The Slatest

It’s Not Just a “Russia” Investigation Anymore

A rundown of the other countries whose connections to the Trump campaign and the White House are under scrutiny by Robert Mueller.

Robert Mueller examines other countries.
Robert Mueller.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

Robert Mueller’s investigation began as an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election and is still often referred to, in shorthand, as the “Russia investigation,” but at this point, Russia is far from the only country involved. Here’s a rundown of some of the other foreign powers alleged to have had improper or illegal contact with members of the Trump administration.

Turkey

The allegations involving former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rival any Trump connections to the Kremlin reported so far. At the same time Flynn was advising Trump’s campaign, he was on the payroll of a company with close ties to Erdogan’s government, a fact he did not reveal until after he was named national security adviser. During this time, Flynn publicly advocated for the U.S. to extradite exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, blamed by Erdogan for a 2016 coup attempt, and lobbied against a plan to partner with Kurdish forces to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from ISIS—a plan opposed by the Turkish government. Mueller was also reportedly investigating a meeting between Flynn, his son, and several Turkish officials during the presidential transition at which they discussed a plan to deliver—kidnap, basically—Gülen to the Turkish government in exchange for $15 million.

Federal investigators have also reportedly reached out to several Turkish nationals through the FBI’s office in Ankara regarding Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for his company’s real estate properties.

Qatar

Mueller’s team is also reportedly looking into conversations between Kushner and influential figures from Qatar. Last July, the Intercept reported that Kushner’s company had unsuccessfully sought a half-billion-dollar investment from Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, the billionaire former prime minister of Qatar, throughout 2015 and 2016 for its struggling Manhattan property at 666 Fifth Avenue. A follow-up story in March reported that Kushner’s family company had made a direct pitch to Qatar’s minister of finance in the spring of 2017.

That timing looks suspicious. That summer, Saudi Arabia and several of its allies launched a blockade of Qatar. Though Qatar is also a Sunni Persian Gulf monarchy, it has angered its neighbors in recent years with its support for Muslim Brotherhood movements in other countries, its friendly relations with Iran and Turkey, and its sponsorship of the TV network Al-Jazeera. Trump, who has also unsuccessfully sought Qatari funding for his own business ventures in the past, publicly backed, and took credit for, the Saudi-led blockade, contradicting his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who maintained a neutral stance. (While the U.S. and Qatar have certainly had their differences, the country also hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.) NBC reported in March that Qatari officials had considered giving Mueller documents showing “what they believe is evidence of efforts by their country’s Persian Gulf neighbors in coordination with Kushner to hurt their country” but decided not to for fear of further straining their relations with the White House.

There’s no proof that Kushner’s business dealings had anything to do with Trump’s stance on the blockade, but the appearance of a conflict of interest makes it hard to view the administration as a neutral arbiter in this dispute between ostensible U.S. allies.

United Arab Emirates

In recent weeks, Mueller’s investigators have been questioning George Nader, an adviser to the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. According to the New York Times, they are looking into the possibility that the Emiratis used Nader—a Lebanese American businessman who, for decades, had had a sideline in freelance Middle East diplomacy—to funnel money to Trump’s campaign. Nader, an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, reportedly made frequent visits to the White House in the early months of the Trump administration, meeting with Kushner and former strategist Steve Bannon to discuss U.S. policy toward the Gulf States. (The Trump administration has generally been very friendly toward the UAE, which is mostly aligned with the Saudis in the dispute with Qatar.) At one point, Nader reportedly received a detailed report from a Trump fundraiser with UAE ties about an Oval Office meeting.

Nader also reportedly attended and helped organize a January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and an informal adviser to Trump, and a Russian investor with ties to Vladimir Putin. Mueller is believed to be gathering evidence that this meeting was intended to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.

Israel

Mueller is also reportedly looking into Kushner and the incoming Trump administration’s efforts in December 2016 to block an anti-Israel U.N. resolution. The Security Council resolution demanded an end to Israeli settlement building in the Palestinian territories. The Obama administration, breaking with past precedent, chose to abstain from the vote rather than veto it. But Kushner and Flynn worked behind the scenes to try to scuttle the resolution, lobbying members of the Security Council to vote against it. Trump spoke personally with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose government had sponsored the original resolution, after which Egypt withdrew it. But the resolution’s co-sponsors put it forward again, and it passed on Dec. 23.

Because Trump, Flynn, and Kushner were not yet government officials at the time, this was arguably a violation of the Logan Act, which bars private U.S. citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. (Among the officials Flynn spoke with was Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about this and other conversations with Kislyak.)

The Kushner family has extensive business ties to Israel, including receiving a $30 million investment from one of the country’s largest financial institutions made shortly before Trump and Kushner’s first trip to the Middle East in May. Israel is one of several governments whose officials have discussed ways to use Kushner’s proximity to the president to their advantage, intelligence sources recently told the Washington Post.

China

China is reportedly one of the countries that Mueller’s team is looking into with regard to the Kushner family’s efforts to secure financing for its real estate properties. It is also one of the countries whose governments have discussed ways to influence the president’s inexperienced son-in-law—one factor in the recent downgrading of his security clearance.

The Chinese have an unusually chummy relationship with Kushner, even as his father-in-law has railed against the country’s trade practices. Before the downgrade, the New Yorker had reported that U.S. intelligence officials are concerned about China’s efforts to cultivate Kushner as an asset within the White House. Chinese officials, notably Ambassador Cui Tiankai, have reportedly often dealt directly with Kushner, without any American China specialists present to advise him.

Kushner real estate projects have received extensive Chinese financing, including through a U.S. immigration program that allows wealthy foreigners to obtain visas for investing in U.S. projects. Ivanka Trump also has business interests in China, where much of her branded merchandise is manufactured. Her company has won trademark approval for several products since she took a position in her father’s administration, raising further conflict-of-interest questions.

While Trump’s alleged ties to Russia have understandably gotten the most attention, the expanded focus of Mueller’s investigation suggests the possibility of a much wider pattern of criminal behavior, and that Moscow wasn’t the only foreign capital that had—or thought it had—leverage over this administration.

Correction, March 9, 2018: The photo illustration on this post originally highlighted Taiwan as part of China. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, but the island is de facto independent.