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The past 24 hours in Trump-Russia news, explained

New developments about Mueller, Manafort, and Corsi.

Paul Manafort, in April 2018.
Paul Manafort in April 2018.
Mark Wilson/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

It’s been a whirlwind 24 hours of news about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

First, on Monday night, Mueller’s team said that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, who had agreed to cooperate with their investigation, had breached his agreement by repeatedly lying to them.

The special counsel has not yet offered specifics on what Manafort allegedly lied about, and the ultimate implications of the news for the probe aren’t clear.

But some curiosities around the disclosure’s timing suggest that Mueller may have wanted to wait until President Donald Trump submitted his answers to some of investigators’ questions last week before revealing this news.

Second, on Tuesday, the Guardian published a stunning report alleging that Manafort had secretly met WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during the 2016 campaign. But the story been vigorously disputed by WikiLeaks and Manafort, and has not yet been confirmed by any other news outlet. It’s best to treat it with caution for now.

Finally, in the midst of all this, conservative commentator Jerome Corsi — who’s been under Mueller’s scrutiny for months — keeps coming forward with eyebrow-raising new claims about his involvement in the investigation.

Corsi has already claimed that he’s about to be indicted for perjury, and that he plans to reject a plea deal offered by Mueller. But in a forthcoming book obtained by the Daily Caller, he also says that he worked with longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone to concoct a false “cover story” to explain a suspicious tweet of Stone’s. In the tweet, Stone seemed to predict trouble coming for one or both Podesta brothers — over a month before news broke that WikiLeaks had obtained John Podesta’s hacked emails. Corsi also writes that Stone asked him to tell Assange to delay the timing of the Podesta email release.

All this, too, should be treated with caution — Corsi is a conspiracy theorist with a history of making false claims, and Stone denied his account to the Daily Caller. But Mueller has been investigating Stone’s connections to WikiLeaks for months, and if Stone did in fact concoct a false story, it would suggest there is something he wanted to hide about those Podesta emails.

Manafort’s falling out with Mueller seems quite important

Back in September, Paul Manafort agreed to a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. The deal averted an imminent second trial for Manafort (he’d already been convicted of financial crimes at a first one), and required Manafort’s cooperation.

The news was widely viewed as a likely turning point in Mueller’s investigation. It seemed that Mueller had been trying to get Manafort to “flip” for quite a while, and had finally achieved his aim — landing him a cooperator close to the president himself.

Except it does not seem to have panned out. “After signing the plea agreement, Manafort committed federal crimes by lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Special Counsel’s Office on a variety of subject matters, which constitute breaches of the agreement,” Mueller’s team wrote in a filing Monday evening.

Manafort’s lawyers disputed this assertion and wrote that Manafort “believes he has provided truthful information.” But both parties signaled that further cooperation would be fruitless, and said Manafort’s sentencing should be scheduled. Mueller’s team said they’d reveal more information about what Manafort allegedly lied about before he is sentenced.

What’s particularly interesting is the timing of this disclosure. Back on November 15, lawyers for both Mueller and Manafort asked for a short, 10-day extension in filing their next scheduled status update on his case. This, they said, would let them “provide the Court with a report that will be of greater assistance in the Court’s management of this matter.” This ended up being the Monday evening report claiming Manafort had breached his agreement.

But why the 10-day delay before disclosing this? There have been no new indictments since then, at least not publicly. There was, however, one notable thing that happened in that period — President Trump submitted his answers to certain questions from Mueller’s team last Tuesday. The timing suggests Mueller wanted to have those answers before revealing Manafort’s lack of cooperation.

Opinion of what this development might mean for the investigation has been split. Some viewed it as a likely blow to Mueller — after all, he’s lost a cooperator. Others theorized that Mueller’s strongly worded assertion that Manafort lied suggests he’s obtained at least some of the evidence he needs from other sources. But nearly everyone seemed to agree that Manafort was probably hoping for a presidential pardon.

Trump, meanwhile, appeared to allude to Manafort’s situation in a tweet, claiming Mueller was “ruining lives” because people are “refusing to lie” (presumably, to implicate Trump). Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN that the president has been upset about Manafort’s “un-American” treatment.

A new report claims a Manafort-WikiLeaks connection — but it’s been disputed

Did Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort have a secret connection to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange? That’s what the Guardian’s Luke Harding and Dan Collyns reported Tuesday, claiming Manafort secretly met Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy three times over the past few years, including in 2016. No direct connection between Assange and Manafort has previously been known or reported.

But the report has not yet been confirmed by other media outlets, and its sourcing is hazy. So it’s best to treat it with caution for now. After all, some purportedly game-changing anonymously sourced Trump-Russia scoops have not panned out.

WikiLeaks vigorously disputed the claim on Twitter, calling one of the authors “a serial fabricator” and saying they’d bet “a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange.”

And on Tuesday afternoon, Manafort, too, denied the story. “This story is totally false and deliberately libelous,” he said in a written statement. “I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him. I have never been contacted by anyone connected to Wikileaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or Wikileaks on any matter.”

The most significant Russian intervention in the 2016 US presidential campaign was the hacking and eventual leaking of leading Democrats’ emails. Two major batches of these stolen emails — from the DNC, and from John Podesta — were eventually posted publicly by WikiLeaks.

The question of precisely how all these emails made their way to WikiLeaks, and the question of whether any Trump associates were involved in or informed about the operation, have so far remained unanswered. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating these topics, with a particular focus on Trump adviser (and longtime Manafort friend and business associate) Roger Stone.

Separate from the question of whether Manafort met Assange, it has long been known that Manafort traveled to Ecuador in May 2017 to meet with the incoming president-elect Lenin Moreno. On Tuesday, however, CNN reported that Mueller has been investigating whether WikiLeaks or Assange came up at that meeting — another allegation made in the Guardian story.

Jerome Corsi says he helped Roger Stone create a cover story

Amid all this, conservative commentator Jerome Corsi continues to speak out publicly about his entanglement with the Mueller probe. At various points in the past few weeks, he’s said he expects to be indicted for perjury, that his lawyers were working on a plea deal, and (most recently) that he planned to reject the proposed plea deal.

Corsi is a well-known conspiracy theorist who helped popularize the “birther” theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and many other false claims, so we shouldn’t take his word for much of anything.

But Mueller’s interest in him is clearly very real. The special counsel’s team subpoenaed Corsi back in August and he has been questioned by investigators and before a grand jury several times since then — most notably about WikiLeaks, John Podesta’s emails, and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.

Corsi has since confirmed that he somehow came to believe that WikiLeaks had obtained Podesta’s emails, well before that news broke in October 2016. He has said, however, that he just figured this out from public evidence, without really explaining how he could have done so.

Now, the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross reports that Corsi has written a book about his experience with the Mueller investigation — and that, in it, he claims to have helped concoct a false “cover story” to help out Roger Stone.

The background is that, back on August 21, 2016, Stone tweeted: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Since then, there have been many questions about whether he somehow knew over a month in advance that WikiLeaks would post John Podesta’s hacked emails.

But Stone has insisted that there was an innocent explanation. He’s said that the tweet referred to opposition research that Corsi was doing for him, into the Podesta brothers’ business dealings. He testified as much to the House Intelligence Committee last year, saying the tweet was partly “based on a comprehensive, early August opposition research briefing provided to me by investigative journalist, Dr. Jerome Corsi.”

Corsi writes in his book, however, that this was “a cover-story, in effect not true.” He said that Stone called him asking for his help in creating an excuse for the suspicious tweet. So, he writes, “I suggested Stone could use me as an excuse, claiming my research on Podesta and Russia was the basis for Stone’s prediction.”

Stone “vehemently denied” Corsi’s account to the Daily Caller, and as mentioned, Corsi is rather unreliable. But the timeline around Stone’s tweet and Corsi research has long looked shady (as Marcy Wheeler has written). And if Stone did go to Corsi in search of a cover story, it would certainly raise some questions about what, exactly, he was trying to cover up.

Elsewhere in the book, Ross writes, Corsi claims that Stone wanted him to get a message to Assange about how WikiLeaks should time its release of the Podesta emails. He claims Stone knew a damaging story about Trump would soon be published — the Access Hollywood tape story, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.” So, Corsi says, Stone wanted Assange to delay the release until after this story was out to distract from it.

Stone denied these claims to Ross as well. WikiLeaks did begin posting the Podesta emails shortly after the Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape story.

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