Speculation rife over a possible first arrest in US Russia probe

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Washington (AFP) – Washington on Monday anxiously awaited news of a possible first arrest in the sweeping probe into Russia’s attempts to tilt the 2016 presidential elections in Donald Trump’s favor.

At least one person has been charged by a grand jury, according to CNN and other US media, though there was no word on who was targeted and what crimes might be alleged in the ongoing inquiry led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller.

Trump, in a rapid burst of tweets on Sunday, denounced the investigation as a “witch hunt” and repeated denials that his White House campaign colluded with Russia.

Mueller’s team has remained publicly silent about reports that a first arrest could come as early as Monday. He is empowered to pursue not only Russian interference but any other crimes his prosecutors should uncover.

Chris Christie, a Republican governor close to Trump, said Sunday on ABC that “the important thing about today for the American people to know is the president is not under investigation. And no one has told him that he is.”

It was unclear the New Jersey governor would know whether Trump is being investigated; he may have been referring to earlier comments by former FBI chief James Comey.

But Christie told CNN that anyone who has been advised by Mueller’s office that they are a target of the inquiry “should be concerned.”

– ‘Small fish’ –

Typically, such a wide-ranging investigation would first target lower-level people while building a case against those higher up. Sometimes early indictments are used to pressure potential witnesses into turning against others.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who worked for president George W. Bush, predicted on Twitter that “if there is an indictment, it will be a small fish. A new name that I bet has no bearing on Trump.”

Speculation has focused on former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort, both of them once involved in undeclared lobbying for foreign interests.

Buzzfeed reported Sunday the FBI is probing a series of wire transfers linked to Manafort that saw offshore companies move more than $3 million between 2012 and 2013.

Flagged as suspicious by US financial institutions, some of the 13 transfers Buzzfeed obtained details of involved wires of large sums from Ukraine.

According to the news site, federal law enforcement was aware of such transfers as far back as 2012, when they began investigating whether Manafort committed tax fraud or helped the Ukrainian regime — at the time close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin — launder money.

As the Mueller investigation nears a dramatic new phase, Republican officials and conservative media have increased attacks on Democrats — especially Trump’s former rival Hillary Clinton — which opponents dismiss as blatant attempts to divert attention.

– ‘So much GUILT’ –

Trump, in his tweets Sunday, again complained of Clinton’s handling of emails while secretary of state, of Democratic Party funding of what he said was a “fake” dossier on Trump’s background, and of a US sale during the Obama administration of uranium rights to Russia.

“There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!” Trump tweeted.

Trump’s mention of the “fake” dossier appeared to refer to revelations that the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee had funded part of the research by a former British intelligence agent into possible links between Trump, his collaborators and Russia.

In the uranium case, Russian nuclear energy agency Rosatom sought in 2010 to buy a share in Toronto-based Uranium One, which has mining stakes in the United States. A panel of nine US government agencies, including the State Department, approved the sale, though Clinton says she was “not personally involved.”

White House lawyer Ty Cobb asserted that Trump’s latest tweets were “unrelated to the activities of the Special Counsel, with whom he continues to cooperate,” news media reported.



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