European lawyer pleads guilty

European lawyer pleads guilty
A European lawyer with ties to a Russian oligarch has pleaded guilty in the ongoing US investigation into whether Russia interfered with the US Presidential elections in 2016..

A European lawyer with ties to a Russian oligarch has pleaded guilty in the ongoing US investigation into whether Russia interfered with the US Presidential elections in 2016. He reportedly lied about his interactions with US President Trump’s campaign aide, Rick Gates.

Background

The consensus amongst the intelligence community in the US is that members of the Russian government interfered with the US elections to destabilize the presidential bid of former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. It has also been reported that the Russian government tried to disrupt Clinton’s campaign through cyber attacks and email leaks and largely favoured Donald Trump over her.

In May 2017, the Department of Justice (DoJ) appointed Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee the investigation into the Russian interference and related matters. He is also investigating whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the elections.

In the past few months, the special counsel has brought charges against multiple people within the Trump campaign. Former Chairmen of the Trump presidential campaign, Paul Manafort and his former business associate Rick Gates have been indicted on 12 counts including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, false statements. In addition, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about meetings with Russia's ambassador right before Donald Trump became president.

US President Donald Trump has often criticized the investigation and has maintained that there has been no wrong doing from his part. He has also repeatedly noted that the investigation would end soon. It was reported in January 2018, Attorney General, Jeff Sessions was interviewed by the special counsel.

 

Analysis

Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch national and the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch, became the latest person in the investigation to plead guilty. A lawyer, he has plead guilty to lying during investigation. He has become the fourth person to plead guilty in the ongoing probe.

According to court ruling, he had lied about the interactions he had with Rick Gates. He also reportedly lied about his contact with another person who has only been identified as Person A in the court documents. The court statement read that Zwaan had told investigators that his last interaction with Gates had been in August 2016 when in reality it had been September 2016 and they had discussed Ukraine related work during that conversation. Legal experts believe that this will add pressure on Manafort and Gates to cooperate and strike a deal with Mueller.

Zwaan is the husband of Eva Kahn, the daughter of Russian billionaire German Khan. He faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The judge however stated that he is likely to spend a maximum of six months in jail (or spend zero time). He will also be expected to pay between $500 and $9,500.  His passport is with the authorities and he cannot travel outside the US presently.

Zwaan had spoken to the special counsel in November, shortly after Gates and Manafort had been indicted. He was called in to speak about his tenure at Skadden Arps, an international firm. The team had been investigating with Gates and Manafort were in the compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

It should be noted that Rick Gates himself has not pleaded guilty to any of the charges levied against him. However, he is the process of changing his legal team and reports have emerged that he could likely begin cooperation with the investigative team.

In February 2018, Mueller’s team indicted 13 Russian nationals and a Kremlin-linked internet firm on charges that they meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. Kremlin, meanwhile has maintained that it had nothing to do with interference. A spokesperson from the Russian government stated that the US indictments so far did not directly link to Kremlin.

US President Trump has meanwhile responded to the indictments through a series of defensive tweets. He blamed former President Barack Obama for not aggressively countering Russian influence.

Assessment

Our assessment is that Mueller’s investigative team appears to be closing in on President Trump’s inner circle.  The series of indictments and guilty pleas will be a significant blow to the Trump Presidency and his administration. Trump so far has maintained that any collusion between his campaign and Russia is “fake news.” Some reports have suggested that Mueller will now go after Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

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