(Bloomberg) — A U.S. grand jury has approved the first charges stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Donald Trump’s campaign, according to multiple news reports.
The charges are sealed under orders from a federal judge and it’s unclear who’s implicated, CNN reported, adding that arrests could come as soon as Monday. The Wall Street Journal reported that at least one person has been charged, citing people familiar with the matter that it didn’t identify.
The developments come as billionaire Paul Singer, president of Elliott Management Corp., has been injected into one of the biggest mysteries of the Trump era: who paid for the much-discussed Russian dossier on the man elected president almost a year ago.
A conservative website said on Friday it first hired Fusion GPS, the firm that later produced research on potential ties between Trump and Russia, as part of an effort to seek dirt on what was initially a sprawling field of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls.
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The Washington Free Beacon, which is backed by Singer, hired Fusion in October 2015 to research Trump and other Republican candidates, the New York Times reported late Friday. But the site’s editor, Matthew Continetti, wrote in a blog post that it had no connection to the salacious dossier on Trump prepared by a former British spy.
Meanwhile, two of the congressional probes into Russian election interference are becoming mired in partisan sniping as Republicans focus on the origin of the dossier, a thread the White House and its allies have used to try to shift the focus away from Trump.
A former U.S. intelligence official has denied Republican suggestions that the dossier could have been been sufficient to justify surveillance as part of a U.S. investigation into Trump and his associates.
The former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the dossier didn’t exist as a formal document when the FBI began its investigation in July 2016, and wouldn’t have been used as the sole basis to obtain eavesdropping warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It’s possible, however, that the FBI was made aware of some of the allegations that eventually went into the dossier, and those allegations played a role in the FBI opening its investigation, the former official said.
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley are demanding answers about who paid for the dossier, which outlined alleged connections between Russia and Trump and his associates, and whether U.S. agencies relied on its unverified accusations to launch a spy investigation. Some of the allegations in the dossier, including that there were some contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, have since been confirmed.
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid millions to a Washington law firm, which in turn paid Fusion GPS to produce at least part of the 35-page dossier prepared by Robert Steele, a former British intelligence officer.
Steele produced a long list of unverified allegations about Trump, then still a candidate, as well as claims that Moscow possesses compromising information about Trump. Trump has denied the dossier’s allegations.
The Free Beacon said Friday that while it had paid Fusion GPS for work earlier, none of that research appears in the Steele dossier, nor did the website pay for the dossier. The conservative site canceled the job in May 2016 when it was becoming clear Trump would win the nomination, the New York Times said.
In a blog post late Thursday on the Lawfare blog, Robert Litt, who served as general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2009 until January, wrote that the Steele dossier played “absolutely no role” in the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the election.
“That assessment, which was released in unclassified form in January but which contained much more detail in the classified version that has been briefed to Congress, was based entirely on other sources and analysis,” Litt wrote. He added that Trump was briefed on the dossier to warn him of its existence.
The dossier is becoming a cudgel that White House allies are trying to wield against efforts to investigate Trump, including the FBI’s own work. Democrats, meanwhile, decry the line of inquiry as a distraction that does nothing to undercut the seriousness of potential Russian meddling in the election.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, on Friday said that tensions over the alleged meddling in the election should ease, Interfax reported.
“I am firmly convinced that, as journalists like to say, ‘radioactive dust’ will subside, and we will eventually fulfill all of our plans for developing Russian-American relations,” Interfax cited Antonov as saying at a Russian-sponsored youth forum in New York.
Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation promised the House that it will provide by next week documents requested by Nunes and others about its involvement with the dossier. “We expect the FBI to honor that commitment,” Ryan told reporters.
Nunes has also subpoenaed bank records of the firm that produced the dossier, prompting a court challenge by the research company to block the disclosure.
A law enforcement official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said it’s not unusual for outside groups to hand over research to the FBI, even if it’s clearly political. In such cases, the official said, the bureau would try to independently verify any allegations.
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the importance of who financed the anti-Trump research — and even any government misuse of the document — isn’t pertinent to what the Russians did during the election, how they did it, and whether they worked in collaboration with Trump’s campaign.
Schiff and other Democrats also are quick to point to a broader slate of what they claim are Republican attempts to divert the focus of the probes. Those include demands for details of Obama administration “unmasking” of Americans named in surveillance reports, and newly launched committee investigations into several Obama-era controversies.
For example, House Republicans announced they’re looking into the Justice Department’s 2016 handling of Clinton’s use of personal emails while secretary of state, as well as the Obama administration’s approval of a 2010 deal that gave Russians partial control over American uranium reserves.
“They are designed to be partisan, they are designed to be a distraction, and they are designed to be carrying the water of the White House,” Schiff said.
For Nunes and other Republicans, though, that is a sentiment to be expected from Democrats. “That’s exactly what the Democrats said about our subpoenas to Fusion GPS, its bank, and the Department of Justice — and look what’s now been revealed about the dossier’s funding thanks to those subpoenas,” Nunes said.