Don’t bother checking your scorecards on this one. The special counsel announced this morning that a grand jury has indicted Alex van der Zwaan for making false statements to investigators. Who’s Alex van der Zwaan, you might ask? MSNBC’s Ari Melber isn’t quite sure either, other than an attorney who worked for a client connected to Robert Mueller’s probe:
BREAKING: Mueller indicts Russia-linked lawyer for making false statements to federal investigators pic.twitter.com/e4kiUyuJEk
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) February 20, 2018
If you had van der Zwaan on your scorecard, be sure to buy a Powerball ticket later today. NBC’s Tom Winter provided a little more information on the attorney charged under 18 USC 1001:
NEW: Prosecutors for Robert Mueller's team has charged Alex van der Zwaan with making false statements tied to investigation into Skadden Arps' work in Ukraine and it involves Paul Manafort. h/t @MacFarlaneNews
— Tom Winter (@Tom_Winter) February 20, 2018
The Hill has a little more:
Special counsel Robert Mueller is charging a man who communicated with former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates with making false statements to federal officials. …
Van Der Zwaan allegedly lied about his last communications with Gates and deleted emails requested by the special counsel’s office, according to the indictment.
Van Der Zwaan allegedly did so as part of his work as an attorney employed by a firm hired by the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice to prepare a report on the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister of Ukraine.
Here’s the indictment, which runs a little over a page:
BREAKING: New case from the special counsel's office. Defendant is Alex Van Der Zwaan, charged with making false statements. He has a plea hearing scheduled for today at 2:30pm https://t.co/IJ3qLW2f9W pic.twitter.com/6no512ClTy
— Zoe Tillman (@ZoeTillman) February 20, 2018
So who is Person A? It’s not Richard Gates, obviously, since the indictment mentions him by name in the same subparagraph. It appears to be Paul Manafort, Gates’ business partner. Gates himself recently cut a deal with the special counsel and conducted a “Queen for a Day” round-robin interview session with investigators. Did Gates finger van der Zwaan last week? Sure seems that way.
All of this looks like it’s aimed at Manafort rather than Trump and the Russia-collusion hypothesis, however. Van der Zwaan didn’t work for the Russian propagandists that targeted the US election; he apparently worked for the Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych regime in Ukraine. That fits with a new report from Buzzfeed about Mueller’s interest in Manafort, which may be about cleaning up an old FBI operation rather than anything to do with the 2016 election:
Federal law enforcement officials have identified more than $40 million in “suspicious” financial transactions to and from companies controlled by President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort — a much larger sum than was cited in his October indictment on money laundering charges.
The vast web of transactions was unraveled mainly in 2014 and 2015 during an FBI operation to fight international kleptocracy that ultimately fizzled. The story of that failed effort — and its resurrection by special counsel Robert Mueller as he investigated whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election — has never been fully told.
But it explains how the special counsel was able to swiftly bring charges against Manafort for complex financial crimes dating as far back as 2008 — and it shows that Mueller could still wield immense leverage as he seeks to compel Manafort to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.
There’s nothing in the indictment against the Russian propagandists that suggests any kind of hook like that, however. Rod Rosenstein went out of his way to note that any contacts with the propagandists were “unwitting” and accidental. That closes off the collusion theory, at least in terms of its most popular definition. In its initial incarnation, “collusion” related to the DNC and John Podesta hacks, which took place long before Manafort came on board Donald Trump’s campaign.
However, the Buzzfeed report makes it clear that the FBI could have prevented Manafort’s hiring by pressing forward four years ago on the same charges it has now. Instead, FBI executives deemed him too small a fish:
In the summer of 2014, an FBI special agent questioned Manafort at his attorney’s office in Washington, DC. Manafort denied knowing anything about money reportedly stolen by the Yanukovych government, according to internal FBI emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News, and promised to turn over documents to the Bureau. He never did, according to the two officials.
“We had him in 2014,” one of the former officials said. “In hindsight, we could have nailed him then.”
The FBI’s top brass, both of the former officials said, deemed Manafort’s suspected financial crimes as too petty: They amounted to only tens of millions of dollars — small potatoes compared to what Manafort’s boss, Yanukovych, was suspected of stealing.
Suddenly, Mueller’s interest in Manafort and in flipping Gates to get him makes a lot more sense. So too do the raids on Manafort’s house. Mueller’s cleaning up a mess left by James Comey, Eric Holder, and Loretta Lynch. When Manafort inserted himself into presidential politics, the people who scotched the probe into his money-laundering for Yanukovych must have worried about his potential for corrupting the election. It didn’t take long for the Trump campaign to dump him, which suggests that perhaps they knew Manafort was dirtier than first thought — or were informed of it by the FBI and got rid of him post-haste. If that was the case, then using Manafort as a hook for Russian collusion makes even less sense.
Of course, this is also a reminder of the bad decisions made by the Trump campaign to bring Manafort on in the first place. The Trump team did a poor job of vetting its top ranks, a problem that persisted into the first weeks of Trump’s presidency. That’s a separate issue of competence, however, not corruption.
Mueller’s interest in Manafort seems fixed on the mid-2014 retreat by the FBI. Everything charged since then on this track, including in van der Zwaan’s indictment, has to do with actions that took place long before the beginning of the Trump campaign. Manafort is the target here, not Trump, and a long overdue clean-up project by the Department of Justice.
Update: Who is Alex van der Zwaan, I asked? Hmmm:
Vd Zwaan is the son in law of Russian oligarch German Khan. Khan is co-owner of the Alfa Bank which featured heavily in earlier Trump/Russia coverage.
— Joshua Livestro (@JoshuaLivestro) February 20, 2018
NBC New York reports on the connection:
Alex van der Zwaan, an attorney and the son-in-law of Russian billionaire German Khan, faces charges of making false statements. The charges were dated Feb. 16 but unsealed Tuesday.
Khan, one of the owners of Russia-based Alfa Bank, got a serious mention in the Christopher Steele dossier — so much so that he’s suing Buzzfeed for publishing it:
The owners of a Russian bank are suing BuzzFeed for publishing a dossier containing unproven claims that the businessmen were involved in bribing Russian President Vladimir Putin years ago and took part in an alleged Russian government scheme to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan of Alfa Bank filed the defamation lawsuit Friday in state court in Manhattan, seeking unspecified damages from BuzzFeed as well as editor-in-chief Ben Smith, reporter Ken Bensinger and editors Miriam Elder and Mark Schoofs.
The suit seized on Smith admitting that at the time BuzzFeed published the dossier in January he knew aspects of the dossier were wrong and that other aspects of it were unproven. That admission indicates BuzzFeed had knowledge sufficient to meet the legal standard for libel, the court complaint says.
“The Article clearly states that the allegations contained in the Dossier were unverified and that the Dossier itself contained errors, including the repeated misspelling of Alfa’s name, and could not be verified despite substantial efforts,” wrote Alan Lewis and John Walsh of Carter Ledyard and Milburn, the law firm for the bank owners. “The false and defamatory statements published by Defendants of and concerning the Plaintiffs and Alfa, and the implications of those defamatory statements, were made with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were true or false.”
These are certainly iiiinteresting coincidences … if one is inclined to believe in coincidences at all. It still may not have much to do with Trump, but it’s clear why van der Zwaan was trying to do clean-up work for Manafort’s relationship with Yanukovych. And it’s also clear that vander Zwaan isn’t just some low-level clerk who made a misstep, either.
Update: This update from Ken Vogel makes this look more like it’s about the Yanukovych probe, though:
Mr. Manafort’s relationship with Skadden dates to years before his work on the Trump campaign. He enlisted the firm in his effort to shield a client, Viktor F. Yanukovych, the pro-Russia president of Ukraine, from international condemnation.
Mr. Manafort asked Skadden to draft a report that would help counter accusations that Mr. Yanukovych’s government had prosecuted and convicted the former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, on corruption charges in 2011 for political reasons and without sufficient evidence.
Ukraine’s top prosecutor asked the Department of Justice last year or earlier for help in questioning eight lawyers who the Ukrainians believed were involved in Skadden’s work, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times. Mr. van der Zwaan’s name was on the list, though it is unclear what role he played in crafting the report.
Also on the list was Skadden’s lead lawyer on the report, Gregory B. Craig, who served as President Barack Obama’s White House counsel, as well as Clifford M. Sloan, who also worked in the Obama administration.
Skadden says they terminated their relationship with van der Zwaan last year. We’ll see whether they’ll have to terminate several more before this is over.