NYT Does Not Have the Smoking Gun on Trump Campaign Email Knowledge

The NYT had a complex story today, reporting three things:

  1. The counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign followed from a drunken conversation George Papadopoulos had in May 2016 with Aussie Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer
  2. Papadopoulos was more influential than Trump’s team has made out
  3. Papadopoulos pitched an April 2016 Trump foreign policy speech as a signal to Russia that Trump would be willing to meet

It’s the first detail that has attracted all the attention. NYT reported it this way:

During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

About three weeks earlier, Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.

Exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

[snip]

Not long after, however, he opened up to Mr. Downer, the Australian diplomat, about his contacts with the Russians. It is unclear whether Mr. Downer was fishing for that information that night in May 2016. The meeting at the bar came about because of a series of connections, beginning with an Israeli Embassy official who introduced Mr. Papadopoulos to another Australian diplomat in London.

It is also not clear why, after getting the information in May, the Australian government waited two months to pass it to the F.B.I. In a statement, the Australian Embassy in Washington declined to provide details about the meeting or confirm that it occurred.

NYT’s story does pose a good question: why the Australians didn’t tell the US about this conversation until July, after Wikileaks started releasing DNC emails.

But the few GOPers who have responded to this news raise another question: did the Aussies even know what emails Papadopoulos was talking about?

As I noted in October, we actually don’t know what emails Joseph Misfud was talking about when he told Papadopoulos the Russians had dirt on Hillary. Trumpsters are now suggesting these emails might be those Guccifer 1.0 stole from Hillary, but they could be a range of other emails.

This story would be far more damning if the NYT knew for sure that the emails were ones freshly stolen from DNC, John Podesta, or the Hillary campaign itself, but they don’t.

The uncertainty about what emails Papadopoulos learned about — and revealed to Downer — might explain why the Aussies didn’t tell the US right away. If the Australians didn’t know what emails the Russians had, it might explain their lack of urgency. If the emails were known Guccifer 1.0 emails, it wouldn’t be news. But it doesn’t explain why the Aussies didn’t tell the US in June, when Guccifer 2.0 started releasing documents, but instead waited until their own citizen, Julian Assange, started releasing some on July 22.

All this could be a lot more easily explained if we knew the one detail the NYT admits it didn’t confirm: whether and when Papadopoulos told the campaign that the Russians had emails (and whether he knew which emails the Russians had).

In late April, at a London hotel, Mr. Mifsud told Mr. Papadopoulos that he had just learned from high-level Russian officials in Moscow that the Russians had “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to court documents. Although Russian hackers had been mining data from the Democratic National Committee’s computers for months, that information was not yet public. Even the committee itself did not know.

Whether Mr. Papadopoulos shared that information with anyone else in the campaign is one of many unanswered questions. He was mostly in contact with the campaign over emails. The day after Mr. Mifsud’s revelation about the hacked emails, he told Mr. [Stephen] Miller in an email only that he had “interesting messages coming in from Moscow” about a possible trip. The emails obtained by The Times show no evidence that Mr. Papadopoulos discussed the stolen messages with the campaign.

NYT makes clear Papadopoulos (who was, after all, remote and traveling a lot) primarily communicated via emails. But the emails they obtained (but didn’t share) don’t include any evidence of him telling the campaign about the emails (much less which ones they were).

Which brings us to a point I made in November: when the FBI arrested Papadopoulos in July, they believed he lied to hide whether he told the campaign about the emails, but they de-emphasized that detail in the October plea deal.

[T]he description of the false statements makes the import of them far more clear (import that the Special Counsel seems to want to obscure for now). Papadopoulos lied about the circumstances of his conversations with Mifsud — the FBI appears to have believed when they arrested him in July — as part of a story to explain why, after having heard about dirt in the form of thousands of emails from Hillary, he didn’t tell anyone else on the campaign about them. Laid out like this, it’s clear Papadopoulos was trying to hide both when he learned about the emails (just three days before the DNC did, as it turns out, not much earlier as he seems to have suggested in January), but also how important he took those emails to be (which in his false story, he tied to to a false story about how credible he found Mifsud to be).

FBI found those lies to be significant enough to arrest him over because they obscured whether he had told anyone on the campaign that the Russians had dirt in the form of Hillary emails.

To be sure, nothing in any of the documents released so far answer the questions that Papadopoulos surely spent two months explaining to the FBI: whether he told the campaign (almost certainly yes, or he wouldn’t have lied in the first place) and when (with the big import being on whether that information trickled up to Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner before they attended a meeting on June 9, 2016 in hopes of obtaining such dirt).

I’m sure that’s intentional. You gotta keep everyone else guessing about what Mueller knows.

The NYT’s sources are described as “four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role,” though this statement — and a past willingness on behalf of Papadopoulos’ fiancée to provide details and emails — suggests that people close to Papadopoulos cooperated as well: ” Papadopoulos’s lawyers declined to provide a statement.”

The point being, we still don’t have the most important detail of this story: whether Papadopoulos told the campaign about the emails, but more importantly, what the emails were.

Thus far, everyone seems intent on withholding that detail.

What Explains Trump’s Focus on Manafort?

As I noted yesterday on Twitter, the transcript of NYT’s interview with Donald Trump reads like this:

collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion collusion

23 times Trump either denied any evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia or alleged collusion between Hillary and … I’m not entirely clear who she was supposed to have colluded with.

Whatever else this interview was, it was also a testament to Trump’s continued obsession with trying to deny any guilt.

Which is why I’m so interested in both the form and the singular focus on Trump’s denial of Paul Manafort.

SCHMIDT: What’s your expectation on Mueller? When do you —

TRUMP: I have no expectation. I can only tell you that there is absolutely no collusion. Everybody knows it. And you know who knows it better than anybody? The Democrats. They walk around blinking at each other.

SCHMIDT: But when do you think he’ll be done in regards to you —

TRUMP: I don’t know.

SCHMIDT: But does that bother you?

TRUMP: No, it doesn’t bother me because I hope that he’s going to be fair. I think that he’s going to be fair. And based on that [inaudible]. There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair. And if he’s fair — because everybody knows the answer already, Michael. I want you to treat me fairly. O.K.?

SCHMIDT: Believe me. This is —

TRUMP: Everybody knows the answer already. There was no collusion. None whatsoever.

_________

TRUMP: Maybe I’ll just say a little bit of a [inaudible]. I’ve always found Paul Manafort to be a very nice man. And I found him to be an honorable person. Paul only worked for me for a few months. Paul worked for Ronald Reagan. His firm worked for John McCain, worked for Bob Dole, worked for many Republicans for far longer than he worked for me. And you’re talking about what Paul was many years ago before I ever heard of him. He worked for me for — what was it, three and a half months?

SCHMIDT: A very short period of time.

TRUMP: Three and a half months. [Inaudible] So, that’s that. Let’s just say — I think that Bob Mueller will be fair, and everybody knows that there was no collusion.

The interview started with a discussion of Jeff Sessions’ recusal, which led Trump to claim he won because he campaigned better than Hillary, but then Mike Schmidt returned to Russia, which returned Trump to his “no collusion” line.

Then Schmidt permits Trump to go off the record about … something. Then the interview goes back on the record with Trump apparently deciding to offer up details after all. He offers the following defense of Manafort:

  • He’s a nice, honorable man
  • Manafort worked for other Republicans too
  • Manafort didn’t work (on the campaign) for Trump long at all
  • Trump never heard of the man who lived in Trump Tower and had had a firm with Trump’s buddy Roger Stone

Having already had two people flip on him and agree to cooperate with prosecutors, Trump starts by flattering Manafort. He rightly reminds that Manafort has long been tolerated in the Republican party, even after Manafort’s fondness for working with thugs became widely known.

Trump then dismisses any Manafort taint based on time associated with the campaign (three and a half key months of the campaign, during the period when Russians were reaching out to provide dirt), not based on his actions for the campaign.

Finally, by falsely claiming he didn’t know Manafort, Trump absolves himself of any prior taint the lobbyist had.

As I said, I’m interested in this passage not just for Trump’s lame attempt at defending himself, but also that he did so. It’s only Manafort Trump feels the need to defend himself against, not Flynn (whom Trump reportedly is preparing to accuse of lying), not Papadopoulos, and not even Rick Gates (who, after all, hung around the campaign through the transition).

The Daily Beast did do an uninteresting piece suggesting Mueller’s team may get a superseding indictment against Manafort, but it doesn’t even imagine Mueller getting to the guts of the case, perhaps by indicting Manafort based on his ongoing reporting on the campaign to Oleg Deripaska via Konstantin Kilimnik, the latter of whom also served as a go-between in an effort to help Manafort write a self-defensive op-ed. Instead, it imagines only that Manafort will get a superseding indictment on tax charges.

Alternately, Schmidt may have said something during that off the record section that directly raised Manafort. Schmidt’s regular beat is the FBI, not Mar a Lago, so he may know something far more interesting than the Daily Beast does about where Mueller is going.

Whatever the reason, Trump seems far more worried about damage Manafort can do to him right now than any damage Flynn can.

Chuck Johnson’s Narrowed Scope of What a Russian Is Excludes Known Conspirators in Operation

Michael Tracey has a story that purports to show that the Senate Intelligence Committee, in negotiating voluntary cooperation with Chuck Johnson, is criminalizing being Russian.

The Senate committee probing alleged Russian interference in the U.S. political system has deemed anyone “of Russian nationality or Russian descent” relevant to its investigation, according to a document obtained by TYT.

[snip]

On July 27, 2017, Charles C. Johnson, a controversial right-wing media figure, received a letter from Sens. Burr and Warner requesting that he voluntarily provide materials in his possession that are “relevant” to the committee’s investigation. Relevant materials, the letter went on, would include any records of interactions Johnson had with “Russian persons” who were involved in some capacity in the 2016 U.S. elections.

The committee further requested materials related to “Russian persons” who were involved in some capacity in “activities that related in any way to the political election process in the U.S.” Materials may include “documents, emails, text messages, direct messages, calendar appointments, memoranda, [and] notes,” the letter outlined.

Doss’s statement was in response to a request made by Robert Barnes, an attorney for Johnson, for clarification as to the SSCI’s definition of a “Russian person.”

How the committee expects subjects to go about ascertaining whether a person is of “Russian descent” is unclear. “It does indicate that the committee is throwing a rather broad net,” Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, said. “It is exceptionally broad.” In terms of constitutionality, Turley speculated that “most courts would view that as potentially too broad, but not unlawful.”

Johnson played a key role in several known parts of the election operation. In addition to brokering Dana Rohrabacher’s meeting with Julian Assange, all designed to provide some alternative explanation for the DNC hack, Johnson worked with Peter Smith and Weev to try to find the deleted emails from Hillary’s server.

Johnson said he and Smith stayed in touch, discussing “tactics and research” regularly throughout the presidential campaign, and that Smith sought his help tracking down Clinton’s emails. “He wanted me to introduce to him to Bannon, to a few others, and I sort of demurred on some of that,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think his operation was as sophisticated as it needed to be, and I thought it was good to keep the campaign as insulated as possible.”

Instead, Johnson said, he put the word out to a “hidden oppo network” of right-leaning opposition researchers to notify them of the effort. Johnson declined to provide the names of any of the members of this “network,” but he praised Smith’s ambition.

“The magnitude of what he was trying to do was kind of impressive,” Johnson said. “He had people running around Europe, had people talking to Guccifer.” (U.S. intelligence agencies have linked the materials provided by “Guccifer 2.0”—an alias that has taken credit for hacking the Democratic National Committee and communicated with Republican operatives, including Trump confidant Roger Stone—to Russian government hackers.)

Johnson said he also suggested that Smith get in touch with Andrew Auernheimer, a hacker who goes by the alias “Weev” and has collaborated with Johnson in the past. Auernheimer—who was released from federal prison in 2014 after having a conviction for fraud and hacking offenses vacated and subsequently moved to Ukraine—declined to say whether Smith contacted him, citing conditions of his employment that bar him from speaking to the press.

Tracey’s claims are based on this email (and, clearly, cooperation with Johnson).

Except Tracey (and so presumably Johnson) appear to be misrepresenting what is going on.

When SSCI originally asked for Johnson’s cooperation in July, they asked him to provide communications “with Russian persons, or representatives of Russian government, business, or media interest” relating to the 2016 election and any hack related to it.

And while Tracey calls the December follow-up a “clarification,” Doss clearly considers it a “narrowing” of that July description. So the description Tracey finds so outrageous — people of Russian nationality or descent — appears to be a subset of what might be included in the original request.

Moreover, the narrowing might be really detrimental to SSCI’s ability to learn what Johnson was up to when he was seeking out Russian hackers who might have Hillary’s server. Consider just the examples of Karim Baratov or Ike Kaveladze. Both are likely suspects for involvement in the events of 2016. Baratov — the hacker who recently pled guilty to compromising selected Google and Yandex accounts for FSB — is a Canadian citizen born in Kazakhstan. Kaveladze — who works for Aras Agalarov, has past ties to money laundering, and attended the June 9, 2016 meeting — is an American citizen born in Georgia. Neither is ethnically Russian. So if Johnson had any hypothetical interactions with them, he could cabin off those interactions based on this narrowed definition of what counts as a Russian.

To say nothing of Johnson’s interactions with Assange, who is Australian, yet whose ties to Russia are unclear. Effectively, even if Johnson knew that Assange had coordinated with Russia last year, he wouldn’t have to turn over his communications with him, because he’s not himself Russian.

According to Tracey’s piece, Johnson says he won’t cooperate regardless, in spite of his lawyer’s efforts to narrow the scope of any cooperation.

But I find it interesting that his lawyer attempted to narrow any testimony in a fashion that might hide important parts of Johnson’s actions.

Trump Appears to Have Withheld the KT McFarland Email about the “Thrown Election”

This post explains what appears to be the real reason for the fake outrage about Mueller obtaining information from GSA: by doing so, he appears to have obtained proof that the Transition was withholding emails material to the investigation. Go to this post for a more general summary of what we know about the claim. 

Here’s the letter that Trump For America lawyer sent to Congress to cause a big hullabaloo about how Robert Mueller obtained transition period emails. I unpacked it in this Twitter thread and commented on it in an update to this post.

But this passage deserves a separate post, because it seems to go to the heart of why the Republicans are spewing propaganda like this.

Additionally, certain portions of the PTT materials the Special Counsel’s Office obtained from the GSA, including materials that are susceptible to privilege claims, have been leaked to the press by unknown persons. Moreover, the leaked records have been provided to the press without important context and in a manner that appears calculated to inflict maximum reputational damage on the PTT and its personnel, without the inclusion of records showing that PTT personnel acted properly – which in turn forces TFA to make an impossible choice between (a) protecting its legal privileges by keeping its records confidential and (b) waiving its privileges by publicly releasing records that counteract the selective leaks and misguided news reports. In short, since the GSA improperly provided them to the Special Counsel’s Office, the PTT’s privileged materials have not only been reviewed privately by the Special Counsel’s Office without notification to TFA – they have also been misused publicly.

Kory Langhofer is insinuating — without quite risking the claim — that after GSA shared certain emails with Robert Mueller’s office, “unknown persons” leaked them to the press. The insinuation is that Mueller’s team leaked them.

I can think of just one set of emails that fit this description: emails from KT McFarland that provided proof that Mike Flynn lied to the FBI about his conversations with Sergei Kislyak on December 29, 2016. The NYT quoted extensively from them in a December 2 story.

Among other things, McFarland stated in the emails that Russia “has just thrown the U.S.A. election to” Trump.

On Dec. 29, a transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K. T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.

[snip]

Mr. Obama, she wrote, was trying to “box Trump in diplomatically with Russia,” which could limit his options with other countries, including Iran and Syria. “Russia is key that unlocks door,” she wrote.

She also wrote that the sanctions over Russian election meddling were intended to “lure Trump in trap of saying something” in defense of Russia, and were aimed at “discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

“If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote.

Contrary to Langhofer’s suggestion, NYT made some effort to mitigate the damage of McFarland’s comment seemingly confirming the Trump team knew the election had been stolen, including speaking to a White House lawyer about it.

It is not clear whether Ms. McFarland was saying she believed that the election had in fact been thrown. A White House lawyer said on Friday that she meant only that the Democrats were portraying it that way.

And while NYT’s explanation that they got the emails “from someone who had access to transition team communications” certainly could include Mueller’s team among the culprits, it could also include GSA officials themselves or — even more likely — a former Trump official with a grudge. At least three were CCed on the email in question: Bannon, Priebus, and Spicer.

Mr. Bossert forwarded Ms. McFarland’s Dec. 29 email exchange about the sanctions to six other Trump advisers, including Mr. Flynn; Reince Priebus, who had been named as chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the senior strategist; and Sean Spicer, who would become the press secretary.

In other words, Langhofer uses the leak as an excuse to suggest wrong-doing by Mueller, when other possibilities are far more likely.

But consider the other implication of this: Langhofer is suggesting that this email chain (which included no named active lawyers, nor included Trump directly, though they were written in Trump’s presence at Mar a Lago) is “susceptible to privilege claims.” He is further suggesting that GSA is the only way this email could have been released (ignoring, of course, the Bannon/Priebus/Spicer) options.

If that’s right, then he’s suggesting that Trump was involved in this email chain directly. There’s no reason to believe he was CCed. But since the emails were written from Mar-a-Lago, it’s likely he was consulted in the drafting of the emails.

In addition, Langhofer is also admitting that Trump’s team didn’t release these emails directly — at least not to Congress.

Emails which couldn’t be more central to the point of Mueller’s investigation.

Did the GOP just admit that Trump withheld this email? Because if so, it suggests the “thrown election” comment is far more damning than the NYT laid out.

Update: It’s not clear whether Mueller ever tried to obtain these records via GSA (though it’s possible FBI obtained emails before the inauguration). But this, from the letter, makes it clear at least Congress had made requests, which led TFA to try to take GSA out of the loop even though SCO had a document preservation request.

In order to comply with congressional document production requests, TFA ordered from the GSA electronic copies of all PTT emails and other data. Career GSA staff initially expressed concern that providing copies of PTT emails to TFA might violate a document preservation request that the GSA had received from the Special Counsel’s Office.

Withholding this email from Congress would be particularly problematic, as McFarland testified in conjunction with her now-frozen nomination to be Ambassador to Singapore that she knew nothing about Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. h/t SS

Update: Ah, this explains how Mueller was getting emails: via voluntary production, along with everything the Transition was giving Congress. Which means the email was withheld, and this October subpoena was an attempt to see whether they’d cough it up on their own.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in mid-October issued a subpoena to President Donald Trump’s campaign requesting Russia-related documents from more than a dozen top officials, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The subpoena, which requested documents and emails from the listed campaign officials that reference a set of Russia-related keywords, marked Mr. Mueller’s first official order for information from the campaign, according to the person. The subpoena didn’t compel any officials to testify before Mr. Mueller’s grand jury, the person said.

The subpoena caught the campaign by surprise, the person said. The campaign had previously been voluntarily complying with the special counsel’s requests for information, and had been sharing with Mr. Mueller’s team the documents it provided to congressional committees as part of their probes of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election.

[snip]

Mueller’s team had previously issued subpoenas individually to several top campaign officials, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Mike Flynn.

[Correction: I’ve been corrected on this passage, which makes it clear this is about campaign emails, not transition ones. But I assume he made parallel requests for all three phases of Trump organization.]

Update: Mueller’s spox, Peter Carr, issued a statement saying, “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.” Given what I’ve laid out here, I actually think “C” may have been the case:

  • Subpoena to Flynn, obtain voluntary compliance for specific things as well as evidence shared with Congress prior to August
  • In August (perhaps after being alerted to withheld documents by Priebus/Spicer/Bannon/Papadopoulos?) obtain emails from GSA, technically the device owners
  • In October, subpoena for Russian-related emails from the same ~13 people

Trump Transition Team Outraged To Be Treated as Transition Team!!

This is a general post on the GOP claim Mueller improperly obtained emails from ~13 Transition officials, updated as new news comes available. This post explains what is really going on: the Transition appears to have withheld emails — including the KT McFarland one referring to the election as having been “thrown” — and Mueller obtained proof they were withholding things. 

Both Fox News and Axios have pieces reflecting the outrage!!! among Trump people that they got asked questions about emails they thought they had hidden from Mueller’s investigation. Axios reveals that Mueller obtained the full contents of 12 accounts (Reuters says 13), one including 7,000 emails, from people on the “political leadership” and “foreign-policy team;” it says it includes “sensitive emails of Jared Kushner.”

Fox reveals that a transition lawyer wrote Congress today claiming that it was unlawful for government employees to turn over emails hosted on government servers for a criminal investigation.

A lawyer for the Trump presidential transition team is accusing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office of inappropriately obtaining transition documents as part of its Russia probe, including confidential attorney-client communications and privileged communications.

In a letter obtained by Fox News and sent to House and Senate committees on Saturday, the transition team’s attorney alleges “unlawful conduct” by the career staff at the General Services Administration in handing over transition documents to the special counsel’s office.

Officials familiar with the case argue Mueller could have a problem relating to the 4th Amendment – which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Kory Langhofer, the counsel to Trump for America, wrote in the letter that the the GSA “did not own or control the records in question.”

But, Langhofer says, Mueller’s team has “extensively used the materials in question, including portions that are susceptible to claims of privilege.”

And Axios explains that the Trump people actually sorted through this stuff. “The sources say that transition officials assumed that Mueller would come calling, and had sifted through the emails and separated the ones they considered privileged.”

I’m really looking forward to hearing the full story about this, rather than just this partisan spin. For example, I’m interested in whether Mueller realized via some means (perhaps from someone like Reince Priebus or Sean Spicer — update, or George Papadopoulos) that the White House had withheld stuff that was clearly responsive to his requests, so he used that to ask GSA to turn over the full set.

I’m also interested in how they’ll claim any of this was privileged. The top 13 political and foreign policy people on the Trump team might include (asterisks mark people confirmed to be among those whose accounts were obtained):

  1. Pence
  2. Bannon
  3. Jared*
  4. Flynn*
  5. KT McFarland
  6. Spicer
  7. Priebus
  8. Nunes
  9. Sessions
  10. Seb Gorka
  11. Stephen Miller
  12. Hope Hicks
  13. Ivanka
  14. Don Jr
  15. Rebekah Mercer
  16. Kelly Anne Conway
  17. Rudy Giuliani
  18. Steven Mnuchin
  19. Rick Gates
  20. Corey Lewandowski
  21. Tom Bossert

Just one of those people — Sessions — is a practicing lawyer (and he wasn’t, then), and he wasn’t playing a legal role in the transition (though both Sessions and Nunes may have been using their congressional email, in which case Mueller likely would show far more deference; update: I’ve added Rudy 911 to the list, and he’d obviously qualify as a practicing lawyer). Though I suppose they might have been talking with a lawyer. But I would bet Mueller’s legal whiz, Michael Dreeben, would point to the Clinton White House Counsel precedent and say that transition lawyers don’t get privilege.

Furthermore, Trump wasn’t President yet! This has come up repeatedly in congressional hearings. You don’t get privilege until after you’re president, in part to prevent you from doing things like — say — undermining existing foreign policy efforts of the actually still serving President. So even if these people were repeating things Trump said, it wouldn’t be entitled to privilege yet.

Finally, consider that some of these people were testifying to the grand jury months and months ago. But we’re only seeing this complaint today. That’s probably true for two reasons. One, because Mueller used the emails in question (most notably, the emails between McFarland and Flynn from December 29 where they discussed Russian sanctions) to obtain a guilty plea from Flynn. And, second, because Republicans are pushing to get Trump to fire Mueller.

Update: I’ve added Pence, Don Jr., Ivanka, Hope Hicks, Kelly Anne Conway, Rudy Giuliani, Steven Mnuchin back in here.

Update: Here’s more from Reuters.

Langhofer, the Trump transition team lawyer, wrote in his letter that the GSA’s transfer of materials was discovered on Dec. 12 and 13.

The FBI had requested the materials from GSA staff last Aug. 23, asking for copies of the emails, laptops, cell phones and other materials associated with nine members of the Trump transition team response for national security and policy matters, the letter said.

On Aug. 30, the FBI requested the materials of four additional senior members of the Trump transition team, it said.

The GSA transfer may only have been discovered this week (probably as a result of Congress’ investigation). But the witnesses had to have known these emails went beyond the scope of what the transition turned over. And the request date definitely is late enough for Mueller to have discovered not everything got turned over, perhaps even from George Papadopoulos, who flipped in late July.

Update: One more thing. Remember that there were worries that transition officials were copying files out of a SCIF. That, by itself, would create an Insider Threat concern that would merit FBI obtaining these emails directly.

Update: Here’s a report dated June 15 on a transition lawyer instructing aides and volunteers to save anything relating to Russia, Ukraine, or known targets (Flynn, Manafort, Page, Gates, and Stone).

Update: AP reports that Flynn was (unsurprisingly) among those whose email was obtained.

Update: Here’s the letter. I unpacked it here. It’s a load of — I believe this is the technical term — shite. First, it stakes everything on PTT not being an agency. That doesn’t matter at all for a criminal investigation — Robert Mueller was no FOIAing this stuff. It then later invokes a bunch of privileges (the exception is the attorney client one) that only come with the consequent responsibilities. It then complains that Mueller’s team didn’t use a taint team.

Perhaps the craziest thing is they call for a law that would only permit someone to access such emails for a national security purpose — as if an espionage related investigation isn’t national security purpose!

Update: Chris Geidner got GSA’s side of the story. Turns out they claim the now dead cover up GC didn’t make the agreement the TFA lawyer says he did. In any case, GSA device users agreed their devices could be monitored.

“Beckler never made that commitment,” he said of the claim that any requests for transition records would be routed to the Trump campaign’s counsel.

Specifically, Loewentritt said, “in using our devices,” transition team members were informed that materials “would not be held back in any law enforcement” actions.

Loewentritt read to BuzzFeed News a series of agreements that anyone had to agree to when using GSA materials during the transition, including that there could be monitoring and auditing of devices and that, “Therefore, no expectation of privacy can be assumed.”

Update: Mueller’s spox, Peter Carr, issued a statement saying, “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

A Bit about Dossiers: You’ve Been Eating this FUD for Years

NB: Note the byline — this is Rayne, with what might be another minority report.

Once upon a time in a nearby galaxy in the not-too-distant past, I worked in competitive intelligence. I gathered information about large technology companies’ competitors and summarized it into reports — dossiers, if you will. These firms made product decisions after reading these reports. Thanks to non-disclosure agreements I can’t tell you which companies or products, but know that if you are reading this you have been in contact with their goods and/or the long-term impact of their products and services.

The technology you’ve used or been in contact with has been shaped by these same dossiers.

My research was based on publicly available information. No sneaking around inside fence lines with false identification or hacking servers and networks to pry open locked-away goods. No flights overseas to slink through alleys into dark pubs with shady characters. I was armed with my native curiosity, a decent computer, both internet and library access, and a background in Fortune 500 report writing.

These companies took my work and used it in what is corporate warfare. It goes on around you every day, skirmishes and battles for your wallet and attention, volleys lobbed by hard and soft goods manufacturers and retailers, by firms selling services and intangibles. You think of this as marketing and often consciously blow it off.

Some of this corporate warfare is negative, openly bashing competitors based on comparative price and quality. But some of it is far more insidious; it attacks brands in a way designed to inspire long-term avoidance of entire product lines and brand names, and based on fairly flimsy information. Sometimes it’s just plain false — truly false misinformation and plausible disinformation.

But isn’t some of this fraud, you might ask? Hah-hah. Good luck proving it and making a case. Disinformation is particularly weaselly because it is plausibly true, plausibly deniable.

And I would bet dollars to donuts you’ve made tens and hundreds of purchasing decisions in your lifetime based on disinformation, perhaps even disinformation created from my dossiers. This is the point of corporate disinformation campaigns: to dissuade you from supporting their competition.

As a researcher I often ran into laundered information. For example, it might be disseminated as a small press release in another country in a language Americans don’t often bother to acquire any level of fluency. The press release may get picked up in another country, then by an English language media outlet which reports the content now two degrees from origin as news. Presto: what was once the direct output of a corporate entity is now news upon which buyers make decisions.

Is there media complicity here? Sure, to some degree; the point of origin may be lost and the first news outlets may not perceive the importance of information’s provenance because to them the origin is still visible; witness this week’s reporting by U.S. news outlets all ultimately relying on a single German business paper’s report. But the news media doesn’t bear all the culpability here. News consumers in the U.S. have been notoriously lax in validating content for decades.

It’s unsurprising given the antiquity of the admonishment, Caveat emptor. It has long been a problem that consumers of goods whether information or products and services must be more skeptical before committing their wallets and health, let alone their votes.

Social media has only made the job of laundering information even easier, between the number of washings platforms can offer and the automation of repetition, scale, and dispersion, all for a pittance. Over the last ten years the work I did as a researcher has become incredibly difficult; tracing the origin of a single piece of highly controversial or relatively arcane news originating overseas is like swimming against a mighty current.

And much of that current is deliberately crafted “alternative narrative” (pdf) — disinformation.

You may look askance at information laundering about products and services. Don’t. My own work was laundered not once but twice that I’m aware of. I wasn’t a marketing department employee at the firms which contracted competitive intel research. Nor was I an employ of the small firm contracted by these Fortune 100-1000 firms needing my services. That’s two removes and I am sure there was at least one more — the work I did was probably restated and re-presented internally, at a minimum.

Immaculate information conception — you were sold a bill of goods without knowing I was at the other end of the food chain. You never saw my fingerprints, heard my heels on the pavement, or caught a whiff of my perfume, even though in one way or another you have been touched in the last decade by decisions made based on my research.

~ | ~

You have been eating the FUD prepared for you — fear, uncertainty and doubt which gave you pause and made you choose something else. FUD has long been a tactic of technology companies; billions in sales have relied on its use. Entire industries have depended on it, created wholly from competitive intelligence dossiers like those I’ve prepared.

And yet concern trolls tell you Russia wasn’t a factor during the 2016 and that ‘fake news’ played no role whatsoever in Trump’s election? Bullshit. Russia’s culture and government make Silicon Valley look like pikers when it comes to the development and use of FUD. Social media and the decades-long reflexivity of right-wing media only served to weaponize Russia’s FUD against the U.S. We never saw it coming because we bought our own nonsense disinfo of American exceptionalism and western democracy’s inviolability.

Out there on the internet in either social media, public records, or leaked data is your voter records, disclosing your location, your state/congressional district/precinct, your voting habits; your vehicle records, your home address; your telephone number, your social media accounts and the network of family and friends and businesses with which you choose to associate. Add your purchasing habits from buyers’ loyalty cards and subscriptions, your fast food purchases when not made with cash. Your debts, whether your small business’ Dun & Bradstreet report, your mortgage, and now your personal credit record (thank you so much, Equifax). Your entire life can be digitally reconstructed to reveal your soft underbelly: what is it that makes you wake up at night in a cold sweat?

It takes little for corporations to identify and target you with an ad to make you doubt another company’s product. I don’t even have to weed through all sources I once mined and aggregated to tell them what you were thinking about Competitor X’s product Y. You’ve already told the world and the places you’ve connected to have shared it. There are simple algorithms to harvest what’s needed, quickly and cheaply.

You are not exceptional nor inviolable because you have been conditioned to exist in this information matrix. You have made little effort to pan golden fact from streams of manufactured information, too eager to swallow misinfo and disinfo because it’s easy — plausible, palatable, hits you right where you are most sensitive and vulnerable.

And yet concern trolls tell you a competing nation-state wouldn’t have used this against you, inserting FUD in a way that furthers their interests above our own, though trillions of dollars benefit at least one nation-state to do so? Though a competing nation-state’s disinformation campaign may have a very low benchmark of success, merely to dissuade you from wholeheartedly supporting restrictions against them?

Hah. Sucker. I have some technology to sell you.

~ | ~

Now here’s the part where I get annoyed with the friction over the Steele dossier. I have reasonable confidence in Steele’s findings. But this doesn’t put me in the same camp as folks who believe the dossier is gospel truth waiting to be decoded into trial-worthy evidence. My confidence separates me from those who pooh-pooh the dossier as ‘fake news’.

The fundamental problem with the public’s understanding of the dossier is the dossier’s utility. It is like the documents I prepared for technology companies — a competitive intelligence report, designed to inform its purchaser about the weaknesses and threats a competitor poses, or the most sensitive point where a competitor can be attacked. It’s not a full-blown SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) as the dossier is an external view; it’s closer to an inverted SWOT looking at a competitor excluding any internal perception of the client and its place in the market. It also doesn’t have to be one hundred percent accurate — just reasonably close for the marketing equivalent of a grenade or a Daisy Cutter as the situation dictates.

The friction on the left exists because nearly everyone with a published opinion on the Steele dossier doesn’t see it as a marketing document which should have helped a purchaser develop the political equivalent of the Four Ps — product, placement, promotion (pricing doesn’t really work here, apart from ensuring messaging includes the opportunity costs of electing the right/wrong candidate).

The Clinton campaign nor the dossier-purchasing campaign before it would not necessarily take the Steele dossier as evidence in a legal sense, just as the marketing documents I prepared weren’t evidence. I didn’t get sworn statements and multiple corroborating witnesses to disclose what competing technology companies were doing; neither did Christopher Steele or his intermediary client(s) do this about candidate Trump. (It kind of runs up a flag to your targets when you ask a witness to swear out a statement in front of a notary — so much for gaining a competitive edge.) But just as the firms who bought my services trusted me to gather reasonably accurate information sufficient to make a marketing decision, so, too, did Steele’s clients trust him to do the same. (Just as an aside, it’s rather amusing so few ask how such trust is generated.)

In short, competitive intelligence dossiers are not evidentiary. They’re aggregations of reasonably accurate information for the purpose of making a marketing decision, whether the dossier’s user is a product, service, or a campaign. They help a client look forward. They aren’t designed to lock down and set in stone facts for retrospection. And in most cases, competitive intelligence dossiers try to capture a moving target; they work within a narrow time frame because the field can change rapidly.

Think about a technology company approaching someone like me today for competitive intelligence. What use would the dossiers I prepared years ago be today? They don’t capture the competitive environment in which products now go head to head. I can think of multiple competitors I followed and wrote about in my dossiers which no longer exist. In the technology sector, the landscape can change overnight. What in the Steele dossier has changed if a Trump competitor were to try and use it today?

Argue all you want about the Steele dossier. In the mean time, the competition has been drafting a more fluid dossier on us, shifting their information warfare, I mean, campaign to persuade us to their cause or to our detriment, serving up fresh, hot FUD you may all too willingly consume. For all you know, the friction itself is a direct result of disinfo-created FUD.

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2016-2017

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing probably 3 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.

2016

Why Doesn’t Dianne Feinstein Want to Prevent Murders Like those Robert Dear Committed?

I’ve written a lot about how the focus on Islamic terrorism, based on a claim it’s foreign, creates gross inequalities for Muslims in this country, and does nothing to address some of our most dangerous mass killers (as the Stephen Paddock massacre in Las Vegas makes all too clear). This post is one of that series. It focuses on how the ill-advised efforts to use the No Fly List to create a list of those who couldn’t own guns would be discriminatory and wouldn’t add much to safety.

“Only Facts Matter:” Jim Comey Is Not the Master Bureaucrat of Integrity His PR Sells Him As

From the periods when Jim Comey was universally revered as a boy scout through those when Democrats blamed him for giving us Trump (through the time Democrats predictably flip flopped on that point), I have consistently pointed to a more complicated story, particularly with regards to surveillance and torture. I think the lesson of Comey isn’t so much he’s a bad person — it’s that he’s human, and no human fits into the Manichean world of good guys and bad guys that he viewed justice through.

NSA and CIA Hacked Enrique Peña Nieto before the 2012 Election

As Americans came to grips with the fact that Russia had hacked Democrats to influence last year’s election, many people forgot that the US does the same. And it’s not even just in the bad old days of Allen Dulles. The Snowden documents revealed that NSA and CIA hacked Enrique Peña Nieto in the weeks before he was elected in 2012. The big difference is we don’t know what our spooks did with that information.

Why Is HPSCI’s Snowden Report So Inexcusably Shitty?

In 2016, HPSCI released its Devin Nunes-led investigation into Edward Snowden’s leaks. It was shitty. Really shitty.

Now that the HPSCI investigation into the Russian hack (which has not been subjected to the same limitations as the Snowden investigation was) has proven to be such a shit show, people should go back and review how shitty this review was (including its reliance on Mike Flynn’s inflammatory claims). There absolutely should have been a review of Snowden’s leaks. But this was worse than useless.

Look Closer to Home: Russian Propaganda Depends on the American Structure of Social Media

As people began to look at the role of fake news in the election, I noted that we can’t separate the propaganda that supported Trump from the concentrated platforms that that propaganda exploited. A year later, that’s a big part of what the Intelligence Committees have concluded.

The Evidence to Prove the Russian Hack

In this post I did a comprehensive review of what we knew last December about the proof Russia was behind the tampering in last year’s election.

Obama’s Response to Russia’s Hack: An Emphasis on America’s More Generalized Vulnerability

Last year, in a speech on the hack, Obama focused more on America’s vulnerability that made it possible for Russia to do so much damage than he did on attacking Putin. I think it’s a really important point, one I’ve returned to a lot in the last year.

The Shadow Brokers: “A Nice Little NSA You’ve Got Here; It’d Be a Shame If…”

In December, I did a review of all the posts Shadow Brokers had done and suggested he was engaged in a kind of hostage taking, threatening to dump more NSA tools unless the government met his demands. I was particularly interested in whether such threats were meant to prevent the US from taking more aggressive measures to retaliate against Russia for the hack.

2017

On “Fake News”

After getting into a bunch of Twitter wars over whether we’re at a unique moment with Fake News, I did this post, which I’ve often returned to.

How Hal Martin Stole 75% of NSA’s Hacking Tools: NSA Failed to Implement Required Security Fixes for Three Years after Snowden

The government apparently is still struggling to figure out how its hacking tools (both NSA and CIA) got stolen. I noted back in January that an IG report from 2016 showed that in the three years after Snowden, the IC hadn’t completed really basic things to make itself more safe from such theft.

The Doxing of Equation Group Hackers Raises Questions about the Legal Role of Nation-State Hackers

One thing Shadow Brokers did that Snowden and WikiLeaks, with its Vault 7 releases, have not is to reveal the identities of NSA’s own hackers. Like DOJ’s prosecution of nation-state hackers, I think this may pose problems for the US’ own hackers.

Reasons Why Dems Have Been Fucking Stupid on the Steele Dossier: a Long Essay

I believe Democrats have been ill-advised to focus their Russia energy on the Steele dossier, not least because there has been so much more useful reporting on the Russia hack that the Steele dossier only makes their case more vulnerable to attack. In any case, I continue to post this link, because I continue to have to explain the dossier’s problems.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

[Photo: Emily Morter via Unsplash]

K. T. McFarland’s Big Fat Email [UPDATED]

[NB: Update at the bottom of this post.]

I am posting this on the fly, haven’t yet fully digested what I just read. All I can really do right now is roll my eyes as I wave my hands in the air and scream about the stupid that burns.

You need to read this article, Emails Dispute White House Claims That Flynn Acted Independently on Russia; this bit in particular just boggles my mind although it’s not the only thing in this article which made me ululate.

Excerpt, The New York Times

And of course it’s Obama’s or the Democratic Party’s fault she was taken out of context here. Uh-huh. And Clinton should be impeached.

This bit is nearly as mind-blowingly whack:

Excerpt, The New York Times

“Political malpractice” is not the first thing that comes to mind here, Mr. Cobb.

UPDATE — 9:00 PM EST —

NYT’s Michael Schmidt has now provided K. T. McFarland’s full quote to clarify what was meant in the email.

We’re supposed to believe the context is about spin McFarland anticipated Obama (or the unspecified Democrats in the NYT’s article) would employ against Trump.

However lawyer Ty Cobb’s explainer-cum-apologia doesn’t sound like McFarland and others on the transition team were merely indulging in speculation.

Any time now I expect someone in the administration will not only say openly that Trump authorized the transition team to discuss dropping the sanctions, but that it isn’t illegal when the president does it.

Except in the U.S. we only have one president at a time.

Throwing H2O on the Pompeo to State Move

I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think the reported plan for Rex Tillerson to step down, to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, who in turn will be replaced by Tom Cotton (or maybe Admiral Robert Harward because Republicans can’t afford to defend an Arkansas Senate seat), will really happen.

The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday.

Mr. Pompeo would be replaced at the C.I.A. by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who has been a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan. Mr. Cotton has signaled that he would accept the job if offered, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations before decisions are announced.

I say that for two reasons.

First, because of all the evidence that Mike Flynn is working on a plea deal. Particularly given that Mueller has decided he doesn’t need any more evidence of Flynn’s corrupt dealings with Turkey, I suspect his leverage over Flynn has gone well beyond just those crimes (which, in turn, is why I suspect Flynn has decided to flip).

I think that when the plea deal against Flynn is rolled out, it will be associated with some fairly alarming allegations against him and others, allegations that will dramatically change how willing Republicans are to run interference for Trump in Congress.

If I’m right about that, it will make it almost impossible for Pompeo to be confirmed as Secretary of State. Already, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, who’d oversee the confirmation, is sending signals he’s not interested in seeing Pompeo replace Tillerson.

“I could barely pick Pompeo out of a lineup” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday morning.

Already, Pompeo’s cheerleading of Wikileaks during the election should have been disqualifying for the position of CIA Director. That’s even more true now that Pompeo himself has deemed them a non-state hostile intelligence service.

Add in the fact that Pompeo met with Bill Binney to hear the skeptics’ version of the DNC hack, and the fact that Pompeo falsely suggested that the Intelligence Community had determined Russia hadn’t affected the election. Finally, add in the evidence that Pompeo has helped Trump obstruct the investigation and his role spying on CIA’s own investigation into it, and there’s just far too much smoke tying Pompeo to the Russian operation.

All that will become toxic once Mike Flynn’s plea deal is rolled out, I believe.

So between Corker and Marco Rubio, who both treat Russia’s hack of the election with real seriousness (remember, too, that Rubio himself was targeted), I don’t see how Pompeo could get out of the committee.

But there’s another reason I don’t think this will happen. I suspect it — like earlier threats to replace Jeff Sessions — is just an attempt to get Tillerson to hew the Administration line on policy. The NYT cites Tillerson’s difference of opinion on both North Korea and Iran.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the confrontation with North Korea and a clash between Arab allies. The secretary was reported to have privately called Mr. Trump a “moron” and the president publicly criticized Mr. Tillerson for “wasting his time” with a diplomatic outreach to North Korea

It’s Iran that’s the big issue, particularly as Jared frantically tries to finish his “peace” “plan” before he gets arrested himself. The fact that Trump has floated Cotton as Pompeo’s replacement is strong support for the notion that this is about forcing Tillerson to accept the Administration lies about Iran and the nuclear deal: because Cotton, more than anyone else, has been willing to lie to oppose the deal.

Trump is basically saying that unless Tillerson will adopt the lies the Administration needs to start a war with Iran, then he will be ousted.

But Tillerson’s claim that he doesn’t need to replace all the people who’ve left state because he thinks a lot of domestic issues will be solved soon seems to reflect that he’s parroting the Administration line now.

Obviously, there’s no telling what will happen, because Trump is completely unpredictable.

But he also likes to use threats to get people to comply.

Update: CNN now reporting I’m correct.

On the Jared and Flynn Stories

Amid reports that Mike Flynn is flipping like a pancake, CNN reported (in addition to a report that Mueller’s team canceled a grand jury appearance for former Flynn business associates) that Jared Kushner was asked a bunch of questions about Flynn in an interview earlier this month.

Before reading the details CNN provides, however, consider this line in the story:

It’s not clear that this is the only time that Kushner will meet with the special counsel’s team.

That is, the subtext here is that, even as Mueller’s team preps a plea deal with Flynn, he’s well aware that he remains a key target in conjunction with Flynn events, and may get hauled back before Mueller’s team for all the other stuff. Effectively, they were locking in Kushner’s testimony — including, presumably, about what kind of permission/instructions Flynn had to engage in the corrupt foreign deals he was pushing — from Kushner and his pop-in-law before flipping Flynn.

So here’s how CNN describes the Flynn questions:

Mueller’s team specifically asked Kushner about former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who is under investigation by the special counsel, two sources said. Flynn was the dominant topic of the conversation, one of the sources said.

[snip]

The conversation lasted less than 90 minutes, one person familiar with the meeting said, adding that Mueller’s team asked Kushner to clear up some questions he was asked by lawmakers and details that emerged through media reports. One source said the nature of this conversation was principally to make sure Kushner doesn’t have information that exonerates Flynn.

The meeting took place around the same time the special counsel asked witnesses about Kushner’s role in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his relationship with Flynn, these people said.

That means, as we speak, Flynn is providing his side of this story, and explaining why Jared was so intent on firing Mueller because Mueller was actively investigating Flynn.

As I’ve long said, you get to Jared through Flynn. It seems like Jared’s team is now hoping he gets a second chance at testimony before he gets busted himself.

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