Mueller Could Have More Than Russia on His Mind

There were foreign nationals from many countries surrounding the Trump campaign, argues Brennan Center fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

February 1, 2019

Earlier this week, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker disclosed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is winding down. Perhaps the special counsel will soon reveal what he has found in his wide-ranging investigation. My guess is that he’s found that it was more than just Russians who broke the law.

I’m in the final stages of writing my second book, Political Brands, and have spent considerable time trying to figure out the narrative thread of the 2016 election. One recurring thought for me: There were too many foreign nationals surrounding the Trump campaign. And I’m not just talking about Russians — although there were plenty of those, as the New York Times recently documented.

For example, Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that worked for the 2016 Trump campaign, was run by U.K. citizen Alexander Nix and had other British, Canadian, and European employees. As the Washington Post reported last year:

[Nix] told TechCrunch in 2016 that Cambridge Analytica, which federal records show was paid at least $6 million by the Trump campaign, was key to campaign decisions on data analytics, research, digital advertising, television spots and collecting donations: “Overnight [the contract] went from being originally just data, to end to end.”

Nix made similar claims in secretly recorded video released …by Channel 4 in Britain, saying the company “did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy.”

This work was potentially problematic because foreign nationals are not supposed to have decision-making power over a U.S. political campaign. In contrast to Mr. Nix’s boasting, the Trump and Cruz campaign teams (who both worked with Cambridge Analytica) have claimed that the foreign nationals at the firm were supervised by a sufficient number of Americans to comply with the law. It will be interesting to see whose version of events is vindicated by Mueller’s investigations.

Another dangling thread in the investigation involves two Israeli companies. The Daily Beast reports that Wikistrat founder Joel Zamel has “been questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team as they investigate efforts by foreign governments to shape American politics during the 2016 presidential campaign.” According to the report, Wikistrat had a “Cyber Mercenaries” project that outlined what a foreign cyberattack on the U.S. election would look like. Psy-Group, one of Zamel’s other companies, also pitched services to Trump’s Deputy Campaign Chair Rick Gates. It’s unclear from public-facing evidence whether Wikistrat’s prediction was just that or whether Psy-Group acted for the Trump campaign. Nonetheless, Mr. Zamel is a foreign national — and as such, he should not have had any decision-making control over a U.S. political campaign.

Yet another open question for the investigation: What was George Nader up to during the 2016 election? Nader is a naturalized U.S. citizen, but he was also allegedly the “emissary for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation of the 2016 election,” according to The Daily Beast. Nader “attended the Seychelles meeting where American billionaire Erik Prince and the head of a Russian sovereign wealth fund reportedly discussed setting up a back-channel between their two governments.” He’s been talking to the special counsel, but the nature of their conversation is unclear.

On top of that, the Trump campaign solicited foreign donations from Members of Parliaments in the U.K., Iceland, Canada, and Australia — and continued to make these illegal solicitations even after campaign finance watchdogs filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice. Any foreign money that was given would violate a long-standing prohibition on foreigners from providing money or things of value to U.S. campaigns.

And finally, from Mueller’s recent indictment of Roger Stone, we find references like this: “On or about August 2, 2016, Person 1 emailed STONE. … Person 1 stated in part, ‘Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps. One shortly after I’m back. 2nd in Oct. Impact planned to be very damaging.’ The phrase “friend in embassy” referred to the head of Organization 1.” Elsewhere in the Stone indictment, the prosecutors clarify that “The head of Organization 1 was located at all relevant times at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, United Kingdom.” To decode this, Organization 1 is Wikileaks, Person 1 is then-CEO of the Trump campaign Steve Bannon, and the “friend in embassy” was Julian Assange, who is an Australian national. Like all the other foreign nationals involved in this tale, Assange was prohibited from giving things of value to the Trump campaign.

Perhaps Mueller will find that all of these foreign nationals did so little that they complied with U.S. election law. But geez. There were a lot of foreign cooks in what looks what was a very crowded kitchen in 2016.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Win McNamee/Getty)