Senate Investigators May Have Found a Missing Piece in the Russia Probe
An ex-congressman has attracted scrutiny from the Senate Judiciary Committee, as it continues to investigate whether President Donald Trumpâs campaign conspired with Moscow to sway the 2016 presidential election.
Curt Weldon, a Republican and former Pennsylvania congressman, lost his re-election campaign more than a decade ago following an FBI probe into his ties to two Russian companies. He has âconnections to both Russia and the Trump campaignâ that are raising suspicions among senators, a spokeswoman for Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said. Feinstein is the committeeâs ranking member, and wants to interview Weldon, the spokeswoman said.
The reasons for the committeeâs interest in Weld on are murky, but his ties to Russia are significant. Members of Congress believe, for example, that Weldon may lead to answers about why the Trump administration sought to lift sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of the 2016 election despite a public statement by intelligence agencies that the Kremlin tried to help Trump win. Weldon may also have information about the role a Russian oligarch may have played in trying to influence the Trump administrationâ"though Weldon denied this when I asked him about it.
Additionally, Weldon appears to have knowledge of a key instance in which a foreign national sought to influence the president through one of his closest advisersâ"a central theme of Special Counsel Robert Muellerâs ongoing investigation into Russiaâs election interference.
At issue is the question of whether the president and his associates have sought to trade favors with foreign entities for personal gain. Mueller has been investigating, for example, whethe r Paul Manafort, Trumpâs former campaign chairman, tried to use his position to repay old debts to a Russian oligarch, and whether Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, have influenced Trumpâs foreign-policy decisions based on their business interests. Mueller is also investigating foreign-linked donors to Trumpâs inauguration fund.
Asked how Weldon was connected to the campaign, Feinsteinâs office would not elaborate, citing the sensitivity of the Judiciary Committeeâs ongoing investigation. Weldon declined multiple interview requests. But a letter Feinstein sent last year to Trumpâs longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, may provide a clue. In it, Feinstein asked for all of Cohenâs communications âto, from, or copied toâ Weldon, as well as correspondence ârelated toâ Weldon, along with nearly two dozen other people.
Weldonâs name stuck outâ"he had served as a member of Congress and had not been mentioned previously in rel ation to the Russia investigation. But his connection to Cohen may lie in a mutual acquaintance who has since testified before Muellerâs grand jury: a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament named Andrii Artemenko.
In January 2017, shortly after Trumpâs inauguration, Artemenko met with Cohen at a New York City hotel to discuss bringing peace to Russia and Ukraine. Also present was Felix Sater, a friend of Cohenâs and a former business partner of Trumpâs. All three men confirmed to me that this meeting took place. When Artemenko pitched the peace plan, which involved lifting sanctions on Russia in exchange for Russiaâs retreat from eastern Ukraine, Cohen said he would deliver it to thenâ"National-Security adviser Michael Flynn, according to The New York Times. Artemenko told the newspaper that he had received encouragement for his peace plan from top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Artemenko also told me that he had gotten âconfirmat ionâ that the peace plan had been left on Flynnâs desk. But Cohen walked back his story after the meeting was exposed by the Times, insisting that he had thrown the plan in the garbage. (Flynn has not responded to multiple requests for comment.)
Weldon, who has known Artemenko, the Ukrainian politician, for more than a decade, was furious that The New York Times had learned about the meeting, according to a person who spoke with him at a separate gathering last March, two weeks after the story in the Times had been published. âWe were so close,â Weldon complained, this source recalled. Then Weldon dropped a bombshell: âHe said [he and Artemenko] had already secured funding for the promotion of the plan from Viktor Vekselbergâs fund in New York City.â
Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch who attended Trumpâs inauguration, was questioned by Muellerâs team late last year, according to The New York Times. The peace plan would h ave benefited Vekselberg: He has been doing business in the United States since at least 1990, when he co-founded the conglomerate Renova Group as a joint U.S.â"Russian venture. Attempts to reach Vekselberg through his business were unsuccessful.
The New York City fund Weldon was allegedly referring to was Columbus Nova, the lone U.S. investment arm of Renova, according to the source who spoke to Weldon in March. Months later, given recent developments in the Russia Probe, the detail about Columbus Nova is shocking. When this source relayed the conversation with Weldon to me earlier this year, it had not yet been reported that Columbus Nova gave more than $500,000 to Cohenâs LLC, Essential Consultants, over a seven-month period in 2017. Weldonâs alleged reference to Columbus Nova, and his comment about Vekselbergâs role in funding the planâs promotion, renews questions about what that $500,000 was actually for.
The New York Times has reporte d that Cohen and Vekselberg met 11 days before Trumpâs inauguration, and discussed U.S.â"Russia relations. Columbus Nova acknowledged in a statement that it hired Cohen âafter the inaugurationâ for consulting work, but insisted that Vekselberg had nothing to do with it. âColumbus Nova itself is not now, and has never been, owned by any foreign entity or person including Viktor Vekselberg or the Renova Group,â the statement read. Columbus Nova did not mention in the statement that its president, Andrew Intrater, is Vekselbergâs cousin. The company did acknowledge it had hired Cohen as a âbusiness consultant.â
According to the BBC, Cohen has in the past leveraged his relationship with the president to land a lucrative deal with a foreign entity. The outlet reported last month that Ukraine paid Cohen at least $400,000 to arrange a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in June 2017. (Poroshenko and Cohen have both denied that money was exc hanged.)
Neither Cohen nor his attorney responded to multiple requests for comment regarding the payments Cohenâs company received from Columbus Nova in 2017. They also ignored repeated questions about whether the money was connected to the proposed Russia-Ukraine peace plan. Weldon told me in a LinkedIn message: âI have never met Viktor Vekselburg [sic] and am not aware of any peace plan that he would have funded.â He then made a reference to his work with Ukraineâs Rada, or parliament, during his time in office. âAs one of the founders of the Rada/Congress Relationship during my 29 years in Congress, I spent much time on US/Ukraine relations and tried repeatedly to strengthen the US/Ukraine relationship.â
Artemenko, the Ukrainian, told me that he and Weldon have known each other for more than 10 years, but tried to minimize the significance of their appearance together at an event, in February 2016, about âhow Americans can promote peace and stability in Ukraine.â Last year, Weldon asked his colleague Tommy Allen, the founder of Allen Tactical Security Consultants, to vet Artemenkoâs plan, Allen told me. âWe were at a meeting in Washington, and Artemenko walked in because he was meeting with Curt,â Allen said. âWe tried to warn him off of Artemenko, because you never know who the oligarchs are behind these guys, and the players behind the players tend to stay pretty static.â Allen said he did ânot recallâ Weldon ever asking anyone for money. âThe individuals I know of who were providing funding were all U.S. entities.â
Fast forward to another meeting in Washington, the one in March 2017, where Weldon told my source about Vekselbergâs role in the peace plan. Only four or five people were in the room, and the gathering âhad nothing do with politicsâ"it only had to do with Curt [Weldon]âs businesses,â this source said. Still, Weldon âcouldnât help himselfâ when the topic of Russia came up. âHe started saying, âPutin is not that bad. The U.S. is much worse in many ways.â He was very cynical.â Thatâs when he started complaining about the peace planâs demise, this source said.
Felix Sater, who says he initiated the conversation between Artemenko and Cohen about the peace plan told me he didnât remember Vekselbergâs name coming up when they gathered in New York. He also said that, as far as he knew, Columbus Nova hadnât been involved. He noted, however, that Cohen had been looking for new clients around that time. âIt seems clear,â Sater said, âthat the company was paying for access.âNatasha Bertrand is a staff writer at The Atlantic where she covers national security and the intelligence community.Source: Google News Russia | Netizen 24 Russia