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Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a military parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2018. Akexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a military parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2018.

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The Russia imbroglio is a tale told out of order about a puzzle with pieces missing. Without knowing what goes in the blank spaces, it’s impossible to know what to make of the whole thing.

The broadest outline has become clear: Russian President Vladimir Putin sought vengeance against the United States and the West after what he perceived as an outrageous overstep by Washington, D.C., into his own front yard in 2014 following his invasion of Ukraine.

The Russia Investigations: What You Need To Know About Russian 'Active Measures'

Putin ordered a historic spike in Russia’s decades-old “active measures,” a broad wave of both overt and clandestine actions aimed at sowing chaos, undercutting public confidence and, eventually, hurting or helping specific political actors.

That strategy persists to this day, U.S. intelligence officials warn, and they say they expect it to lastthrough the 2018 and 2020 elections.

If Americans are more on guard about future foreign interference, however, big questions still remain about the Russian effort that took place during the 2016 cycle.

Did the Russians really have Hillary Clinton’s emails?

Intelligence operatives who reached out to Donald Trump’s campaign aides in the spring of 2016 claimed they could provide “thousands” of emails about Hillary Clinton, according to court documents. The materials don’t specify whether they were the emails deleted from the private server that Clinton used while she was secretary of state.

The Russians also promised more generally that they had “dirt” on Clinton that could help Trump’s campaign.

These promises got the attention of Trump aides from the most junior to the most senior level, and that led to a number of known contacts. At least one Republican operative sought outside technical expertiseto try to verify data he was being promised, an effort that apparently went nowhere.

More than two years after those initial offers, however, Clinton’s emails never have become public — although many other messages did, to the embarrassment of Democratic National Committee political operatives and others. So did the Russians ever really have Clinton’s emails or was it a ruse?

Or had the offer from Moscow become garbled and were the Russians actually touting the DNC emails they really did have? The answer to this question is important because it’s the difference between Russian intelligence officers just toying with the Americans — or potentially giving them advance notice about their plans for later in the year.

Why did the Russians reach out to the Trump campaign?

Intelligence officials and court documents suggest that the Russian government’s objectives in its 2016 interference effort evolved over time. Putin and his supporters loathed Clinton for a variety of reasons, including over her criticism of Russia’s suspicious elections and fear of tough new policies toward Russia if she were elected president. So their case against her is clear.

How, though, did Moscow arrive at the decision about which candidate or candidates to support — and why?

Some evidence suggests the Russians initially wanted to get behind only the most “extreme” candidates, to maximize the noise inside the U.S.

The Russia Investigations: Mueller Indicts The 'Internet Research Agency'

In February of 2016, according to court documents, orders went down to the Saint Petersburg influence-mongers at the “Internet Research Agency” who were waging a social media campaign to amplify controversy. Their instructions, as prosecutors later revealed, were to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except [Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders and Trump — we support them.)”

But by March of 2016, Russian intelligence operatives in London were reaching out specifically to Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, according to court documents, to offer the emails, “dirt” and “off the record” meetings between campaign leaders and Russian officials.

Other overtures continued via intermediaries, including the National Rifle Association, and Russian business friends of the Trump family.

By June, exactly two years ago on Saturday, a Russian delegation visited Trump Tower to provide Donald Trump Jr. and other top campaign leaders with a political tip, according to the accounts of people in the meeting: Billionaire Democratic fundraisers might be moving money out of Russia and into the Democratic National Committee.

That wasn’t the “dirt” on Clinton that the Russians had been promising, and so Trump Jr. said he and the campaign took no action.

So what was the purpose of this meeting? Why did the Russians spend all the time and energy reaching out, then secure a high-level contact, only to disappoint their hosts?

What You Need To Know About The New Documents On The 2016 Trump Tower Meeting

Even after all this time, that answer still isn’t clear.

Were the Russians simply trying to throw more sand in the gears of the U.S. democratic process by making a connection they knew might eventually be discovered? Were they just trying to frame the Trump campaign by faking the appearance of a conspiracy?

Or was there more discussed than the people involved have acknowledged? Was the New York City meeting only a test to see whether Trump Jr. would call the FBI — and when he didn’t, did more substantive communication follow?

House Intelligence GOP Releases Full Report Clearing Trump In Russia Imbroglio

Trump, Trump Jr., and the rest of the leaders of the campaign say there was no conspiracy with the Russians who were attacking the election. The House intelligence committee’s Republican majority has said there was no wrongdoing and, at worst, these and other contacts between the campaign and Russians in 2016 were “ill-advised.”

One of the campaign leaders in the Trump Tower meeting, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has had his top-secret security clearance restored after a suspension earlier this year. The move was interpreted as a good sign for Kushner if it indicated that counterintelligence officials didn’t raise any red flags about him.

Given that there appears to be no recording or independent account of the Trump Tower meeting, any evidence about the Russians’ intentions, or their perspective on its outcome, might be a foreign intelligence question. Will the CIA or National Security Agency answer it?

How much “infiltration” was there of American political organizations?

Why did the Russian government spend so much time building its relationship with the National Rifle Association? One apparent reason was to use it as an intermediary through which to make connections to Republican political figures, including the Trump family — although it isn’t clear to what end. How else did the Russian government perhaps want to use the NRA in the 2016 cycle?

Depth Of Russian Politician's Cultivation Of NRA Ties Revealed

The gun-rights group has denied any wrongdoing and declared to Congress that the donations it has raised from Russians or people in Russia amount to barely a pittancecompared to the total it brings in.

So is the case closed on political infiltration, or is there more to discover? One question is about whether the Russian government may have funneled money into U.S. political groups or campaigns in order to secure influence. Russians may literally have flown cash into the United Statesto give to intermediaries to contribute — without disclosing its origins.

Glenn Simpson, founder of the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS — which commissioned the infamous Steele dossier about Trump and Russia — told the House intelligence committee that Russian operatives may have infiltrated other political organizations. Some of them included the California and Texas statehood independence movements, he said.

If Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately issues a public version of his final report telling the story of the Russian active measures, the section on potential illicit money and infiltration could be gripping.

What don’t we know that we don’t know?

There are details about the active measures we know we know. There are aspects, as discussed here, we know we don’t know. But what, as then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have asked, do we not know that we don’t know?

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Robert Mueller.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

Robert Mueller’s investigation began as an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election and is still often referred to, in shorthand, as the “Russia investigation,” but at this point, Russia is far from the only country involved. Here’s a rundown of some of the other foreign powers alleged to have had improper or illegal contact with members of the Trump administration.

Turkey

The allegations involving former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rival any Trump connections to the Kremlin reported so far. At the same time Flynn was advising Trump’s campaign, he was on the payroll of a company with close ties to Erdogan’s government, a fact he did not reveal until after he was named national security adviser. During this time, Flynn publicly advocated for the U.S. to extradite exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, blamed by Erdogan for a 2016 coup attempt, and lobbied against a plan to partner with Kurdish forces to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from ISIS—a plan opposed by the Turkish government. Mueller was also reportedly investigating a meeting between Flynn, his son, and several Turkish officials during the presidential transition at which they discussed a plan to deliver—kidnap, basically—Gülen to the Turkish government in exchange for $15 million.

Federal investigators have also reportedly reached out to several Turkish nationals through the FBI’s office in Ankara regarding Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for his company’s real estate properties.

Qatar

Mueller’s team is also reportedly looking into conversations between Kushner and influential figures from Qatar. Last July, the Intercept reported that Kushner’s company had unsuccessfully sought a half-billion-dollar investment from Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, the billionaire former prime minister of Qatar, throughout 2015 and 2016 for its struggling Manhattan property at 666 Fifth Avenue. A follow-up story in March reported that Kushner’s family company had made a direct pitch to Qatar’s minister of finance in the spring of 2017.

That timing looks suspicious. That summer, Saudi Arabia and several of its allies launched a blockade of Qatar. Though Qatar is also a Sunni Persian Gulf monarchy, it has angered its neighbors in recent years with its support for Muslim Brotherhood movements in other countries, its friendly relations with Iran and Turkey, and its sponsorship of the TV network Al-Jazeera. Trump, who has also unsuccessfully sought Qatari funding for his own business ventures in the past, publicly backed, and took credit for, the Saudi-led blockade, contradicting his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who maintained a neutral stance. (While the U.S. and Qatar have certainly had their differences, the country also hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.) NBC reported in March that Qatari officials had considered giving Mueller documents showing “what they believe is evidence of efforts by their country’s Persian Gulf neighbors in coordination with Kushner to hurt their country” but decided not to for fear of further straining their relations with the White House.

There’s no proof that Kushner’s business dealings had anything to do with Trump’s stance on the blockade, but the appearance of a conflict of interest makes it hard to view the administration as a neutral arbiter in this dispute between ostensible U.S. allies.

United Arab Emirates

In recent weeks, Mueller’s investigators have been questioning George Nader, an adviser to the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. According to the New York Times, they are looking into the possibility that the Emiratis used Nader—a Lebanese American businessman who, for decades, had had a sideline in freelance Middle East diplomacy—to funnel money to Trump’s campaign. Nader, an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, reportedly made frequent visits to the White House in the early months of the Trump administration, meeting with Kushner and former strategist Steve Bannon to discuss U.S. policy toward the Gulf States. (The Trump administration has generally been very friendly toward the UAE, which is mostly aligned with the Saudis in the dispute with Qatar.) At one point, Nader reportedly received a detailed report from a Trump fundraiser with UAE ties about an Oval Office meeting.

Nader also reportedly attended and helped organize a January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and an informal adviser to Trump, and a Russian investor with ties to Vladimir Putin. Mueller is believed to be gathering evidence that this meeting was intended to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.

Israel

Mueller is also reportedly looking into Kushner and the incoming Trump administration’s efforts in December 2016 to block an anti-Israel U.N. resolution. The Security Council resolution demanded an end to Israeli settlement building in the Palestinian territories. The Obama administration, breaking with past precedent, chose to abstain from the vote rather than veto it. But Kushner and Flynn worked behind the scenes to try to scuttle the resolution, lobbying members of the Security Council to vote against it. Trump spoke personally with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose government had sponsored the original resolution, after which Egypt withdrew it. But the resolution’s co-sponsors put it forward again, and it passed on Dec. 23.

Because Trump, Flynn, and Kushner were not yet government officials at the time, this was arguably a violation of the Logan Act, which bars private U.S. citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. (Among the officials Flynn spoke with was Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about this and other conversations with Kislyak.)

The Kushner family has extensive business ties to Israel, including receiving a $30 million investment from one of the country’s largest financial institutions made shortly before Trump and Kushner’s first trip to the Middle East in May. Israel is one of several governments whose officials have discussed ways to use Kushner’s proximity to the president to their advantage, intelligence sources recently told the Washington Post.

China

China is reportedly one of the countries that Mueller’s team is looking into with regard to the Kushner family’s efforts to secure financing for its real estate properties. It is also one of the countries whose governments have discussed ways to influence the president’s inexperienced son-in-law—one factor in the recent downgrading of his security clearance.

The Chinese have an unusually chummy relationship with Kushner, even as his father-in-law has railed against the country’s trade practices. Before the downgrade, the New Yorker had reported that U.S. intelligence officials are concerned about China’s efforts to cultivate Kushner as an asset within the White House. Chinese officials, notably Ambassador Cui Tiankai, have reportedly often dealt directly with Kushner, without any American China specialists present to advise him.

Kushner real estate projects have received extensive Chinese financing, including through a U.S. immigration program that allows wealthy foreigners to obtain visas for investing in U.S. projects. Ivanka Trump also has business interests in China, where much of her branded merchandise is manufactured. Her company has won trademark approval for several products since she took a position in her father’s administration, raising further conflict-of-interest questions.

While Trump’s alleged ties to Russia have understandably gotten the most attention, the expanded focus of Mueller’s investigation suggests the possibility of a much wider pattern of criminal behavior, and that Moscow wasn’t the only foreign capital that had—or thought it had—leverage over this administration.

Correction, March 9, 2018: The photo illustration on this post originally highlighted Taiwan as part of China. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, but the island is de facto independent.

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The Times of IsraelJun 7, 2018
Mueller is leading the investigation into whether the Trump … Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Edition by email and never miss our top stories Free Sign Up … that Russia had dirt on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.

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HaaretzMay 26, 2018
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HaaretzMay 21, 2018
Who Is Joel Zamel, the Australian-Israeli Linked to Mueller’s Trump Probe? …. a tenuous connection to the special counsel’s investigation and are cooperating … Russian oligarchs implicated in other parts of the Mueller probe.
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The Jerusalem PostMay 24, 2018
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Fox NewsMay 15, 2018
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Mueller Finally Starts to Target Trump’s Israel Ties

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Mueller’s Investigation into Trump, Russia Turns Focus on Israel
 

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump. Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

Our media has followed the Justice Department’s investigation of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia closely for more than a year, with each revelation getting granular analysis amid endless television coverage. No news here is too small to avoid hours of talking-head pontification. Yet, it appears that a significant aspect of the inquiry, one that calls the conventional narrative of the case into question, has been missing from public view—until now.

A genuine bombshell dropped yesterday, seemingly out of nowhere. It came in an interview with Simona Mangiante, the wife of George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign foreign policy advisor who pled guilty last October to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian agents—especially Joseph Mifsud, the mysterious Maltese professor with suspicious Kremlin ties—during the president’s election campaign. As expected, Mangiante explained that her husband, whom she married just three months ago, is innocent of what he admitted he did, and in no way was working for Russian intelligence.

“George had nothing to do with Russia,” she explained, seemingly in an effort to convince the White House that Papadopoulos lacks any dirt on the president’s Kremlin connections that could assist Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Team Trump. However, what Mangiante said next was the real shocker: her husband “pled guilty because [Mueller’s prosecutors] threatened to charge him with being an Israeli agent.”

Wait, what?

According to his wife, who insists that George Papadopoulos has nothing to do with Russia, he was facing criminal charges of being a spy for Israel. An attentive reader of her interview will note that Mangiante at no point denied that this accusation is true.

The notion is hardly implausible. Before joining the Trump campaign in early March 2016, Papadopoulos was a self-styled energy consultant who was known for taking strongly pro-Israeli positions in print. To boot, during the 2016 campaign, he met with an Israeli settler leader and assured him that Donald Trump, if elected president, would take a favorable view of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Then there’s the backstory to Papadopoulos’ infamous May 10, 2016 meeting at an upscale London wine bar with Alexander Downer, the Australian high commissioner (i.e. ambassador) to Britain. At that hard-drinking affair, the young Trump staffer informed Downer that Russia possessed derogatory information about Hillary Clinton—a claim the Australian diplomat found so troubling that he shared it with Australian security officials, who passed it on to their American partners, thus officially beginning the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s Kremlin ties.

That fateful boozy chat was set up by an unnamed Israeli diplomat. This fact, namely that “the meeting came about through a series of connections involving an Israeli diplomat who introduced Papadopoulos to an Australian counterpart,” was reported at the end of last year, “sourced from four current and former American and foreign officials.” This revelation has not been rebutted, nor has it received the attention it deserves. Given that a high percentage of Israeli diplomats serving abroad are spies, this story needs further investigation.

Moreover, there are strange Israeli footprints all over the Trump-Russia story. Quite a few of the shady figures close to the president and his business affairs are American Jews of Soviet heritage who possess connections to Israel. Felix Sater and Michael Cohen are only the best-known of this dubious crew. Those men are also connected to Chabad of Port Washington, a Jewish community center on Long Island that is part of the worldwide Chabad movement—which reportedly possesses close links to Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin. The recent BBC report that Cohen accepted at least $400,000 from the Ukrainian government to set up a substantive meeting with President Trump last year included the tantalizing detail that this dirty deal ran through attendees of Chabad of Port Washington.

Then there’s the explosive New York Times report just two weeks ago about a hush-hush meeting in Trump Tower on August 3, 2016—less than two months after the other hush-hush meeting there with Kremlin operatives—between Team Trump and George Nader, who reportedly offered Donald Trump, Jr. help with getting his father elected. According to the Times, Nader proffered unofficial (and probably illegal) foreign aid to the Republican nominee’s campaign, including from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

That day, Nader brought with him Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert in several things that were of interest to Team Trump, including social media manipulation. Zamel is known to possess a close relationship with a bunch of former Israeli intelligence officials, and Nader reportedly paid him a large sum, perhaps as much as $2 million, after Trump’s election as compensation for Zamel’s shadowy social media assistance to the president-elect’s campaign in 2016 (both men visited the White House as well).

Zamel is best known as the founder of Wikistrat, a private intelligence firm that was founded in 2010, ostensibly as a “crowdsourced” geopolitical analysis outfit. Although it’s based in Washington, D.C., as The Daily Beast recently uncovered, “Wikistrat is, for all intents and purposes, an Israeli firm; and that the company’s work was not just limited to analysis. It also engaged in intelligence collection.” For this reason, Wikistrat is under investigation by Team Mueller, whose investigators have interviewed Zamel, while FBI agents have traveled to Israel to dig deeper. Several prominent Wikistrat staffers formerly worked for Israeli intelligence—and some experienced espionage professionals in our nation’s capital wonder if they still do.

Israeli espionage against the United States is a perennially touchy subject in Washington. This issue is admitted frankly in counterintelligence circles—and nowhere else. Israel constitutes a unique case. Although it’s a close ally and intelligence partner of ours—the relationship between the National Security Agency and the Israel Defense Force’s Unit 8200, its Israeli equivalent, is exceptionally close—Israel also spies on America aggressively. Year in and year out, Israel ranks in the Big Four counterintelligence threats to the United States, alongside Russia, China and Cuba. It’s not politic to mention this in polite society, however, so the counterspies know a lot about Israel’s spying on us, keeping mum outside their esoteric realm.

Indeed, some counterintelligence pros in Washington have a rather different take on the Mueller inquiry than most Americans do. While Moscow’s secret role in subverting our election in 2016 is plain to see and is now denied only by the willfully obtuse or congenitally dishonest, detecting a direct Kremlin hand on the Trump campaign is trickier. Trump’s links to Moscow are visible but remain somewhat obscure.

His ties to Israel, however, are much plainer to see. Based on the available evidence to date, Team Trump’s 2016 links to shadowy Israelis appear just as troubling as those to dodgy Russians—indeed, in some cases they are the very same people. As a veteran counterspy in our Intelligence Community whom I’ve known for years recently asked me with a wry smile, “What if the real secret of the Trump campaign isn’t that it’s a Kremlin operation, rather an Israeli operation masquerading as a Russian one?”

That’s a provocative question, but it merits consideration beyond counterintelligence circles. After all, Putin and his retinue have ample reason to feel let down by Trump. His greasy obsequiousness to Moscow aside, the president’s policies towards Russia have hardly pleased the Kremlin. Sanctions on Russia remain in effect, NATO’s military posture near Russia’s borders is more robust than a couple years ago, and Ukraine is now getting the anti-tank missiles that the previous White House denied it. Unlike so many of Trump’s assertions, his claim that he’s tougher on Moscow than President Barack Obama happens to be true from any policy perspective.

But not so with Israel. Unlike Obama, Trump has gone whole-hog for the Israeli right-wing, boosting Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who openly despised Obama, at every opportunity. The recent move of our embassy to Jerusalem, long desired by the Israeli Right, is merely the most prominent of Trump’s gifts to his pal Bibi and his ruling Likud party. Sending a right-wing American Jew who has compared his more liberal co-religionists to Nazi collaborators to serve as our ambassador sent a clear message to Israel, as did the Trump administration’s recent inability to say anything negative about the IDF’s shooting last month of more than a thousand Palestinians at the Gaza border fence, killing 60 of them. Instead, the White House blocked a United Nations resolution condemning that Israeli deed, serving as a tacit endorsement of using automatic weapons for crowd control.

Few of America’s friends around the world are happy with the Trump administration, given its habit of gleefully trashing our longstanding alliances and declaring trade wars on our allies. Israel stands as a significant exception, however, and it’s no wonder that Mueller and his investigators are trying to get to the bottom of what certain Israelis were doing in 2016 in secret to boost the Trump campaign. That answer may eventually prove just as important as Mueller’s inquiry into the Kremlin and its clandestine attack on our democracy two years ago.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst.

Mueller Finally Starts to Target Trump’s Israel Ties

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