January 19, 2019 / by 

 

Compromise: Before Trump Won His First Primary, Putin Collected His First Receipt

In this post, I noted that, while important, the Buzzfeed story on Trump’s role in Michael Cohen’s lies to Congress did not advance our understanding of  how the Trump Tower deal fits into the larger Trump conspiracy with Russia.

It doesn’t include a number of details that would be more important for understanding how the Trump Tower deal relates to other parts of Trump’s conspiracy with Russians: who (if not Trump himself or Don Jr) was the senior campaign official who knew of Cohen’s negotiations, precisely what Don Jr knew of the negotiations on June 3 when he took a meeting described to be “part of  Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” and whether the timing of Cohen’s plans for a trip to St. Petersburg — which started on June 9 and ended on June 14 — related somehow to the June 9 Trump Tower meeting and the June 14 revelation that Russians had hacked the DNC. It’d also be useful to know whether Cohen had any 2016 dealings with Ike Kaveladze, who knew of Cohen from the 2013 business dealings between Trump and the Agalarovs, and who had a curious reaction to a video of him in the wake of the June 9 meeting story breaking. Those are the details that would advance the story of how the Trump Tower deal relates to Russia’s efforts to hack the election.

But there is a piece of the Cohen statement of the offense the significance of which hasn’t gotten sufficient attention. That’s the detail that Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant took detailed notes from a 20-minute January 20, 2016 phone call with Cohen, which led to Putin’s office contacting Felix Sater the next day.

On or about January 16, 2016, COHEN emailed [Peskov]’s office again, said he was trying to reach another high-level Russian official, and asked for someone who spoke English to contact him.

On or about January 20, 2016 , COHEN received an email from the personal assistant to [Peskov] (“Assistant 1 “), stating that she had been trying to reach COHEN and requesting that he call her using a Moscow-based phone number she provided.

Shortly after receiving the email, COHEN called Assistant 1 and spoke to her for approximately 20 minutes. On that call, COHEN described his position at the Company and outlined the proposed Moscow Project, including the Russian development company with which the Company had partnered. COHEN requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction. Assistant 1 asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would follow up with others in Russia.

The day after COHEN’s call with Assistant 1, [Sater] contacted him, asking for a call. Individual 2 wrote to COHEN, “It’s about [the President of Russia] they called today.”

Cohen had lied about this, claiming that he had emailed Peskov’s public comment line just once, but gotten no response.

This language is important not just because it shows that Cohen lied.  It’s important because of what Cohen would have said to Peskov’s assistant. And it’s important because a written record of what Cohen said got handed on to Putin’s office, if not Putin himself.

BuzzFeed’s piece from May reveals that Cohen would have been in discussions with one of two banks in January 2016: VTB or GenBank.

Their surrogates in Moscow would be meeting with Putin and a “top deputy” just two days later, and they had financing: VTB Bank President and Chairman Andrey Kostin was on board to fund the project, Sater said in an email.

The bank was a dicey choice. VTB was under US sanctions at the time, with American citizens and companies forbidden to do business with it. Asked by congressional investigators if he knew the bank was blacklisted, Sater responded: “Of course. I wasn’t seeking funding, the local development partner would have. Trump Organization never gets financing from local partners.”

[snip]

New Year’s Eve 2015, he sent Cohen an image of a letter from GenBank — not VTB Bank, as they had earlier discussed — inviting the men to Moscow for a visit.

Just nine days earlier, the US Treasury Department had sanctioned GenBank for operating in Crimea after the disputed Russian takeover. GenBank became the first Russian financial institution to move into the Crimean peninsula.

Both were sanctioned. While Sater (who seems to have knowingly set this trap) dismissed the import of the sanctions, Cohen clearly knew — and left record that he knew in communications with Sater — that they were the intended funders.

A former GRU officer contact of Sater’s was key to obtaining funding from VTB.

This friend is a former member of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit that the US intelligence community believes interfered during the 2016 election.

[snip]

[On December 19], Sater told Cohen that their invitations and visas were being arranged by VTB Bank, and that Kostin, the bank’s powerful president and chairman, would meet Cohen in Moscow. Key to getting VTB on board was the former GRU spy; Sater told congressional and special counsel investigators that the former spy said he had a source at VTB Bank who would support the deal.

Obtaining funding from GenBank would have relied on Putin and Peskov.

Sater told Cohen that GenBank operates “through Putin’s administration and nothing gets done there without approval from the top. The meetings in Moscow will be with ministers — in US, that’s cabinet-level and with Putin’s top administration people. This likely will include Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. To discuss goals, meeting agenda and meeting time between Putin and Trump.”

The BuzzFeed article makes it clear that Sater’s GRU contact got back involved after Cohen’s conversation with Peskov’s assistant.

All of which is to say that when Cohen called Peskov’s assistant, he would have told her that he was speaking on behalf of Donald Trump, that Trump remained interested in a Trump Tower in Moscow (as he had been in 2013, the last time Putin had dangled a personal meeting with Trump), and that on Trump’s behalf Cohen was willing to discuss making a deal involving both a sanctioned bank (whichever one it was) and a former GRU officer.

So it’s not just that Trump was pursuing a real estate deal while running for President. He was pursuing a real estate deal involving a sanctioned  bank — possibly one sanctioned for its involvement in Crimea — and involving someone with ties to the intelligence agency that was preparing to hack Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

Cohen told Peskov’s assistant Trump was willing to negotiate that deal while running for President. The assistant wrote all that down (how Mueller knows this is an interesting question on its own right). And then she or Peskov passed on at least the content of the notes to get Putin’s office to contact Sater.

And all that happened before Trump performed unexpectedly well in the Iowa caucuses on February 1.

Last year, I argued that — pee tape or no — the kompromat Putin has on Trump consists of a series of receipts of Trump formally communicating his willingness to enter into a conspiracy with Russia, receipts that would be devastating if Putin released them.

Trump and the Russians were engaged in a call-and-response, a call-and-response that appears in the Papadopoulos plea and (as Lawfare notes) the GRU indictment, one that ultimately did deal dirt and got at least efforts to undermine US sanctions (to say nothing of the Syria effort that Trump was implementing less than 14 hours after polls closed, an effort that has been a key part of both Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn’s claims about the Russian interactions).

At each stage of this romance with Russia, Russia got a Trump flunkie (first, Papadopoulos) or Trump himself to publicly engage in the call-and-response. All of that led up to the point where, on July 16, 2018, after Rod Rosenstein loaded Trump up with a carefully crafted indictment showing Putin that Mueller knew certain things that Trump wouldn’t fully understand, Trump came out of a meeting with Putin looking like he had been thoroughly owned and stood before the entire world and spoke from Putin’s script in defiance of what the US intelligence community has said.

People are looking in the entirely wrong place for the kompromat that Putin has on Trump, and missing all the evidence of it right in front of their faces.

Vladimir Putin obtained receipts at each stage of this romance of Trump’s willing engagement in a conspiracy with Russians for help getting elected. Putin knows what each of those receipts mean.

What Cohen’s plea deal makes clear is that Putin pocketed the first of those receipts — a receipt showing Trump’s willingness to work with both sanctioned banks and the GRU — even before the first vote was cast. Even before GRU hacked its first Democratic target (though APT 29 had been spying on the Democrats since the previous summer).

Discussing a real estate deal is not, as Trump has repeated, illegal. If that’s all this were about, Trump and Cohen might not have lied about it.

But it’s not. Even before the GRU hacked John Podesta, even before Don Jr told his June 9 visitors that his dad would consider lifting sanctions if he got elected, Michael Cohen let a key Putin deputy know that Trump would be happy to discuss real estate deals that involved both partnering with the GRU and with sanctioned banks.

And Putin has been sitting on that receipt ever since.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 


About the BuzzFeed Scoop: It’s Important, But It Oversells the Lying Part

BuzzFeed has an important story that fleshes out what was made clear in Michael Cohen’s allocution, sentencing memo, and the public record (including earlier BuzzFeed reports). Trump and his kids knew a lot about Cohen’s negotiations for a Trump Tower, and also knew and helped sustain his lies to Congress. BuzzFeed even suggests that all the lying came from Trump; on that issue, the story is problematic for reasons I lay out below.

The new details in the story include a price tag for the Trump Tower detail: Trump, “hoped could bring his company profits in excess of $300 million” (Mueller’s sentencing memorandum stated that the deal might be worth “hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues”).  It quantifies how many times Trump and Cohen spoke about the deal: Trump, “had at least 10 face-to-face meetings with Cohen about the deal during the campaign.” It also confirms that Don Jr and Ivanka were the “family members” described in Cohen’s allocution who were apprised of the details.

Cohen gave Trump’s children “very detailed updates.”

[snip]

The two law enforcement sources disputed this characterization and said that [Don Jr] and Cohen had multiple, detailed conversations on this subject during the campaign.

It doesn’t include a number of details that would be more important for understanding how the Trump Tower deal relates to other parts of Trump’s conspiracy with Russians: who (if not Trump himself or Don Jr) was the senior campaign official who knew of Cohen’s negotiations, precisely what Don Jr knew of the negotiations on June 3 when he took a meeting described to be “part of  Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” and whether the timing of Cohen’s plans for a trip to St. Petersburg — which started on June 9 and ended on June 14 — related somehow to the June 9 Trump Tower meeting and the June 14 revelation that Russians had hacked the DNC. It’d also be useful to know whether Cohen had any 2016 dealings with Ike Kaveladze, who knew of Cohen from the 2013 business dealings between Trump and the Agalarovs, and who had a curious reaction to a video of him in the wake of the June 9 meeting story breaking. Those are the details that would advance the story of how the Trump Tower deal relates to Russia’s efforts to hack the election.

That said, I have qualms about the way the story deals with the perjury side of this. First, it makes an absurd claim that this is the first time we’ve heard that Trump told someone to lie.

Cohen’s testimony marks a significant new frontier: It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.

The NYT first reported that Trump floated pardons to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort in March of last year and they also reported that Mueller had asked Trump about discussions with Flynn about his testimony by the same month. The entire story leading up to Flynn’s firing includes a series of lies, and like Cohen’s false claims about the Trump Tower story featured the kind of matching lies that require coordination (though Trump’s directions to Flynn probably did not include foreknowledge of his FBI interview, so legally the import is that he sustained Flynn’s lies). Manafort, under whatever expectation of a pardon, spent the two months leading up to the election perjuring himself about his ongoing work with Konstantin Kilimnik and communications with the White House, all while reporting back to Trump via his lawyer. Trump had Don McGahn craft a letter to Comey (who, after all, was part of the FBI when he received it) about his firing that hid that he did it because of the Russia investigation, after first writing a statement that acknowledged that clearly. And Trump himself dictated (probably in consultation with Vladimir Putin) a misleading statement about the June 9 Trump Tower meeting, only part of which got cleaned up before Don Jr repeated the misleading comments before Congress. Trump’s current defense attorney Jay Sekulow even went on teevee last August to apologize for repeating a lie Trump told about the June 9 meeting; while he told that lie publicly, the statement Don Jr told to Congress retained part of that lie. Not all of those amount to suborning perjury, but some of them do, and they’ve been public for a long time.

Buzzfeed also suggests that the lying all came from Trump:

the law enforcement sources familiar with his testimony to the special counsel said he had confirmed that Trump directed him to lie to Congress

Cohen’s own public sworn testimony on this issue is slightly different though. He said,

I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1,

The latter detail may be semantics. After all, Trump Organization necessarily withheld documents from Congress to sustain Cohen’s (and Don Jr’s) lies. So the directive to lie and the coordination obviously came from the top (though some of it was achieved by Cohen’s leaks to the press). And the sentencing memo’s statement that “Cohen described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it,” make it clear he could have blamed others for the coordination of his lies. But Cohen is on the record suggesting he chose to lie, in contrast to his allocutions with the hush payments, where he said Trump directed him to undertake the criminal activity. The discrepancy on this issue — which could be cleared up with a few details — may otherwise subject Cohen to accusations of perjury in his allocation.

And heck, if Cohen downplayed Trump’s direction of his lies, then that is newsworthy in and of itself.

I’m more concerned that Buzzfeed claimed, on January 17, 2019, that this is the first evidence that Trump ordered someone to lie about Russia. Normally, I’d excuse this kind of exaggeration to get eyeballs as normal publicity for a story. But not coming, as it does, two days after Trump’s nominee to be Attorney General stated clearly in his confirmation hearing that suborning perjury would be clearly criminal, even if done by the President. Yes, William Barr already made that clear in his memo on the Mueller investigation. But few people besides me realized that fact until, in Tuesday’s hearing, he was asked to confirm that things we know Trump has done — such as float pardons — amount to a crime.

And the response to this story, coming two days after Barr made that statement, has been to suggest that the stuff included in it — as distinct from the long line of lies we already knew Trump suborned — would put Trump at legal jeopardy under Barr that he’s not already in.

Trump is already getting itchy upon discovering that Barr has a close relationship with Mueller.

President Donald Trump was startled Tuesday as he watched television coverage of his nominee for attorney general describing a warm relationship with the special counsel Robert Mueller in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to three people familiar with the matter.

During the first day of his confirmation hearing, William Barr described telling the President the first time he met him in June 2017 that he was friends with Mueller, referring to him on a first name basis.

“I told him how well I knew Bob Mueller and that the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this was all over,” Barr said. “Bob is a straight-shooter and should be dealt with as such.”

While Barr said during his hearing that Trump “was interested” in hearing about the friendship, the details that emerged this week caught the President off guard, the three sources said. He bristled at Barr’s description of the close relationship, complaining to aides he didn’t realize how much their work overlapped or that they were so close.

I think Barr will be shitty on a range of issues (though he’s less of a bigot and homophobe than Jeff Sessions and the Big Dick Toilet Salesman). But there are many reasons to believe, from his testimony, that he won’t interfere with the Mueller investigation. The overhyped claims in this Buzzfeed story, however, are likely to make Trump newly aware of that fact, and could have negative and unnecessary consequences (and in that way, I worry the Buzzfeed story is like NYT’s two underreported stories about the aftermath of the Jim Comey firing, which both did significant damage that could have been avoided with more awareness of the rest of Russian story and more context).

The Buzzfeed story is important for the concrete details it adds to a story we already knew — and these reporters deserve a ton of kudos for consistently leading on this part of the story. But it has unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies, in a way that could have detrimental effect on the country’s ability to actually obtain some kind of justice for those lies.

Update: The language in Cohen’s own sentencing memorandum similarly sets up a contrast in the language used to discuss the hush payments, where his lawyers emphasize Trump’s direction.

With respect to the conduct charged in these Counts, Michael kept his client contemporaneously informed and acted on his client’s instructions. This is not an excuse, and Michael accepts that he acted wrongfully. Nevertheless, we respectfully request that the Court consider that as personal counsel to Client-1, Michael felt obligated to assist Client-1, on Client-1’s instruction, to attempt to prevent Woman-1 and Woman-2 from disseminating narratives that would adversely affect the Campaign and cause personal embarrassment to Client-1 and his family. [my emphasis]

Compare that with their discussion of his Trump Tower lies, which emphasizes his efforts to reinforce Trump’s messaging, but lacks any mention of Trump’s direction.

Michael’s false statements to Congress likewise sprung regrettably from Michael’s effort, as a loyal ally and then-champion of Client-1, to support and advance Client-1’s political messaging. At the time that he was requested to appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Michael was serving as personal attorney to the President, and followed daily the political messages that both Client-1 and his staff and supporters repeatedly and forcefully broadcast. Furthermore, in the weeks during which his then-counsel prepared his written response to the Congressional Committees, Michael remained in close and regular contact with White House-based staff and legal counsel to Client-1.

As such, he was (a) fully aware of Client-1’s repeated disavowals of commercial and political ties between himself and Russia, as well as the strongly voiced mantra of Client-1 that investigations of such ties were politically motivated and without evidentiary support, and (b) specifically knew, consistent with Client-1’s aim to dismiss and minimize the merit of the SCO investigation, that Client-1 and his public spokespersons were seeking to portray contact with Russian representatives in any form by Client-1, the Campaign or the Trump Organization as having effectively terminated before the Iowa caucuses of February 1, 2016.

Seeking to stay in line with this message, Michael told Congress that his communications and efforts to finalize a building project in Moscow on behalf of the Trump Organization, which he began pursuing in 2015, had come to an end in January 2016, when a general inquiry he made to the Kremlin went unanswered. [my emphasis]

Cohen’s lawyer uses clearly different language on these two issues, language that suggests in the latter case Trump’s “direction” might be what it was for Mike Flynn’s lies.

 

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 


How to Talk about Impeachment: Preventing Harm to the Country

In the Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum has a very long article making the case that the House should start the process of impeaching Donald Trump as a way to start reining in his abuses. At its core, the article argues that impeachment serves as a check on abusive Executive power, whether or not it succeeds. It describes five benefits of starting an impeachment proceeding.

In these five ways—shifting the public’s attention to the president’s debilities, tipping the balance of power away from him, skimming off the froth of conspiratorial thinking, moving the fight to a rule-bound forum, and dealing lasting damage to his political prospects—the impeachment process has succeeded in the past. In fact, it’s the very efficacy of these past efforts that should give Congress pause; it’s a process that should be triggered only when a president’s betrayal of his basic duties requires it. But Trump’s conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act.

I don’t agree with everything in the article. I’ll also note that it dismisses the possibility Trump will be charged with bribery, with virtually no real consideration of the issue.

 The Constitution offers a short, cryptic list of the offenses that merit the impeachment and removal of federal officials: “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The first two items are comparatively straightforward. The Constitution elsewhere specifies that treason against the United States consists “only in levying War” against the country or in giving the country’s enemies “Aid and Comfort.” As proof, it requires either the testimony of two witnesses or confession in open court. Despite the appalling looseness with which the charge of treason has been bandied about by members of Congress past and present, no federal official—much less a president—has ever been impeached for it. (Even the darkest theories of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia seem unlikely to meet the Constitution’s strict definition of that crime.) Bribery, similarly, has been alleged only once, and against a judge, not a president.

I’ve argued there’s a good deal of evidence Trump did enter in a quid pro quo agreement — Trump Tower and dirt on Hillary for sanction relief and help with Syria and Ukraine — that would meet even the narrowed standards of bribery laid out in John Roberts’ McDonnell decision.

In any case, the Atlantic piece is very worthwhile. And it serves as welcome background for what I was initially trying to write when I wrote that bribery post.

First, there are more reasons than just Trump’s compromise by Russia to pursue impeachment. Rashida Tlaib laid out the following in the op-ed that preceded her “motherfucker” comment.

We already have overwhelming evidence that the president has committed impeachable offenses, including, just to name a few: obstructing justice; violating the emoluments clause; abusing the pardon power; directing or seeking to direct law enforcement to prosecute political adversaries for improper purposes; advocating illegal violence and undermining equal protection of the laws; ordering the cruel and unconstitutional imprisonment of children and their families at the southern border; and conspiring to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments.

David Leonhardt laid out the reasons this way:

He has repeatedly put his own interests above those of the country. He has used the presidency to promote his businesses. He has accepted financial gifts from foreign countries. He has lied to the American people about his relationship with a hostile foreign government. He has tolerated cabinet officials who use their position to enrich themselves.

Appelbaum describes all the ways Trump violated his oath of office this way:

The oath of office is a president’s promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the “Winter White House,” as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.

More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.

Trump has evinced little respect for the rule of law, attempting to have the Department of Justice launch criminal probes into his critics and political adversaries. He has repeatedly attacked both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His efforts to mislead, impede, and shut down Mueller’s investigation have now led the special counsel to consider whether the president obstructed justice.

As for the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, Trump has repeatedly trampled upon them. He pledged to ban entry to the United States on the basis of religion, and did his best to follow through. He has attacked the press as the “enemy of the people” and barred critical outlets and reporters from attending his events. He has assailed black protesters. He has called for his critics in private industry to be fired from their jobs. He has falsely alleged that America’s electoral system is subject to massive fraud, impugning election results with which he disagrees as irredeemably tainted. Elected officials of both parties have repeatedly condemned such statements, which has only spurred the president to repeat them.

These actions are, in sum, an attack on the very foundations of America’s constitutional democracy.

Russia is but one of the reasons why Trump should be impeached.

Indeed, in the last day two new pieces of evidence about the damage Trump has done with his conflicts of interest have come out. A CREW report cataloging all the conflicts of interest generated from the use of Trump properties to curry favor with him.

  • CREW has identified 12 foreign governments that have made payments to Trump properties during his first two years in office, each of which is likely a violation of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause. At least three foreign countries held events at Trump properties during his second year in office, and two of them did so after having held similar events elsewhere in previous years.
  • Instead of pushing back on President Trump’s refusal to divest from his business, allies in Congress have embraced the arrangement. 53 U.S. senators and representatives made more than 90 visits to Trump properties during his second year in office, up from 47 visits by 36 members the prior year, and similarly, at least 33 state-level government officials visited Trump properties, likely resulting in taxpayer funds going into Trump’s coffers.
  • More than 150 political committees, including campaigns and party committees, have spent nearly $5 million at Trump businesses since he became president. In Trump’s second year in office, CREW tracked 33 political events held at Trump properties—13 of which Trump himself attended, meeting and speaking with wealthy donors.
  • Special interests held at least 20 events at Trump properties during the president’s second year in office. Since Trump took office, at least 13 special interest groups have lobbied the White House, some for the first time, around the same time they patronized a Trump property, suggesting that making large payments to Trump’s businesses is viewed as a way to stay in his administration’s good graces.
  • Over the past year, President Trump made 118 visits to properties he still profits from in office, bringing his two-year total to 281 visits. CREW also identified 119 federal officials and employees who visited Trump properties over the past year, up from 70 the prior year.
  • In addition to making frequent visits to his properties, President Trump and other White House staff have promoted Trump businesses on at least 87 occasions. Trump himself mentioned or referred to his company 68 times during his second year in office, more than double the 33 times he did so the prior year.
  • Paying members at Trump’s resorts and clubs have received benefits beyond getting occasional face time with the President. Four Mar-a-Lago members have been considered for ambassadorships since his election, and three other members—with no federal government experience—acted as unelected, non-Senate-confirmed shadow officials in Trump’s Veterans Administration.

Yesterday, the Inspector General for the General Services Administration released a report showing that GSA recognized that Trump’s Old Post Office property might present a problem under the Emoluments Clause, but basically blew off reviewing what to do about it.

We found that GSA recognized that the President’s business interest in the OPO lease raised issues under the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses that might cause a breach of the lease; however, GSA decided not to address those issues in connection with the management of the lease. We also found that the decision to exclude the emoluments issues from GSA’s consideration of the lease was improper because GSA, like all government agencies, has an obligation to uphold and enforce the Constitution; and because the lease, itself, requires that consideration. In addition, we found that GSA’s unwillingness to address the constitutional issues affected its analysis of Section 37.19 of the lease that led to GSA’s conclusion that Tenant’s business structure satisfied the terms and conditions of the lease. As a result, GSA foreclosed an early resolution of these issues, including a possible solution satisfactory to all parties; and the uncertainty over the lease remains unresolved.

Congress doesn’t have to wait for Mueller to begin reviewing Trump’s conflicts of interest. Indeed, it’d be a far better use of the Oversight Committee’s time to chase down these issues than to interview Michael Cohen and in the process endanger a witness central to the Mueller probe.

Importantly, by focusing on the other ways — other than potential Russian compromise — that Trump has placed his self-interest above the good of the country, an impeachment inquiry might step beyond the debate as it currently stands, where impeachment is considered a political question, to one where it becomes a question of preventing ongoing damage to the country (on top of the legal remedy provided by the Constitution, as I noted in my bribery post).

Sure. An impeachment inquiry may not get 20 Republican votes in the Senate to impeach. But it might. In his first post after laying out why impeachment is necessary, Leonhardt laid out numbers showing that Trump is actually weaker than a lot of people assume.

In the days after I revealed that I had shared information with the FBI, I met with a few Republicans — that was a big part of the reason why I did go public. Remember, I didn’t go to the FBI about Trump, I went about information about the election year attack; but I suspected — and indeed confirmed — that even key members of Congress did not understand the full scope of the attack. My goal in meeting with those Republicans was to point out the damage they were doing by running interference for Trump instead of making sure that the country mounted an adequate response to those aspects of the attack that were not public. I started one meeting with a key Republican member of Congress (we both agreed we would not reveal we had met) literally by saying I was taking a leap of faith in even meeting with him. We agree on literally nothing in politics, except that we love our country. As I left that meeting, that member of Congress told me we may agree on more than I knew.

But that conversation was not about Donald Trump. It was, instead, about how the focus on winning a political fight over Donald Trump was distracting from ensuring the well-being of the country.

We are almost four weeks into a government shutdown that serves just one purpose: to ensure that Donald Trump doesn’t have to face Ann Coulter’s criticism, and the ego damage, of admitting he failed to implement a campaign promise he never delivered over two years of two-house Republican rule. We’ve had stupid government shutdowns before. But never before have we failed to fund the government because one narcissistic man put his own ego above the good of the country.

Now, more than ever, it should be easy to talk impeachment not as a way for Democrats to win partisan advantage by taking down Donald Trump, but as a way to protect the country from the harm he is doing. For the same reason, Democrats should be especially careful about how they talk about impeachment (as this great Balkans Bohemia thread argues); because to actually prevent further damage, impeachment needs to be a sober, legitimate process. That’s what impeachment needs to be about: not a political question. But a question about how to protect the one thing we all share — this country.


Why Is Trump in a Joint Defense Agreement with Manafort If Rudy Concedes Manafort May Have “Colluded”?

Rudy Giuliani had yet another of his limited hangout meltdowns on CNN last night. (This thread has the best summary I’ve seen until CNN posts a transcript.) In it, Rudy significantly moved his previous goalposts on “collusion,” by claiming that he had never said no one on the campaign had “colluded,” he had only made such claims about the President.

Rudy: I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign. I have no idea —

Cuomo: Yes you have.

Rudy: I have not. I said the President of the United States. There is not a single bit of evidence the President of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here, conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC.

[snip]

Cuomo: The guy running his campaign was working on an issue at the same time as the convention.

Rudy: He didn’t say nobody, he said he didn’t. He said he didn’t. He didn’t say nobody. How would you know that nobody in your campaign–

Cuomo: He actually did say that, Rudy — as far as I know.

Rudy: Well I didn’t say that. Well, as far as he knows that’s true!

In this clip, Rudy even says, “I have no idea — never have — what other people were doing.”

Except he did — or claimed he did. Rudy has claimed over and over again that he’s sure the President is not at any risk of being charged with “collusion” because he knows what all of the critical witnesses — who are all in a Joint Defense Agreement with the President — told Mueller.

GIULIANI: Well, I have a pretty good idea because I have seen all the documents that they have. We have debriefed all their witnesses. And we have pressed them numerous times.

BASH: You have debriefed all of their witnesses?

GIULIANI: Well, I think so, I mean, the ones that were — the ones that were involved in the joint defense agreement, which constitutes all the critical ones.

That’s actually not true. Rick Gates was reportedly never part of a JDA. Mike Flynn famously pulled out of it to turn state’s evidence. Don McGahn apparently didn’t share all the details of his 30 hours of interviews with Mueller’s team.

But it is true with respect to one person: Paul Manafort. Hell, even after Manafort flipped, his lawyer continued to brief Rudy about what was said and Rudy based certain defense strategy decisions — most notably whether and how to answer Mueller’s questionnaire for the President — on what he heard from Manafort’s lawyer Kevin Downing.

Rudy says he never learned that Manafort had shared campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik until Manafort’s lawyers “accidentally” failed to redact that detail a few weeks ago (in fact, Rudy hilariously blames that revelation on a leak). Yet he was getting briefed on what Manafort was saying — he was in a Joint Defense Agreement!! — during the entire period when Manafort was lying about sharing polling data with Kilimnik.

Rudy insists that, even if Manafort “colluded,” the President did not. And yet, the President was in — remains in, as far as we know — a Joint Defense Agreement with this guy that Rudy now concedes may have “colluded” during the election.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 


William Barr’s Asymmetric Confusion about Shitty Mueller Reporting

It turns out that once and future Attorney General William Barr has been better able to wade past shitty reporting on the outcome of the Mueller investigation than he has shitty reporting on the public evidence about what Mueller has found.

In two of my posts on Barr’s memo about the Mueller investigation (one, two), I note that Barr’s project consists of writing up 19 pages on a subject that start with an admission he knows nothing about the subject.

Barr also adopts the logically and ethically problematic stance of assuming, in a memo that states, “I realize I am in the dark about many facts” in the second sentence, that he knows what Mueller is up to, repeating over and over claims about what theory of obstruction he knows Mueller is pursuing.

Both in his prepared statement yesterday and in his testimony, he excused his memo by blaming his badly mistaken understanding of what Mueller was doing on media reports.

[M]y memo was narrow in scope, explaining my thinking on a specific obstruction-of-justice theory under a single statute that I thought, based on media reports, the Special Counsel might be considering.

He’s not wrong! I have long bitched about shitty Mueller reporting that suggested Mueller was primarily investigating whether Trump obstructed justice. Such problems persist even in recent reports that the counterintelligence focus on Trump was any different from the obstruction inquiry.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

That has, in turn, led to claims that the counterintelligence concerns stemmed exclusively from the firing of Jim Comey and not a slew of other behaviors going back some time before that.

So Barr might be excused for totally misunderstanding what the public evidence from the Mueller investigation actually showed (though not his willingness to comment without first learning what the evidence actually was), because most mainstream media reports badly misreported the public record.

Curiously, Barr didn’t get snookered by the other topic that is consistently badly reported (and badly reportedly, most likely, for the same reason — because Trump’s team has seeded that shitty reporting): whether and how Mueller will issue a report. A great deal of yesterday’s testimony pertained to whether Barr will release “the Mueller report.” Barr promised, in his his prepared testimony and later, to release as much of the results of the investigation as he could.

I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the Special Counsel’s work. For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.

But both Democratic and Republican Senators were concerned by that (which is itself a testament to wildly divergent understandings of what Mueller is looking at), with John Kennedy going so far as suggesting Barr should release all the grand jury materials and Dianne Feinstein conditioning her vote on whether Barr commits to make Mueller’s report public.

In fact, Barr did two things. First, he said he’d speak to Rod Rosenstein and Mueller to understand what their current plans for a report were. But he also repeatedly cited the regulations to argue that Mueller’s report is — by regulation — confidential.

For shits and giggles and because I knew what response I’d get, I asked Mueller’s spokesperson Peter Carr what form their report will take today. I wasn’t disappointed. His response was to attach their governing regulations and call attention to the language that describes the mandated Special Counsel Report.

Thanks for reaching out. All I can point you to is the regulations that govern our office, which are attached. Section 600.8 states the following:

(c) Closing documentation. At the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel. [my emphasis]

That is, if you ask Mueller — or the closest thing we get, his spokesperson — he will answer precisely what Barr did: that his mandated report is simply a confidential prosecutions and declinations report.

That shouldn’t be surprising, either. Mueller continues to use pseudonyms for identities of people in his filings — like Donald Trump himself — that are readily identifiable, based on the principle that DOJ doesn’t refer to uncharged individuals. It’s a principle that explains part of why Mueller submitted yesterday’s Manafort filing in heavily redacted form.

[T]he redactions relate to ongoing law enforcement investigations or uncharged individuals, and public disclosure of certain information in the submission could unduly risk harming those efforts.

In other words, virtually all of the coverage of the “Mueller report” has promised it will be something other than we had reason to believe — short of an indictment request overridden by the Attorney General — that it would be.

By the same token, there’s abundant reason to believe that that’s not what the “Mueller report” will be.

Yesterday, the same day questions about a Mueller report were central to Barr’s confirmation hearing, the WSJ reported this entirely unsurprising detail about Michael Cohen’s testimony before the Oversight Committee on February 7.

Mr. Cohen, who is scheduled to speak in an open hearing on Capitol Hill for the first time Feb. 7, won’t be able to talk about topics that he has discussed with special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a person close to Mr. Cohen.

The indication that Cohen’s testimony will be sharply limited (presumably based on the intercession of Mueller’s congressional liaison, Stephen Kelly, about whom we’re likely to hear more in coming days) suggests several things: First, Mueller doesn’t expect to be done with Michael Cohen by February 7. That, in turn, suggests that all the claims — which I’ve heard too — that Mueller will soon issue a “report” likely misunderstand what form that report will take, because a one-time report covering the importance of Trump Tower deals to entice Trump’s family would present little reason to silence Cohen next month, particularly because he’d be free to talk about it anyway. But if something more public — such as an indictment, even if it’s just of Trump Organization — or if a non-public report that can be conveyed to the House Judiciary Committee is in the works, then you’d want to silence Cohen. Indeed, contrary to a lot of other bad reporting, Cohen remains on the hook in his cooperation with Mueller; he won’t get a reduction in sentence until they decide he has done enough to get a year lopped off his existing sentence.

That many reporters are being told by reliable sources that Mueller will soon unveil a “report” and that Mueller still officially maintains that their required report won’t be public suggests Mueller is moving towards yet another speaking indictment, which is how he has always reported. That’s consistent with the limits on Cohen’s report, it’s consistent with reports that Mueller is presenting evidence against Jerome Corsi to a grand jury, and it’s consistent with what we saw in yesterday’s Manafort filing (which presented evidence of Trump campaign crimes dating to 2016).

I have my concerns about Barr, especially his willingness to make policy decisions informed only by right wing propaganda (on which point he was worse on his testimony about immigration and criminal justice issues than on Mueller). Those concerns extend to what will happen if Barr gets to decide what parts of a Mueller report gets made public; it’s clear that Barr currently believes that Mueller will issue a report finding that Trump did nothing criminal. Those concerns are heightened by the fact that on virtually every other topic, Barr had not done enough homework to answer basic questions (the most remarkable instance of which was his confession that he hasn’t read the Supreme Court’s decision in Carpenter), but he was prepared to state, correctly, that Mueller’s report will be confidential, addressed solely to him.

I have other concerns. Once CSPAN fixes their transcript, I hope to show how badly hypocritical Barr is about both Matt Whitaker and Donald Trump’s sleazy influence peddling. His comments about recusal from the Mueller investigation were troubling. And he seems to believe — as he explained to Patrick Leahy near the end of the hearing — that in November 2017 there remained, after DOJ had investigated both and after Mueller had rolled out the George Papadopoulos plea deal showing him trying to hide that he was discussing emails and meetings with Putin in the days after he became a foreign policy advisor to Trump, more evidence to support an investigation of the Uranium One and Clinton Foundation allegations than into “collusion.”

But Barr also strongly suggested he would not step in the way of any Mueller indictments. And Senators did get him on the record agreeing that if Trump suborned perjury it would be criminal. And he respects Mueller, so if Mueller shows him evidence that Trump has been gravely compromised, then he should take that evidence seriously.

Barr appears to be an arrogant man who believes right wing propaganda is sufficient evidence to base policy decisions on.

But he also has a better idea of what the regulations say to expect from a Mueller report — as distinct from Mueller indictments — than the Senators questioning him did.

Update: This useful JustSecurity piece lays out the regulations and the Attorney General’s discretion.

As I disclosed July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 


Manafort Was Pursuing a Ukrainian “Peace” Deal Well After He Was Charged for Lying about Being an Agent of Ukraine

Yesterday, the Mueller team submitted a highly redacted filing and set of exhibits substantiating their claim that Paul Manafort continued to lie during the period he was supposed to be cooperating with prosecutors.

Even aside from the heavy redaction, the filing is a bit confusing because it doesn’t follow the same order as the two prior filings (Mueller, Manafort) on Manafort’s lies and its parallel structure is weak. But it appears to be structured like this:

  • Payment to/from Rebuilding America Now (0-series exhibits)
  • Konstantin Kilimnik’s role in witness tampering (100-series exhibits)
  • Interactions with Kilimnik (200-series exhibits)
    • Discussions of the Ukraine Peace Deal
      • One meeting
      • Another meeting
      • A 2018 proposal
    • Manafort’s false statements (almost certainly about sharing polling data)
  • Another DOJ investigation (possibly that of Steve Calk) (300-series exhibits)
  • Manafort’s contact with the Administration (400-series exhibits)

Also note the exhibits (which are mostly redacted) restart counting with each new section, as noted above. That said, descriptions of what appear to be the polling-sharing exhibits are in entirely redacted footnotes. The highest number exhibit pertaining to Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik referred to in unredacted form in the filing is 221 (which pertains to the Ukraine peace plan), but the Kilimnik-related exhibits go through exhibit 238, with a skip at exhibit 237. By order, the discussion on page 21-22 of its filing almost certainly pertains to Manafort’s lies about sharing polling data, but the government isn’t even going to describe what are the 16 or 17 exhibits they have substantiating it.

Nevertheless, both the discussion and the exhibits make it clear that — contrary to Konstantin Kilimnik’s claims to the contrary — Manafort remained involved in efforts to push a “peace” plan in Ukraine at least until May 2018. For example, in February 2018, Manafort authored a document on a “New initiative for Peace.”

And this email appears to substantiate a discussion of Manafort’s active involvement in Ukrainian peace deals.

Significantly, the government seems to have sprung some of this on Manafort when he appeared before the grand jury (so therefore was in a position where his lawyers could not serve as direct witnesses). The government treats this October 26 grand jury appearance separately in their Ukraine discussion, and notes that Manafort “was asked in the grand jury about his work in 2018” on the subject. He had “not mentioned” it “during any of his twelve interviews and had said he had last discussed” what must be the peace initiative “in spring 2017” (possibly at the meeting in Madrid he also lied about). A witness testified that he was primarily responsible for drafting this “based … on directions given to him by Manafort” — though it’s clear that Kilimnik continued to offer his feedback, as an attachment to the above email reflects.

Remember: the government’s first public accusation that Kilimnik was a Russian agent came in a filing submitted in March 2018. Manafort continued to conspire (by witness tampering) and pitch peace deals with Kilimnik for over a month after that.

And that makes Manafort’s ongoing communications with the Administration more interesting. On that issue, too, Manafort was “confront[ed] with documents” during a grand jury appearance, at least two of which involved attempts to contact the Administration in May 2018, when we know Manafort was still working on a Ukraine peace plan. Two of the exhibits supporting ongoing efforts to reach out to the Administration included in yesterday’s filing date to May 2018. There’s a May 2018 Word document that Manafort authored and edited that discussed targeting (but that may also incorporate a Ukrainian tax filing).

The other document substantiating ongoing efforts to reach out to the Administration was a text exchange in the weeks after this document reflecting “targeting” got written, in which Manafort invited someone to use his name with Trump.

The government is clear in its filing that,

This is not a complete listing of such contacts Manafort had with Administration officials. Further, for the purpose of proving the falsity of Manafort’s assertions in this section, the government is not relying on communications that may have taken place, with Manafort’s consent, through his legal counsel.

It also refutes Manafort’s claim that, “Mr. Manafort was well aware that the Special Counsel’s attorneys and investigators had scrutinized all of his electronic communications” because “Mr. Manafort voluntarily produced numerous electronic devices and passwords at the request of the Government” by revealing that it had found more than 10 devices or documents for which Manafort hadn’t shared a password.

Defendant said in his pleading that he has provided electronic to the government. However, although he has provided some electronic data, passwords, and documents, in more than ten instances he did not provide passwords to access his electronic communications, thumb drives, or documents.

That is, there may be 10 documents or devices that Manafort tried to shield from the government, but which Manafort’s legendarily shitty OpSec failed to protect. If that’s true, they’re not telling him — or the public, yet — what he was trying to shield.

Indeed, unless I’m missing them or the discussions were redacted, the details provided in this filing address only lies told at about half of Manafort’s meetings with prosecutors (September 20, 21, October 1, 16) and a grand jury appearance on October 26 where they sprung both the 2018 peace efforts and 2018 communications on him. I believe there are no unredacted details about his three meetings on September 25, 26, and 27 or his grand jury appearance on November 2, a period when Mueller was also focused closely on Roger Stone. This filing doesn’t tell us whether Manafort told the truth in those sessions.

In any case, consider how insane this is. Manafort was charged with lying (and getting other people to lie) about his work with Ukraine on October 27, 2017. And yet Manafort appears to have continued that Ukraine-related work for another seven months, while he was supposed to be preparing for his first trial for evading taxes on the funds he earned in Ukraine. And while the government is not telling us what Manafort tried to engage the White House about during that period, timing-wise it may well be that he continued to try to engage the President’s top advisors in this period.

Some of the other evidence in Mueller’s filing makes it clear Manafort was still trying to clean up what appear to be clear campaign finance violations from the 2016 election (both in the form of illegal donations from foreigners and coordination between a SuperPAC and the campaign) as recently as last month. He has long known that Mueller has been watching every step of these parallel efforts. But he doesn’t seem to care.

Update: I’ve updated the post to reflect — as per several comments — that among the 10 things Manafort withheld passwords for may be devices, and so may reflect a much wider universe of documents that he doesn’t know whether they’ve accessed or not.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 


William Barr Falsely Denies His Mueller Memo Makes the Case for Impeachment

William Barr has released his opening statement for his confirmation hearing tomorrow. While it surely is tailored to address the biggest concerns about his nomination, there’s a lot to like about it.

He suggests he’s not as big of a hawk on criminal justice as he used to be. He emphasizes the need to protect the right to vote. He seems to suggest a concern about rising hate crimes.

And — as most outlets have focused on — he affirms the importance of Robert Mueller finishing his work and being able to publish his findings.

First, I believe it is vitally important that the Special Counsel be allowed to complete his investigation. I have known Bob Mueller personally and professionally for 30 years. We worked closely together throughout my previous tenure at the Department of Justice under President Bush. We’ve been friends since. I have the utmost respect for Bob and his distinguished record of public service. When he was named special counsel, I said that his selection was “good news” and that, knowing him, I had confidence he would handle the matter properly. I still have that confidence today.

Given his public actions to date, I expect that the Special Counsel is well along in his investigation. At the same time, the President has been steadfast that he was not involved in any collusion with Russian interference in the election. I believe it is in the best interest of everyone – the President, Congress, and, most importantly, the American people – that this matter be resolved by allowing the Special Counsel to complete his work. The country needs a credible resolution of these issues. If confirmed, I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation. I will follow the Special Counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work.

Second, I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the Special Counsel’s work. For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law. I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decision.

I’m most interested, however, in the way that Barr addresses the memo on the Mueller investigation he wrote last year. In comments also surely designed to reassure Democrats, Barr claims that the memo only addressed one theory of obstruction.

I would like to briefly address the memorandum that I wrote last June. I wrote the memo as a former Attorney General who has often weighed in on legal issues of public importance, and I distributed it broadly so that other lawyers would have the benefit of my views. As I explained in a recent letter to Ranking Member Feinstein, my memo was narrow in scope, explaining my thinking on a specific obstruction-of-justice theory under a single statute that I thought, based on media reports, the Special Counsel might be considering. The memo did not address – or in any way question – the Special Counsel’s core investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Nor did it address other potential obstruction-of-justice theories or argue, as some have erroneously suggested, that a President can never obstruct justice. I wrote it myself, on my own initiative, without assistance, and based solely on public information.

The claim that that’s what he addressed — which I correctly unpacked here — is important because, as Jack Goldsmith has since laid out, Barr’s views on that theory of obstruction fit solidly within OLC precedent.

Yet Barr makes a false claim in that paragraph: that his memo “did [not] address other potential obstruction-of-justice theories.” Indeed, before he finishes his first page, he addresses another potential obstruction-of-justice theory:

Obviously, the President and any other official can commit obstruction in this classic sense of sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function. Thus, for example, if a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction. Indeed, the acts of obstruction alleged against Presidents Nixon and Clinton in their respective impeachments were all such “bad acts” involving the impairment of evidence. Enforcing these laws against the President in no way infringes on the President’s plenary power over law enforcement because exercising this discretion — such as his complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding — does not involve commission of any of these inherently wrongful subversive acts.

It’s right there, on the bottom of his first page, another potential obstruction of justice theory.

As if his reference to Nixon and Clinton didn’t already make it clear, the rest of his memo describes that the proper remedy when the President engages in such crimes is impeachment.

And, as I have laid out, the public evidence (even before recent disclosures about how the FBI worried that Trump was literally taking orders from Russian when he fired Comey) provides strong circumstantial evidence that Trump attempted to impair the integrity and availability of evidence to the FBI, possibly including suborning perjury from Mike Flynn.

While Barr doesn’t presume to dictate whether Congress must judge such behavior adequate to sustain impeachment, he certainly sees it as an adequate basis for impeachment.

Which is why I find his statement troubling. He’s not only placating Democrats with this statement (and opposing any possibility that the President can be charged for criminal acts). He’s also backing off the clear implication of his memo, that if Trump engaged in witness tampering, it would be improper.

All that’s separate from the wisdom and ethics of writing 19 pages, as he did, on a theory based off a really skewed understanding of the evidence, or accepting a job after having done so in the scope of job considerations.

To be sure, if Barr really intends to let Mueller finish and ensure the right to vote, he may be the best Attorney General candidate we’re likely to get from Trump. But he still needs to be asked whether he backs the implications of his memo, which actually back impeachment.

Update: This is fairly batshit. In a letter to Lindsey Graham dated yesterday — the same day Barr released opening statements that say “Nor did [his memo] address other potential obstruction-of-justice theories,” he said that his entire memo was a different theory of obstruction of justice.

The principal conclusion of my memo is that the actions prohibited by section 1512(c) are, generally speaking, the hiding, withholding, destroying, or altering of evidence – in other words, acts that impair the availability or integrity of evidence in a proceeding. The memorandum did not suggest that a President can never obstruct justice. Quite the contrary, it expressed my belief that a President, just like anyone else, can obstruct justice if he or she engages in wrongful actions that impair the availability of evidence. Nor did the memorandum claim, as some have incorrectly suggested, that a President can never obstruct justice whenever he or she is exercising a constitutional function. If a President, acting with the requisite intent, engages in the kind of evidence impairment the statute prohibits – regardless whether it involves the exercise of his or her constitutional powers or not – then a President commits obstruction of justice under the statute. It is as simple as that.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 


The Supreme Court Has Already Agreed that the Mystery Appellant Caused a “Direct Effect” in the United States

I’d like to make a minor — but I think important — point about the DC Circuit opinion in the Mystery Appellant challenge to what is believed to be a Robert Mueller subpoena. Assuming that this is a challenge to a Special Counsel subpoena, then the Supreme Court has already agreed with Mueller — in dissolving a stay of financial penalties for blowing off a subpoena — that some company owned by a foreign country took an action outside the US that had an effect inside the US, in an investigation into what happened during an election.

This post will assume that this is a Mueller subpoena. Some of the evidence backing that assumption includes:

  • DC District Chief Judge Beryl Howell issued the original order; she presides over Mueller’s grand jury
  • A lawyer asked for Mueller’s latest sealed filing on the day a response from the Mystery Appellant was due
  • Greg Katsas recused from consideration of this case; he had said he would recuse on Mueller related issues
  • The secrecy for the hearing before the DC Circuit, and arguably the review process for this challenge, were exceptional
  • Mueller lawyers Michael Dreeben and Zainab Ahmad were seen returning to his office after the DC Circuit hearing

Judges David Tatel, Thomas Griffith, and Stephen Williams issued their order on December 18. The Mystery Appellant appealed to the Supreme Court, and over Christmas John Roberts took briefing on that appeal. Last week the Supreme Court declined to uphold the stay, effectively agreeing with the Circuit’s decision.

And that’s important, because a key part of the now-public (though still partly sealed) DC Circuit opinion explains how the presumed Mueller request overcomes the sovereign immunity of the company in question. The request must involve — among other things — an exception to sovereign immunity.

Taking section 1604 ‘s grant of immunity as a given, the government must check three boxes for the contempt order to stand. First, there must be a valid grant of subject-matter jurisdiction. Second, one of the Act’s exceptions to immunity must apply. And third, the contempt sanctions must be a permissible remedy. According to the district court, the government satisfies all three. We agree.

Mueller claimed that this qualified as an exception because the request involves an “act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere [when] that act causes a direct effect in the United States.”

Moving to those exceptions, in its ex parte filing the government steers us to the third clause of section 1605(a)(2). That provision denies immunity in an “action … based … upon an act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere [when] that act causes a direct effect in the United States.” Ordinarily, the Corporation would bear the burden to establish that the exception does not apply. See EIG Energy FundXIV, L.P. v. Petroleo Brasileiro, S.A., 894 F.3d 339, 344- 45 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (“[T]he foreign-state defendant bears the burden of establishing the affirmative defense of immunity,” including “‘proving that the plaintiff’s allegations do not bring its case within a statutory exception to immunity.”‘ (quoting Phoenix Consulting Inc. v. Republic of Angola, 216 F .3d 36, 40 (D.C. Cir. 2000))).

And because Mueller relied on an ex parte filing to make that case, all the judges involved — Howell, Tatel, Griffith, Williams, Roberts, and whoever else at SCOTUS reviewed this — relied on the argument that Mueller’s lawyers laid out about the request.

Here, however, the government relies primarily on ex parte evidence unavailable to the Corporation. We have repeatedly approved the use of such information when “necessary to ensure the secrecy of ongoing grand jury proceedings,” In re Sealed Case No. 98-3077, 151 F.3d 1059, 1075 (D.C. Cir. 1998), and we do so again here. But where the government uses ex parte evidence, we think the burden falls on the government to establish that the exception applies, and we will conduct a searching inquiry of the government’s evidence and legal theories as a substitute for the adversarial process.

In a sealed discussion of Mueller’s ex parte filing, the DC Circuit finds a “reasonable probability” that that section covers this subpoena. It goes further and states that it doesn’t have to decide what the gravamen of the subpoena is, which suggests that something about this request makes it very clear that the company both possess the records and that they are relevant to Mueller’s investigation.

The “gravamen” of a subpoena may be the mere fact that an entity possesses the documents in question. Alternatively, the “gravamen” may be related to the content of the records and why they may be relevant to the government’s investigation. Indeed, the correct approach may well vary with the facts of a given case. Here, however, we need not resolve that issue [redacted]

There’s some other redacted discussion that dismisses a claim made by the corporation that will be interesting for the history books. But the DC Circuit is clear that the request — as laid out in an ex parte filing presumably written by Mueller’s lawyers — clears the subject matter question.

None of this analysis tells us enough about the company for us to guess what foreign company it is. The WaPo says it is a financial institution. I happen to think that Qatar or the Emirates’ investment authority are the most likely candidates but that’s just an educated guess.

Still, if this is indeed a Mueller subpoena, given the topic of Mueller’s inquiry and his fairly clear discipline at staying within the scope of it, that nevertheless is a signifiant revelation. That’s because Mueller is investigating events relating to an election. And most acts by a company owned by a foreign country that cause an effect in this country — if they have some relationship with that election — would be illegal. It could be the payoff for a bribe. It could be a more direct expenditure associated with the campaign. It could be a payment associated with activities that occurred during the campaign.

Maybe it’s something far more obscure. But any of the obvious applications here would all implicate a foreign country influencing — directly or indirectly — the election. And SCOTUS has already reviewed that Mueller argument, and found it reasonable.

That doesn’t mean SCOTUS has reviewed the evidence the company has, it doesn’t mean the company will turn over the evidence (though it would already incurred something like $300,000 to avoid compliance), it doesn’t mean the evidence proves whatever crime Mueller has cited in demanding it.

But SCOTUS has, at a minimum, found Mueller’s argument that such evidence would be relevant to his criminal investigation reasonable.

Update: Added language to make what happened — SCOTUS dissolved the stay — technically correct.

Update: And SCOTUS is now debating whether to allow the Mystery Appellant to file cert under seal or not.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 


Trump’s “Official Acts” to Pay Off a Russian Bribe Should Make Impeachment a Legal Issue, Not Just a Political One

The pearl clutchers screamed about Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib saying that we need to impeach the motherfucker, Donald Trump, demeaning the presidency.* While I’m glad that she has refused to back down from her beliefs in the face of the attacks, I think her more substantial argument about impeachment deserves further attention (which I hope to return to in a later post). More important, I think that the response to Tlaib’s comments has resulted in members of both parties retreating to a debate about Trump’s impeachment using the old formulation that it’s a political, not a legal question.

It is true that impeachment is political question insofar as, so long as there’s the political will, a president can be impeached for anything, even lying about a consensual blowjob immaterial to an investigation into financial scandal. But impeachment is also a legal question. Indeed, the Constitution mandates that the President be removed from office if he is impeached and convicted not just for the unenumerated grab bag of “high crimes and misdemeanors” — where Congress exercises the political will to decide whether a blowjob merits impeachment — but also the enumerated crimes of treason and bribery.

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

In spite of Emmet Sullivan’s question — as one of the only people who has read sealed documents laying out what Trump’s transition team did — about whether Mueller’s investigators considered charging Mike Flynn with treason, there’s no chance that Trump will be named in a treason charge.

But there is very good chance he will be named in a conspiracy involving a quid pro quo trading dirt and real estate deals for sanctions relief and other policy considerations.

The other day, I realized something ironic: in precisely the same period Trump was entering in an apparent quid pro quo with Russians, John Roberts was authoring a unanimous Supreme Court decision that clarified the limits of quid pro quo bribery.

And while the Supreme Court believed that Governor Bob McDonnell had not accepted bribes for setting up meetings in exchange for gifts, the language Roberts wrote in the weeks after Trump’s son told some Russians they would revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his father won does not so narrow the definition of bribery as to make Trump’s actions legally excusable.

Roberts described an official act this way:

In sum, an “official act” is a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” The “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is “pending” or “may by law be brought” before a public official. To qualify as an “official act,” the public official must make a decision or take an action on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” or agree to do so.

Notably, the bribed public official doesn’t actually have to follow through on the official act he agreed to take, so it doesn’t help Trump that Congress has repeatedly prevented him from overturning sanctions on Russia.

Under this Court’s precedents, a public official is not required to actually make a decision or take an action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy”; it is enough that the official agree to do so.

And there are a number of data points in the public record that suggest Trump did believe he had made a deal with the Russians and that Russia had what it believed was a commitment from Trump. For example, four of the people who attended the June 9 meeting testified (most under oath) that Don Jr said his father would revisit sanctions relief if he got elected.

Natalia Veselnitskaya said Don Jr said they’d revisit the topic.

Mr. Trump, Jr. politely wound up the meeting with meaningless phrases about somewhat as follows: can do nothing about it, “if’ or “when” we come to power, we may return to this strange and confusing story.

Ike Kaveladze said that Don Jr said they might revisit the issue if his father won.

There was no request, but as I said, it was a suggestion that if Trump campaign wins, they might get back to the Magnitsky Act topic in the future.

Rinat Akhmetshin said that Don Jr said they would revisit Magnitsky when they won.

A. I don’t remember exact words which were said, but I remember at the end, Donald, Jr., said, you know, “Come back see us again when we win.” Not “if we win,” but “when we win.” And I kind of thought to myself like, “Yeah, right.” But it happened, so — but that’s something, see, he’s very kind of positive about, “When we win, come back and see us again.” Something to that effect, I guess.

Anatoli Samochornov, Veselnitskaya’s translator, who is the most independent witness and the only one who didn’t compare his story with others, said that Don Jr said they would revisit the issue if Trump won.

A. Like I described, I remember, not verbatim, the closing that Mr. Donald Trump, Jr., provided, but that’s all that I recall being said from the other side.

MR. PRIVOR: That closing being that Donald Trump, Jr., suggested —

MR. SAMOCHORNOV: If or when yes, and I do not remember if or when, but if or when my father becomes President, we will revisit this issue.

And Ike Kaveladze, in the call back to his boss to report on the meeting that witnesses observed, was happy with the outcome of the meeting.

It’s not just the Russians who seem to have acted on the meeting. Michael Cohen’s allocution seems to suggest that the meeting tied directly to the negotiations over a Trump Tower, because he took steps to travel to Russian on the day of the meeting.

From on or about June 9 to June 14, 2016, Individual 2 sent numerous messages to COHEN about the travel, including forms for COHEN to complete. However, on or about June 14 , 2016, COHEN met Individual 2 in the lobby of the Company’s headquarters to inform Individual 2 he would not be traveling at that time.

Remember: a “senior campaign official” was involved in discussions about trips to Russia. And had the President’s personal lawyer actually taken this trip to St. Petersburg, the plan was to meet Vladimir Putin (who did attend the forum that year).

While the dates provided in Cohen’s allocution also suggest the disclosure that Russia hacked the DNC halted Cohen’s plans “at that time,” we know that the plans did resume after that canceled trip into July.

The Russians certainly believed they had an agreement. They put in some effort to meet again after Trump won. While finding an appropriate communication channel failed for the Agalarovs, Flynn and Jared Kushner moved to establish a back channel via Sergey Kislyak. When Trump met with Preet Bharara and reportedly agreed to keep him on, Veselnitskaya panicked, and suggested Trump planned to keep him on so he could take him out.

In its indictment of Veselnitskaya, DOJ just established that she was actually working as part of the Russian government when she claimed to have fought to get an MLAT request in her Prevezon case. And Veselnitskaya believed that after Trump won the election, he would take out the prosecutor whom she was facing in court. Ultimately, Trump did take out Preet, firing all his US Attorneys in an effort to do so.

And details from Mike Flynn’s allocution provide one important piece of evidence that Russians believed they had received a commitment from Trump.

After Obama imposed sanctions on Russia partly in retaliation for the election year operation, Trump’s team panicked, both because they wanted to improve relations with Russia, but also because Russia’s role in his victory delegitimized the victory. That is, even those unlikely to be unaware of any quid pro quo recognized that the public accounting of Russia’s role in helping defeat Hillary would make it all the more difficult to deal with Russia.

Obama is doing three things politically:

  • discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference
  • lure trump into trap of saying something today that casts doubt on report on Russia’s culpability and then next week release report that catches Russia red handed
  • box trump in diplomatically with Russia. If there is a tit-for-tat escalation trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia which has just thrown USA election to him.

Trump’s response, however, was to reach out to Russia and assure them they didn’t need to worry about Obama’s new policy. In response, the Russians made it very clear that Putin had decided not to respond based on the assurances that Flynn gave Kislyak.

On or about December 30, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement indicating that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. Sanctions at that time.

On or about December 31, 2016, the Russian Ambassador called FLYNN and informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to FL YNN’s request.

Mueller, of course, has the full transcript of what Flynn said to Kislyak that successfully placated Putin. It is highly likely the transcript provides explicit evidence of an official act to pay off his side of the deal, sanctions relief.

All of which is to say that Mueller may well be finalizing a conspiracy indictment of Don Jr and Trump Org laying out a quid pro quo in which Trump agreed to provide sanctions relief (and some other stuff) in exchange for Russia’s help winning the election.

That Mueller might be able to show all this is bribery may not affect Republican willingness to take the action laid out in the Constitution, to convict Trump in an impeachment inquiry. But given that the Constitution specifically envisions impeaching a President who has accepted a bribe, commentators should stop treating impeachment exclusively as a political issue.

Update: I posted this before I had read this analysis from Jack Goldsmith raising concerns about investigating the President for foreign policy decisions. While I think Goldsmith raises key points, he focuses on actions Trump took as President. But that’s one reason I think the transition activities are so important. If I’m right that the calls to Kislyak amount to an official act, then Trump took it to undermine the official policy of the government, not set it as President. Further, The Trump team had been asked — and at least one person had agreed — to not undermine Obama’s policies during the transition. There were several efforts to hide that they were doing so: the indications they couldn’t reengage on Magnitsky sanctions using the same channels as they used during the election, the request for a back channel, and the meeting with Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan that Susan Rice discovered by unmasking the identities of those who met with him.

The actions Trump took that led to Flynn and Comey’s firings were part of an effort to hide these clandestine efforts during the transition. Yes, they were conducted while he was President. But they were conducted to cover up actions taken before he became President. This is why I keep harping on the remarkable lack of curiosity about why Trump really fired Flynn. The public story Trump is telling is assuredly false. The real reason almost certainly ties back to these transition period actions.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

*Full disclosure: I donated to Tlaib’s campaign.


Paul Manafort’s Ongoing Conspiracy with Suspected Russian Agent Konstantin Kilimnik

Because the NYT corrected an error (noting that Paul Manafort instructed Konstantin Kilimnik to pass on Trump polling data to pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov, not Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska), the usual suspects are claiming that the really damning disclosures revealed by Paul Manafort’s filing of the other day don’t yet prove Trump’s campaign manager conspired with Russia.

Manafort already pled guilty to conspiring with Russian Konstantin Kilimnik

I saw claims as recently as the other day that no Trump associate has been charged or pled guilty to conspiring with a Russian. That’s false.

As part of his plea agreement in September, Manafort pled guilty to conspiring with Kilimnik, a Russian citizen, to witness tamper.  Admittedly, this particular conspiracy took place in 2018, not 2016, and it served not to tamper with the 2016 election, but to hide the ways in which Manafort kept secret that he was an agent of Ukraine spending millions to influence US policy. But, as Mueller has described it, Manafort committed a series of crimes designed to hide his ongoing ties to Russian-backed Ukrainian oligarchs after being fired from the Trump campaign in significant part to sustain lies he and Rick Gates told while still working for Donald Trump.

In other words, one purpose of his conspiracy with Kilimnik was to hide the fact that Trump’s campaign manager — who, in spite of being broke, worked for “free” throughout the campaign — had been a paid agent of Ukraine.

The Russian Manafort conspired with, Konstantin Kilimnik is suspected of ties to the same agency that hacked the DNC

Past Mueller filings have made it clear that Kilimnik is suspected to have ties to a Russian intelligence agency. The FBI thinks so.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agents assisting the Special Counsel’s Office assess that [Kilimnik] has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016

And Rick Gates knew of those ties.

During his first interview with the Special Counsel’s Office, [Alex] van der Zwaan admitted that he knew of that connection, stating that Gates told him [Kilimnik] was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the GRU.

The GRU, of course, is the Russian intelligence agency that hacked the Democrats in 2016. So Manafort has pled to conspiring not just with any Russian, but a Russian believed to have ties with the agency that hacked the DNC.

Akhmetov was named — in the same interview as Deripaska — in the affidavit for a 2017 probable cause search warrant targeting Manafort

Akhmetov, one of the oligarchs with whom NYT’s correction say Manafort did share data, was described in the probable cause warrant the FBI used to raid Manafort’s condo in July 2017. Indeed, Manafort described working for both Akhmetov and Deripaska in the same period he was supporting Viktor Yanukoych.

This suggests it’s difficult to separate Manafort’s historical criminal behavior involving Akhmetov from that involving Deripaska. And Kilimnik was involved in both.

Akhmetov and Lyovochkin were paying Manafort while he was working for Trump for “free”

As part of Manafort’s spox’s “clarifications” about the disclosures made clear in the redacted filing, he admitted that a $2.4 million payment Manafort anticipated — in an August 2016 email to his accountant — that he would receive in November was from Akhmetov and Lyovochkin. While that payment is understood to be debts owed for past work, his decision to share campaign data with the oligarchs seems to have been tied to ensuring he did get that payment.

If that’s right, it suggests that that $2.4 million payment, at a time when Manafort was broke but nevertheless working for “free,” had some tie to his work on the campaign.

Lyovochkin made an illegal donation to Donald Trump’s inauguration fund

Another Kilimnik business partner, Sam Patten, pled guilty (in part) to laundering a $50,000 donation to Trump’s inauguration fund for tickets to his inauguration.

To circumvent the foreign donation restriction, PATTEN, with the knowledge of Foreigner A, solicited a United States citizen to act as a “straw” purchaser so that he could conceal from the [Presidential Inauguration Committee] that the tickets for the inauguration were being paid for from a foreign source. The straw purchaser paid $50,000 for four inauguration tickets. The straw purchaser paid that sum one day after receiving from [Begemot Ventures] a check signed by PATTEN in the sum of $50,000. In turn, [Lyovochkin] had paid [Begemot] for the tickets though a Cypriot account. [Kilimnik and Lyovochkin] another Ukrainian, and PATTEN were allocated the four inauguration tickets. Thereafter, PATTEN attended a PIC event in Washington, D.C. with [Lyovochkin].

Thus, in addition to paying Trump’s campaign manager during the campaign, Lyovochkin made an illegal donation to Trump’s inauguration (and remember, there are outstanding questions about where all the inauguration funds went).

Manafort discussed Ukraine every time he spoke with Kilimnik during the campaign; those discussions included a Russian-friendly “peace plan”

Among the other lies Manafort told when he was supposed to be cooperating with Mueller pertained to his repeated conversations with Kilimnik. And while Manafort tried to minimize the persistence with which they discussed such things, suggesting he may have discussed a Ukraine peace plan more than once.

After being shown documents, Mr. Manafort “conceded” that he discussed or may have discussed a Ukraine peace plan with Mr. Kilimnik on more than one occasion

But Mueller maintains they have detailed descriptions showing the peace plan came up “at each” meeting they had, which suggests it was a key part of why the Russians and Ukrainians in touch with Manafort through Kilimnik were in touch with him.

And, again, both these lies and Manafort’s lies in 2018 and Manafort’s lies in 2016 and 2017 were all intended to hide these ongoing relationships, in significant part to hide Trump’s campaign ties to all of this.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Copyright © 2018 emptywheel. All rights reserved.
Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/2016-presidential-election/