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Trump Organization key to Mueller report

A long-awaited report spotlights the Trump Organization as a conduit to Russia and shows the U.S. president could face obstruction of justice charges.

WASHINGTON (AN) — A long-awaited investigative report spotlights the Trump Organization as a conduit to Russia and shows U.S. President Donald Trump's conduct on at least four occasions seemed to have met prosecutors' high standards for bringing obstruction of justice charges.

Without directly saying so, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report essentially called for the matter to be referred to the U.S. House of Representatives, the only forum for weighing evidence of possible "high crimes and misdemeanors" by a sitting president. Mueller found Trump failed to influence the investigation — but only because aides stood in his way.

The nearly two-year-long Russia probe by Mueller repeatedly cast members of the Trump Organization and the president's family as central players in some of the main themes investigated by Mueller's office. The Trump Organization and campaign embraced help from Russia — including the use of illegally obtained data without alerting law enforcement — and the campaign chairman even promoted Russia's interests in Ukraine.

Just months after launching his U.S. presidential campaign in June 2015, Trump signed an agreement to create a Trump-branded project in Moscow, one of numerous instances highlighting the Trump Organization's involvement.

Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, discussed the Moscow project with Trump between 2013 and the summer of 2016, and Cohen met with Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. about the project in the fall of 2015, according to a redacted version of Mueller's report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The Trump Organization completed a letter of intent for the project between mid-October and early November 2015 with I.C. Expert Investment Company, a Russian development firm overseen by Andrei Vladimirovich Rozov. Earlier in the year, Rozov was accused of negligent homicide for driving his speed boat into a smaller boat, killing a 19-year-old man and seriously injuring a 23-year-old woman.

But the court granted Rozov amnesty, and on the same day that Trump launched his presidential campaign, a Russian court denied an appeal by one of Rozov's victims. As Trump rose in the Republican polls, a regional judge appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin upheld the court's decision to clear Rozov of all charges.

A day after Trump signed the agreement for his organization, one of his business associates, former Bayrock Group executive Felix Sater, suggested in an email to Cohen that with help from Putin's team "the Trump Moscow project could be used to increase candidate Trump's chances at being elected," the report said.

“Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process," Sater wrote in the email included in the report. "Business, politics, whatever it all is the same for someone who knows how to deal."

Trump's real estate business, the Trump Organization, is a multinational enterprise, one of the three conventional types of international organizations tallied by the Brussels-based Union of International Associations, which has compiled data on the more than 38,000 active and 32,000 dormant international organizations from 300 nations and territories — and the 485,000 meetings they have held since 1851.

In another example of the Trump Organization's questionable involvement with foreign election interference, senior Trump campaign officials met in the Trump Tower in June 2016 with a Russian attorney "expecting to receive derogatory information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government," the report said.

The report did not address an F.B.I. inquiry into why a computer server for Russia’s largest commercial bank, Alfa Bank, had thousands of contacts with a Trump Organization computer server in 2016, but said the bank's CEO, Petr Aven, tried and failed to connect with the incoming Trump administration at the end of that year.

The U.S. Justice Department's public release of the 448-page redacted report, which captivated Washington, confirmed that Mueller had not ruled out that Trump committed obstruction of justice by repeatedly trying to interfere with Mueller's investigation. Rather, Mueller indicated he did not believe it was up to him to decide.

“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” Mueller's report said, citing 10 instances in which there was evidence of Trump trying to obstruct justice. In most cases, it appeared members of Trump's inner circle resisted his pressure to do wrong only because of their own self-preservation instincts.

“At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment,” it said. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

In case after case, Trump was seen to be lying or changing his story while trying to sabotage the investigation and to have Mueller sacked from his job. His own White House staff resisted. At one point, Trump told White House counsel Donald McGahn to remove Mueller in June 2017. McGahn refused to do so and resigned.

Unsuccessful attempts to obstruct justice could still be prosecuted as obstruction. Even if Mueller had enough evidence to indict and convict Trump for obstruction of justice, however, he said he was not permitted to do so because the Justice Department has a decades-old policy preventing the indictment of a sitting president.

After the New York Times reported in January 2018 that Trump had ordered McGahn to fire Mueller the previous June, Trump tried to get McGahn to lie and cover up the attempted firing. McGahn again resisted. Trump also asked adviser Corey Lewandowski to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the probe. Lewandowski handed off the task to White House official Rick Dearborn, who declined to carry out the order.

The report confirmed a culture of lying around Trump. Its findings provide strong evidence that the mainstream news media — which Trump routinely trashes as "fake news" and dangerously calls "the enemy of the people," inciting others to violence against journalists — has, in fact, been doing a good job of fact-checking his administration.

The Washington Post reported in January, as part of its ongoing database of fact checking, that Trump had already made 8,158 false or misleading claims in his first two years of office. And, in a notable example of similar behavior by administration officials that was included in the report, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in May 2017 that countless F.B.I. members had "lost confidence in" F.B.I. Director James Comey. But while under oath with Mueller's office, Sanders shied away from that assertion.

"Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from 'countless members of the FBI' was a 'slip of the tongue,' " the report said. "She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file F.B.I. agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made 'in the heat of the moment' that was not founded on anything."

The report's conclusions contrasted with how Trump and his appointee, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, have depicted the report. At a televised news conference to preview the release of the redacted report, Barr emphasized five times that investigators found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

That was meant to persuade the public, before it had a chance to read the report, that Trump did nothing wrong. Again and again, Trump has emphasized the words “no collusion” in his messaging to the public.

But soon after the report emerged, it was clear that Mueller’s team focused not on collusion but on the defined legal theory of conspiracy. The special counsel explained in his report that collusion was “not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.”

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, which serves as FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. (ARÊTE/John Heilprin)

A long ways from exoneration

Mueller's team wrote that Trump's conduct while he has been in office “presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.”

It said that the reason the team did not establish that the Trump campaign coordinated its activities with the Russian government's election interference was only because that would have required proving that both sides' actions "were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.”

The report noted that it had described actions and events that Mueller's team found to have been supported by the evidence collected in its investigation. In some cases, the report said, the team pointed out that there was an absence of evidence or conflicting information. But, it added at the start of the report: "A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts."

The report, nonetheless, offered abundant evidence that the Russians had wanted Trump, the Republican nominee, to win the presidency, because Putin's government "perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency." The report also emphasized that the Trump campaign had "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

Russia secretly manipulated the 2016 presidential election, the report showed, and Trump's foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, with candidate Trump's backing, tried to arrange meetings between Trump and Putin to undermine Clinton's campaign. Papadopoulos was offered some damning material from a Russian agent and Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with the aim of obtaining Russian “dirt” on Clinton.

The report said that Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of Russia's sovereign wealth fund and a close ally of Putin, was among the Russians who had tried to make contact with Trump's incoming administration after he won the presidency. Through an intermediary, Dmitriev had used Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to deliver a U.S.-Russia "reconciliation plan" to then-incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“Dmitriev and Kushner's friend collaborated on a short written reconciliation plan for the United States and Russia, which Dmitriev implied had been cleared through Putin," the report said, referring to a close friend of Kushner's, New York hedge fund manager Richard Gerson, who had been scrutinized by Mueller's office for his alleged involvement in key meetings between Trump associates and foreign officials.

Dmitriev had been steered by a business associate to Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the private military contractor Blackwater and one of Trump's staunch conservative business allies. Just days before Trump was sworn into office, Dmitriev and Prince met in January 2017 in the Seychelles and held discussions on U.S.-Russia relations; evidence showed Gerson also was in the Seychelles around the time of that meeting.

The version of the meeting that emerged from the Mueller report also conflicted with the version that Prince had described during his sworn testimony before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee in November 2017, when he had called it a chance meeting that was not at the request of the incoming Trump administration.

Such circumstances offer a trove of reasons why the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives requested the full, un-redacted report and maintained it has a constitutional duty to further probe the significance of Mueller’s evidence. The report reflects the constitutional view that only members of Congress, not the Justice Department, have a proper role when it comes to making prosecutorial decisions involving a sitting president.

“Even in its incomplete form, the Mueller report outlines disturbing evidence that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, said in a statement.

“The report concluded there was ‘substantial evidence’ that President Trump attempted to prevent an investigation into his campaign and his own conduct," he said. "Contrary to the Attorney General’s statement this morning that the White House ‘fully cooperated’ with the investigation, the report makes clear that the President refused to be interviewed by the Special Counsel and refused to provide written answers to follow-up questions; and his associates destroyed evidence relevant to the Russia investigation."

The Mueller investigation began in May 2017, after the F.B.I. had opened an inquiry into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia in July 2016 as the presidential campaign heated up over the summer with the WikiLeaks release of hacked emails that were intended to undermine Clinton's campaign.

Perhaps the only way Trump dodged the bullet of an indictment was by successfully evading an in-person interview with Mueller's team. Trump had repeatedly said he was open to such an interview, but his lawyers resisted it — because of the many holes in Trump's stories, and the many questions that Mueller had for him.

In the end, Mueller decided not to use his power to issue a subpoena to the president to compel his testimony — which could have gotten at some of the core legal issues around Trump's motives and intentions — because of the nasty court fight that inevitably would have ensued and likely caused a long delay in the investigation.

The Trump Organization LLC is formed in an unusual fashion, an amalgamation of about 500 pass-through companies and business partnerships. It was founded in 1980 and remains headquartered in New York City, engaging in global real estate development and licensing, sales and marketing and property management. It also develops golf courses and is involved in entertainment and product licensing, brand development, restaurants and event planning, according to Bloomberg.

The multinational organization has U.S. operations at Los Angeles, California; Stamford, Connecticut; Doral Miami, Jupiter, Miami and Palm Beach, Florida; Waikiki, Hawaii; Chicago, Illinois; Las Vegas, Nevada; Bedminster, Colts Neck and Jersey City, New Jersey; Ferry Point, Hudson Valley, New York City and Westchester, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Juan and Rio Grande, Puerto Rico; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Washington, D.C.

Overseas, it operates in Toronto, Canada; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Doonbeg, Ireland; Panama City, Panama; Aberdeen and Turnberry, Scotland; Seoul, South Korea; and Istanbul, Turkey.