Special counsel Robert Mueller's team of investigators is looking into hundreds of recently discovered payments made by Russian diplomats to people and businesses inside the United States, BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday.
Several transactions related to the Russian Embassy were flagged as "suspicious" by Citibank and reported to the United States Treasury's financial crimes unit, sparking the investigation. They include a $120,000 payment former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak received 10 days after Trump was elected president, which was marked "payroll" but didn't fit any payroll patterns; an attempt to withdraw $150,000 from the Russian Embassy's account five days after Trump's inauguration, which was denied by the bank; almost 30 checks totaling $370,000 to embassy employees, who cashed them immediately after receiving them; and 600 payments totaling $2.4 million from the Russian Embassy to a Russian-owned group of home-improvement companies, which were supposedly for repairs to the embassy but the companies seemed too small to handle.
Banks are required to report any transactions that seem suspicious of money laundering or financial misbehavior to the Treasury. It's not necessarily evidence of a crime, and the expenditures could be legit, BuzzFeed reports, but Mueller's team is looking into them nevertheless.
The Senate and House Intelligence committees have also requested suspicious-activity reports related to Kislyak as far back as last summer but wouldn't comment on the report.
A Russian Embassy spokesperson denied any wrongdoing. “All the transactions which have been carried out through the American financial system fully comply with the legislation of the United States,” said Nikolay Lakhonin. “We are not going to comment on any concrete names and figures mentioned in BuzzFeed articles. We see such leaks by US authorities as another attempt to discredit Russian official missions.”
Kislyak is central to the investigation into whether anyone connected to the Trump campaign conspired with Russian officials to swing the 2016 election in Trump's favor. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after not disclosing that he met with Kislyak. Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about making calls to Kislyak during the presidential transition, which presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner apparently asked him to make.
The $120,000 payment Kislyak received shortly after Trump's election (and weeks before he was recalled to Russia) is of particular interest because Kislyak immediately it split in two and deposited the money, via two wire transfers, into an account he holds in Russia, BuzzFeed says.