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White House official is now a “significant person of interest” in the Russia investigation



The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.

The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official.

The revelation comes as the investigation appears to be entering a more overtly active phase, with investigators shifting from work that has remained largely hidden from the public to conducting interviews and using a grand jury to issue subpoenas. The intensity of the probe is expected to accelerate in the coming weeks, the people said.

The sources emphasized that investigators remain keenly interested in people who previously wielded influence in the Trump campaign and administration but are no longer part of it, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Flynn resigned in February after disclosures that he had lied to administration officials about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Current administration officials who have acknowledged contacts with Russian officials include President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

People familiar with the investigation said the intensifying effort does not mean criminal charges are near, or that any such charges will result. Earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III to serve as special counsel and lead the investigation into Russian meddling.

It is unclear exactly how Mueller’s leadership will affect the direction of the probe, and he is already bringing in new people to work on the team. Those familiar with the case said its significance had increased before Mueller’s appointment.

Although the case began quietly last July as an effort to determine whether any Trump associates coordinated with Russian operatives to meddle in the presidential election campaign, the investigative work now being done by the FBI also includes determining whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the president. The people familiar with the matter said the probe has sharpened into something more fraught for the White House, the FBI and the Justice Department — particularly because of the public steps investigators know they now need to take, the people said.

When subpoenas are issued or interviews are requested, it is possible the people being asked to talk or provide documents will reveal publicly what they were asked about.

A small group of lawmakers known as the Gang of Eight was notified of the change in tempo and focus in the investigation at a classified briefing Wednesday evening, the people familiar with the matter said. Then-FBI Director James B. Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the investigation in March.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said, “I can’t confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of investigations or targets of investigations.” An FBI spokesman declined to comment.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “As the president has stated before, a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.’’

While there has been a loud public debate in recent days over the question of whether the president might have attempted to obstruct justice in his private dealings with Comey, whom Trump fired last week, people familiar with the matter said investigators on the case are more focused on Russian influence operations and possible financial crimes.

The FBI’s investigation seeks to determine whether and to what extent Trump associates were in contact with Kremlin operatives, what business dealings they might have had in Russia, and whether they in any way facilitated the hacking and publishing of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, during the presidential campaign. Several congressional committees are also investigating, though their probes could not produce criminal charges.

A grand jury in Alexandria, Va., recently issued a subpoena for records related to Flynn’s business, the Flynn Intel Group, which was paid more than $500,000 by a company owned by a Turkish American businessman close to top Turkish officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Flynn Intel Group was paid for research on Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who Turkey’s current president believes was responsible for a coup attempt last summer. Flynn retroactively registered with the Justice Department in March as a paid foreign agent for Turkish interests.

Separately from the probe now run by Mueller, Flynn is being investigated by the Pentagon’s top watchdog for his foreign payments. Flynn also received $45,000 to appear in 2015 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner for RT, a Kremlin-controlled media organization.

Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the month before Trump took office, and he withheld that fact from the vice president. That prompted then-acting attorney general Sally Yates to warn the White House’s top lawyer that Flynn might be susceptible to blackmail. Flynn stepped down after The Washington Post reported on the contents of the call.

The president has nonetheless seemed to defend his former adviser. A memo by Comey alleged that Trump asked that the probe into Flynn be shut down.

The White House also has acknowledged that Kushner met with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in late November. Kushner also has acknowledged that he met with the head of a Russian development bank, Vnesheconombank, which has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014. The president’s son-in-law initially omitted contacts with foreign leaders from a national security questionnaire, though his lawyer has said publicly he submitted the form prematurely and informed the FBI soon after that he would provide an update.

Vnesheconombank handles development for the state, and in early 2015, a man purporting to be one of its New York-based employees was arrested and accused of being an unregistered spy.

That man — Evgeny Buryakov — ultimately pleaded guilty and was eventually deported. He had been in contact with former Trump adviser Carter Page, though Page has said he shared only “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents” with the Russian. Page was the subject of a secret warrant last year issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, based on suspicions he might have been acting as an agent of the Russian government, according to people familiar with the matter. Page has denied any wrongdoing, and accused the government of violating his civil rights.

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Trump fires Tillerson, names Pompeo as successor at State



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President Trump has removed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in a move that stunned Washington with its timing.

Trump is nominating Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s current deputy, to lead the CIA.

Trump told reporters Tuesday morning that he made the decision “by myself,” signaling he did not speak with Tillerson before firing him.

“I actually got along great with Rex, but really, it was a different mindset,” Trump said from the White House.

Those comments belied the fact that Trump and Tillerson had repeatedly clashed, most famously when the secretary of State reportedly referred to Trump in private as a “moron.” The report clearly got under Trump’s skin, and the president responded by challenging Tillerson to an IQ test.

Trump tweeted the news of the staff changes shortly after Tillerson’s firing was first reported by The Washington Post.

“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted.

“He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”

A White House official told The Hill that White House chief of staff John Kelly called Tillerson on Friday night to tell him that Trump had decided to let him go. The official said the call was short and not testy, and that it was not focused on policy issues or differences.

Tillerson asked and Kelly agreed that an announcement would be held back until Tillerson’s return. Tillerson returned to the United States early Tuesday morning — hours before the Post story broke.

State Department officials did not immediately respond to The Hill’s requests for comment on Tillerson’s abrupt ouster, though a State Department official released a statement that said Tillerson was unaware of the reason for his removal.

“The Secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues,” said the statement from Steve Goldstein, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.

“The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted.”

Tillerson and Trump have had a tempestuous relationship, so it was not shocking that Tillerson would be removed.

However, the timing of Tillerson’s firing was a surprise, given the diplomatic workload at the moment.

On Thursday, Trump shocked the world by accepting an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which would make him the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader. It’s possible that Tillerson’s removal was made with that meeting in mind, if Trump wanted Pompeo by his side for the historic occasion.

He’s also moving forward with a Middle East peace plan after angering the Arab world by announcing the U.S. would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

And the administration continues to deal with Russia and its entanglement in the 2016 presidential election — with critics charging that Trump has not taken a tough enough approach with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There were differences in rhetoric between Tillerson and the White House on foreign policy, including on Monday, when Tillerson pointed the finger at Moscow over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in London. The White House earlier in the day had notably not blamed Russia for the incident, despite claims from Great Britain’s prime minister.

Late last year, speculation mounted in Washington that Tillerson would be replaced, and reports circulated that Pompeo could be his successor.

Tillerson was one of the first Cabinet secretaries to be confirmed in the Trump administration, but his brief tenure has been rocked by criticism and continuing signs of low morale at the State Department, where he has often been perceived as an absent leader.

Tillerson, a low-key Texan, never felt comfortable in Washington and did his best to work in private and avoid the media. He faced scrutiny in Washington, even from Republican lawmakers, as he has overseen a controversial redesign of the State Department that has been unpopular among officials there.

Many career diplomats have exited under his leadership, and Tillerson has reportedly clashed with White House officials on key appointments.

Pompeo, meanwhile, is viewed as one of Trump’s most trusted Cabinet members. He reportedly meets nearly daily with Trump to brief him on national security, which requires him to travel from CIA headquarters in Virginia to the White House.

Pompeo, a former Republican congressman, has taken a decidedly more hawkish stance than Tillerson on matters such as North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal.

In a statement, Pompeo said he was “deeply grateful” to Trump for allowing him to serve as CIA chief and now secretary of State. He will now need to be confirmed by the full Senate to lead the State Department.

“If confirmed, I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the President’s foreign policy,” Pompeo said. “In my time as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I have worked alongside many remarkable Foreign Service officers and Department of State leaders serving here in the United States and on the very edge of freedom.”

Tillerson’s removal comes days before he was slated to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the department’s fiscal year 2019 budget request. The State Department, like other agencies, has been dealt deep cuts in the Trump administration’s funding proposals, while the departments of Defense and Homeland Security have seen their budgets increased.

The decision to replace Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., throws into further uncertainty the State Department’s most senior ranks. The agency has seen an exodus of longtime career officials under Tillerson, which has been highlighted in recent months by the departures of some of the department’s most experienced diplomats.

Despite Tillerson’s rocky tenure at the State Department, he has indicated in more recent months that he planned to remain at the agency for the foreseeable future. He told CNN in an interview in January that he intended to stay on at least through 2018.

“I intend to be here for the whole year,” he said at the time.

Rebecca Savransky and Jonathan Easley contributed to this report, which was updated at 12:19 p.m.

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Adviser to Emirates With Ties to Trump Aides Is Cooperating With Special Counsel



WASHINGTON — An adviser to the United Arab Emirates with ties to current and former aides to President Trump is cooperating with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and gave testimony last week to a grand jury, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller appears to be examining the influence of foreign money on Mr. Trump’s political activities and has asked witnesses about the possibility that the adviser, George Nader, funneled money from the Emirates to the president’s political efforts. It is illegal for foreign entities to contribute to campaigns or for Americans to knowingly accept foreign money for political races.
Mr. Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who advises Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the effective ruler of the Emirates, also attended a January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles that Mr. Mueller’s investigators have examined. The meeting, convened by the crown prince, brought together a Russian investor close to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia with Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and an informal adviser to Mr. Trump’s team during the presidential transition, according to three people familiar with the meeting.

Mr. Nader’s cooperation in the special counsel’s investigation could prompt new legal risks for the Trump administration, and Mr. Nader’s presence at the Seychelles meeting appears to connect him to the primary focus of Mr. Mueller’s investigation: examining Russian interference during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Mr. Nader represented the crown prince in the three-way conversation in the Seychelles, at a hotel overlooking in the Indian Ocean, in the days before Mr. Trump took office. At the meeting, Emirati officials believed Mr. Prince was speaking for the Trump transition team, and a Russian fund manager, Kirill Dmitriev, represented Mr. Putin, according to several people familiar with the meeting. Mr. Nader, who grew close later to several advisers in the Trump White House, had once worked as a consultant to Blackwater, a private security firm now known as Academi. Mr. Nader introduced his former employer to the Russian.
The significance of the meeting in the Seychelles has been a puzzle to American officials ever since intelligence agencies first picked up on it in the final days of the Obama administration, and the purpose of the discussion is in dispute. During congressional testimony in November, Mr. Prince denied representing the Trump transition team during the meeting and dismissed his encounter with Mr. Dmitriev as nothing more than a friendly conversation over a drink.

A lawyer for Mr. Nader did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Mr. Dmitriev has repeatedly declined to comment about the Seychelles meeting, as has Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador in Washington.

Mr. Dmitriev, a former Goldman Sachs banker with an M.B.A. from Harvard, was tapped by Mr. Putin in 2011 to manage an unusual state-run investment fund. Where other such funds seek to earn returns on sovereign wealth, Mr. Dmitriev’s Russian Direct Investment Fund seeks outside investments, often from foreign governments, for unglamorous infrastructure projects inside of Russia.
The Obama administration imposed sanctions on the fund as part of a raft of economic penalties after the Russian government sent military forces into Ukraine in 2014.

The United Arab Emirates, which Washington considers one of its closest Arab allies, has invested heavily in Mr. Dmitriev’s fund as part of an effort to build close relations to Russia as well. After Crown Prince Mohammed met with Mr. Putin in 2013 in Moscow on a state visit, two investment arms of the government in Abu Dhabi committed to invest $6 billion in the Russian Direct Investment Fund, eventually paying to build projects like roads, an airport and cancer treatment centers in Russia.
Mr. Dmitriev became a frequent visitor to Abu Dhabi, and Emirati officials came to see him as a key conduit to the Russian government. In a 2015 email, the Emirati ambassador to Moscow at the time described Mr. Dmitriev as a “messenger” to get information directly to Mr. Putin. The email was among a large number hacked from the account of the ambassador to Washington and published online. The now former ambassador to Moscow, Omar Saif Ghobash, did not respond to an email about the leak.

Mr. Nader was first served with search warrants and a grand jury subpoena on Jan. 17, shortly after landing at Washington Dulles International Airport, according to two people familiar with the episode. He had intended to travel on to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Florida estate, to celebrate the president’s first year in office, but the F.B.I. had other plans, questioning him for more than two hours and seizing his electronics.

Since then, Mr. Nader has been questioned numerous times about meetings in New York during the transition, the Seychelles meeting and meetings in the White House with two of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers, Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, who has since left the administration.

The meeting in the Seychelles also took place against the backdrop of a larger pattern of secretive contacts between the Trump team and both the Russians and the Emiratis. In the weeks after the 2016 presidential election, Crown Prince Mohammed aroused the suspicions of American national security officials when they learned that he had breached protocol by visiting Trump Tower in Manhattan without notifying the Obama administration of his visit to the United States.

Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and a senior transition adviser, met at Trump Tower with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington at the time, and discussed setting up a back channel to communicate with Moscow during the transition — circumventing American diplomatic channels normally used during a presidential transition. Mr. Kushner met a few days later with a Russian banker close to Putin, Sergey N. Gorkov — whose bank was also under sanctions — in what Mr. Kushner has said was an attempt to establish a direct line of communication to Mr. Putin during the transition.

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Ilhan Omar: No debate on ‘whether Trump is a racist’ | UpFront



Hers is a remarkable journey: from a refugee camp in Kenya to a state legislature in the United States. In 2016, Ilhan Omar became the first elected Somali-American Muslim lawmaker in the US, the same night that Donald Trump was elected president.

When asked about Trump’s role in the rise of anti-Muslim, far right, white nationalist hate groups in the country, Omar says she would come very short of holding him “exclusively responsible”.

“I think when you … demonise and dehumanise, it is easy for people to commit acts of violence against those individuals because they no longer see them as a person, as someone who has feelings, who’s worthy of respect,” says Omar.

“We are moving away from this idea that we are supposed to be a welcoming nation.”

In this special interview, we speak with Minnesota State Representative Ilhan Omar about Trump and the rise of Islamophobia in the US.

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