Hear­ing of­fers clue to ‘heart’ of Mueller probe

Houston Chronicle - - NATION WORLD - By Sharon LaFraniere, Ken­neth P. Vo­gel and Scott Shane

WASH­ING­TON — Of the few hints to emerge from spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller about ev­i­dence of pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign and Rus­sia, one of the most tan­ta­liz­ing sur­faced al­most in pass­ing in a Wash­ing­ton court­room last week.

Com­ments by one of Mueller’s lead pros­e­cu­tors, dis­closed in a tran­script of a closed-door hear­ing, sug­gest the spe­cial coun­sel con­tin­ues to pur­sue at least one the­ory: that start­ing while Rus­sia was tak­ing steps to bol­ster Trump’s can­di­dacy, peo­ple in his or­bit were dis­cussing deals to end a dis­pute over Rus­sia’s in­cur­sions into Ukraine and pos­si­bly give Mos­cow re­lief from eco­nomic sanc­tions im­posed by the United States and its al­lies.

The the­ory was of­fered al­most as an aside by the prose­cu­tor, An­drew Weiss­mann, dur­ing a dis­cus­sion of con­tacts be­tween Trump’s for­mer cam­paign chair­man, Paul Manafort, and a long­time Rus­sian as­so­ciate, Kon­stantin Kil­imnik, whom in­ves­ti­ga­tors have linked to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence.

A closer look at the tran­script, re­leased late Thurs­day, shows the pros­e­cu­tors have been keenly fo­cused on dis­cus­sions the two men had about a plan to end the con­flict that fol­lowed Rus­sia’s in­va­sion of Ukraine and an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014. Per­suad­ing the United States to ease or end the U.S.-led sanc­tions im­posed to pun­ish Mos­cow for its ag­gres­sion has been a pri­mary goal of Rus­sian for­eign pol­icy.

Ac­cord­ing to the tran­script, which was heav­ily redacted, Manafort and Kil­imnik re­peat­edly com­mu­ni­cated about a so-called peace plan for Ukraine start­ing in early Au­gust 2016, while Manafort was run­ning Trump’s cam­paign, and con­tin­u­ing into 2018, months af­ter Manafort had been charged by the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice with a litany of crimes re­lated to his work in the coun­try.

The pros­e­cu­tors claim Manafort mis­led them about those talks and other in­ter­ac­tions with Kil­imnik.

Pressed by the judge at Mon­day’s hear­ing to say why Manafort’s al­leged lies mat­tered, Weiss­mann gave a broad hint about the thrust of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“This goes to the larger view of what we think is go­ing on, and what we think is the mo­tive here,” Weiss­mann said. “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice is in­ves­ti­gat­ing.”

Weiss­mann’s com­ments sug­gest the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion is pur­su­ing the cen­tral ques­tion of whether there was some kind of deal be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who is chair­man of the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, told CBS News on Thurs­day that, based on the ev­i­dence they have seen, the com­mit­tee’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors “don’t have any­thing that would sug­gest there was col­lu­sion by the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia.”

Mean­while, the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chair­man ex­pressed con­cern Sun­day that Mueller has not ad­e­quately scru­ti­nized Trump’s fi­nances and said House in­ves­ti­ga­tors plan to probe Trump’s re­la­tion­ship with a bank im­pli­cated in Rus­sian money laun­der­ing.

In par­tic­u­lar, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said the House panel plans to in­ves­ti­gate Trump’s two-decade re­la­tion­ship with Deutsche Bank, a Ger­man in­sti­tu­tion that has paid hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in penal­ties in re­cent years af­ter ad­mit­ting its role in a $10 bil­lion money laun­der­ing scheme that al­lowed Rus­sian clients to move vast sums over­seas.

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