Mueller's team is eyeing whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled money into Trump's campaign and inauguration

  • The special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is questioning Russian oligarchs as it investigates whether Russian money was illegally funneled into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign or inauguration, CNN reported.
  • Mueller is also investigating whether wealthy Russians used Americans or American companies as conduits to funnel money to the US in support of Trump.
  • At least one US organisation has drawn scrutiny over whether a wealthy Russian banker used it to channel money to the Trump campaign.
  • At least six Russians allied with President Vladimir Putin attended Trump’s inauguration – one of whom had two US associates who donated over $US1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Investigators working for the special counsel Robert Mueller are questioning several Russian oligarchs – at times after stopping them at the airport when they travel to the US – in connection with the Russia investigation, CNN reported Wednesday.

In particular, prosecutors are said to be focusing on whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled money, either directly or indirectly, into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign or inauguration.

At least one wealthy Russian was stopped and searched after his private jet landed in New York, and another was stopped during a recent trip to the US, according to CNN.

The special counsel’s team has also requested documents and an interview with a third Russian oligarch who has not recently travelled to the US, the report said. CNN’s sources did not identify the oligarchs who had been questioned.

Campaign finance laws prohibit foreign nationals from donating to US political campaigns, and Mueller has since at least September been interested in the flow of Russian money into the 2016 election.

That month, ABC News reported that Mueller had asked witnesses about donations to the campaign from US citizens with ties to Russia. Investigators are also said to be interested in whether wealthy Russians used American donors or US companies with political action committees to indirectly infuse money into the election.

At least one prominent US organisation has drawn scrutiny for its ties to wealthy Russians and faced questions about whether it may have been used as a vessel to funnel money into Trump’s campaign.

Earlier this year, it emerged that the FBI was investigating whether Alexander Torshin, a prominent Russian banker and politician with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, used the National Rifle Association to illegally send money to the Trump campaign.

The NRA said it spent a record $US55 million on the 2016 elections, most of which came from a sector of the organisation that isn’t required to disclose its donors. About $US30 million of that was spent on backing Trump or opposing the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

The NRA has emphasised – and news reports have confirmed – that Torshin, not the organisation, is under investigation by the FBI.

Torshin attended the NRA’s convention every year from 2012 to 2016 – occasionally with Maria Butina, his longtime assistant who’s also a gun-rights advocate – and has met every NRA president since 2012, according to NPR.

When the NRA sent a delegation to Moscow in the winter of 2015,it was Torshin who received the delegates on behalf of The Right to Bear Arms, a Russian gun-rights group that’s seen as the NRA’s counterpart.

Meanwhile, Butina has been cultivating ties with American gun-rights advocates, like the Republican strategist Paul Erickson, with whom she has been acquainted since at least 2013.

Erickson invited scrutiny last year when reports emerged that he tried to arrange a back-door meeting between Trump and Putin, with Torshin acting as “President Putin’s emissary on this front.” Butina made a similar request to the Trump campaign through another right-wing advocate.

Neither Trump nor his campaign is known to have entertained the request. Torshin and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, attended a separate NRA dinner the same night.

At least 6 Putin-allied Russians attended Trump’s inauguration

Butina was one of at least six Putin-allied Russians who attended Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, the two Russian lobbyists who met with top Trump campaign officials in June 2016 offering dirt on Clinton, were there.

A wealthy Russian pharmaceutical executive named Alexey Repik and his wife were also there, as was the energy tycoon Viktor Vekselberg.

Vekselberg is said to be closely aligned with Putin, with whom he frequently meets to discuss business.

Citing federal filings, The Washington Post reported that two of Vekselberg’s US associates donated a combined $US1.25 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Mueller is tasked with investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election, and his focus on the flow of Russian money into the election is indicative of the wide-ranging nature of the investigation. Among other things, it shows that the special counsel is interested not just in whether Americans committed any crimes in connection with the election, but in whether Russian nationals were involved too.

In February, Mueller’s office indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on charges of conspiring to meddle in the election by mounting a social-media influence operation meant to sway voters in Trump’s favour.

Last month, reports indicated that prosecutors were homing in on the hack of the Democratic National Committee and subsequent dissemination of stolen emails ahead of the election in November 2016. The US intelligence community has concluded that the breach was carried out by Russia-linked actors on orders from the Kremlin.

In addition to investigating whether any Americans – including Trump – had prior knowledge of the hacks, Mueller’s team is also said to be scoping out the Russian operatives involved.

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