[Photo: Emily Morter via Unsplash]

Oddly-Timed Story: White House Counsel McGahn’s Call to FCC’s Ajit Pai

[NB: Check the byline — it’s Rayne and some of this post is speculative.]

Maybe it’s something; maybe it’s nothing. But with White House Counsel Don McGahn under so much scrutiny this week, the timing of the story about McGahn’s call to the Federal Communications Commission seems odd.

You may recall I wrote recently (item 2) about the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media, a deal which would have created a behemoth reaching at least 72% of U.S. households via local broadcast TV stations. FCC chair Ajit Pai revealed in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday this past week that McGahn had called him about the Sinclair Broadcast Group-Tribune Media merger.

Let’s look at the timeline of events related to this deal:

22-JAN-2017 — Ajit Pai named FCC chair on Trump’s second full day in office.
7-MAR-2017 — Trump nominates Ajit Pai to a second five-year term with the FCC as its chair.

Trump and Pai met at the White House on Monday for a meeting that was closed to the press, although an FCC official said that no pending business before the agency was discussed.

17-MAR-2017 — Rumors surfaced about a Sinclair-Tribune merger.
8-MAY-2017 — Sinclair announced it would buy Tribune; assets would include WGN (Chicago) and WMIL (Milwaukee) radio stations. Tribune newspapers were not included in the deal.
2-OCT-2017 — Senate confirms Pai as FCC chair.
24-OCT-2017 — FCC killed a rule requiring broadcasters to have physical offices in their primary local coverage area. The move was seen as beneficial to Sinclair’s merger as they would not have to change office locations.

16-JUL-2018 — Pai expressed concerns about the merger deal, drafting a Hearing Designated Order (HDO) to place the merger before an administrative judge.
17-JUL-2018 — McGahn called Pai for an update on the Sinclair-Tribune merger.
18-JUL-2018 — FCC signs and issues the HDO.
18-JUL-2018 — House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology announced an FCC oversight hearing for 25-JUL-2018.
24-JUL-2018 — Trump tweets about his disappointment with FCC about the Sinclair-Tribune deal:

So sad and unfair that the FCC wouldn’t approve the Sinclair Broadcast merger with Tribune. This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People. Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!

25-JUL-2018 — During House Energy and Commerce Committee FCC oversight hearing, Chairman Frank Pallone asked Pai, “If the President or anyone in the White House discusses or has discussed the Sinclair-Tribune merger with you or anyone at the FCC, will you commit to disclosing that in the public docket? Yes or no?” Pai responded, “Yes, except, Congressman, we have ex parte rules, because this is now a restricted proceeding. We are limited in what information we can receive and what we can put on the record. But consistent with our restricted ex parte rules, we would be happy to accommodate to the extent we can.” (video excerpt)
02-AUG-2018 — Pai did not mention the call from McGahn during an FCC press conference.
09-AUG-2018 — Tribune, not Sinclair, terminated the deal.
16-AUG-2018 — Pai appears before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, disclosing McGahn’s call.
18-AUG-2018 — NYT publishes the first of two pieces on McGahn.
19-AUG-2018 — NYT publishes the second of two pieces on McGahn.
20-AUG-2018 — House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Pallone Jr. said McGahn’s call to Pai should have been disclosed the previous week during a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing the previous week. Pallone wants answers about that call.

A couple things stand out immediately. First, Pai parsed responses to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee. He was already on thin ice because of his claim a DDoS swamped public comments related to net neutrality but the FCC’s inspector general found Pai to be less than honest about the DDoS.

Second, the story about McGahn calling Pai was published on Thursday afternoon, approaching an advanced news dump zone during August. Why did NYT run not one but two stories about McGahn over the weekend? Why didn’t they wait until Monday? It’s as if somebody realized they needed to get a story out in spite of late summer weekend doldrums.

In this past weekend’s hullabaloo about McGahn’s “cooperation” with Special Counsel’s Office, there was a concerted effort to portray McGahn as serving and protecting the presidency, not Trump. As White House Counsel this is McGahn’s job but the obvious effort to distance McGahn from Trump should be noted.

Which makes me wonder: why did McGahn as White House Counsel, responsible for protecting the presidency, need an update from the chair of the independent FCC on a media merger? Why wouldn’t Commerce Department address this if Trump was curious? Or why wouldn’t Trump act like an ass and bumble a demand for information directly over Twitter as he has before with companies like Boeing?

As Marcy has pointed out, McGahn has extensive background in campaign finance; he was the Trump campaign’s counsel during the 2016 election season. Coincidentally he was counsel when David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcasting Group, told Trump, “We are here to deliver your message.

Sounds like an offer of an unreported in-kind campaign donation to me since there are no reports that Smith or anyone at Sinclair made a similar offer to any other GOP primary candidate or to Hillary Clinton. Sinclair vigorously denied they hadn’t offered equal time when Sinclair’s offer to Trump was reported:

. . .there was a flap when Trump advisor Jared Kushner told a private business luncheon in December that Sinclair executives worked with the campaign to spread pro-Trump messages in Sinclair newscasts, which reach 81 markets in key heartland regions that supported Trump. Sinclair vehemently denied the claim, asserting that it offered equal amounts of air time for in-depth interviews to Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and that Clinton declined the invitation.

Did McGahn know about and approve this offer?

Pai’s squirrelly behavior about Sinclair-Tribune as well as McGahn’s sudden distancing from Trump cast a different light on David Smith’s so-helpful offer and Sinclair’s mandatory group-wide airing of former White House communications aide Boris Epshteyn’s program — the same Epshteyn who has a history of pro-Russian sentiment. Add these couple line items to the timeline:

25-MAR-2017 — Epshteyn left his role as Special Assistant to The President and Assistant Communications Director for Surrogate Operations, having previously served in Trump campaign communications and as director of communications for Trump inauguration committee.
17-APR-2017 — Sinclair announced Epshteyn joined them as a political analyst.

Conveniently after the rumors emerged about the Sinclair-Tribune merger but before it was formally announced — what a coincidence.

It doesn’t appear Epshteyn was replaced in the White House. Was Epshteyn placed with Sinclair at Trump’s request — not because of Epshteyn’s rumored confrontational approach to Fox News — after having been parked with the White House for two months post-inauguration for the purposes of resume padding?

Is Epshteyn really an independent political analyst or is he still shilling for Trump as an under-cover communications aide on Sinclair’s dime — gaslighting America for Trump’s benefit — given David Smith’s eagerness to deliver Trump’s message? Is Epshteyn really doing advance work for Trump 2020 campaign?

Is this the reason why Sinclair issued a diktat to all its 173 stations that they must read on air a statement about other media outlets’ “fake news,” in order to elevate their content, including Epshteyn’s by contrast, engaging in what NPR’s David Folkenflik called “negative campaigning”?

Is this the reason why Ajit Pai didn’t disclose the call from McGahn and attempted to obstruct access to information about the call behind an HDO that McGahn called not on behalf of the president but on behalf of the Trump 2020 campaign?

Did McGahn help push the two back-to-back NYT articles this weekend to wallpaper over what may have been a Hatch Act violation — using his role as White House Counsel to reach Ajit Pai and press for approval of the Sinclair-Tribune merger to benefit Trump 2020?

Reaching at least 72% of American households from now until Election Day 2020, to push anti-Democratic Party content while collecting data on viewers and shaping voter turnout, might have been adequate motivation to do so if one were working for the Trump campaign — not to mention  McGahn’s legal exposure.

It’d be nice if one of the Congressional committees conducting oversight of the FCC asked Pai more pointed questions about that phone call.

It’d be nice, too, if somebody asked any of the 2016 GOP primary candidates or Hillary Clinton’s campaign team if they received the same offer from Sinclair’s Smith extended to Trump or his proxies (hello, Jared).

And there’s more than one David helming a media empire who needs to answer some questions about their friend Trump.

What Does the ‘Doomsday Investor’ Get out of Trump?

[Note the byline. This post may contain speculative content. / ~Rayne]

There’s a particularly interesting long read by Sheelah Kolhatkar in this week’s New Yorker, entitled, Paul Singer, Doomsday Investor.

If you’re not into investment and Wall Street machinations, you might go to sleep on this one. Even the subhead is a bit of a snooze if you’re not interested in the world of money:

The head of Elliott Management has developed a uniquely adversarial, and immensely profitable, way of doing business.

This blurb could describe almost any manager on Wall Street if they’ve broken with trends and employed some testosterone-enhanced swagger at some point in their career.

But stay with this one, the payoff is in the latter half of the article. Perhaps you already know of Paul Singer — just roll to the latter half.

Singer is a major funder of Washington Free Beacon, which some of you will recognize as a conservative online media outlet. It’s not very big and its output is rather predictable once you grasp its apparent ideology.

You may also remember this outlet as the progenitor of the competitive intelligence dossier on then-candidate Donald Trump, which eventually ended with Free Beacon and picked up again with law firm Perkins Coie on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign. The folio eventually included the Steele dossier once Free Beacon’s research contractor Fusion GPS was signed on by Perkins Coie and Fusion GPS hired Christopher Steele’s UK-based firm Orbis Business Intelligence to provide additional overseas content.

Free Beacon admitted it was the origin of the initial pre-Steele Trump dossier, copping to it on October 27, 2017 — long after part of the Steele dossier had been published by BuzzFeed and after Fusion GPS’ Glenn Simpson had been interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee (August 22, 2017) but before an interview with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (November 14, 2017).

What’s particularly interesting about the New Yorker article is the description of dossiers compiled and used as leverage to muscle a certain type of performance from business managers. Singer’s team at his hedge fund Elliott Management uses them with what appears to be practiced ease for profit as in this example:

The pressure that Elliott exerts, combined with its fearsome reputation, can make even benign-sounding statements seem sinister. In 2012, Elliott made an investment in Compuware, a software company based in Detroit. Arbitration testimony by former Compuware board members hints at just how negatively they interpreted some of Elliott’s actions. During an early meeting, one of them testified, Cohn presented folders containing embarrassing personal information about board members, which they saw as a threat to publicize the contents. Cohn allegedly mentioned the daughter of one board member, and commented disapprovingly on the C.E.O.’s vintage Aston Martin, a car that few people knew he owned. The company’s co-founder, Peter Karmanos, accused Elliott of “blackmailing” Compuware’s board, and reportedly remarked that the fund “can come in, rip apart the pieces” of a company, and “try to have a fire sale and maybe make twenty per cent on their money, and they look like heroes.”

Cohn told me that Compuware’s executives were “very firmly in that fear camp.” He was surprised that material on their professional backgrounds—which he says was all those folders contained—was “interpreted as a dossier of threatening personal information,” and noted that driving an Aston Martin looked bad for a C.E.O. whose biggest customers were Detroit automakers. Compuware was ultimately sold to a private-equity firm.

The really nifty trick Singer pulled off outside of Elliott Management is his arm’s length relationship to the Washington Free Beacon as a funder though the Free Beacon uses research dossiers prepared by contractors in much the same way as Elliott Management.

Conversion of Washington Free Beacon from a nonprofit 501(c)4 news outlet to a for-profit business in August 2014 also assured additional distance and privacy for Singer. A nonprofit is obligated to file reports with the government which are available to the public. For-profit businesses that are privately held do not.

And for-profit news outlets can do all manner of research and not have to share it with the public, protected by the First Amendment (“reporters’ privilege,” however, does have a limit — see Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972))

One can only wonder what kind of research Washington Free Beacon has collected but not actually shared with the public in reporting. Has funder Paul Singer or his business Elliott Management had access to this research?

One can only wonder, too, what it is that Paul Singer has obtained from the Trump presidency, as Singer has been depicted as anti-Trump:

… The Beacon has a long-standing and controversial practice of paying for opposition research, as it did against Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 Presidential campaign. Singer was a vocal opponent of Trump during the Republican primaries, and, last year, it was revealed that the Beacon had retained the firm Fusion GPS to conduct research on Trump during the early months of the campaign. By May, 2016, when it had become clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, the Beacon told Fusion to stop its investigation. Fusion was also hired by the Democratic National Committee, and eventually compiled the Christopher Steele dossier alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. … (Emphasis mine.)

With so little daylight between Singer and Free Beacon and the abrupt end of Free Beacon’s intelligence research when Trump became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president, one might wonder why the research halted if Singer was so anti-Trump.

Or are there benefits for a “Doomsday Investor” to having someone so easily compromised and predictably narcissistic in the White House — benefits none of the GOP primary candidates nor Hillary Clinton offered? Was the Free Beacon’s initial dossier on Trump prepared not to find fault in order to deter his election, but instead to provide leverage?

Note once again the Free Beacon is “a privately owned, for-profit online newspaper” according to its About Us page. Yet the outlet doesn’t have advertising — only a single banner slot off the front page which might be a donation rather than a sold spot — and a store selling Free Beacon branded items, the kind typically used for promotional swag. If this is a for-profit business, what’s it selling?

Treat this as an open thread.

Journalist Records from the “Last Five Years”

Some weeks ago, there was some concern raised by DOJ’s response to an October 10, 2017 letter from Ron Wyden, written in the wake of an August Jeff Sessions press conference asking how many times DOJ has seized journalists’ records.

  1. For each of the past five years, how many times has DOJ used subpoenas, search warrants, national security letters, or any other form of legal process authorized by a court to target members of the news media in the United States and American journalists abroad to seek their (a) communications records, (b) geo-location information, or (c) the content of their communications? Please provide statistics for each form of legal process.
  2. Has DOJ revised the 2015 regulations, or made any other changes to internal procedures governing investigations of journalists since January 20, 2017? If yes, please provide me with a copy.

In response, in a letter claiming to provide all the “requests for information from January 2012 to the present,” DOJ pointed to the 2013 collection of AP records and the 2014 subpoena of James Risen. It also claimed,

The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not currently use national security letters to advance media leak investigations.

DOJ’s letter was written after Ali Watkins received notice, on February 13, that her phone and email records had been seized in the investigation of James Wolfe. It also comes after DOJ subpoenaed the Twitter information of Dissent Doe and Popehat last spring in conjunction with DOJ’s dumb persecution of Justin Shafer, both of whom have websites providing original content.

Whether DOJ has gotten more aggressive about seizing reporters’ phone records or content is a question I’m unsurprisingly very interested in.

All that said, DOJ may simply be playing word games, at least thus far.

Note, first of all, that Wyden only asked for the “past five years.” While DOJ claimed to present records spanning into the present, had DOJ responded to the actual request, it might have only presented past requests. Additionally, if Watkins got 90 day notice of her records being seized, the request itself would have taken place after the Wyden request.

While more specious, the May 2017 Twitter subpoena may have been deemed to be the same year as Wyden’s request.

Note three other details. First, Wyden’s letter (though not DOJ’s response) describes “targeting” journalists. Obviously, that word has a specific meaning in the context of surveillance, and I could see DOJ claiming that the Shafer investigation, for example, targeted Shafer, not his Tweeps.

Additionally, Wyden only asks about US news media and US journalists overseas. That’s not going to include an obvious target (whether or not DOJ still considers him a publisher): Julian Assange, an Australian publisher living in what counts as Ecuadoran territory.

Finally, note that DOJ specifies they don’t use NSLs for “media leak investigations.” That, too, has a specific meaning, one that probably doesn’t include the Shafer investigation on trumped up cyberstalking charges.

The Watkins case, especially, demands explanation. But finding it might just require rewording the questions.

It’s Called a Spine, not a Conscience

I’ve been watching the media reaction to Marcy’s “Putting a Face . . .” post. The first day, there were a lot of “Wow – read this” tweets going around on twitter, but now the more reflective pieces are coming out, like yesterday’s Margaret Sullivan piece in the Style section of the Washington Post entitled “A journalist’s conscience leads her to reveal her source to the FBI. Here’s why.” On the whole, it’s a pretty good piece, but Sullivan makes two absolutely critical errors.

First, right at the top, Sullivan doesn’t seem to understand that all sources are not created equal, though Marcy tries to correct her:

It’s pretty much an inviolable rule of journalism: Protect your sources.

Reporters have gone to jail to keep that covenant.

But Marcy Wheeler, who writes a well-regarded national security blog, not only revealed a source — she did so to the FBI, eventually becoming a witness in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of President Trump’s possible connections to Russia.

“On its face, I broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism, but what he was doing should cause a source to lose protection,” Wheeler told me in a lengthy phone interview.

At least Sullivan put Marcy’s “should” in italics, but for the rest of the piece she seems to have forgotten that it was there.

As I read it, Marcy’s post was not primarily about the investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election, though that is what has gotten a lot of the attention. What she was really talking about was the practice  — or should I say “malpractice”? — of journalism. Woven into the entire post, Marcy laid out how she wrestled with a very basic question: What do you do, as a journalist, when a confidential source lies to you?

Marcy’s answer begins by distinguishing between different kinds of sources. Some tell you the truth. Some tell you something that they think is true, but it turns out to be wrong. And then there are some that tell you lies. Granting all of these sources uncritical confidentiality to protect your reputation as a journalist is as dangerous as telling a woman abused by her spouse to “protect her marriage” by staying with the abuser.  “Protecting your sources” when those sources undermine your work and reputation ought not mean “protecting your abuser.” Protecting a source uncritically is just asking to get used and abused, over and over again. See “Russert, Tim.”

The second thing that Sullivan missed is that Marcy was also talking to sources — actual and potential. From the end of Sullivan’s piece, with emphasis added:

Wheeler told me she believed herself to be “uniquely informed” about something that mattered a great deal.

In their reporting, journalists talk to criminals all the time and don’t turn them in.

Reporters aren’t an arm of law enforcement.

They properly resist subpoenas and fight like hell not to share their notes or what they know because doing so would compromise their independence and their ability to do their work in the future.

Wheeler knows all that — and believes in it. But she still came forward, not because of a subpoena but because of a conscience.

As Drezner told me, “She would not do this on a whim.”

And as Wheeler put it, “I believe this is one of those cases where it’s important to hold a source accountable for his actions.”

Marcy said it right there, but Sullivan missed it. What Marcy wrestled with, and shared in her post, was how she chose to do just that. She went to the FBI as a way of holding an unreliable source accountable AND as a way to protect her honest sources from a broad, wide-ranging governmental search that could potentially come down the road.

At its core, “Putting a Face . . .” is a journalist telling the world of potential sources two things, that I might paraphrase like this:

First, I take my work seriously, and that means protecting folks who come to me with information. If you share something with me in confidence, something that helps me do my job to get important stories out, I will protect you with all I’ve got.

Second, don’t screw with me. It’s one thing to tell me something you thought was correct that later proves not to be true. That happens. But if I learn that you deliberately lied to me in an effort to harm others, and you attacked my workplace, I am going to burn your ass. Count on it.

If burning sources that lie to you is not a cardinal rule of journalism, it damn well ought to be. I suspect that Marcy’s honest sources will respect her more for this, and her dishonest ones will be very very nervous. Isn’t that something that all journalists ought to strive for?

Think about it like this: if Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy, and the rest of the House GOP knew that the journalists to whom they spread lies, off the record, would be willing to burn them if the journalists discovered that they were being lied to and used, do you think they’d be so eager to lie?

Sullivan lauded Marcy for being a journalist with a conscience — which she is, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Marcy is a journalist with a spine.

photo h/t to bixentro, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.o Generic license.

Google at Temple: Did DOJ Follow Its New Guidelines on Institutional Gags?

On October 19, 2017, DOJ issued new guidelines on default gag orders under the Stored Communications Act. It required that prosecutors “conduct an individualized and meaningful assessment requiring the need for protection from disclosure prior to seeking” a gag “and only seek an order when circumstances require.” Sometime after that, in association with its investigation of leaks about Carter Page, DOJ sought Ali Watkins’ call records, including her email subscriber records from when she was an undergraduate at Temple.

Under Justice Department regulations, investigators must clear additional hurdles before they can seek business records that could reveal a reporter’s confidential sources, such as phone and email records. In particular, the rules require the government to have “made all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources” before investigators may target a reporter’s information.

In addition, the rules generally require the Justice Department to notify reporters first to allow them to negotiate over the scope of their demand for information and potentially challenge it in court. The rules permit the attorney general to make an exception to that practice if he “determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.”

Top Justice Department officials must sign off on any attempt to gain access to a journalist’s communications records.

It is not clear whether investigators exhausted all of their avenues of information before confiscating Ms. Watkins’s information. She was not notified before they gained access to her information from the telecommunications companies. Among the records seized were those associated with her university email address from her undergraduate years.

This request would almost certainly not have been presented to Temple University. It would have been presented to Google, which provides email service for Temple. At least, that’s what appears to have happened in the case of Professor Xiaoxiang Xi in DOJ’s investigation of him for carrying out normal academic discussions about semiconductors with colleagues in China.

Thus far (as reflected here with the NYT coverage), the focus on whether DOJ followed its own regulations pertains to whether they followed guidelines on obtaining the records of a journalist. But the circumstances surrounding their request for Temple records should focus as much attention on whether the government followed its brand new regulations on imposing gags even when obtaining records from an institutional cloud customer like Temple.

The new guidelines were adopted largely in response to a challenge from Microsoft on default, indefinite gags. While few noted it at the time, what Microsoft most worried about was its inability to give its institutional customers notice their records had been subpoenaed. That meant that certain kind of cloud customers effectively gave up a legal right to challenge legal process by outsourcing that service to Microsoft. Microsoft dropped its suit to legally force this issue when DOJ adopted the new guidelines last year. Best as I understand, those guidelines should have governed whether Google could tell Temple that DOJ was seeking the records of a former student.

So it’s not just that DOJ didn’t give Watkins an opportunity to challenge this subpoena, but also whether they gagged Google from telling Temple, and providing Temple the opportunity to challenge the subpoena on academic freedom grounds.

Given how they treated Xi, it’s unlikely Temple would have done much to protect their former student. But some universities — and other institutions with special First Amendment concerns that use Microsoft or Google for their email service — might. They can only do so, however, if DOJ doesn’t obtain frivolous gags to prevent them from doing so.

The Mouse That Roared, The Bigotry Roseanne Perpetrated and Ignorant Racism Of Trump

Tonight, the ABC network, obviously owned and controlled by the Disney Mouse, has fired Roseanne Barr. It is a fine step. The better question is why they ever rebooted her ignorant racist act. The answer is, like the relentless quest of the New York Times to connect with “real America Trump Country voters”, they were more concerned about selling shit and getting eyeballs than they were about morality and truth.

Yeah, it is that simple.

ABC knew exactly what kind of ignorant racist bigot Roseanne Barr was, but they rolled the dice on the crap table of television because they cravenly thought there was a market for low brow bigotry in the age of Donald Trump.

For a bit, it seemed they were right. Heck, maybe they still are, maybe this country has fallen that far.

But when the pet star of ABC and Donald Trump, Roseanne, compared an accomplished woman like Valerie Jarrett to things I will not even cite here, even the Disney Mouse of ABC canceled her on the spot. How heroic.

It is fine to harsh on Roseanne. She has earned it for a long time. A long enough time that ABC and the oh so socially responsible “Disney Mouse” completely understood and, still, signed up to renew the platform for gross bigotry that Roseanne Barr represented in a heartbeat when they though they could catch the wave of Trumpian bigotry and racism.

It was like candy for the media monsters, much like the acceptance of the New York Times and other major media, although to a less obviously crass extent. Make no mistake though, it is all of the same cloth of go along to get along “let’s get maximum eyeballs” theory by major media that feeds the message fed to the United States and world. They know better, and they owe better. And, yes, I am talking to you Maggie Haberman. She is certainly not the only one, just a common and un-rehabiltated symbol at this point. But Mag Habs and the Times “political team” have come to this point the old fashioned way: They have earned it.

But, hey, the Times are not alone, CNN is similarly still sending out Salena Zito to interact with revanchist bigotry in “real America” like that bunk should be celebrated and normalized, not scorned and attempted to be informed.

This country should not celebrate ignorance, bigotry and stupidity. We should fight and overcome that.

ABC and the Disney Mouse may be unconscionably late to this game as to the attempt to ride the ignorance and bigotry of Roseanne Barr, but maybe there is a better day ahead.

Today, Howard Schultz and Starbucks took the step back to rethink and do better. ABC and the Mouse made a late, but needed step.

One step at a time. It is better than the original knee jerk reaction of the ABC network to piggyback on the bigotry of Roseanne Barr.

Belated Update: The title to this post was not meant just to be descriptive of the Disney action as to Roseanne, it was also an homage to the thoroughly wonderful classic movie “The Mouse That Roared”. If you have not seen it, you should. I think it is occasionally on TCM, but not sure. It is a wonderfully subtle early tour de force by the great Peter Sellers.

“Just Obstruction” Is the New “Red Line”

In the past, I have complained about how the NYT (including Mike Schmidt) themselves set a “red line” over which Robert Mueller shouldn’t cross, then gleefully focused on that in their reporting.

It further speculates this might cross a “red line” they put there themselves back in July, a red line commentators routinely report incorrectly as pertaining to any business interests of his.

Mr. Mueller could run afoul of a line the president has warned him not to cross. Though it is not clear how much of the subpoena is related to Mr. Trump’s business beyond ties to Russia, Mr. Trump said in an interview with The New York Times in July that the special counsel would be crossing a “red line” if he looked into his family’s finances beyond any relationship with Russia.

BREAKING: Robert Mueller would be fucking stupid if he weren’t subpoenaing this information.

[snip]

As I said, while the NYT got their own reporting right, most people quoting from it misquote what Trump actually said about any red line. Here’s the exchange.

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years [crosstalk].

SCHMIDT: But if he was outside that lane, would that mean he’d have to go?

[crosstalk]

HABERMAN: Would you consider——

TRUMP: No, I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia. So I think if he wants to go, my finances are extremely good, my company is an unbelievably successful company. And actually, when I do my filings, peoples say, “Man.” People have no idea how successful this is. It’s a great company. But I don’t even think about the company anymore. I think about this. ’Cause one thing, when you do this, companies seem very trivial. O.K.? I really mean that. They seem very trivial. But I have no income from Russia. I don’t do business with Russia. The gentleman that you mentioned, with his son, two nice people. But basically, they brought the Miss Universe pageant to Russia to open up, you know, one of their jobs. Perhaps the convention center where it was held. It was a nice evening, and I left. I left, you know, I left Moscow. It wasn’t Moscow, it was outside of Moscow.

Aside from the prompted feel of the question (as if Trump or Chris Ruddy set these reporters up to pose the questions so Trump could “warn” Mueller), it pertains only to business unrelated to Russia. Trump seems to admit that the mobbed up Russians buying his condos would be pertinent, his Miss Universe contest, and his serial efforts to get a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Even the example the NYT points to today — the involvement of UAE in some pre-inauguration meetings — pertains to Russia, as one of the points of the meetings were to set up a back channel with … Russia.

I think Jared Kushner’s business ties … that’s a different issue. But as to the substance of Trump’s purported red line, nothing in today’s report says Mueller has crossed that (even if he cared about such things).

Effectively, the NYT reporters who kept harping on a limit they themselves either set or parroted back on someone’s cue served to justify Trump’s own threats against Mueller and others. They had become the news.

It appears the same is true for the extended reporting — from the NYT, among others (though this NBC report is a rare exception) —  that Mueller is primarily investigating Trump for obstruction. For some time, the press has been reporting that Mueller is honing in on an obstruction case against Trump, seemingly without understanding that some things being labeled obstruction — such as the response to Mike Flynn lying about implementing the policy concessions to Russia Trump made in the transition period — actually went to prove the quo part of a quid pro quo.

And so, when NYT published their list of questions Mueller had given Trump’s lawyers, almost a third of which have nothing to do with obstruction and many others have to with have to do with both the conspiracy case in chief and obstruction, the headline focused exclusively on obstruction.

And while Mike Schmidt’s report on the questions does mention “Russian ties” and include two paragraphs on the questions that address topics besides obstruction, the lead might be read to focus on obstruction itself.

Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russia’s election interference, has at least four dozen questions on an exhaustive array of subjects he wants to ask President Trump to learn more about his ties to Russia and determine whether he obstructed the inquiry itself, according to a list of the questions obtained by The New York Times.

This morning, Trump predictably pointed to the list that one of his associates leaked, claiming to be outraged by a new “leak,” and asserted, evidence to the contrary, that the questions did not address “collusion.”

That, in turn, led a bunch of people on Twitter to try to fact check Trump, as if such “facts” would persuade either Trump (who is doing this to manipulate coverage, not to assert facts) or his followers (who wouldn’t believe the fact-checkers over Trump anyway).

Schmidt added this line to his own story, without acknowledging that his own outlet had “incorrectly” used a headline that backed Trump’s claim, even if the details themselves did not.

President Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday that it was “disgraceful” that questions the special counsel would like to ask him were publicly disclosed, and he incorrectly noted that there were no questions about collusion.

I get that Trump’s claims that the questions include none on the underlying conspiracy need to be debunked.

But one reason why he tweeted what he did is because it plays into a narrative that the press has long very credulously helped to create. What is needed now (indeed, what was needed months ago) is loud reporting that the whole obstruction emphasis was a distraction partly seeded by those being investigated for a conspiracy, a distraction in which the press was complicit.

As with the “red line” of Trump’s (non-Russian) business interests, the notion that he is being investigated only for obstruction is a tactic he has used, and used well, to play public opinion. Before trying to get the man to acknowledge public facts his team itself released, however, the press ought to consider how they’ve been doing just what Trump did this morning for months, ignoring the details that implicate him personally in “collusion.”

Stormy Weather Ahead

As you may have heard, there is an interview on CBS 60 Minutes tonight of former Trump paramour Stormy Daniels. In the last 48 hours, there have been a slew of Stormy biographies. From the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN. All worth a check if you are interested, but all paint a similar picture.

It is a picture of a modern empowered and self assured woman. She is no slouch, she is bright and ready. It was been all too casual for the press to early on slough her off and characterize her as a “porn star” like that automatically makes some throw away bimbo. Clearly, nothing is further from the case.

The picture that emerges on closer inspection is far different. She is an informed and savvy woman in full. She is a mother and businesswoman, and one who understands and worries about the conflicts between the two. Karen McDougal, in her Thursday interview on CNN came off as genuine and honest, even if somewhat lost in why she is here with all of the public now. Daniels has none of that. And her story is, within the salacious category Trump brings us to consider, far more compelling.

The stories of Daniels and McDougall were literally concurrent, starting with a golf tournament tete a tete at the Tahoe Pro Am. But McDougall presents as a jilted woman once in love, Daniels is flat out a smarter woman who knew then, and knows now, what was up, then and now, and just isn’t going to stand for the rank hypocrisy and lying by Trump and his goons like Michael Cohen.

The rushed out bios linked above largely track each other, but to my eye, the New York Times is the best:

Those who know her well have registered the moment differently. Ms. Clifford has subsisted amid the seamier elements of a business often rife with exploitation and unruly fare; more than a few of her film titles are unprintable. But for most of her professional life, Ms. Clifford has been a woman in control of her own narrative in a field where that can be uncommon. With an instinct for self-promotion, she evolved from “kindergarten circuit” stripper to star actress and director, and occasional mainstream success, by her late 20s. Why would a piece of paper and an executive legal team set her back?
….
“She was a very serious businesswoman and a filmmaker and had taken the reins of her career,” said Judd Apatow, who directed her cameos in the R-rated comedies “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” “She is not someone to be underestimated.”
….
She has a daughter, a third husband and an expensive hobby: equestrian shows. “She blends right in,” said Packy McGaughan, a trainer on the competition circuit.
….
“Just as these misguided arbiters of the mainstream view an adult entertainment star as an anathema to the political process,” she said, when she eventually decided against a bid, “so too do they view the dishwasher, the cashier or the bus driver.”

This woman is real. Please go read at least the NY Times story, if not the others linked. She is everything you think she is, and far, far, more. And she has no fear. Not of her career, and not of Trump. That has to terrify Trump.

Here is the other thing that is different: Stormy Daniels has Michael Avenatti as her lawyer. Never met or talked to Avenatti before, but I have heard of him in cases (and from auto racing things), and from friends, for several years. He is good.

After three years at O’Melveny, he joined Greene Broillet & Wheeler, a Los Angeles boutique litigation firm. While there, Michael spearheaded many high-profile cases, including a $10 million defamation case against Paris Hilton; a successful idea theft lawsuit involving the reality show The Apprentice and its producer, Mark Burnett, as well as Donald Trump; and a large corporate multi-national embezzlement case involving in excess of $42,000,000.

In 2007, Michael formed the law firm Eagan Avenatti, LLP (fka Eagan O’Malley & Avenatti, LLP), with offices in Newport Beach, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since co-founding the firm, Michael has been responsible for securing a number of large verdicts and settlements as lead counsel, including an April 2017 $454 Million verdict after a jury trial in Federal Court in Los Angeles in a fraud case against Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB) and Halyard Health (NYSE: HYH) that was featured on 60 Minutes (won every jury question as to every defendant); a $80.5 million class action settlement against Service Corporation International (NYSE: SCI) in another case featured on 60 Minutes and in the international press (settlement reached in the middle of trial); a $41 million jury verdict after a nearly five-week trial in New Jersey; a $39 million settlement in a case involving the alleged theft of trade secrets; and a $13 million plus verdict after a six week jury trial in Palm Beach, Florida (won every jury question as to every defendant). In 2015, Michael prevailed against the National Football League after a two-week jury trial in Federal District Court in Dallas, Texas after obtaining a court order requiring Jerry Jones to attend trial and be cross-examined.

I had heard of him before, but really first watched Avenatti when he took on the National Football League and Jerry Jones. Because of some sports law friends, some of whom were closer to that story, I paid attention. Avenatti is seriously that good, and he has the extra bonus of knowing how to be a good trial lawyer AND play the PR game, personally, well. There are not many such lawyers, and ones tending to the PR more than the law are routinely panned mercilessly here at this blog. For good reason.

If you don’t have a winning strategy with the press, don’t talk to the press. Even if you think you do, think twice and thrice before doing so. Or, by my book, just don’t do it. But Avenatti has a really special combination of savvy, and has proven it long before Stormy Daniels.

Nobody knows how it all ends up, and playing the press is a risky game even for those genuinely good at it. But, so far, Avenatti and Stormy have played Trump and the press like a Stradivarius.

And, if as Trump is reportedly contemplating, Trump decides to get personally aggressive, watch out. He may well have met his match with Ms. Daniels and Michael Avenatti. By my guess, they are almost making bank Trump will try that ill advised tact. Let it be. Please, let it be.

Why I Left The Intercept: The Surveillance Story They Let Go Untold for 15 Months

The Intercept has a long, must-read story from James Risen about the government’s targeting of him for his reporting on the war on terror. It’s self-serving in many ways — there are parts of his telling of the Wen Ho Lee, the Valerie Plame, and the Jeffrey Sterling stories he leaves out, which I may return to. But it provides a critical narrative of DOJ’s pursuit of him. He describes how DOJ tracked even his financial transactions with his kids (which I wrote about here).

The government eventually disclosed that they had not subpoenaed my phone records, but had subpoenaed the records of people with whom I was in contact. The government obtained my credit reports, along with my credit card and bank records, and hotel and flight records from my travel. They also monitored my financial transactions with my children, including cash I wired to one of my sons while he was studying in Europe.

He also reveals that DOJ sent him a letter suggesting he might be a subject of the investigation into Stellar Wind.

But in August 2007, I found out that the government hadn’t forgotten about me. Penny called to tell me that a FedEx envelope had arrived from the Justice Department. It was a letter saying the DOJ was conducting a criminal investigation into “the unauthorized disclosure of classified information” in “State of War.” The letter was apparently sent to satisfy the requirements of the Justice Department’s internal guidelines that lay out how prosecutors should proceed before issuing subpoenas to journalists to testify in criminal cases.

[snip]

When my lawyers called the Justice Department about the letter I had received, prosecutors refused to assure them that I was not a “subject” of their investigation. That was bad news. If I were considered a “subject,” rather than simply a witness, it meant the government hadn’t ruled out prosecuting me for publishing classified information or other alleged offenses.

But a key part of the story lays out the NYT’s refusals to report Risen’s Merlin story and its reluctance — until Risen threatened to scoop him with his book — to publish the Stellar Wind one.

Glenn Greenwald is rightly touting the piece, suggesting that the NYT was corrupt for acceding to the government’s wishes to hold the Stellar Wind story. But in doing so he suggests The Intercept would never do the same.

That’s not correct.

One of two reasons I left The Intercept is because John Cook did not want to publish a story I had written — it was drafted in the content management system — about how the government uses Section 702 to track cyberattacks. Given that The Intercept thinks such stories are newsworthy, I’m breaking my silence now to explain why I left The Intercept.

I was recruited to work with First Look before it was publicly announced. The initial discussions pertained to a full time job, with a generous salary. But along the way — after Glenn and Jeremy Scahill had already gotten a number of other people hired and as Pierre Omidyar started hearing from friends that the effort was out of control — the outlet decided that they were going to go in a different direction. They’d have journalists — Glenn and Jeremy counted as that. And they’d have bloggers, who would get paid less.

At that point, the discussion of hiring me turned into a discussion of a temporary part time hire. I should have balked at that point. What distinguishes my reporting from other journalists — that I’m document rather than source-focused (though by no means exclusively), to say nothing of the fact that I was the only journalist who had read both the released Snowden documents and the official government releases — should have been an asset to The Intercept. But I wanted to work on the Snowden documents, and so I agreed to those terms.

There were a lot of other reasons why, at that chaotic time, working at The Intercept was a pain in the ass. But nevertheless I set out to write stories I knew the Snowden documents would support. The most important one, I believed, was to document how the government was using upstream Section 702 for cybersecurity — something it had admitted in its very first releases, but something that it tried to hide as time went on. With Ryan Gallagher’s help, I soon had the proof of that.

The initial hook I wanted to use for the story was how, in testimony to PCLOB, government officials misleadingly suggested it only used upstream to collect on things like email addresses.

Bob Litt:

We then target selectors such as telephone numbers or email addresses that will produce foreign intelligence falling within the scope of the certifications.

[snip]

It is targeted collection based on selectors such as telephone numbers or email addresses where there’s reason to believe that the selector is relevant to a foreign intelligence purpose.

[snip]

It is also however selector-based, i.e. based on particular phone numbers or emails, things like phone numbers or emails.

Raj De:

Selectors are things like phone numbers and email addresses.

[snip]

A term like selector is just an operational term to refer to something like an email or phone number, directive being the legal process by which that’s effectuated, and tasking being the sort of internal government term for how you start the collection on a particular selector.

[snip]

So all collection under 702 is based on specific selectors, things like phone numbers or email addresses.

Brad Wiegmann:

A selector would typically be an email account or a phone number that you are targeting.

[snip]

So that’s when we say selector it’s really an arcane term that people wouldn’t understand, but it’s really phone numbers, email addresses, things like that.

[snip]

So putting those cases aside, in cases where we just kind of get it wrong, we think the email account or the phone is located overseas but it turns out that that’s wrong, or it turns out that we think it’s a non-U.S. person but it is a  U.S. person, we do review every single one to see if that’s the case.

That PCLOB’s witnesses so carefully obscured the fact that 702 is used to collect cybersecurity and other IP-based or other code collection is important for several reasons. First, because collection on a chat room or an encryption key, rather than an email thread, has very different First Amendment implications than collecting on the email of a target. But particularly within the cybersecurity function, identifying foreignness is going to be far more difficult to do because cyberattacks virtually by definition obscure their location, and you risk collecting on victims (whether they are hijacked websites or emails, or actual theft victims) as well as the perpetrator.

Moreover, the distinction was particularly critical because most of the privacy community did not know — many still don’t — how NSA interpreted the word “facility,” and therefore was missing this entire privacy-impacting aspect of the program (though Jameel Jaffer did raise the collection on IP addresses in the hearing).

I had, before writing up the piece, done the same kind of iterative work (one, two, three) I always do; the last of these would have been a worthy story for The Intercept, and did get covered elsewhere. That meant I had put in close to 25 hours working on the hearing before I did other work tied to the story at The Intercept.

I wrote up the story and started talking to John Cook, who had only recently been brought in, about publishing it. He told me that the use of 702 with cyber sounded like a good application (it is!), so why would we want to expose it. I laid out why it would be questionably legal under the 2011 John Bates opinion, but in any case would have very different privacy implications than the terrorism function that the government liked to harp on.

In the end, Cook softened his stance against spiking the story. He told me to keep reporting on it. But in the same conversation, I told him I was no longer willing to work in a part time capacity for the outlet, because it meant The Intercept benefitted from the iterative work that was as much a part of my method as meetings with sources that reveal no big scoop. I told him I was no longer willing to work for The Intercept for free.

Cook’s response to that was to exclude me from the first meeting at which all Intercept reporters would be meeting. The two things together — the refusal to pay me for work and expertise that would be critical to Intercept stories, as well as the reluctance to report what was an important surveillance story, not to mention Cook’s apparent opinion I was not a worthy journalist — are why I left.

And so, in addition to losing the person who could report on both the substance and the policy of the spying that was so central to the Snowden archives, the story didn’t get told until 15 months later, by two journalists with whom I had previously discussed 702’s cybersecurity function specifically with regards to the Snowden archive. In the interim period, the government got approval for the Tor exception (which I remain the only reporter to have covered), an application that might have been scrutinized more closely had the privacy community been discussing the privacy implications of collecting location-obscured data in the interim.

As recently as November, The Intercept asked me questions about how 702 is actually implemented because I am, after all, the expert.

So by all means, read The Intercept’s story about how the NYT refused to report on certain stories. But know that The Intercept has not always been above such things itself. In 2014 it was reluctant to publish a story the NYT thought was newsworthy by the time they got around to publishing it 15 months later.

Why Call Alice Donovan a Troll?

The WaPo and CounterPunch have the story of Alice Donovan, a pseudonymous persona the FBI suspected (it’s not clear starting when) of being part of a Russian influence operation. The WaPo makes it clear sources told them about the investigation (though without clearly revealing when FBI identified Donovan or when they learned about the investigation) and leaked the report behind this story (or perhaps it is all one report).

The FBI was tracking Donovan as part of a months-long counterintelligence operation code-named “NorthernNight.” Internal bureau reports described her as a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.

[snip]

The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions.

CP first learned about it when Adam Entous called about the leaked intelligence report on her.

We received a call on Thursday morning, November 30, from Adam Entous, a national security reporter at the Washington Post. Entous said that he had a weird question to ask about one of our contributors. What did we know about Alice Donovan? It was indeed an odd question. The name was only faintly familiar. Entous said that he was asking because he’d been leaked an FBI document alleging that “Alice Donovan” was a fictitious identity with some relationship to Russia. He described the FBI document as stating that “Donovan” began pitching stories to websites in early 2016. The document cites an article titled “Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow.”

And CP reveals they first came to believe that Donovan was fake (and not just a serial plagiarist) when a NYT story listed Donovan’s account among those that Facebook had shut down as fake.

This long story focused on dozens of phony Facebook accounts which the Times claims pushed pro-Russian messages during the election. Buried in the 28th paragraph of the story was the name “Alice Donovan.” Donovan’s Facebook page, the Times said, “pointed to documents from Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations that she said showed its pro-American tilt and — in rather formal language for Facebook — describe eventual means and plans of supporting opposition movements, groups or individuals in various countries.’” According to the Times, Facebook had deactivated the Donovan account after it failed a verification protocol.

CP ends by noting that for the entirety of the period when FBI was investigating this pseudonymous persona, they never informed CP.

If the FBI was so worried about the risks posed by Alice Donovan’s false persona, they could have tipped off some of the media outlets she was corresponding with. But in this case they refrained for nearly two years. Perhaps they concluded that Donovan was the hapless and ineffectual persona she appears to be. More likely, they wanted to continue tracking her. But they couldn’t do that without also snooping on American journalists and that represents an icy intrusion on the First Amendment. For a free press to function, journalists need to be free to communicate with whomever they want, without fear that their exchanges are being monitored by federal agencies. A free press needs to be free to make mistakes and learn from them. We did.

It’s an interesting example — and given my prior focus on Facebook’s intelligence apparatus (one reiterated by the revelation that Facebook has been taking down NK infrastructure of its own accord) — one that raises questions about whether FBI identified this persona or FB did.

But I’m wondering why both WaPo and CP are calling the Donovan persona a troll. While it sounds like Donovan’s election related interventions were trollish about Hillary, some of what she published at CP and other outlets clearly supported Russian policy objectives (that CP might legitimately agree with) or — as CP notes — mirrored mainstream reporting on Clinton’s emails.

Donovan served not just to poison debate, as trolls do.

So I’m wondering why people are using that term. I’m wondering, in part, why we should distinguish Donovan’s authorship (or plagiarism) of articles from leaks from foreign intelligence services, which news articles have long relied on, whether Israeli, Saudi, or Russian sources (remember, for example, how presumed Yemeni or Saudi sources have repeatedly revealed details of US or UK double agents). A number of people in DC have laughed with me about the way that Rinat Akhmetshin — a central figure in the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting and as such suspected of doing Russian intelligence bidding — has long regaled mainstream journalists as a source. And I’ve suggested that Scott Balber — and American lawyer working for a Russian oligarch — may be fostering a cover story for the same meeting.

So why is one kind of intelligence disinformation called journalism and another called trolling?

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