President Donald Trump's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, told The New Yorker this week that the president's legal team would consider it out of bounds for special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate a business deal Trump pursued in Georgia six years ago with a Kazhak oligarch who has direct links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The Georgia real-estate deal is something we would consider out of scope," Sekulow told the publication. "Georgia is not Russia."
He noted that he would raise the issue with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he sensed Mueller "drifting" outside the question of whether there was "coordination between the Russian government and people on the Trump campaign."
"I want to be really specific," Sekulow said. "A real-estate deal would be outside the scope of legitimate inquiry."
The New Yorker's Adam Davidson wrote of his interview with Sekulow: "If he senses 'drift' in Mueller's investigation, he said, he will warn the special counsel's office that it is exceeding its mandate. The issue will first be raised 'informally,' he noted. But if Mueller and his team persist, Sekulow said, he might lodge a formal objection with the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, who has the power to dismiss Mueller and end the inquiry. President Trump has been more blunt, hinting to the Times that he might fire Mueller if the investigation looks too closely at his business dealings."
In appointing Mueller, however, Rosenstein gave him broad authority not only to investigate "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated" with Trump's campaign, but also to examine "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
Trump's real estate project in Batumi, Georgia ultimately fell through. But one of its primary funders would have been Timur Kulibayev, the son-in-law of Khazakstan's president, who went on to oversee a sovereign wealth fund with authority over the assets of B.T.A. Bank.
The bank had loaned money to subsidiaries of a group that funded Trump's Georgia project, and Kulibayev had access to all of the bank's records — meaning he "was surely familiar with the players involved in the Trump Tower Batumi project," wrote The New Yorker's Adam Davidson. Kulibayev, who sat on the board of Russia's oil and gas giant, Gazprom, would have then been in a position to pass along any compromising information on Trump to the Kremlin.
Whether or not Russia had such information, known as kompromat, on Trump or his associates will likely be a key part of Mueller's inquiry into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton.
"Sekulow's complaint is silly," said William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Justice Department. "Obviously, the Georgia deal is at least alleged to have ties that reach to Putin. It is highly relevant to the investigation."
Andy Wright, a former associate counsel to President Barack Obama who is now a professor at Savannah Law School, agreed, noting that Russian influence operations don't stop at the Russian border.
"This is largely a counterintelligence investigation," Wright said. "If Vladimir Putin or Russian intelligence services exercise influence over Trump-related entities through third-countries it is still a Russian operation."
Yeomans added that Rosenstein "would and should be very reluctant to restrict Mueller's scope under any circumstances," making Sekulow's request "frivolous."
Former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa echoed that sentiment, arguing that even if Mueller uncovered evidence of a potential crime that was outside the scope of his special counsel mandate, he wouldn't just turn a blind eye to it.
"Even if something isn't under his purview, if he sees something illegal he is obligated to refer that to the FBI," Rangappa said.
Trump has reportedly grown irritated with the follow-the-money approach Mueller has taken to the investigation. But it is easy to imagine why Trump's loans, debts, and business empire — which has benefited from money flowing out of Russia — would warrant Mueller's scrutiny as he tries to trace the origins of Russia's interest in the Trump campaign and determine whether Moscow holds any leverage over Trump or his associates.
In any case, Rangappa said, there is no evidence that Mueller has gone out of bounds.
"As you go through an investigation, you may uncover something that then opens up a whole new line of inquiry," Rangappa said. "If that's how Mueller is proceeding, then anything he discovers will be within his purview, especially if there is a nexus to Russia."
And in the case of the Georgia deal, she added, "there is one."
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