Exclusive: Feds chased suspected foreign link to Trump's 2016 campaign cash for three years
Posted October 14, 2020 4:01 p.m. EDT
CNN — For more than three years, federal prosecutors investigated whether money flowing through an Egyptian state-owned bank could have backed millions of dollars Donald Trump donated to his own campaign days before he won the 2016 election, multiple sources familiar with the investigation told CNN.
The investigation, which both predated and outlasted special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, examined whether there was an illegal foreign campaign contribution. It represents one of the most prolonged efforts by federal investigators to understand the President's foreign financial ties, and became a significant but hidden part of the special counsel's pursuits.
The investigation was kept so secret that at one point investigators locked down an entire floor of a federal courthouse in Washington, DC, so Mueller's team could fight for the Egyptian bank's records in closed-door court proceedings following a grand jury subpoena. The probe, which closed this summer with no charges filed, has never before been described publicly.
Prosecutors suspected there could be a link between the Egyptian bank and Trump's campaign contribution, according to several of the sources, but they could never prove a connection.
It's not clear that investigators ever had concrete evidence of a relevant bank transfer from the Egyptian bank. But multiple sources said there was sufficient information to justify the subpoena and keep the criminal campaign finance investigation open after the Mueller probe ended.
CNN learned of the Egypt investigation from more than a dozen sources familiar with the effort, as well as through hints in public records, including newly released court documents and Mueller witness interview summaries, called 302s, that CNN and Buzzfeed obtained through lawsuits.
In a court filing last month, the Justice Department confirmed that when the special counsel's office shut down in 2019, Mueller transferred an ongoing foreign campaign contribution investigation to prosecutors in Washington. Some of CNN's sources have confirmed that the case, which Mueller cryptically called a "foreign campaign contribution" probe, was in fact the Egypt investigation.
The probe was confirmed this week by a Justice Department senior official who responded to CNN's queries: "The case was first looked at by the Special Counsel investigators who failed to bring a case, and then it was looked at by the US attorney's office, and career prosecutors in the national security section, who also were unable to bring a case. Based upon the recommendations of both the FBI and those career prosecutors, Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney, formally closed the case in July."
Part of what drew investigators' initial interest in the matter was intelligence, including from an informant, that suggested there could have been money from an Egyptian bank that ended up backing Trump's last-minute injection of $10 million into his 2016 campaign, according to two of the sources.
Among the chief questions prosecutors sought to answer and apparently never did was whether Trump was supported by or was indebted to a foreign power.
The investigation even went as far as the US Supreme Court, the only time during the two-year Mueller investigation a dispute went to the high court. The justices ultimately declined to hear the case.
Yet neither the special counsel's office, nor prosecutors who carried on the case after Mueller, got a complete picture of the President's financial entanglements. Prosecutors in Washington even proposed subpoenaing financial records tied to Trump, before top officials finally concluded this summer they had reached a dead end, the sources said.
As aggressive as Mueller's office was -- charging multiple Trump advisers for obstruction, gaining cooperators, indicting Russians for election-related malfeasance and documenting attempts by the President to obstruct justice -- the special counsel has faced criticism, including from one of its own prosecutors, for not taking bold enough investigative steps to gain access to the President's finances.
Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign, said in response to CNN's questions, "President Trump has never received a penny from Egypt."
A spokesman for the Egyptian President declined to comment.
After Trump's election win, the FBI began working with prosecutors in the DC US attorney's office to investigate the Egypt matter, according to a person familiar with the office.
"It was something that looked interesting," that person said. "We really didn't do much work on it before turning it loose."
In May 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, and he took on the case.
Mueller's primary task was to investigate Russian government attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, which had consumed the political and investigative conversations in the early days of Trump's presidency. But Mueller's mandate also allowed him to take on related criminal investigations, which in this case included another probe of potential foreign influence connected to the campaign.
According to a recent book by Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller's senior prosecutors, the special counsel's office consisted of three principal teams: one focused on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, another on Russia's election interference, and a third on the President's attempts to obstruct justice.
But there was a fourth team, CNN has learned: one partly dedicated to investigating the Egypt matter.
Zainab Ahmad, a former international terrorism prosecutor, and Brandon Van Grack, a national security and counterintelligence specialist, co-led it, according to sources. Public records also show they focused on cases separate from other trial attorneys in the special counsel's office and had senior titles equivalent to other Mueller team leaders.
Van Grack largely focused on the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Ahmad assisted Van Grack on Flynn then devoted herself to the Egypt investigation. Ahmad, when reached by CNN, wouldn't speak about her work in the special counsel's investigation. She is now a lawyer in private practice. Van Grack is now a Justice Department prosecutor overseeing foreign lobbying investigations, and didn't respond to a request for comment.
Mueller's team tried to understand both the $10 million contribution Trump gave to his campaign 11 days before the 2016 election and the Trump campaign's ties to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, according to sources and redacted interview records released from the Mueller investigation.
In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, Trump and Sisi met in New York during the United Nations General Assembly. The Republican presidential candidate hit it off with the dictator. Sisi said afterward that Trump would "no doubt" be a strong president while Trump called the Egyptian leader "a fantastic guy" with whom he had "good chemistry" -- a notable difference from Obama administration policy, which was reflected in Hillary Clinton's focus on Egypt's human rights record during her own meeting with Sisi at the General Assembly.
Sisi became the first foreign leader to call and congratulate Trump after he won the election. At a 2019 G7 summit, Trump called out, "Where's my favorite dictator?" as he awaited the Egyptian President, according to press reports.
The last-minute 'loan'
By summer 2017, Mueller's office was handling the Egypt investigation gingerly, with the team of prosecutors and FBI personnel often working without sharing full details with the other teams in the office, according to multiple accounts of the office's dynamics.
CNN sent Mueller detailed questions about the Egypt investigation for this story. He declined to comment.
One official familiar with the work said some investigators believed the Egypt inquiry presented a more direct avenue for Mueller's team to examine Trump's finances, in part because it did not have an obvious tie to Russia.
Diving into Trump's finances, however, was highly sensitive -- so much so that Mueller suspected the President would fire him if the White House learned his finances were being probed, crossing a so-called "red line" Trump set early in the Mueller investigation.
Yet understanding Trump's finances was crucial to the Egypt investigation -- especially regarding the $10 million he gave to his campaign.
Needing a final push before Election Day as the polls tightened in 2016, the Trump campaign was running low on cash. Trump's top campaign officials scrambled to convince Trump to inject money, according to memos of witness interviews from the investigation and contemporaneous news reports.
Trump lagged well behind a pledge he made to spend $100 million of his own money on his campaign. Less than two weeks before Election Day, Trump wrote his campaign a $10 million check, publicly calling it a loan. Campaign finance records showed it as his single largest political contribution, by far, and not one the campaign would reimburse him for.
Federal law enforcement officials suspected, in part because of intelligence information, that there was money moving through the Egyptian bank that could connect to Trump's campaign donation, according to the sources. Yet untangling the web of Trump's complex business interests ultimately remained out of reach.
Campaign finance law prohibits foreign political contributions to campaigns for public office. A financial tie between a sitting president and a foreign country could also have explosive national security consequences.
Mueller's office pressed witnesses to explain how the Trump-Sisi meeting in late 2016 came about. Ahmad, whose aims on the investigation were cloaked in secrecy, was repeatedly present in interviews touching on both Trump's $10 million contribution to his campaign and the campaign's ties to Egypt.
For instance, in one witness interview in November 2017, Ahmad and the FBI pressed an unnamed former staffer on the Trump campaign, transition and National Security Council about Trump's meeting with Sisi and her interactions with Egyptian nationals. Another witness, according to the interview memos, spoke to investigators in August 2018 about the Trump-Sisi meeting and Egypt's stance on US presidential elections.
Mueller's team repeatedly asked witnesses questions about Trump foreign policy campaign adviser Walid Phares and his ties to Egypt, after intelligence pointed them toward him. The New York Times first reported in June about the special counsel's investigation into Phares' suspected role in an Egyptian influence effort. It led to no charges. The FBI has not made public records that show Mueller's team interviewing Phares, though the former Trump adviser has said he spoke to investigators. Phares' assistant declined to comment.
In an initial interview with the special counsel's office, senior campaign official and White House adviser Stephen Bannon also discussed his role in setting up the meeting between Trump and Sisi.
In a session months later, Bannon was asked about Trump's $10 million contribution to his campaign, according to another recent release of Mueller's interview memos.
Bannon explained to Mueller's investigators how Trump initially resisted cutting his campaign such a large check, and that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner doubted that Trump would do so, saying, "that was not going to happen," according to Bannon. But Trump was talked into providing the last-minute money by future Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Kushner, Bannon said. Mnuchin described the money as a "cash advance," Bannon said, and Trump eventually agreed to wire the money. "Trump was convinced the cash would be there," Bannon said, according to the interview summary.
A spokesperson for Mnuchin at the Treasury Department confirmed Bannon's description of convincing Trump to make the loan, and said that Mnuchin had no knowledge of how Trump had $10 million available to him.
Records of the special counsel's office interviews, which remain heavily redacted, do not make clear whether witnesses were asked directly about money connected to Egypt. At the same time, investigators may have sought not to tip their suspicions to witnesses -- especially those like Bannon who were close to the President.
Representatives for Bannon didn't respond to CNN's requests for comment.
Trump himself never had to answer questions directly about his $10 million campaign contribution, in part because of the broadness of questions submitted to his lawyers to answer in writing.
Mueller asked the President, "Did any person or entity inform you during the campaign that any foreign government or foreign leader, other than Russia or Vladimir Putin, had provided, wished to provide, or offered to provide tangible support to your campaign?" Trump wrote back in his written answers that he had "no recollection of being told during the campaign" of support from a foreign government.
Mystery court fight
The Egypt investigation also led to one of the most secretive court proceedings in Washington in years.
Until now, the case was only known to be a fight over a grand jury subpoena between the Mueller team and a foreign government-owned company.
But CNN has learned the case was a fight over records from an Egyptian national bank.
In July 2018, the Mueller team issued a secret grand jury subpoena for records to the Egyptian bank -- sparking a months-long court fight that only gradually became public as it progressed through the court system.
Soon enough, the bank was arguing it shouldn't have to give Mueller records because it was interchangeable with the foreign government that owned it. The US courts disagreed repeatedly, saying the company couldn't be immune from the Mueller team subpoena.
At the time, the courts and Mueller's team took extreme caution to keep the matter confidential. One judge, Beryl Howell of the DC District Court, wrote that the case dealt with "foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential collusion in those efforts by American citizens."
The fight was so closely guarded that it took months for the names of lawyers involved to emerge, only becoming public first through CNN reporting then confirmed by court records.
Attorneys who represented the bank in the subpoena fight and a representative from their law firm, Alston & Bird, did not respond to CNN's inquiries for this story.
When the federal appeals court in Washington, DC, heard arguments in the case in December 2018, security cleared journalists from an entire floor of the federal courthouse, allowing attorneys involved in the case to enter and exit the building and the courtroom without being seen.
CNN, however, spotted Mueller team prosecutors, including Ahmad, returning to the special counsel's office minutes after the hearing ended.
The case even landed before the Supreme Court in early 2019. The high court ultimately declined the company's bid to block Mueller's subpoena in March 2019.
Even then, however, the standoff between US prosecutors and the Egyptian bank ended in a stalemate.
The bank had handed over almost 1,000 pages of documents to prosecutors, translated into English, according to redacted court records that were eventually released after the Mueller investigation concluded. But that didn't satisfy prosecutors, either in the Mueller investigation or the DC US attorney's office.
The bank's lawyers professed it had "gone to great lengths to find and voluntarily produce documents responsive to the subpoena."
"What more could the Special Counsel want?" they asked, according to court transcripts.
The federal investigators told the court they believed there must be more, and even the judge acknowledged gaps in the bank's records.
In the end, it was the bank's word against the investigators. The court proceedings ended with prosecutors getting nothing more than what the bank was willing to turn over, and the bank was excused from hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines that had accrued for defying the subpoena.
It appeared to be a dead end -- and not justification enough for Mueller to keep his office open to finish this case alone.
'Continuing robustly' after Mueller
Investigators faced a crossroads in early 2019 as Mueller finalized his report. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and then-new Attorney General William Barr oversaw the end of Mueller's probe and were briefed on investigations still ongoing, but they left it up to Mueller's team and the FBI to determine which unresolved matters should be sent to US attorneys' offices so Mueller's office could close, according to sources briefed on the events.
In late March 2019, shortly after Mueller's investigation concluded, Howell, overseeing final court proceedings in the Egyptian bank's subpoena case, asked a prosecutor point-blank if the investigation was over. "No, it's continuing. I can say it's continuing robustly," David Goodhand of the DC US attorney's office told the court.
Another prosecutor in the office told the judge the investigation, even after Mueller, was "very much a live issue" requiring "a great deal of resources, time and attention by the government," according to a transcript of a late March 2019 court hearing.
For the past year and a half, the matter was kept even quieter under Barr and three different US attorneys in Washington than it had been under Mueller.
Behind the scenes the investigation hinged on whether prosecutors, having been thwarted by the Egyptian government, had enough evidence to seek more information related to Trump's finances.
At one point, prosecutors wanted to subpoena Trump's bank records, according to sources briefed on the investigation. The decision to approve the subpoena fell to US Attorney Jessie Liu in Washington, DC.
Liu spent weeks poring over the investigative records before rejecting the request, according to the sources. Liu told prosecutors she didn't believe they had met the standard needed to seek the records. The investigation stagnated, but Liu didn't close the case. She declined to comment for this story.
It's unclear how much activity occurred after Liu rejected the subpoena request. Prosecutors who disagreed with her decision believed it was now impossible to resolve questions about Trump's 2016 campaign contribution. Liu told people in her office that if the investigation had produced enough evidence, Mueller would have made the decision to take additional steps, according to sources.
Liu's tenure as US attorney came to an abrupt end in February, when she was pushed out after Republican lawmakers took aim at her over the handling of other cases. Michael Sherwin, the current acting US attorney in DC, stepped into the job in May and reviewed the Egypt investigation.
Sherwin met with FBI investigators and counterintelligence prosecutors before deciding to close the case this summer, sources briefed on the matter said.
Mueller's foreign campaign contribution case
Mueller and the Justice Department have taken pains to keep quiet that the investigation even existed.
The Mueller report does not mention the Egypt investigation. Though some parts of the report are still redacted, the largely public table of contents outlines nothing that closely resembles descriptions of the case.
Mueller dropped only one hint, listing it among 11 cases he investigated then transferred to other offices when his shop closed. For more than a year, the entry was redacted.
Just last month, the Justice Department lifted the redaction on this 11th case and said the case was closed.
On paper, Mueller described the investigation with only three vague words: "Foreign campaign contribution."