It’s the Fall of 2016 and the final stage of the Trump-Putin collaboration. It’s recorded as the last paragraph in the final section of Christopher Steele’s dossier. It becomes one of the final acts of Barack Obama’s presidency and frames Joe Biden’s quip about “sending a message” to Vladimir Putin. Each is collectively receiving the least acknowledgement from the American press corps. However, there’s no doubt that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has treated all this with the highest priority.
This is a story with many characters, sewn together with inference and circumstance and fact. It reaches deep into the Kremlin and scratches the surface of Donald Trump’s criminality. At its core, it is a tale of cyber warfare.
This chapter of the story involves an organized clean-up campaign, covert meetings, secret cash payoffs and five Russian hackers too arrogant to go underground as instructed.
|FEATURE PHOTO: Yevgeniy Aleksandrovich Nikulin’s Instagram photo. Arrested October 5, 2016 in Prague at the behest of Barack Obama, and meant to send a message to Putin. Now in U.S. custody, Nikulin faces federal felony counts and up to 35 years imprisonment.|
CHRISTOPHER STEELE’S FINAL MEMO
Let’s begin with the last pages of Steele’s memo with an assumption that Putin was actively interfering in the presidential election through various state and freelance hackers. The Mueller indictments are out there, so the presumption of evidence is high. Months before the fateful election, candidate Trump’s Fixer traveled to Prague. Here is Steele’s overview:
In the next paragraph, details of this trip become clarified. Steele’s sourcing explains the timing was sometime between late August and the first week of September 2016. Cohen was not alone. Three “colleagues” traveled with him, and the Trump team met with a Russian several degrees separated from Putin for purposes of deniability.
I’ve highlighted two items that haven’t been reported. The time frame for Cohen’s trip has changed slightly. More significantly, three others traveled with him. If true, the import of this revelation is perilous for Trump. It means there are now four eyewitnesses to his conspiracy with a foreign adversary.
The identities of the other three travelers can only be guessed. One strong possibility is Sergei Millian, who is connected to Trump through real estate sales to Russians and is a suspected Kremlin agent. He also has connections to Cohen. Trump’s Fixer may have brought one or both of the Trump sons as well.
There is a third change included in this paragraph: the name of Putin’s agent. Previously in the dossier, Steele identified this as Konstantin Kosachev. In this later memo, he refers to the intermediary as Oleg Solodukhin. Apparently both were present.
The purpose of the trip was clear. How could the Kremlin and Trump’s team pay-off the hackers secretly working in Europe against Hillary Clinton, and how to cover-up their illicit activities and that of Moscow’s “liaison with the Trump team”?
Assuming the dossier contains accurate information, it’s easy to understand why Michael Cohen’s cooperation with the Special Counsel ranks among the most valuable of Trump associates. It’s also clearer why he may have legitimate fears about his public Congressional testimony. He would be providing incriminating information on the presidents of two of the most powerful nations on earth.
The next paragraph also contains a few redactions. It blacks out the name of a company that used “botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” Another individual or company is also redacted. This mystery entity and its hacker are implicated as “significant players” in cyber crimes against the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party.
It’s possible that the redaction refers to Aleksej Gubarev, owner of Webzilla and XBT Holdings, who have been embroiled in legal actions as a result of the dossier’s publication.
What is also important to keep in mind with this paragraph is that two hackers were “recruited under duress by the FSB,” a coercion method used by the Kremlin apparatus. This jives with other sections of the dossier.
This third paragraph also covers Cohen and the Kremlin’s need to quickly payoff the players and for the hackers, who are based in Europe, to go underground.
The fourth and final paragraph closes the Steele dossier. Representatives for Trump and Putin both agree that it’s time to disband their “Romanian hackers” and send them to lovely Plovdiv, Bulgaria to lay low, once they’d received their cash payments.
The moniker “Romanian” says Steele, is meant to convey an Eastern European locale rather than the country itself.
BRIEF REMINDER ABOUT ROBERT MUELLER
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is a proven prosecutor, and his success often hinges upon a specific strategy. Rather than a direct hit, Mueller lands a sideways blow, weakens his criminal opponent, and then bends or flips him. So with Michael Flynn, it was his lies to the FBI that resulted in his full cooperation. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to deceiving Congress before telling all to Mueller. It is the lesser offense that yields the bigger revelations.
Now, Steele tells us that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump – with all their agents and henchmen – acted in unison to destroy the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. He tells us this was accomplished through Russian state actors (GRU), European entities and freelance hackers. He tells us that Putin’s pattern was to bribe or coerce people who might not be willing players, people like successful young entrepreneurs making millions of rubles or dollars or bitcoin through their superior though criminal hacking skills.
Robert Mueller the strategist will go after these hackers. He will get them extradited to the U.S., land in a court system, face federal counts that will place them in prison for the remainder of their fruitful lives. Then he will ask them to cooperate.
Beginning in October 2016 (preceding Mueller) and throughout 2017, five of the most notorious Russian cyber criminals were rounded up. All but one were deported to the United States under extradition orders and jailed.
There has been little publicity about those currently in custody. Their status has gone dark.
Reasonable people can assume that they are cooperating witnesses. They also may be actively helping U.S. intelligence operations uncover or thwart Russian dark ops to the chagrin of Putin.
They are the final stage of the Trump-Putin collaboration. And they could be game changers in Robert Mueller’s investigation. As so often heard: “Mueller knows all.”
THE FIVE RUSSIAN HACKERS
- Yevgeniy Aleksandrovich Nikulin allegedly stole details on over 68 million Dropbox users and over 117 million LinkedIn members; arrested in Prague on October 5, 2016 following an Interpol Red Notice; now in U.S. custody; read Nikulin’s indictment here. He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
- Yury Martyshev – arrested in Latvia while in a train commuting from Russia; accused of stealing credit card and other financial information from various U.S. companies; extradited to the U.S. in July 2017 and is imprisoned in Alexandria VA.
- Stanislav Vitaliyevich Lisov – aka “Black” and “Blackf”; arrested in Barcelona while on holiday in January 2017; ordered extradited to the U.S. in August 2017; suspected of developing and using “NeverQuest”, a computer virus that spreads itself via social media, email and file transfers. Indictment signed by Preet Bahara when he was U.S. Attorney for the SDNY. Lisov faces up to 25 years if convicted.
- Pyotr Levashov – aka “Severa,” “Peter Severa,” “Peter of the North” and “Viktor Sergeevich Ivashov,” a Russian national also arrested while vacationing in Barcelona in April 2017; allegedly ran the Kelihos botnet and faces FBI charges; ordered extradited to the U.S. by a Spanish magistrate.
- Alexander Vinnik – arrested in a Greek seaside village in July 2017; charged with operating the BTC-e, an unlicensed Bitcoin exchange, and laundering stolen Bitcoin; originally ordered extradited to the U.S., then after a legal tussle, Vinnik was ordered extradited to France in July 2018.