McClatchy: Six federal agencies collaborating on probe into possible covert Russian efforts to help Trump during campaign

I’ve got a hunch that the collaboration will start winding down in, oh, about 48 hours or so.

The agencies involved in the inquiry are the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and representatives of the director of national intelligence, the sources said.

Investigators are examining how money may have moved from the Kremlin to covertly help Trump win, the two sources said. One of the allegations involves whether a system for routinely paying thousands of Russian-American pensioners may have been used to pay some email hackers in the United States or to supply money to intermediaries who would then pay the hackers, the two sources said…

The working group is scrutinizing the activities of a few Americans who were affiliated with Trump’s campaign or his business empire and of multiple individuals from Russia and other former Soviet nations who had similar connections, the sources said…

[Former British spy Christopher] Steele, who had worked previously with the FBI and was well regarded, fed the bureau information in July and September suggesting collusion between Trump associates and Moscow in the hacking of Democratic computers, they said. Eventually, he met in Italy with an FBI official to share more information alleging that a top Trump campaign official had known about the hacking as early as last June, the sources said.

The story doesn’t get deep into specifics (surprise), but unless I’ve misunderstood, there’s no suggestion that the feds believe that money changed hands between the Kremlin and Team Trump. The suspicion is that money changed hands between the Kremlin and the people who hacked the DNC and John Podesta, and that one or more people associated with Team Trump might have known about the hacking operation before it was public knowledge. The detail about Russian-American pensioners is noteworthy: The same claim was published four days before the election in a Newsweek piece by, er, Kurt Eichenwald, who claimed that the pension system is a convenient way for Russia to launder money to the many thousands of people abroad who contribute to its disinformation campaigns.

The most interesting thing about the McClatchy piece is how it matches up with key details from this splashy BBC report published last week. Reporter Paul Wood was also told by sources that a six-agency task force exists — and it wasn’t triggered by the Trump dossier that was allegedly compiled by Steele and eventually published on BuzzFeed. According to Wood, the investigation began last April when a state intelligence agency in one of the Baltic countries gave CIA Director John Brennan “a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.” McClatchy corroborates that timeline, noting that “The informal, inter-agency working group began to explore possible Russian interference last spring, long before the FBI received information from a former British spy hired to develop politically damaging and unverified research about Trump…” The BBC claims that the task force got a FISA warrant in October last year to let them intercept the financial records of two Russian banks suspected of transferring money to the U.S. Wrote Wood:

A lawyer- outside the Department of Justice but familiar with the case – told me that three of Mr Trump’s associates were the subject of the inquiry. “But it’s clear this is about Trump,” he said.

I spoke to all three of those identified by this source. All of them emphatically denied any wrongdoing. “Hogwash,” said one. “Bullshit,” said another. Of the two Russian banks, one denied any wrongdoing, while the other did not respond to a request for comment.

The FISA order was allegedly granted on October 15th. Presumably the task force was pushing to get the investigation going before Election Day, just in case there was a smoking gun somewhere that voters should be alerted to. The NYT confirmed on October 31st that the FBI had been investigating Russia interference in the campaign for much of the summer and had, among other things, “scrutinized advisers close to Donald J. Trump [and] looked for financial connections with Russian financial figures…” One part of the investigation reportedly involved Paul Manafort. But, the Times noted, the FBI had found no links at that point. And Trump himself wasn’t a target of the investigation:

Intelligence officials have said in interviews over the last six weeks that apparent connections between some of Mr. Trump’s aides and Moscow originally compelled them to open a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Republican presidential candidate. Still, they have said that Mr. Trump himself has not become a target. And no evidence has emerged that would link him or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to Russia’s election operations.

The newsiest element of the BBC and McClatchy pieces is that, apparently, the interagency task force still exists — for the moment. My guess is that this is being leaked now because those involved want it to continue and worry that it’ll be quietly shut down by Jeff Sessions, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Flynn next week. So they’re making a public stink about it to put partisan pressure on the new administration: Having been alerted to the task force’s existence, reporters will now start asking Trump and his agency chiefs what its status is. If they find out that it’s been shut down, well, there’s a juicy cover-up angle for Democrats to have fun with it. And because Sessions et al. know that that’s how it’ll be spun, it puts pressure on them to let the task force finish its work.

The X-factor, as usual, is Comey. If the reports above are true, he’s known about these accusations for nine months and his bureau is involved in the probe. There’s no indication (yet) that he’s planning to resign or that he’ll be removed as FBI director by Trump. If the order comes down to end the task force, what will he do? If he complies, it’ll look like he’s caving to political pressure. If he resists, he risks losing his job and casting a pall over the new president on the assumption that Comey wouldn’t try to protect the task force unless he had reason to believe that the investigation is producing results. The next “Comey letter” might be the most momentous one yet.

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