Wednesday, February 21, 2018

What the latest Mueller indictment tells us about his strategy

Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan’s indictment shows how Mueller is trying to get to the big fish — in this case, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.

By Zack  Feb 20, 2018, 11:40am EST

On Tuesday morning, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office released yet another indictment — but this one was kind of a puzzler. The indictment targets Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch attorney based in London, for making false statements to the FBI.

Van der Zwaan’s connection to the Russia case runs through Rick Gates, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s deputy whom Mueller indicted in October, along with Manafort, on charges of money laundering and illegal lobbying.

The connection is convoluted, dealing with an internal Ukrainian political dispute from more than a decade ago — but it nonetheless says some interesting things about the state of the Russia investigation right now.

Here’s what the indictment says, and why it tells us something important about Mueller’s strategy.

What the indictment literally says

In the early 2010s, van der Zwaan was working in the London office of Skadden Arps, one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporate law firms. His work seemed to focus on the former Soviet Union.

During this same time period, Manafort and Gates were working for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — a Kremlin-backed leader with dubious democratic credentials.

Yanukovych was in the midst of a power struggle with another prominent Ukrainian politician, which he decided to solve by jailing her in the fall of 2011. Manafort and Gates’s job was to run cover for this clearly undemocratic prosecution. So they retained a team from Skadden Arps, which included van der Zwaan, to put together a “report” that conveniently concluded that there was no political motive for putting her in jail.

This was a big deal in Ukraine but a relatively obscure issue for most of the rest of the world. Manafort and Gates continued their work for Yanukovych afterward, and van der Zwaan moved on to other things — most notably marrying Eva Khan, the daughter of Ukrainian-Russian billionaire German Khan, in the summer of 2017. (One of Khan’s companies is, somewhat curiously, mentioned in the infamous Steele dossier.)

But the Mueller investigation would soon deliver van der Zwaan an unhappy honeymoon. In the process of looking into Manafort and Gates’s ties to the Kremlin, Mueller’s team started investigating the Skadden Arps report. According to the indictment, FBI agents personally questioned van der Zwaan in November 2017 about his communications with Gates and an unidentified Person A (which seems likely to be Manafort, though that’s not 100 percent clear).

Van der Zwaan told them that his last communication with Gates was in August 2016 and was an “innocuous text message,” and that he hadn’t spoken to Person A since 2014. This, according to the indictment, is a lie — van der Zwaan was actually secretly communicating with Gates and Person A about the Skadden report.

“In or about September 2016, he spoke with both Gates and Person A regarding the Report, and surreptitiously recorded the call,” the indictment says.

The indictment also alleges that van der Zwaan deleted an email between himself and Person A sent around the same time as those conversations — and told the FBI that he “did not know” where the email was.

Van der Zwaan is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday at 2:30 pm EST to answer the indictment. He is expected to plead guilty, according to reports.

What did we learn from this?
The key piece of information in all of this is the timing: Manafort resigned as Trump’s campaign manager on August 19, 2016 — weeks before the alleged conversations between Gates, Person A, and van der Zwaan. The resignation was the result of widespread reporting about Manafort’s shady ties to Yanukovych, particularly an allegedly off-the-books payment.

If Gates and van der Zwaan were talking about the Skadden report in September 2016, and van der Zwaan felt the need to lie to the FBI about it, it suggests that there may have been something criminal about the report’s production — or at least, something whose release would be politically damaging.

Interestingly, both CBS News and the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that Gates had struck a plea deal with Mueller and would testify against Manafort, his former boss. It’s not a stretch to think that evidence provided by van der Zwaan — like his “surreptitious” recording of his call with Gates and Person A — helped Mueller build a case strong enough that Gates had no choice but to flip.

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