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The latest whirlwind of Trump-Russia news, explained

The BuzzFeed story hasn’t been corroborated, Giuliani made (and retracted) a new admission, and more.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
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.

The Trump-Russia scandal had a series of newsworthy but confusing developments over the weekend, as several different stories appeared to move forward and yet backward.

The BuzzFeed News claim that President Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress still hasn’t been corroborated — or corrected. The reporters and editors involved are standing by the story, despite a rare statement from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office calling parts of their reporting inaccurate.

There’s been a good deal of discussion and reporting about just why Mueller’s office finally chose to dispute a news article, when in the past they’ve simply refused to comment. Was it to push back against leaks or throw cold water on impeachment chatter, or because of internal pressure? Answers remain elusive.

Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the New York Times that, according to Trump himself, talks about a Trump Tower Moscow deal continued all the way up to Election Day 2016 — a major new admission. So, of course, he soon retracted it, and said he didn’t really mean to say it.

Finally, there were a set of new developments related to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The New York Times reported, citing an internal document, that the US government’s deal to lift sanctions on his companies looked pretty favorable to Deripaska. And an escort who had secretly taped Deripaska and claimed to have evidence about interference in the US election was detained in Moscow — but then released from custody.

The big BuzzFeed News story still hasn’t been confirmed or corroborated elsewhere

On Thursday night, Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier of BuzzFeed News published a scoop that had the potential to upend the Trump presidency: that the president had told his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress in 2017, and that Mueller had ample documentary and testimonial evidence to prove it. After the story went up, talk of impeachment was in the air.

But the next day, Mueller’s office stunned Washington by releasing a rare statement disputing the story — saying the reporters’ descriptions of documents and testimony obtained by the special counsel’s office were “not accurate.”

One long weekend later, no new information has surfaced to corroborate the central claim of Leopold and Cormier’s story, from them or any other news outlet. So the question looms ever larger: Was the story just wrong?

There has been no retraction or correction of the story at BuzzFeed News just yet, and the editors and reporters involved continue to profess confidence in their sources (“two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation” of the Trump Tower Moscow deal). “We’re being told to stand our ground,” Cormier said on CNN Sunday. “Our reporting is going to be borne out to be accurate, and we’re 100 percent behind it.”

But unless Mueller’s spokesperson is just lying, it seems highly likely at this point that something about the story is incorrect. The question is whether it’s details that are off, or whether the special counsel intended to debunk the story as a whole. (The Washington Post quoted “people familiar with the matter” claiming it was the latter.)

Why did Mueller dispute the BuzzFeed News story?

Special counsel Robert Mueller.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Questions have also arisen about why Mueller chose, for the first time in his 20-month investigation, to dispute a particular news report.

For most government agencies, it would not be unusual at all for the spokesperson to publicly dispute what he or she thinks is an inaccurate story. But Mueller’s office has been famously reticent to comment on any of the details of their investigation — a practice that has included refusing to dispute even wrong reports. (After all, if they debunk some wrong reports, then their refusal to dispute other accurate reports could be interpreted as confirmation.)

So this is a genuine change, and there are a few theories floating around about why it happened (multiple of which, or none of which, could conceivably be true).

1) A dispute within DOJ: No one knows who BuzzFeed News’s two “federal law enforcement official” sources are. But since Mueller’s team is believed never to leak, and since there was an extensive involvement from New York-based FBI and Justice Department officials in the Cohen case, much speculation about the sourcing has focused on the Southern District of New York. Perhaps Mueller released this statement to try to prevent further leaks from SDNY.

2) A more cautious reading of the evidence: One key theme of the BuzzFeed story was a sense that Mueller had “the goods” on Trump telling Cohen to lie, with ample evidence to prove it. But so far, the special counsel has conspicuously avoided alleging that Trump told Cohen to lie, in charging documents and a sentencing memo related to Cohen’s case. Perhaps Mueller simply doesn’t think the evidence is as conclusive as the leakers are claiming — his spokesperson’s statement after all, specifically disputed BuzzFeed News’s “description” and “characterization” of evidence they obtained.

3) He was pressured: Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani claimed on television this weekend that Trump’s team communicated with Mueller’s office to dispute the BuzzFeed report Friday morning. The Washington Post also reported, per its sources, that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s office “called to inquire if the special counsel planned any kind of response” to the BuzzFeed story. (CNN told the story differently, saying Rosenstein’s office was merely “given a heads up.”)

4) Democratic impeachment talks: One big thing that may have prompted a change in Mueller’s tactical use of silence, though, is Democratic control of the House of Representatives. The BuzzFeed News story sparked calls among Democrats for Mueller to produce new information, as well as talk of an impeachment push. Perhaps the special counsel was trying to halt a hasty impeachment drive based on bad information, or on an investigation that they haven’t yet completed.

Rudy Giuliani made a big admission on Trump Tower Moscow — and then, of course, tried to take it back

When Giuliani did a series of interviews over the weekend (in which he tried to take a victory lap about the pushback on the BuzzFeed story), he twice made what seemed to be a remarkable admission on the Trump Tower Moscow project.

For context, it’s now clear that while Trump was running for president in 2015 and 2016, Cohen was involved in secret talks to try to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. This remained a secret during the campaign. But Cohen recently admitted lying to Congress about it, raising more questions about just what was going on here.

One big question has been the timeline. At first, Cohen falsely told Congress the project fizzled out by January 2016. But Mueller’s filings in the matter confirmed the project was still under discussion at least as late as June 2016. They did not specify when, exactly, discussions ended.

This weekend, Giuliani gave an answer to that question: They continued all the way up to Election Day. First, he told NBC News that the talks went on “throughout 2016,” and added, “could be, up to as far as October, November. But after that, he told the New York Times in an interview that Trump himself said the deal talks were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won.” This latter statement is the most significant, because Giuliani claimed to be quoting Trump directly.

The admission would seem to reveal that Trump was involved in secret Russian business talks, and was hiding them from American voters, all the way up to Election Day. It would also raise further questions about testimony by his son Donald Trump Jr. to Congress about the project.

So, as we might expect, Giuliani then tried to pretend he didn’t really say those things he said. In a statement, he said he meant to speak in a “hypothetical” way and “not based on conversations I had with the President” — contradicting his exact words to the New York Times.

Then, in a remarkable, floundering interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, Giuliani said the Times “was absolutely wrong” in reporting his comments. He didn’t quite accuse them of making up a quote, but he suggested that his intended point was that “if he had those conversations, they would not be criminal.” (He also admitted that he was “afraid” that his “gravestone” would say “Rudy Giuliani: He lied for Trump,” but then said, “If it is, so what do I care? I’ll be dead.” Seriously, the whole thing is worth a read.)

Developments in matters connected to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska

One Russian oligarch whose name has kept coming up in connection with the various investigations has been Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate.

Deripaska was an old client of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, until the two had a bitter falling out over money. So when the badly indebted Manafort got his job on Trump’s campaign in March 2016, he was very interested indeed in how Deripaska might respond.

“How do we use to get whole... Has OVD operation seen?” he emailed a Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik in April. (“OVD” is Deripaska’s initials). Manafort at one point suggested “private briefings” on the campaign for Deripaska, and Kilimnik referred to him as “the guy who gave you your biggest black caviar jar.” What, if anything, resulted from this isn’t yet known, and Deripaska has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

In April 2018, though, the US Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on various oligarchs close to Putin — including Deripaska and his companies. In the months since then, Deripaska has lobbied furiously to have the sanctions lifted. Finally, in December, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that he would lift the sanctions on Deripaska-tied companies, in exchange for Deripaska’s commitment to relinquish majority control of those companies. (The sanctions on Deripaska personally remain in place.)

Democrats have reacted with alarm, questioning whether the Trump administration has been corruptly influenced. The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last week to keep the sanctions, but they did so after a Senate vote to keep the sanctions had narrowly failed. (57 senators, including 11 Republicans, voted in favor of the measure, but it needed 60 votes to advance.)

Then on Monday, the New York Times’s Kenneth Vogel cited a confidential document revealing that the deal “may have been less punitive than advertised.” The agreement, Vogel writes, “contains provisions that free him from hundreds of millions of dollars in debt while leaving him and his allies with majority ownership of his most important company.”

Meanwhile, there have also been new developments in the case of Anastasia Vashukevich — an escort who traveled with Deripaska on his yacht in August 2016, secretly taped him, and has claimed her tapes have important information about Russian interference with the US election. (It’s not clear whether she actually has any such evidence, but she definitely has tapes from Deripaska’s vacation with Russia’s deputy prime minister a few months before the election.)

Vashukevich had been incarcerated in Thailand for the past 11 months, for apparently unrelated reasons (she was teaching a “sex seminar” without a work permit). During that time, she told reporters that “if America gives me protection, I will tell everything I know.” She added, “I am afraid to go back to Russia. Some strange things can happen.”

Last week, Thailand deported her, en route back to her home country of Belarus. But during a stopover in Moscow, Russian authorities detained Vashukevich, on suspicion of forcing women into prostitution. Then at a court hearing, she apologized to Deripaska and said she would “no longer compromise him.”

On Tuesday, Vashukevich was released from custody, though it seems she’ll remain in Russia. This may or may not be related to pressure from anti-corruption political activist and Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who released recordings that he claimed suggested Deripaska had a role in Vashukevich’s detention. The president of Belarus had also called for her release. Amy Knight has a report on all these latest twists and turns for the Daily Beast.