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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)