It Is Objectively False that Trump Provided Unprecedented Cooperation; Stop Parroting Rudy Claiming He Did

If a President makes an expansive new claim to Executive Privilege and the press reports the opposite, did it really happen?

That’s a question presented by the coverage of yesterday’s news that after a year of resistance, President Trump finally provided the answers to his open book test to Mueller. That’s because a slew of journalists repeated Rudy Giuliani’s claim, made in his official statement, that Trump has provided “unprecedented cooperation” with Mueller’s team, without noting that the claim is objectively false.

I showed back in February — when the press first started parroting this claim credulously, which was first made by John Dowd — that it was not true.

A simple comparison of the Bush White House’s cooperation the CIA leak case, which investigated events that occurred in a more narrow period two month period of time, showed Dowd’s claim about cooperation on discovery and witnesses was overblown.

More importantly, a key detail distinguished George W Bush’s cooperation from Trump’s: Bush sat for an interview with Patrick Fitzgerald and answered questions about the orders he gave, while President, to at least one of his Assistants and the Vice President about an exclusive executive authority, declassification.

Bush sat for an interview in June 2004, and Cheney — who himself made some grossly false statements in his tenure — sat for one in May 2004 and a little-known follow-up that August. According to Cheney’s autobiography, “[T]he second session was conducted under oath so that [his] testimony could be submitted to the grand jury.”

[snip]

[Randall] Samborn, the Fitzgerald spokesperson who was famously reticent during the whole CIA leak investigation, offered an expansive rebuttal to Dowd’s claim that this White House has offered unprecedented cooperation. “Trump’s team can claim all the cooperation it wants, and whether justifiably so or not, it seems to me that it all gets negated, if at the end, he personally refuses to be questioned when so much substance depends on what he knew and did, as well as his state of mind.”

Any refusal to sit for an interview, Samborn said, was central evaluating the level of cooperation.

“That’s sort of the ultimate in noncooperation,” he explained, “especially after saying he looks forward to being interviewed and under oath.”

By limiting his cooperation to an open book test, Trump has stopped far short of the cooperation Bush offered.

And yet, because Rudy included the claim in the statement he released to the press, many news outlets are repeating that false claim, uncontested. The outlets that subscribe to the AP feed are propagating false claim today, because Eric Tucker repeated that line from Rudy’s statement with no correction to it.  Unsurprisingly, Fox News parroted Rudy. But so did some more credible outlets, like NBC, ABC, CNN, and Reuters. Even the WaPo’s otherwise superb report from Carol Leonnig and Robert Costa repeated the claim in the last line of their story.

NYT’s Maggie and Mike, incidentally, avoided repeating Rudy’s claim, choosing to include the part of his statement that provided quasi-factual numbers, but leaving out the superlative claim.

It’s bad enough that most of the press has repeated Rudy and Dowd’s claim uncritically since January. But for yesterday’s stories, it is all the more important to get it right. That’s because Trump is not just refusing to answer questions on Mueller’s obstruction investigation, he’s also refusing to answer questions about the transition period, before any claim of Executive Privilege should kick in. While that’s consistent with what Trump did with Hope Hicks’ and Corey Lewandowski’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, it nevertheless represents an expansion of accepted claims to executive power.

The emphasis, here, should be on Trump’s claim to be above the law even before he took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

Instead, a bunch of copy and paste journalism has made it the opposite.

The InfoWars Embed in the CNN First Amendment Lawsuit

CNN is suing Trump and the Secret Service for taking away Jim Acosta’s White House hard pass.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the lawsuit, both as a strategic choice and with regards to how it is argued.

From a strategic standpoint, I absolutely endorse challenging Trump’s abuses in courts, because they are a venue he has fared poorly in, in large part because he’s so legally incompetent in being abusive. And the law around credentialed access is actually pretty problematic. Having a big media journalist call attention to that may be useful. Better to have CNN pay to make this argument about Trump singling out disfavored members than … me!

But by suing Trump while continuing to treat his and Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ press conferences as legitimate news vehicles, you continue to validate the way Trump uses (and denigrates) the media as props in a pageant of tribalism. This lawsuit will actually provide Trump a way to magnify the opposition between him and CNN, to claim he is being attacked by a mean Fake News outlet, thus becoming one more prop in Trump’s performed conflict with the Fake News he uses to debase facts and truth.

Indeed, the lawsuit actually reinforces the claim these staged press conferences are legitimate press vehicle when it claims — as part of its First Amendment claim — that Acosta can’t do his job without hard pass credentials and CNN therefore is deprived of its White House correspondent without one.

Defendants have deprived Plaintiffs of their right to access the White House grounds by revoking Acosta’s White House credentials. Without those credentials, Acosta cannot access the White House and cannot effectively serve as a White House correspondent, thus depriving Plaintiff CNN of its chief White House correspondent

Obviously, CNN can (and has) covered the White House in the time since Trump pulled Acosta’s hard pass. It takes different kinds of reporting, and nowhere does this complaint convincingly argue that the live attendance at press conferences is necessary for them to report on the White House.

Because I think White House press conferences generally, and as practiced under Trump specifically, often serve more to perform journalism rather than conduct it, I think a boycott of White House press conferences would be a better response.

As to how CNN is arguing this. I’m not a lawyer, and definitely not a lawyer of the caliber of Ted Boutrous and Ted Olson (Olson’s inclusion is an especially nice touch both because it suggests CNN is willing to appeal this but also because, earlier this year, Trump tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to hire Olson as part of his defense team).

But it bothers me that this complaint treats a White House hard pass as a right, rather than arguing that the revocation of a hard pass outside of normal process constitutes an abridgment of the press, one carried out outside the existing process for regulating access to the White House media space (which after all is a finite good). Under the current regime, no one has a right to a hard pass — I probably would be refused one (I even seem to have been bumped off part of the White House email list!). Yet CNN presumes that its necessity for a White House correspondent that (it says, unconvincingly) must have access to the White House media space means it must be given access to a hard pass.

A hard pass is essential for White House reporters because it provides access to areas designated for journalists in the West Wing, on Air Force One, and in other secured areas during presidential trips, which are routinely covered by the White House press corps. For a White House correspondent like Acosta, the White House, or wherever the President is travelling, is his workplace. Indeed, Acosta often writes and broadcasts directly from the White House, working out of a booth in the press area known as the “lower press room” or from the “upper press office,” in close proximity to the Oval Office and the offices of the Press Secretary. Because Acosta’s work requires his physical presence at the White House or on the road with the President, he often goes weeks or months without visiting CNN’s Washington bureau. Accordingly, the press credentials allowing access to the White House grounds and press complex, and to the President and his entourage during trips, are necessary to provide workplace access. Without this credential, a daily White House correspondent like Acosta effectively cannot do his or her job.

The first treatment of the alternative — a daily pass (which is what I’ve had the sole time I covered something at the White House) — is inadequate to the task of showing that the hard pass is a kind of access that the White House should not be able to subject to politics and whim, because it conflates the readiness of access with the arbitrariness under which such access is given.

Without a hard pass, a reporter must ask for advance approval each time he wishes to enter the White House. Such access often needs to be requested at least 24 hours in advance. Since many White House news events, briefings, or appearances are frequently announced day-of, reporters without a hard pass are often effectively unable to cover these events. Further, the White House may decline to admit a reporter requesting daily access. Even if admitted, the reporter must wait in a security line with the general public and be screened before entering the White House and then be escorted by security around the press offices. Without a hard pass, a White House correspondent simply cannot do his job.

The problem with the daily pass is that a journalist obtains one via a far more arbitrary process, giving the discretion for entrance to a White House political appointee who can exercise bias in a pernicious way, rather than the Secret Service. The fact that Acosta was denied a daily pass once already could be used to emphasize that.

The White House also rejected Acosta’s application for a day pass on November 8, 2018.

The details about the Secret Service denying Acosta access in Paris would also be better deployed in an argument about the abridgment of rights that other similarly situated (in Paris, accredited by France) media enjoyed, than in arguing about a right that he has been denied.

On November 9, 2018, Defendants prohibited Acosta from fully covering the President on a trip to Paris to mark the centennial of the end of the First World War. Although Acosta traveled to Paris, he was told that he would not be allowed to access the President’s events, including an event that had been planned (but was ultimately cancelled due to inclement weather) to visit with French President Emmanuel Macron a cemetery to honor the fallen. Although the French government issued credentials to Acosta, the Secret Service refused to allow Acosta to attend an allegedly “open” press event whose attendees included journalists from around the world.

Plus, since CNN has had some of the best reporting of Trump’s trip to Paris, it’s hard to argue they do need access up close (at least for international trips to countries with open press access), but that gets back to the question of how one covers the President.

In short, I think CNN’s argument is weak because it doesn’t see itself as “the press” generally, but instead as some kind of holder of special kind of press status, the holder of a privilege rather than an entity that has had rights shared by all abridged.

That attitude plays out in an amazing passage, one that will likely bring about my favorite outcome of this suit, but one that betrays the odd stance CNN is taking. That’s the discussion of the video Sanders released to try to justify the revocation of Acosta’s pass.

But the video shared by Press Secretary Sanders was apparently doctored, as has been reported widely. It has further been reported that the video Ms. Sanders disseminated to the public came from a contributor to InfoWars, an organization whose “conspiracy theories and hateful content” have led to it “being banned earlier this year by most major social media platforms.”

Analyses comparing the video included in Press Secretary Sanders’s tweet and unaltered video captured by C-SPAN of the same event shows that the version shared by Press Secretary Sanders appears to have been edited. As the Washington Post has explained, the video makes it appear that Acosta “swiftly chop[ped] down on the arm of an aide as he held onto a microphone while questioning President Trump. But in the original video, Acosta’s arm appears to move only as a response to a tussle for the microphone. His statement, ‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ is not included in the video Sanders shared.” Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway has since attempted to deny the video had been altered but then admitted it had been “sped up.” But the unaltered video captured by C-SPAN shows what really occurred: Acosta was only attempting to hold onto the microphone as the staffer tried to grab it from him. [my emphasis]

When I heard CNN was suing, I immediately laughed at the prospect of the White House having to defend their doctored video. Boutrous and Olson making that case before a jury will make for great legal theater.

But note how they argue this, in a lawsuit about the First Amendment. It describes InfoWars (which at least used to be and still may be credentialed by the White House) not as a media outlet, but as “an organization whose ‘conspiracy theories and hateful content’ have led to it ‘being banned earlier this year by most major social media platforms.'” On top of dodging the question of what distinguishes a conspiracy theory site from a news site — one that might be central to the issue of who should get access to the limited supply of hard passes to the White House — its appeal to authority is that of privatized censorship, the removal of InfoWas from platforms like Facebook, rather than what makes CNN a journalistic outlet but InfoWars a conspiracy site (and even that distinction may be a problematic basis to demand a hard pass under a First Amendment claim).

CNN’s lawsuit does that while also making a second bizarre claim to authority (or lack thereof). The video Sanders used to justify the revocation of Acosta’s hard pass “was apparently doctored,” says a media outlet that elsewhere in this suit brags that it is “a trusted source for news and information [that] reaches more individuals than any other cable television news organization in the United States.” Why doesn’t the media outlet know whether the video was doctored?

This media outlet reverts to the passive voice — “as has been reported widely,” “has further been reported” — to defend its first claim that the video was doctored. In that first claim, it doesn’t even say reported by whom. Are those reporting it anything more credible than InfoWars itself?

Just the fact that something has been claimed in a report does not make that true.

The next paragraph does somewhat better. The first sentence again stops short of stating that the video has been doctored, this time stating that it “appears to have been.”

Analyses comparing the video included in Press Secretary Sanders’s tweet and unaltered video captured by C-SPAN of the same event shows that the version shared by Press Secretary Sanders appears to have been edited.

Finally, in the next sentence, the suit does appeal to an authority — CNN’s competitor, the WaPo (though doesn’t formally cite this article in any way).

As the Washington Post has explained, the video makes it appear that Acosta “swiftly chop[ped] down on the arm of an aide as he held onto a microphone while questioning President Trump. But in the original video, Acosta’s arm appears to move only as a response to a tussle for the microphone.

This is really really weird, for two reasons. First, because the real authorities on the fact that the video was doctored are video editors. CNN employs a shit-ton of them. But there are also experts in video analysis who could offer their expertise for this suit. An uncited WaPo article (WaPo is a very good news organization, but nowhere near as good at video as CNN) simply doesn’t offer an uncontested authority for what should be a slam dunk assertion.

More remarkable still, consider what CNN is treating as “the original video” here, and therefore the true one: CSPAN. While I agree that it is the best record of the incident (though I assume there are a slew of other video feeds, including CNN’s own, that would corroborate what the unedited CSPAN video shows), if CSPAN is the authoritative vehicle to access the truth, then why couldn’t Jim Acosta access the truth of the Trump presidency that way from day to day, the same way I do from flyover country? If CSPAN is “true,” then why isn’t watching a press conference on CSPAN adequate to reporting on a press conference? (I actually know some journalists with hard passes who stay in the White House media room for such events, because they know they’ll never get called on to ask a question.)

The answer is two-fold. Now that Sanders has started offering doctored video, someone needs to be in the room as a witness to certify that what a video shows is what actually happened (CNN’s suit cites two live witnesses, including the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, to prove that Sander’s version of events is wrong).

But the other answer is one that puts us immediately back in the realm of privilege, not rights. The reason CNN can’t cover White House press conferences via CSPAN is because reporters need to be in the room to ask questions. Indeed, CNN is quite privileged, even among those holding hard passes, in that the Sanders and Trump frequently do take questions from them — from Jim Acosta himself.

So is this about privilege, what separates CNN from media outlet emptywheel and conspiracy outlet InfoWars? Or is this about an abridged right, the right to be treated as all other outlets are under a credentialing system?

I’m not sure CNN is sure about the answer to that. And the hierarchy of authorities it appeals to in its complaint adopts a really problematic approach to the “truth” that a news outlet would seem to be claiming.

Update: Because I’ve been informed that CNN believes it is making a revocation of access argument, let me add two points.

First, a good revocation of access argument would distinguish more acutely the difference between a hard pass (which is administered significantly by Secret Service) and a daily pass (which is administered by White House political appointees, and requires a separate transaction with USSS at the door, which is why you have to go through the line). The distinction is there, but not made as starkly as it should that one kind of access involves a quasi neutral process, while the other doesn’t pretend to be.

Relatedly, while the suit does raise the fact that Acosta’s hard pass (indeed, all of them) is a two-year renewable pass,

Acosta began reporting from the White House in 2012. In 2013, to gain regular access to the White House, like all White House correspondents, he applied for White House press credentials and a security clearance in order to obtain what is called a “hard pass.” Acosta underwent a Secret Service background check and was granted a “hard pass,” which is valid for renewable two-year periods.

But I expected the suit to return to that two-year pass in this passage, where it addresses the limits of USSS discretion.

Generally, the Secret Service may grant or deny a request for a security clearance made in connection with an application for a White House press pass. 31 C.F.R. § 409.1. However, the Secret Service’s discretion is expressly limited. Secret Service officials making that decision must “be guided solely by the principle of whether the applicant presents a potential source of physical danger to the President and/or the family of the President so serious as to justify his or her exclusion from White House press privileges.” Id. In applying that standard, the Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service, Technical Security Division must apply designated procedures governing notices, responses, and hearings regarding decisions about applications. Id. § 409.2.

Notably, this language talks about the initial grant, but it doesn’t talk about the maintenance of that grant, which is what is assumed for a pass good for two years. That’s where the question of revocation by the supposed neutral authority should show up, in my opinion.

[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.

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