While America’s national intelligence community has already warned Congress that Russia was already interfering in the 2020 elections in order to reelect Donald Trump —a revelation that likely led to the president’s decision to fire his last acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire — a new development in the investigation of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 presidential election came to light today.
According to a report at Politico, a new and yet to be identified witness has come forward who will “directly implicate a Russian businessman known as “Putin’s chef” in schemes to carry out election interference overseas.”
Federal prosecutors expect the mysterious witness to testify in the criminal trial set next month in Washington DC as a result of a case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller against three Russian companies and 13 Russian citizens that accuses them of interfering in the election that placed Trump in the White House to begin with.
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The testimony of the newly-expected witness will likely be directed at the most well-connected of the individuals named in Mueller indictment, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurant owner from St. Petersburg with close ties to Vladimir Putin and who is a major contractor for the Russian military.
The federal prosecutors claim that Prigozhin was the head of the infamous Internet Research Agency, the Russian “troll farm” that spearheaded a social media disinformation campaign to support Trump in the 2016 race.
While neither Prigozhin nor the other indicted individuals have been arrested or detained by international authorities, one of the companies linked to the restaurateur colloquially referred to as “Putin’s chef,” Concord Management and Consulting, has hired an American law firm to defend itself against the charges.
Until now, the evidence in the case was expected to comprise primarily of a trail of emails and other records demonstrating the activities of what the prosecutors have called Project Lakhta in their indictment. The sudden addition of an actual witness who can testify to the details of the electoral interference by the Internet Research Agency and Prigozhin’s involvement with the group raises the stakes in a case that can prove particularly embarrassing for a president who has continually rejected the consensus of U.S. intelligence reports assigning blame for the social media meddling to Russia and labeling the accusations as a “Hoax” invented by his political opponents.
With prosecutors telling the judge in the case that the mystery witness will testify about election-related discussions at “a meeting” with Prigozhin, speculation is that their identity is being withheld to protect them from potential Russian retaliation, a serious concern from a regime that has a long history of “eliminating” people that it considers enemies of the state.
“If the mystery witness is someone who met Prigozhin, then there is certainly a likelihood Priogzhin knows who he or she is,” said Steven Aftergood, a classified information specialist for the Federation of American Scientists, implying that the attempts to conceal the witness’ identity may be futile.
Whatever the new witness may have to offer in the way of evidence, the actual court case is likely to have few repercussions on either Concord Management and Consulting or Prigozhin himself. Since neither the company nor “Putin’s chef” has assets in the United States that can be seized as a penalty, and the Kremlin is unlikely to extradite a Russian citizen to face any prospective penalties, any guilty verdict will be strictly a pyrrhic victory for the prosecutors.
Original reporting by Josh Gerstein at Politico.