Torshin’s apparent efforts in 2016 to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have received attention from the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of its probe into Russian election interference.
What are Mueller’s next moves?
Mueller is expected soon to continue interviewing top-level White House staff in his investigation into Russia’s election interference.
White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s most loyal and trusted staffers, will reportedly be among the most high-profile associates of the president to meet with the special counsel’s team coming up.
Don McGahn, a counsel to Trump, and Josh Raffel, an aide to Kushner, are also expected to talk to Mueller soon.
Ty Cobb, the lawyer handling the White House response to the Russia probes, has said he expects the high profile meetings with prominent staffers to end “shortly after Thanksgiving.”
But, as former Watergate prosecutor Nick Ackerman said in an MSNBC interview earlier this week, that optimistic timetable is looking like a “complete fantasy.”
Indeed, with the charges against Manafort and Gates and key questions still unanswered about Russian interference in the presidential election, it seems almost certain that the probe will continue well into 2018 — if not beyond.