At least a dozen vehicles carrying a platoon of FBI agents and federal marshals descended on the Annapolis, Maryland offices of the conservative Strategic Campaign Group yesterday. Agents covered the glass doors in plastic trash bags, then carted away documents and computers.
Officials gave no explanation for the raid, but WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller said that the investigation is being conducted with “fierce coordination” by agents from Washington, DC, rather than the Baltimore office.
“The state’s Republican Party said the raid concerns fundraising questions in a previous political race,” Miller related. Indeed, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli sued the firm three years ago alleging that its Conservative Strikeforce PAC used his name for fundraising without permission.
At the Baltimore Sun, reporter Michael Dresser adds that state Republican customers are already dropping the firm. Kelley Rogers, its president, has “said the FBI investigation concerns work the firm performed during” Cuccinelli’s 2013 Virginia gubernatorial campaign.
“Our suspicion is that this is just a carry-over from that,” Rogers told the Washington Post, which reported his explanation without contradiction. According to Rogers, agents “collected documents related to the firm’s direct mail and fundraising practices.”
By the end of the day, every major news outlet was reporting on this raid the same way. But this is a hard explanation to swallow.
First of all, so-called “scam PACs” are normally the domain of the Federal Elections Commission, which conservative activists have rendered toothless. Yes, the FBI does investigate fraud, yet the amounts at issue in the Cuccinelli scandal are in the mid five figures — hardly the kind of operation that the Washington, DC FBI office normally goes out of its way to take down. And the FBI has never said anything about a new focus on scam PACs.
Furthermore, Cuccinelli told the Associated Press “that he’d not spoken to any federal law enforcement officials about Strategic Campaign Group but is ‘curious’ to see where the case goes” — which is odd, since the FBI normally talks to alleged victims as part of any investigation.
No wonder an alternate theory of the case was blasting all over social media yesterday. Was the raid perhaps connected to the FBI investigation of Donald Trump?
Website of firm raided by FBI says one if its principals was formerly with firm operated by Paul Manafort–frm Trump campaign mgr
— Jayne Miller (@jemillerwbal) May 11, 2017
There are a couple of reasons to give this idea some credence. First, the raid occurred 48 hours after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in what he later admitted was an attempt to stifle the investigation of his Russian influence scandal. Bureau personnel are reportedly furious — indeed, angry enough to make war on the administration by leaking information, assisting Congress, and most importantly, by ramping up investigations.
COMMON: FBI wants X docs but has no prob cause (or not ready to reveal its PC), but has PC for Y docs. X & Y docs comingled at same location
— Sarah Smith (@SarahLSmith677) May 11, 2017
Strategic Campaign Group has more than one connection to Trump’s world.
Although the information has been scrubbed from the organization’s website today, Senior adviser Dennis Whitfield used to be a director at BKSH and Associates, a company founded by Trump conspiracy-wrangler Roger Stone and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort that more or less invented the foreign lobbying trade. Through a merger, BKSH later became Prime Policy Group, which worked for the government of Russian puppet Victor Yanukovitch in Ukraine. Prime Policy Group acknowledged its relationship to Stone and Manafort as late as last July.
Stone and Manafort go way back, and their relationship explains a great deal about how Russian influence would have engaged the Trump campaign. In fact, Stone appears to be responsible for convincing Trump to hire Manafort in the first place.
We already know that laundered Russian money is a huge part of the scandal, and that Manafort is a master launderer. Russian money may have flowed into Strategic Campaign Group, and from there to various connected vendors, all of whom used it for fundraising. The multiplier effect would add up to an enormous fraud — far larger than the relative pittance Cuccinelli sued over in 2014, and a juicy target for investigators.
But there are other possibilities here, too. Specifically, the firm is linked to Trump’s failed Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.
BREAKING: Ties found between GOP lobbying firm just raided by FBI to Trump, via casino firm Penn Natl. Gaming. pic.twitter.com/D7ZxyIfDrH
— Beth Brigham (@PersuasivePR) May 11, 2017
Strategic Campaign Group and Kelley Rogers registered Prince George’s Racing Ventures, LLC with the state of Maryland in 2012. Also known as Penn National Gaming, it was run by a man named James Perry, who later went on to run Trump Entertainment Resorts.
This is significant because the Senate Intelligence Committee recently requested documents from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, related to a $10 million fine imposed on the Trump Taj Mahal in 2015 for their deficient money laundering prevention policies.
Donald Trump has never been the focus of a real FBI investigation, but his career offers plenty of attack surface — and now, he’s given the FBI every reason to exploit it all. As Matt Yglesias wrote this week,
Over the years, Trump seems to have been mixed up with the Mafia, and his casinos have paid civil fines for evading money laundering rules. He’s been involved in empty-box tax scams, and his shenanigans with the Trump Foundation may have constituted criminal tax evasion.
Still, as Edward Ericson Jr. details, he’s never faced a serious criminal investigation despite repeatedly bumping up against one.
An FBI inquiry that started with a hard look at Trump associates’ possible ties to the Russian government could easily have turned up some totally unrelated criminal misconduct. By the same token, it’s entirely possible that whatever it is Trump might be covering up by refusing to release his tax returns has nothing to do with Russian bribes or blackmail.
But what we know from the tax return saga is that Trump appears to be covering something up. Something big and important. And anyone with half a brain can see that sacking Comey appears to be, likewise, part of covering something up. Maybe something to do with Russia and maybe something else. But it sure looks like something.
Of course, it’s possible that this is all just speculation and coincidence — that the FBI really is just looking into a penny-ante scam PAC operation three years after Strategic Campaign Group settled Cuccinelli’s lawsuit, and that they happened to carry out a high-visibility raid two days after the controversial firing of their director.
But for many reasons, that scenario seems less likely than the one where the FBI declares war on the Trump presidency, seizes potential evidence of collusion and treason using whatever pretext is convenient, and weaponizes whatever they find.
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