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Trump's Russia Scandal Takes An Unexpected Turn

    Trump's Russia scandal takes an unexpected turn
On Friday afternoon, FBI Director James Comey delivered a classified, hour-long briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russia scandal, and soon after, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent "formal requests to more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals, asking them to preserve all materials related to the committee's investigation" into the controversy. 

We don't know much about how the briefing went -- committee members were tight-lipped following Comey's presentation -- though Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted late Friday that he's "now very confident" that the committee will conduct "thorough bipartisan investigation" into Russia's "interference and influence."

Reading between the lines, this makes it sound as if the Republican-led panel is trying to knock down the idea that a special select committee is necessary to investigate the scandal without political interference.

A day later, Reuters reported that the FBI is pursuing "at least three separate probes" related to Russian intervention in American politics, "according to five current and former government officials with direct knowledge of the situation." Two of three, according to the report, relate to alleged cyber-crimes, while the third is the ongoing counter-espionage probe.

And then yesterday, the New York Times moved the ball forward, though in an unexpected way.
A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.
Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
The "Ukrainian lawmaker," in this case, is Andrii Artemenko, who's allied with Putin's government. 
According to the Times' reporting, Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, claims he received a sealed envelope from Felix Sater, a controversial figure in Trump's orbit, and Cohen delivered the envelope to Michael Flynn before his resignation.

According to the Washington Post's reporting, however, Cohen had a different version of events: he met with the president at the White House, but never dropped off any documents.

The Times stands by its reporting. Why Cohen would tell two very different stories to two different newspapers is unclear.

To be sure, back-channel communications like these aren't illegal or even uncommon, but the broader context matters: people close to Trump have been quietly passing around a pro-Putin plan, which may yet be part of a White House blueprint to ease Russian sanctions, which may help explain Russia's illegal efforts to help put Trump in the White House.

Indeed, any story that further solidifies the connections between the U.S. president and his allies in Moscow is worth paying attention to.

Postscript: As the story continues to unfold, keep an eye on Felix Sater, a former FBI informant and a Soviet-born Trump associate who's worked for years to facilitate Trump business deals in Russia.

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