On Disinformation and the Dossier

By all accounts, the House will vote to release the Nunes memo tonight, even while Adam Schiff pushes to release his countering memo at the same time. Perhaps in advance of that, Andrew McCabe either chose to or was told to take leave today until such time as his pension kicks in in mid-March, ending his FBI career.

Since we’re going to be obsessing about the dossier for the next while again, I want to return to a question I’ve repeatedly raised: the possibility that some or even much of the Christopher Steele dossier could be the product of Russian disinformation. Certainly, at least by the time Fusion and Steele were pitching the dossier to the press in September 2016, the Russians might have gotten wind of the project and started to feed Steele’s sources disinformation. But there’s at least some reason to believe it could have happened much sooner.

Former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman argues the near misses are a mark of Russian disinformation

A number of spooks had advanced this idea in brief comments in the past. Today, former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman makes the arguement at more length at WSJ.

There is a third possibility, namely that the dossier was part of a Russian espionage disinformation plot targeting both parties and America’s political process. This is what seems most likely to me, having spent much of my 30-year government career, including with the CIA, observing Soviet and then Russian intelligence operations. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that Vladimir Putin continues in the Soviet tradition of using disinformation and espionage as foreign-policy tools.

Hoffman points to what I consider the dossier’s abundance of near-misses (such as events involving the correct person in the wrong place or time) on correct information to back his case.

The pattern of such Russian operations is to sprinkle false information, designed to degrade the enemy’s social and political infrastructure, among true statements that enhance the veracity of the overall report. In 2009 the FSB wanted to soil the reputation of a U.S. diplomat responsible for reporting on human rights. So it fabricated a video, in part using real surveillance footage of the diplomat, that purported to show him with a prostitute in Moscow.

Similarly, some of the information in the Steele dossier is true. Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, did travel to Moscow in the summer of 2016. But he insists that the secret meetings the dossier alleges never happened. This is exactly what you’d expect if the Kremlin followed its usual playbook: accurate basic facts provided as bait to convince Americans that the fake info is real.

John Sipher, in our joint interview with Jeremy Scahill admitted such a thing was possible, though that the dossier still tied the hack to “collusion.”

The Russians are the best in the world at this disinformation and deception. I don’t think, based on what we saw in the June, the first of his reports, that the Russians would have controlled all of those sources and controlled that whole narrative. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to me. And if in fact they did control the information that was given to Mr. Steele at that time, you have to wonder what was the point. If they were trying to send a message that they had compromising information on Mr. Trump, that might be that they wanted Mr. Trump to know what they had so he would act accordingly. In terms of using kompromat you don’t have to go to the person and make the quid pro quo, you just have to let them know that you have the information and they’ll do the right thing. So, I do agree, as time went by, and as she mentioned, for example, that what GPS Fusion information had in the connections they had there’s, it’s certainly possible that the Russians could have come across some of these sources and provided disinformation especially as time went by. I don’t think that that’s out of the realm of possibility.

Nevertheless Sipher argued in response to Hoffman that the content of the dossier would rule against it being disinformation.

[Hoffman] did not address the content. If was disinformation, it was designed to hurt Trump.

The content of the dossier would have led Democrats to be complacent about the hacking

But I can think of several ways the information in the dossier, if it was disinformation, would help Trump. I have already noted how, if Democrats had used the intelligence provided by Steele in the very earliest reports in the dossier to gauge the risk posed by the hack, they would have been lulled into complacency, because Steele’s first reports clearly said any kompromat the Russians wanted to dump was old intercepts from Hillary’s trips to Russia, and even Steele’s first report after the WikiLeaks dump would not only not confirm Russia was behind the release, but would also contradict a year of public reporting on APT29 to claim that Russia had not had success breaching targets like the State Department and Hillary.

On June 20, Perkins Coie would have learned from a Steele report that the dirt Russia had on Hillary consisted of “bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct.” It would also have learned that “the dossier however had not yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team.”

On July 19, Perkins Coie would have learned from a Steele report that at a meeting with a Kremlin official named Diyevkin which Carter Page insists didn’t take place, Diyevkin “rais[ed] a dossier of ‘kompromat’ the Kremlin possessed on TRUMP’s Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.” At that point in time, the reference to kompromat would still be to intercepted messages, not email.

On July 22, Wikileaks released the first trove of DNC emails.

On July 26 — days after Russian-supplied emails were being released to the press — Perkins Coie would receive a Steele report (based on June reporting) that claimed FSB had the lead on hacking in Russia. And the report would claim — counter to a great deal of publicly known evidence — that “there had been only limited success in penetrating the ‘first tier’ foreign targets.” That is, even after the Russian hacked emails got released to the public, Steele would still be providing information to the Democrats suggesting there was no risk of emails getting released because Russians just weren’t that good at hacking.

In fact, in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, in one of the few instances in either congressional appearance where he admitted that Steele was hired at almost precisely the same moment the Democrats were trying to get the FBI to make a public statement attributing the hack to Russia, Glenn Simpson explained that the Democrats did use Steele’s intelligence to “manage” the aftermath of the hack.

MR. SIMPSON: Well, this was a very unusual situation, because right around the time that the work started, it became public that the FBI suspected the Russians of hacking the DNC. And so there was sort of an extraordinary coincidence. It wasn’t really a coincidence but, you know, our own interest in Russia coincided with a lot of public disclosures that there was something going on with Russia.

And so what was originally envisioned as an original — as just a sort of a survey, a first cut of what might be — whether there might be something interesting about Donald Trump and Russia quickly became more of an effort to help my client manage a, you know, exceptional situation and understand what the heck was going on.

I also think it’s creepy that Guccifer 2.0 promised what he called a dossier on Hillary on the same day Steele delivered his first report, June 20, and delivered documents he claimed to be that dossier the next day.

There are multiple ways the Russians may have learned of the Steele dossier

Hoffman lays out a number of the reasons I believe Steele’s production process might have been uniquely susceptible to discovery.

There are three reasons the Kremlin would have detected Mr. Steele’s information gathering and seen an opportunity to intervene. First, Mr. Steele did not travel to Russia to acquire his information and instead relied on intermediaries. That is a weak link, since Russia’s internal police service, the FSB, devotes significant technical and human resources to blanket surveillance of Western private citizens and government officials, with a particular focus on uncovering their Russian contacts.

Second, Mr. Steele was an especially likely target for such surveillance given that he had retired from MI-6, the British spy agency, after serving in Moscow. Russians are fond of saying that there is no such thing as a “former” intelligence officer. The FSB would have had its eye on him.

Third, the Kremlin successfully hacked into the Democratic National Committee. Emails there could have tipped it off that the Clinton campaign was collecting information on Mr. Trump’s dealings in Russia.

I’d flesh out another, one the Republicans have been dancing close to for the last year. Because Fusion GPS did business with both the Democrats and, via Baker Hostetler, anti-Magnitsky lobbyists Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin at the same time, it created a second source via which the Russians might learn that Hillary had a dossier. In addition to Simpson himself,  Fusion researcher Edward Baumgartner also worked with both Baker Hostetler and the Democrats at the same time. Simpson tried to minimize the overlap and the possibility for revealing the dossier, especially in his Senate testimony.

Q. We had talked about work for multiple clients. What steps were taken, if any, to make sure that the work that Mr. Baumgartner was doing for Prevezon was not shared across to the clients you were working for with regard to the presidential election?

A. He didn’t deal with them. He didn’t deal with the clients.

But the publicly released financial data shows a clear overlap in those projects and Baumgartner’s comments to BI show he worked quite closely with Veselnitskaya.

Baumgartner, a fluent Russian speaker, said he was hired by Fusion to serve as “an interface” with Veselnitskaya, who does not speak much English. They worked “very closely” together in Washington and Moscow, Baumgartner said, reviewing documents and finding witnesses who could bolster Prevezon’s case.

Simpson attended a dinner in DC on June 10, attended by both Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin, in the aftermath of the Trump Tower meeting at which (per Simpson) “we had drinks before;” Baumgartner’s vague memory suggests he did too. When asked if Baumgartner knew Akhmetshin, which is virtually certain, Simpson said, “I don’t know.” So there were at least opportunities where people working on both campaigns might have disclosed details about the project for the Democrats (though both Simpson and Baumgartner said Baumgartner didn’t know about the Steele part of the project).

One other detail makes it more likely that Russians succeeded in planting at least some disinformation: both Luke Harding (who worked closely with Steele on his book) and Simpson describe Steele’s sources drying up as the focus on Trump’s ties to Russia grew. Simpson’s statement on this grossly understates (as he often does) how much focus there already publicly was on the Russian hack by the time he hired Steele.

So, you know, when Chris started asking around in Moscow about this the information was sitting there. It wasn’t a giant secret. People were talking about it freely. It was only, you know, later that it became a subject of great controversy and people clammed up, and at that time the whole issue of the hacking was also, you know, not really focused on Russia. So these things eventually converged into, you know, a major issue, but at the time it wasn’t one.

So if Steele’s regular sources were drying up, it makes it far more likely any new ones would be easy to compromised.

Russians seem to have planned to use the dossier to discredit the investigation — just as they are using it

Finally, I want to turn to another reason why I think parts of this may be disinformation. At least two of the reports — the Alfa Bank report (which was pretty clearly a feedback loop on another dodgy story) and the depiction of what should have been the Internet Research Association but was instead targeted at Webzilla, seem custom made to prepare the kind of lawfare that has discredited the dossier. Indeed, Alfa Bank and Webzilla’s owners both sued, suggesting they feel like they can survive discovery.

Look, now, at this detail from the letters Chuck Grassley sent out to the DNC, its top officials, and the Hillary campaign, and its top officials, trying to find out how much they knew about and used the dossier. Grassley also asks for any communications to, from, or relating to the following (I’ve rearranged and classified them).

Fusion and its formal employees: Fusion GPS; Bean LLC; Glenn Simpson; Mary Jacoby; Peter Fritsch; Tom Catan; Jason Felch; Neil King; David Michaels; Taylor Sears; Patrick Corcoran; Laura Sego; Jay Bagwell; Erica Castro; Nellie Ohr;

Fusion researcher who worked on both the Prevezon and Democratic projects: Edward Baumgartner;

Anti-Magnitsky lobbyists: Rinat Akhmetshin; Ed Lieberman;

Christopher Steele’s business and colleagues: Orbis Business Intelligence Limited; Orbis Business International Limited.; Walsingham Training Limited; Walsingham Partners Limited; Christopher Steele; Christopher Burrows; Sir Andrew Wood,

Hillary-related intelligence and policy types: Cody Shearer; Sidney Blumenthal; Jon Winer; Kathleen Kavalec; Victoria Nuland; Daniel Jones;

DOJ and FBI: Bruce Ohr; Peter Strzok; Andrew McCabe; James Baker; Sally Yates; Loretta Lynch;

Grassley, like me, doesn’t believe Brennan was out of the loop either: John Brennan

Oleg Deripaska and his lawyer: Oleg Deripaska; Paul Hauser;

It’s the last reference I’m particularly interested in.

When Simpson talked about how the dossier got leaked to BuzzFeed, he complains that, “I was very upset. I thought it was a very dangerous thing and that someone had violated my confidences, in any event.” The presumed story is that John McCain and his aide David Kramer were briefed by Andrew Wood at an event that Rinat Akhmetshin also attended, later obtained the memo (I’m still not convinced this was the full memo yet), McCain shared it, again, with the FBI, and Kramer leaked it to Buzzfeed.

But Grassley seems to think Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska was in on the loop of this. Deripaska is important to this story not just for because he owns Paul Manafort (he figures heavily in this worthwhile profile of Manafort). But also because he’s got ties, through Rick Davis, to John McCain. This was just rehashed last year by Circa, which has been running interference on this story.

There is a report that Manafort laid out precisely the strategy focusing on the dossier that is still the main focus of GOP pushback on the charges against Trump and his campaign (and Manafort).

It was about a week before Trump’s inauguration, and Manafort wanted to brief Trump’s team on alleged inaccuracies in a recently released dossier of memos written by a former British spy for Trump’s opponents that alleged compromising ties among Russia, Trump and Trump’s associates, including Manafort.

“On the day that the dossier came out in the press, Paul called Reince, as a responsible ally of the president would do, and said this story about me is garbage, and a bunch of the other stuff in there seems implausible,” said a personclose to Manafort.

[snip]

According to a GOP operative familiar with Manafort’s conversation with Priebus, Manafort suggested the errors in the dossier discredited it, as well as the FBI investigation, since the bureau had reached a tentative (but later aborted) agreement to pay the former British spy to continue his research and had briefed both Trump and then-President Barack Obama on the dossier.

Manafort told Priebus that the dossier was tainted by inaccuracies and by the motivations of the people who initiated it, whom he alleged were Democratic activists and donors working in cahoots with Ukrainian government officials, according to the operative.

If Deripaska learned of the dossier — and obtained a copy from McCain or someone close to him — it would make it very easy to lay out the strategy we’re currently seeing.

Update: Welp, here’s why Grassley wants to know who among the Democrats spoke with Cody Shearer.

The FBI inquiry into alleged Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election has been given a second memo that independently set out many of the same allegations made in a dossier by Christopher Steele, the British former spy.

The second memo was written by Cody Shearer, a controversial political activist and former journalist who was close to the Clinton White House in the 1990s.

[snip]

The Shearer memo was provided to the FBI in October 2016.

It was handed to them by Steele – who had been given it by an American contact – after the FBI requested the former MI6 agent provide any documents or evidence that could be useful in its investigation, according to multiple sources.

The Guardian was told Steele warned the FBI he could not vouch for the veracity of the Shearer memo, but that he was providing a copy because it corresponded with what he had separately heard from his own independent sources.

Among other things, both documents allege Donald Trump was compromised during a 2013 trip to Moscow that involved lewd acts in a five-star hotel.

Carter Page Did Not Need to be a Spy to be Targeted Under FISA

The NYT has a story that explains something I was wondering about over the weekend: how the Nunes memo could be used — as it reportedly is being used — to justify a Trump bid to fire Rod Rosenstein. Shortly after he was confirmed, NYT reveals, Rosenstein approved the renewal application for the FISA order targeting Carter Page.

A secret, highly contentious Republican memo reveals that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein approved an application to extend surveillance of a former Trump campaign associate shortly after taking office last spring, according to three people familiar with it.

[snip]

[I]n their efforts to discredit the inquiry, Republicans could potentially use Mr. Rosenstein’s decision to approve the renewal to suggest that he failed to properly vet a highly sensitive application for a warrant to spy on Mr. Page, who served as a Trump foreign policy adviser until September 2016.

The news is interesting for several reasons. First, it provides more granularity for the timing of the surveillance targeted at Page.

American law enforcement officials began conducting surveillance on him in the fall of 2016, shortly after he left the campaign. It is unclear what they learned about Mr. Page between then and when they sought the order’s renewal roughly six months later. It is also unknown whether the surveillance court granted the extension.

The renewal effort came in the late spring, sometime after the Senate confirmed Mr. Rosenstein as the Justice Department’s No. 2 official in late April. Around that time, following Mr. Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director in May, Mr. Rosenstein appointed Mr. Mueller, a former head of the bureau, to take over the department’s Russia investigation.

Rosenstein was sworn in on April 26. He appointed Mueller on May 17. If we take that window as the timeframe for the reapplication date, it would date the prior authorization (orders targeting US persons last 90 days) to roughly January 26 through February 17, and the fall one to October 26 to November 17 time frame. The later you get in that initial time period, the closer you get to the time when Page would have been planning a follow-up visit to Russia in December.

Glenn Simpson describes Christopher Steele’s second meeting with the FBI, in Rome, about his dossier as occurring sometime in September. So there was perhaps a month between the time Steele provided information on Page and the time the FBI obtained the new order targeting Page.

On top of what the NYT says about Democratic complaints about this memo, there are other reasons to believe this is bogus. Even on 702 — but especially on FISA — the retasking process requires the government to show it obtained new information during the prior surveillance period, meaning the application Rosenstein signed would have been the second to do so.

Plus, there’s one more point.

To be targeted FBI had to provide proof that Page was an agent of a foreign power.

The renewal shows that the Justice Department under President Trump saw reason to believe that the associate, Carter Page, was acting as a Russian agent.

[snip]

To obtain the warrant involving Mr. Page, the government needed to show probable cause that he was acting as an agent of Russia.

But that does not actually entail proving that he, himself, is spying on the US. An American may be targeted as an agent of a foreign power if he knowingly aids or abets someone involved in clandestine intelligence gathering that may involve a violation of criminal statutes.

(A) knowingly engages in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of a foreign power, which activities involve or may involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

(B) pursuant to the direction of an intelligence service or network of a foreign power, knowingly engages in any other clandestine intelligence activities for or on behalf of such foreign power, which activities involve or are about to involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

[snip]

(E) knowingly aids or abets any person in the conduct of activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) or knowingly conspires with any person to engage in activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C).

That’s the standard that — given that Page had been warned by FBI in 2013 that he was being recruited — might be fairly easily within reach for Page. I suspect we’ll eventually learn (after whatever brouhaha ensues) that FBI claimed Page was either aiding or abetting Russian spies, or conspiring with them, not that he was a spy himself. But that’s a distinction that may be lost on Republicans trying to politicize this.

There’s one more thing (one I don’t expect applies here but is worth pointing out in any case). The government can target any facility an agent of a foreign power uses, whether or not the agent owns it.

(B) each of the facilities or places at which the electronic surveillance is directed is being used, or is about to be used, by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power

This is how the government got to do a scan of all Yahoo’s users, because the targeted foreign power was using Yahoo mail, generally, and the specific signature searched on identified the people as targets.

Two more points. Trey Gowdy reviewed the underlying intelligence to the memo  that is now being used to target Rosenstein, he’s telling colleagues to stop pressuring Mueller in part because Mueller is pursuing a counterintelligence component (precisely the kind of thing targeted with FISA!) that will explain what really happened in 2016.

Gowdy said there are “two components” to the purview of Mueller’s investigation.

“There is a criminal component. But there’s also a counterintelligence component that no one ever talks about because it’s not sexy and interesting. But he’s also going to tell us definitively what Russia tried to do in 2016,” Gowdy said. “So the last time you and I were together, I told my Republican colleagues, leave him the hell alone, and that’s still my advice.”

Gowdy is one of about six members of Congress who has seen the most sensitive materials in Mueller’s case. It’s really bizarre that he’s saying the GOP needs to back off Mueller because of his CI focus when they’re likely misunderstanding how FISA is used in CI.

Finally, remember that nothing that Mueller is known to have done is identifiably fruit from this Carter Page order. Even with Manafort — who was also reportedly targeted in a FISA order — Mueller has not given FISA notice to suggest he’s relying on anything derived from FISA (though such notice is always suspect).

So even if he dossier is dodgy, it may be that Mueller is pursuing his case such that he avoids any taint from it.

Update: I keep forgetting, but something that happened with Carter Page may well have been abusive, but it’s not what the Republicans are (as far as the public reporting goes) focusing on. It’s a sign that they’re dummies who don’t understand what they purportedly oversee that they haven’t figured this out. I’m not going to lay it out here — because those leading this hoax just reauthorized the practice in any case — but I have written it up elsewhere.

Dear JD Gordon [and Jared]: Mueller Has 17 Prosecutors; White House Obstruction Accounts for Just One

The WaPo has a piece reporting (with details about John Kelly’s “collusion” with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is supposed to be recused) what I noted here: Trump wants the Devin Nunes memo to come out, even in spite of the warnings about how releasing it will damage national security.

It rather absurdly claims that Mueller is “narrowing” his probe.

As Mueller narrows his probe — homing in on the ways Trump may have tried to impede the Russia investigation — a common thread ties many of the incidents together: a president accustomed to functioning as the executive of a private family business who does not seem to understand that his subordinates have sworn an oath to the Constitution rather than to him.

More amusing is this anonymous quote from JD Gordon.

A person who has spoken with Mueller’s team said investigators’ questions seemed at least partially designed to probe potential obstruction from Trump.

“The questions are about who was where in every meeting, what happened before and after, what the president was saying as he made decisions,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to recount a private session.

This person added that while it seemed unlikely Mueller’s team would yield any evidence of a coordinated effort to aid the Russians — “If you were on the campaign, you know we couldn’t even collude with ourselves,” he said — the investigators might find more details to support obstruction of justice. [my emphasis]

We know it was JD Gordon because he said precisely the same thing in an op-ed just after the George Papadopoulos plea made it clear Gordon and his buddies might be in a heap of trouble.

Trump camp too disorganized to collude

Criminalization of policy differences has descended upon America once again. The viciousness towards a sitting president and his team evokes memories of Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment. In the “witch hunt” Clinton was impeached for something unrelated to the Arkansas real estate deal which sparked the Whitewater investigation years earlier. Like a Soviet secret police chief once said: “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” Indeed.

We’re seeing the same thing today. The Trump-Russia collusion story is a hoax and “witch hunt” of this century.

Like typical conspiracy theories, usually the simplest explanation is correct. The campaign was chaotic, understaffed and underpaid, if paid at all. We couldn’t collude amongst ourselves. [my emphasis]

Since JD Gordon is — by his own account — incompetent, I’m going to repeat the substance of this post I did even as he first rolled out this line, just to help him out.

Update: I’ve been informed that Jared Kushner has also used this “we couldn’t collude because we’re too incompetent” line, so perhaps he’s the one who believes he’s not at risk for engaging in a quid pro quo with Russians and others. 

Robert Mueller has 17 prosecutors. We’ve only seen what 10 of them are doing. And just one of them — Watergate prosecutor James Quarles — is known to be working on the White House obstruction case.

Here’s a census of Mueller’s prosecutors who’ve thus far shown what they’re working on:

Manafort docket:

  • Andrew Weismann (1)
  • Greg Andres (2)
  • Kyle Freeny (3)

Adam Jed (4), an appellate specialist, has appeared with these lawyers in grand jury appearances.

Papadopoulos docket:

  • Jeannie Rhee (5)
  • Andrew Goldstein (6)
  • Aaron Zelinsky (7)

Flynn docket:

  • Brandon L. Van Grack (8)
  • Zainab Ahmad (9)

Obstruction docket:

Even in these dockets, it’s clear Mueller is nowhere near done.

Flynn may have a status hearing scheduled for Thursday (though it’s not formally noted in the docket). I suspect, instead, we’ll get a joint status report like was submitted in Papadopoulos’ case on January 17, which basically said, “we’re very busy cooperating, don’t bug us until April 23.”

And CNN just reported that Mueller’s team has drafted superseding indictments against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and Gates appears to be prepping to flip.

Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates has quietly added a prominent white-collar attorney, Tom Green, to his defense team, signaling that Gates’ approach to his not-guilty plea could be changing behind the scenes.

Green, a well-known Washington defense lawyer, was seen at special counsel Robert Mueller’s office twice last week. CNN is told by a source familiar with the matter that Green has joined Gates’ team.

Green isn’t listed in the court record as a lawyer in the case and works for a large law firm separate from Gates’ primary lawyers.

Green’s involvement suggests that there is an ongoing negotiation between the defendant’s team and the prosecutors.

[snip]

Superseding indictments, which would add or replace charges against both Gates and Manafort, have been prepared, according to a source close to the investigation. No additional charges have been filed so far. When there is a delay in filing charges after they’ve been prepared, it can indicate that negotiations of some nature are ongoing.

So even where we have some visibility, that visibility suggests there is plenty of work trying to see if there was any conspiracy tied to the election.

That leaves the following prosecutors, listed with their specialities:

  • Aaron Zebley (11): probably working on coordination
  • Michael Dreeben (12): appellate wizard
  • Elizabeth Prelogar (13): appellate specialist and Russian speaker
  • Scott Meisler (14): appellate specialist
  • Rush Atkinson (15): fraud prosecutor
  • Ryan Dickey (16): Cybersecurity (just added in November)
  • Mystery prosecutor (17)

I mean, Mueller hasn’t even revealed all his prosecutors yet, much less what they’re all working on.

But JD Gordon would have you believe the prosecutors’ attention to what meetings he and his buddies were in means Mueller is only investigating obstruction.

Feinstein’s Homework Assignments

While Devin Nunes has been getting all the headlines for trying to muck up the Mueller investigation, Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein are increasingly at odds, as well. First there was the Grassley-Lindsey Graham bogus referral of Christopher Steele (I say it’s bogus not because I doubt his sworn statements have been inconsistent — they have been — but because FBI doesn’t need a referral for statements made to FBI itself). Then Feinstein released, and then apologized for, releasing the Glenn Simpson transcript. Grassley used that to invent the story that Jared Kushner was spooked and so wouldn’t sit for an interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee (we know that’s bullshit because Kushner released his own statement before giving it to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which “spooked” Richard Burr). Still, in response to a Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal request that Don Jr’s transcript be shared with FBI (because he likely lied in it), Grassley suggested he’d release the transcripts of all the interviews pertaining to the June 9 meeting.

So now both are continuing to collect evidence on their own, at least in part to generate headlines rather than investigative leads. But the most recent requests, both sent out yesterday, provide some insight into what they believe might have happened and what they know (or still don’t know).

In this post, I’ll look at whom Feinstein is requesting information from. In a follow-up I’ll comment on Grassley’s latest request.

Who Feinstein wants to talk to and who represents them

Some of Feinstein’s requests are immediately understandable, including the following people (thoughout this post, I’ve noted the lawyer’s name if the letter was sent to one):

As for the others, the explanation for why the Committee is seeking information explains any connection understood to the investigation. Most of this is open source information to footnoted reporting (click through to see those sources). Where that’s not the case, I’ve bolded it, as that presumably reflects still classified information the Committee received.

Michael Caputo (Dennis Vacco):

You joined the presidential campaign of Donald Trump as a communications advisor upon the recommendation of Paul Manafort, and it has been reported you have close ties to campaign advisor Roger Stone. It also has been reported that you have deep ties to Russia, including having worked for the Kremlin and Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom.

Paul Erickson (sent to him directly):

In May 2016, you were involved in efforts to broker a meeting between Alexander Torshin — someone you described as “President Putin’s emissary” — and top officials for the Trump campaign. In your communications with the Trump campaign about this meeting, you said that you had been “cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin” and that the “Kremlin believes htat the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.”

Robert Foresman (sent to him directly):

As a long-time investment banker in Russia, you have developed relationships with senior Kremlin officials and have expressed your passion for private diplomacy to help foster improved U.S.-Russia relations. The Committee has reason to believe you sought to engage the Trump campaign in discussions concerning outreach from senior Kremlin officials.

Rhona Graff (Alan Futerfas, who is also representing Don Jr):

As a senior vice president in the Trump Organization and longtime assistant to Donald Trump, you are likely familiar with the President’s communications and schedule, particularly during the 2016 presidential campaign. For example, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, [sic] have said they contact you to get access to President Trump. And when Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr. about setting up the June 9, 2016 meeting between the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer, he noted, “I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.”

Philip Griffin (sent directly to his email):

You have been a longstanding associate of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and served, reportedly at his request, as an advisor to the Trump campaign during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016.

[snip]

You have been a longtime of [sic] associate of Manafort, and you hired Konstantin Kiliminik [sic] to work with you and Manafort in Ukraine. In 2014, you were named in a lawsuit filed by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska as a “ley” partner, along with Manafort, Gates, and Kilimnik, in an investment fund that Deripaska contends stole nearly $19 million from him. In 2016, while Manafort was serving as the Trump campaign manager, Kilimnik reportedly emailed Manafort about reporting on Manafort’s role in the campaign with Deripaska, which Manafort suggested might be used to “get whole.”

David Keene (sent directly to him):

In spring 2016, Russian banker Alexander Torshin and Russian national Maria Butina were reportedly involved in efforts to arrange a meeting between Mr. Torshin and then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign. Mr. Torshin is a “senior Russian official who claimed to be acting at the behest of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.” Ms. Butina is the founder of the Russian group known as the Right to Bear Arms and has described herself as a “representative of the Russian Federation” and a “connection between Team Trump and Russia.” You reportedly were introduced to Mr. Torshin in 2011, and were invited by Mr. Torshin and Ms. Butina to speak at the 2013 annual meeting in Moscow for the Right to Bear Arms. Ms. Butina was your guest at the NRA’s 2014 annual meeting, and you traveled along with Trump campaign surrogate Sheriff David Clarke to Moscow in December 2015 for another meeting with Ms. Butina’s organization.

Joseph Keith Kellogg, Jr. (sent directly to him):

As a member of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team, you worked alongside George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, both of whom had multiple contacts with Russian officials (or their surrogates) that they reported back to the campaign. You also worked on the Trump transition team before joining the National Security Council and served as Chief of Staff under Lt. General Michael Flynn until his removal.

[snip]

You served as Chief of Staff on the National Security Council during the period when General Flynn lied to administration officials about his Russian contacts. It has been reported that, once the White House learned of those lies from Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, you started participating in the President’s daily security briefings, and — once General Flynn was removed — you served as the President’s interim national security advisor.

John Mashburn (sent to him at the White House):

As the Trump campaign policy director, you worked alongside members of the foreign policy team who had multiple contacts with Russian officials (or their surrogates). For example, Rick Dearborn, another senior policy aide, who reportedly shared a May 2016 request from Alexander Torshin, a senior Russian official with close ties to Vladimir Putin, to meet then-candidate Trump or other top campaign officials at the National Rifle Association’s 2016 annual convention. It also has been reported that JD Gordon informed you about pro-Russian changes to the Republican party platform that were championed by the Trump campaign. You role as senior advisor on the transition team, and now White House Deputy Cabinet Secretary, also has given you a firsthand look at other significant events affecting the Trump administration, including the removals of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.

Frank Mermoud (sent via email directly to him):

You served as an advisor to the Trump campaign during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016, running the program for ambassadors and foreign delegations — a post that you reportedly held at the recommendation of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Because of your role at the convention, longstanding relationship with Mr. Manafort, and deep business ties to Ukraine,

Amanda Miller (Alan Futerfas, who also represents Don Jr):

As a vice president for marketing at the Trump Organization, you are likely intimately familiar with President Donald Trump and the inner workings of the Trump Organization. For example, you have made public statements on behalf of the Trump Organization regarding the Trump Organization’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. In addition, the Committee has reason to believe that you may have information on other Trump business ties to Russia.

Feinstein wants to know who lied to David Ignatius

In general, the items requested are not the surprising. I am, however, interested that Kellogg, Miller, and Spicer were asked about,

All communications concerning the story written by David Ignatius that appeared in the Washington Post on January 12, 2017, titled, “Why did Obama dawdle on Russia’s hacking?

Note, before the story, the transition team did not comment, but after it revealed that Flynn had phoned Sergei Kislyak several times on December 29, two aides called Ignatius and told what we now know are lies.

The Trump transition team did not respond Thursday night to a request for comment. But two team members called with information Friday morning. A first Trump official confirmed that Flynn had spoken with Kislyak by phone, but said the calls were before sanctions were announced and didn’t cover that topic. This official later added that Flynn’s initial call was to express condolences to Kislyak after the terrorist killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara Dec. 19, and that Flynn made a second call Dec. 28 to express condolences for the shoot-down of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria. In that second call, Flynn also discussed plans for a Trump-Putin conversation sometime after the inauguration. In addition, a second Trump official said the Dec. 28 call included an invitation from Kislyak for a Trump administration official to visit Kazakhstan for a conference in late January.

Burck’s clients get different treatment

Also as I noted above, Feinstein staff treated the letter to the two William Burck clients differently. Bannon’s was sent to him, but care of Burck.

But McGahn’s was addressed to Burck.

Unless I missed it, McGahn’s is the only letter treated this way. Which is one reason I suspect the blizzard of stories about what a hero McGahn was in June after he had done clearly obstructive things in May and earlier may have more to do with McGahn’s legal jeopardy than Trump’s.

Update: This Politico piece (h/t PINC) says that McGahn hired Burck last May, right after he had done some really stupid things with respect to the Jim Comey firing.

McGahn came calling in May amid the fallout from Trump’s decision to fire Comey from his post as FBI director — an explosive move that prompted Mueller’s appointment.

How Did Don McGahn Threaten to Quit without Telling Trump?

There’s something funny about the story — first broken by NYT tonight, then confirmed by WaPo — that Trump wanted to fire Robert Mueller last June but backed off after White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit.

Oh sure, the NYT version has all the trappings of the classic principled stand. McGahn threatened to quit which led Trump to back down.

After receiving the president’s order to fire Mr. Mueller, the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel, saying he would quit instead, the people said.

But the WaPo lays out something that’s only hinted at in the NYT version: McGahn never told Trump himself he was going to quit.

McGahn did not deliver his resignation threat directly to Trump, but was serious about his threat to leave, according to a person familiar with the episode.

[snip]

Trump decided to assert that Mueller had unacceptable conflicts of interest and moved to remove him from his position, according to the people familiar with internal conversations.

In response, McGahn said he would not be at the White House if Trump went through with the move, according to a senior administration official.

Described that way, it sounds more like McGahn wasn’t going to take yet another action that exposed him, personally, to obstruction charges. After all, McGahn had already nudged close to that line on several occasions, though it’s not something foregrounded in either of these stories.

While the NYT admits that McGahn was just months off of trying to persuade Jeff Sessions to ignore DOJ ethics advice and not recuse, it doesn’t mention that McGahn helped orchestrate getting Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein to provide cover for a Jim Comey firing that he knew, because he had insisted Trump rewrite his firing letter, was ultimately an effort to end the Russian investigation.

The other funny thing about both these stories is how they obscure one of the known sources of tension that led to John Dowd replacing Marc Kasowitz. Both stories describe Kasowitz’ efforts to discredit Mueller to make claims of partisanship — an effort that continues today, albeit largely though not entirely outsourced to the more venal Republican members of the House.

Around the time Mr. Trump wanted to fire Mr. Mueller, the president’s legal team, led then by his longtime personal lawyer in New York, Marc E. Kasowitz, was taking an adversarial approach to the Russia investigation. The president’s lawyers were digging into potential conflict-of-interest issues for Mr. Mueller and his team, according to current and former White House officials, and news media reports revealed that several of Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors had donated to Democrats.

But it doesn’t explain what Michael Wolff, at least, reports to be the precipitating cause of Kasowitz and Mark Corallo’s departure: their own concern that Trump’s July 7, 2017 lies about the June 9, 2016 meeting itself amounted to obstruction of justice.

An aggrieved, unyielding, and threatening president dominated the discussion, pushing into line his daughter and her husband, Hicks, and Raffel. Kasowitz—the lawyer whose specific job was to keep Trump at arm’s length from Russian-related matters—was kept on hold on the phone for an hour and then not put through. The president insisted that the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy. That’s what was discussed, period. Period. Even though it was likely, if not certain, that the Times had the incriminating email chain—in fact, it was quite possible that Jared and Ivanka and the lawyers knew the Times had this email chain—the president ordered that no one should let on to the more problematic discussion about Hillary Clinton.

[snip]

In Washington, Kasowitz and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, weren’t informed of either the Times article or the plan for how to respond to it until Don Jr.’s initial statement went out just before the story broke that Saturday.

[snip]

Mark Corallo was instructed not to speak to the press, indeed not to even answer his phone. Later that week, Corallo, seeing no good outcome—and privately confiding that he believed the meeting on Air Force One represented a likely obstruction of justice—quit.

If this story is correct, then it wasn’t, just, the plan to attack Mueller that caused the break (and as I said, that plan has just been outsourced to people protected by Speech and Debate clause protections). Rather, it was also a subsequent incident of clear obstruction, one done in the wake of a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Where was McGahn the principled attorney threatening to quit rather than permit obstruction to occur for that?

Several things may be contributing to the nonsensical parts of these stories. First, it may be that a number of these people are at some risk of obstruction charges themselves. To the extent they’re all trying to spin their activities in the best light (assisted, in McGahn’s case, because he shares a lawyer with Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon), they may have to blame others for their actions.

Add in the fact that some of this testimony might be surprising to others. While McGahn, with John Dowd and Ty Cobb, presumably has the most knowledge, it’s possible he didn’t know about Sessions’ testimony (and Sessions reportedly didn’t share details of his testimony with Trump).

So I don’t know what the truth is.

I do know, however, that threatening to quit but not telling Trump about it is a funny way of changing his behavior.

Update: The CNN confirmation of this emphasizes, like the WaPo does, that McGahn didn’t threaten to quit directly. It also quotes Anthony Scaramucci saying that the attempt to fire doesn’t matter because Trump backed off the decision — so it may be that’s how the leakers (all represented by the same lawyer, William Burck — spun this).

Also consider the possibility that NewsMax CEO Chris Ruddy, who is a Mike Schmidt source and who floated Trump’s plan to fire Mueller contemporaneously as a way of trying to get him to back down, is a key source for this. It may mean that Ruddy’s stance, far more than McGahn’s, is what led Trump to back down.

The Politico version of this emphasizes Ruddy’s June stance.

In mid-June, Chris Ruddy, a close Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago member, said after a visit to the White House that he’d overheard discussion about the president considering firing Mueller.

“It could trigger something well beyond anything they ever imagined,” he told POLITICO at the time. Later that day, Ruddy told PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff that Trump was “considering perhaps terminating the special counsel.”

Ruddy added during the interview he thought it would be “a very significant mistake” to oust Mueller. He noted Mueller had interviewed with Trump to succeed Comey as FBI director, though the president later went on to appoint former Justice Department official Chris Wray to the job.

Mueller should invite Ruddy in for a chat.

Politico also quotes an attorney representing someone else suggesting that it reflects an all-man-for-himself attitude among Trump’s associates.

“It’s one more brick in the wall,” said a Washington lawyer representing another senior Trump aide in the Russia probe who added that the most interesting aspect of the Trump-Mueller story to him was that “people are leaking this shit.”

“That is a sign to me people perceive this ship has sprung a leak and it’s time to make themselves look good,” the attorney said. “To some extent I think the fact of the leaking is almost the most significant, that we’ve reached an inflection point where people at the center of things feel the need to redeem themselves at the expense of the president.”

I do think the leaking of this is significant — and may have as much to do with news of Bannon or Sessions’ testimony as anything else — but given that at least two of the people involved here (McGahn and Reince Priebus) share a lawyer, it may only represent that particular lifeboat abandoning ship.

Update: The updated WaPo version of this makes it clear that Reince Priebus and Steven Bannon were both in the loop on this.

Trump’s ire at Mueller rose to such a level that then-White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon and then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus grew “incredibly concerned” that he was going to fire Mueller and sought to enlist others to intervene with the president, according to a Trump adviser who requested anonymity to describe private conversations.

Both of the men were deeply worried about the possibility and discussed how to keep him from making such a move, this person said.

Priebus and Bannon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In one meeting with other advisers, Bannon raised the concern that if Trump fired Mueller it could trigger a challenge to his presidency based on the 25th Amendment, which lays out the process of who succeeds a president in case of incapacitation.

Despite internal objections, Trump decided to assert that Mueller had unacceptable conflicts of interest and moved to remove him from his position, according to the people familiar with the discussions.

In response, McGahn said he would not remain at the White House if Trump went through with the move, according to a senior administration official.

The president, in turn, backed off.

So it seems this leakapalooza stems in part from Burck, the lawyer representing them all.

Update: As this Politico piece (linked by PINC below) notes, McGahn hired Burck in the wake of obstructing justice in the Comey firing, way before Mueller came calling.

So it wasn’t that McGahn took a principled stand in June. It’s that his lawyer told him to stop obstructing justice.

Update: CBS tells what feels like the real story. First, as noted, McGahn’s threat didn’t really make it to Trump. Indeed, the firing wasn’t really even an order. The response was more of an eye roll. And, as predicted, the other people involved were fellow Burck clients Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.

Two sources directly involved in the deliberations tell CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett that McGahn’s threat was not communicated directly to Mr. Trump, but adjudicated by senior staff, principally then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Garrett reports that while Mr. Trump talked about firing Mueller, he never issued a direct “order” to do so in any written form, although he did say he favored it in the presence of senior staff.

[snip]

White House senior staff viewed Mr. Trump’s talk of firing Mueller skeptically, as he frequently mentioned firing people in his administration, but often quickly forgets about it.

In the Mueller instance, as in other potential firing cases, senior staff acknowledged the president with nods, but did not take action, in hopes Mr. Trump would simmer down or forget, sources tell Garrett.

Because of this, discussion of firing Mueller was not acted upon or elevated from the White House to Department of Justice.

Moreover, McGahn’s threat went beyond the Mueller firing to his own compromised position.

McGahn threatened to resign over an accumulation of stresses and frustrations with the president, rather than leaving for issues related to Mueller’s potential firing.

McGahn’s primary stress was being a “no” voice for Mr. Trump.

Suddenly, this looks not so much like McGahn heroically defending the Constitution as McGahn trying to fix a shitty work situation.

The Increasing Panic Surrounding Devin Nunes’ “Extraordinarily Reckless” Plan to Release Memo

I thought I’d chronicle the increasingly senior panic surrounding Devin Nunes’ plan — reportedly backed by Trump — to release the Nunes memo without first letting FBI and DOJ review it. Clearly, there’s concern this will burn underlying sources for the FISA application(s) described in the report. I don’t rule our the belated revelation of something I’ve been hearing for at least six months — that the Dutch passed on intelligence in real time of APT 29 hacking US targets and had an inside view of the operations — isn’t meant as a warning of what will happen if the US further burns the Dutch.

I’m also interested in AAG Stephen Boyd’s emphasis that Nunes delegated his review of these documents to Trey Gowdy, perhaps suggesting both will have some kind of liability for any damage that will result from this game of telephone.

Sunday, January 21: FBI denied a copy of Nunes’ memo.

“The FBI has requested to receive a copy of the memo in order to evaluate the information and take appropriate steps if necessary. To date, the request has been declined,” said Andrew Ames, a spokesperson for the FBI.

Wednesday, January 24: Richard Burr’s Senate Intelligence Committee staffers denied a copy of the memo.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr’s staff has not been given access to a classified memo drafted by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a sign of how closely House Republicans are guarding allegations of Justice Department wrongdoing over surveillance activities in the Russia investigation.

According to three sources familiar with the matter, Burr’s staff requested a copy of the memo and has been denied, just as the FBI and Justice Department have also been denied reviewing a copy of the document.

Wednesday, January 24: Trump’s Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Stephen Boyd writes letter noting that releasing memo will violate agreement.

Recent news reports indicate a classified memorandum prepared by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI or Committee) staff alleges abuses at the Department of Justice (Department) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the FISA process. We understand many members of the House of Representatives have views this memorandum and that it has raised concerns.

As you know, we have provided HPSCI with more than 1,000 pages of classified documents relating to the FBI’s relationship, if any, with a source and its reliance, if any, on information provided by that source. Media reports indicate that the Committee’s memorandum contains highly classified material confidentially provided by the Department to the Committee in a secure facility.1

[snip]

In addition, we have also heard that HPSCI is considering making the classified memorandum available to the public and the media, an unprecedented action. We believe it would be extraordinarily reckless for the Committee to disclose such information publicly without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum and to advise the HPSCI of the risk of harm to national security and to ongoing investigations that could come from public release. Indeed, we do not understand why the Committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community.

Seeking Committee approval of public release would require HPSCI committee members to vote on a staff-drafted memorandum that purports to be based on classified source materials that neither you nor most of them have seen. Given HPSCI’s important role in overseeing the nation’s intelligence community, you well understand the damaging impact that the release of classified material could have on our national security and our ability to share and receive sensitive information from friendly foreign governments.

[snip]

Additionally, we believe that wider distribution of the classified information presumably contained within your memorandum would represent a significant deviation from the terms of access granted in good faith by the Department, HPSCI, and the Office of Speaker Paul Ryan.

The Department renews its request — as previously made in a personal appeal by the Director of the FBI — for an opportunity to review the memorandum in question so that it may respond to the Committee before any vote on public release.

1 To date, the Department has provided detailed briefings and made available to HPSCI documents requested as part of its investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. The terms of access stipulated that review of the documents would be limited to the Chairman or his designee, the Ranking Member or his designee, and two staff members each. (Mr. Gowdy reviewed the documents for the majority. Mr. Schiff reviewed the documents for the minority.) Other committees of jurisdiction — the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and the House Committee on the Judiciary — have accepted similar procedural safeguards to protect against improper dissemination of information.

Thursday, January 25: DOJ spox (and close Jeff Sessions ally) Sarah Isgur Flores goes on Fox to argue DOJ should get to look at the memo first,

Let us see it first. At this point, nobody in the Senate or the White House or the Department of Justice or FBI has seen this document, and a number of Congressmen have expressed a lot of concern about it. So we would like to see it. Well, I think we’d certainly want to see any evidence of wrong-doing and take action upon that if there is wrong-doing going on. And then, I think we’d want to discuss, I mean, this is classified material for a reason. It has national security implications. It may have implications for our allies or others in the intelligence community.

Thursday, January 25: Majority Whip and SSCI member John Cornyn says Nunes should let DOJ review the memo.

Cornyn, who has been briefed on Nunes memo, suggests Nunes should listen to DOJ concerns. “We all should pay attention to what the Justice Department’s concerns are, and I’m sure the chairman will. It’s always good when we communicate and consult with one another,” he told me

Thursday, January 25: James Lankford says Nunes should follow “proper declassification procedures.”

Update: First, I fixed the dates.

Second, I wasn’t aware of this statement from Paul Ryan’s spox, sometime in the last day. (h/t Maestro)

A spokesman for Ryan pushed back at the DOJ’s characterization of the negotiations.

“As previously reported, the speaker’s only message to the Department was that it needed to comply with oversight requests and there were no terms set for its compliance,” Doug Andres, the spokesman, said in a statement.

This is fairly breathtaking, as it suggests Ryan (and by association Nunes) are not agreeing to abide by any of the security precautions imposed on the access to highly sensitive case files Nunes obtained.

Why Did Trump Tweet an “In the Ball Park” Accurate Number for Hillary’s Total Staffers on June 9, 2016?

In this post, I showed how the George Papadopoulos filings suggest there was a signaling process that went on during 2016, as he and other staffers sent public signals to the Russians that may have suggested further commitment to a deal of some kind. In this post, I laid out a bunch of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the current, public story about the June 9, 2016 meeting is just a limited hangout, one that hides more damning details about what happened after Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin left the meeting. I also examined the first Guccifer 2.0 documents and noted that, in addition to responding to and debunking the June 14 WaPo story, they might serve well to lay out (arguably, to oversell) the breadth of what the Russians had stolen.

With those details in mind, I want to return to a detail many others have already noted, Donald Trump’s tweet, just 40 minutes after the Trump Tower meeting started, referencing Hillary emails (albeit the ones she deleted off her server, not the still secret stolen ones).

Given that George Papadopoulos seemed to treat other public statements from the campaign (most notably Trump’s April 27 foreign policy speech) as signals to the Russians the campaign was prepared to take the next step, could this tweet be the same? A response, seemingly from the candidate himself, accepting a deal presented in the meeting?

The tweet may have involved one or another of the campaign’s data guys

Mind you, as Pseudonymous in NC noted, the tweet was done on an iPhone — this is the period from before Trump had switched to iPhones — meaning someone else, perhaps either Brad Parscale or Dan Scavino, tweeted it. PINC lays out reasons either one of Trump’s data guys might be of particular interest:

Per the Bloomberg pre-election “bunker” story, Parscale was one of the few with credentials to the boss’s account. Pre-written tweets during events like the debates went through the web client, but my guess is that Scavino and Parscale represent most of the ‘Twitter for iPhone’ tweets in 2016 and early 2017. Some of them are RTing Scavino’s personal account, and Caddy Dan is that kinda guy. Parscale has consistently used an iPhone, including the June 8th photo from the Tower.

Remember that Feinstein is interested in Scavino’s contacts with, er, VKontakte, and that’s before considering Parscale’s data op. Pretty much everything tweeted out during 2016 that relates to the specifics of hacked emails is sent from an iPhone.

And the intermediary for the VK connection was Goldstone, going back to January 2016. It’s interesting that neither Scavino nor Parscale have apparently been called in for chats with investigators, or if they have, we haven’t heard about it.

[snip]

What I’m thinking is that if there was indeed an after-meeting about “dirt in the form of emails”, Scavino or Parscale may have been brought into the room. And Goldstone had been put in touch with Scavino earlier that year.

This story revealing Goldstone’s communications about his role in brokering the VK contact doesn’t support the possibility that one of the data guys was brought into the room. Rather, Goldstone’s emails suggest he discussed the idea with Don Jr and Paul Manafort, presumably on June 9, but that Scavino was not included in the meeting, even though he had been looped in during earlier discussions about it.

The newly disclosed emails show that Goldstone was in contact with the campaign about two weeks after visiting Trump Tower.

“I’m following up on an email [from] a while back of something I had mentioned to Don and Paul Manafort during a meeting recently,” Goldstone wrote to Scavino on June 29. Goldstone wrote that his client, Emin Agalarov, and a “contact” at VK wanted to create a “Vote Trump 2016” promotion.

“At the time, Paul had said he would welcome it, and so I had the VK folks mock up a basic sample page, which I am resending for your approval now,” Goldstone wrote. “It would merely require Mr. Trump to drop in a short message to Russian-American voters or a generic message, depending on your choice, and the page can be up and running very quickly.”

In any case, the discussion about VK is yet another detail that makes it pretty likely Goldstone, at least, arrived early or stayed after Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin left (in the WaPo story on this, Scott Balber denies VK came up at any meeting Ike Kaveladze attended).

One other possibility for who sent that Tweet, though: It would not be surprising if Don Jr had access to Pop’s account. At least recently, he has alternated between an iPhone and the web client to send his own tweets, so it’s possible any tweets he sent on Dad’s behalf would also be from an iPhone.

Where’s Trump get that number, 823? And why’d he use it?

But I’m at least as interested in why Trump (or rather, Scavino or Parscale or Don Jr) used the number “823” in the tweet. In the aftermath of the John Sipher interview Jeremy Scahill did, Sipher suggested to me might be some kind of signal, a code; he’s the pro–maybe he’s right.

But I was wondering whether it might, instead, reflect real-time knowledge of the Hillary campaign’s finances and resources. That is, I wondered whether that number might have, itself, reflected the sharing of some kind of data that could verify the Russians had compromised Hillary’s campaign (or at least researched it substantively enough to know more than the Trump camp did). The public use of the number, then, might serve as a signal that that message, and the inside data, had been received.

While the specific number is difficult to check, I’ve been told the 823 number would have been at least “in the ball park” of the real number of Hillary’s campaign staffers on June 9, 2016.

Politico’s analysis of the Hillary campaign’s May 20 FEC filing showed Hillary had 732 staffers at the time of the report. The day after the June 9 meeting, Philip Bump did a story comparing Hillary and Trump’s staffing (a slew of such stories in the weeks after the June 9 meeting was one reason Corey Lewandowski got replaced as campaign manager), referencing the tweet. But his analysis reflected the month’s long lag in FEC filings. Without doing cleanup (to figure out who got paid that frequently, whether anyone got paid monthly rather than bi-monthly), Clinton’s FEC filings seem to show 587 individual payroll disbursements at her headquarters on June 15, 2016.

I talked to a couple of people on the campaign who remember thinking about the tweet, and its use of the 823 number, in real time. Someone who was working on responding to such issues told me he thought, when the tweet came out, that it might have been just a guess (though now thinks it might come from misreading a report). But another Hillary staffer described taking note of the specific number in real time. That person did about 10 minutes of follow-up at the time, checking real-time FEC filings, and concluded that it might be an accurate number. Between headquarters staff, working (policy) teams, advance, and field staff, the person believes the 823 number could very well represent a close to real number of staffers Hillary had “working” on her campaign.

Of course, none of this would mean the number came from the Russians. Such estimates are done by (competent) political campaigns all the time. So it could have come from Trump’s data people — the same people who could have tweeted the tweet in Trump’s name — itself.

That said, in none of the other Trump tweets using the 30,000 or the 33,000 email number does he include a similarly specific detail — the closest comparison is one invocation of Chelsea’s wedding. Note, too, just one other of those tweets also came from an iPhone — the equally suspicious one on July 27, 2016 asking Russia to release those emails (though one of the others came from the web client).

One more point on the number: That night, at 8:22PM ET, someone on Reddit’s The_Donald thread posted, “Hillary has a staggering 823 staffers on her campaign; Donald Trump  has over 142,000.” Best as I understand it, the comment was almost immediately removed by moderators. I find that worth noting.

On the Sessions and Trump Interviews: It’s Not Just Obstruction of Justice

There are two stories out (in addition to this piece I did for TNR) renewing the frenzy around the Mueller investigation.

First, NYT reveals that Mueller interviewed Jeff Sessions for a few hours last week.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week by the special counsel’s office as part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

Then, WaPo reports that Mueller wants to interview Trump about the Mike Flynn and Jim Comey firings.

Within the past two weeks, the special counsel’s office has indicated to the White House that the two central subjects that investigators wish to discuss with the president are the departures of Flynn and Comey and the events surrounding their firings.

Commenters and the WaPo piece (which cites information that should only be available from a member of Trump’s legal team) suggest these developments mean Trump is looking at obstruction.

Mueller’s interest in the events that led Trump to push out Flynn and Comey indicates that his investigation is intensifying its focus on possible efforts by the president or others to obstruct or blunt the special counsel’s probe.

I’m sure obstruction absolutely is one of the things Mueller is assessing when interviewing Sessions and Trump.

But neither of these interviews, particularly not the Sessions one, is necessarily focused exclusively on obstruction.

Sessions, for example, was in a key early meeting where setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump was discussed (though Sessions claims he opposed the idea). I have noted, for example, how Sessions played dumb when asked whether he had any discussions about emails and that key Sessions aide Stephen Miller is a top candidate to have heard about emails from George Papadopoulos.

[I]t seems highly likely that on April 27 (or whenever Papadopoulos was next in DC), Miller learned that Russia had some kind of emails from Hillary.

[Stephen] Miller, recall, is Jeff Sessions’ close aide, his installment in the Administration. The NYT makes clear that Miller was interviewed by Mueller’s team recently, which means he was one of the people the government planned to interview just after locking in Papadopoulos’ plea.

Which makes this exchange from Jeff Sessions’ most recent congressional appearance, on October 18, all the more interesting. First, Patrick Leahy got the Attorney General to admit that there was a difference between not recalling something and affirmatively denying something. Leahy then pointed out that, once the meetings he had denied were disclosed, Sessions started not recalling certain things about the meetings that he had previous affirmatively denied.

Leahy: Later in March, when you did disclose such meetings, you said you could not recall what was said at the meetings. Your answer to my question was an emphatic no. It wasn’t, “I don’t recall.” You are a lawyer, I am a lawyer. You are, in fact, our nation’s top lawyer. Is there a difference between responding “no” and “I do not recall”?

Sessions: Yes.

Leahy: Thank you.

Sessions: Certainly it is, Senator Leahy.

Leahy: So if you could not recall, then you could not answer have answered my first question, yes or no, if later you said that you don’t recall what was discussed. The reason I ask is that, US intelligence intercepts reported in July that it would appear you did in fact discuss campaign issues with the Russian Ambassador.

Leahy then asked Sessions whether he had, since the election, had conversations with Russian officials about a slew of things, starting with emails. Sessions got even squirrelier than he normally is, and first attempted to answer a question Leahy didn’t ask.

Sessions: I have never had a meeting with any Russian officials to discuss any kind of coordinating campaign efforts.

So then Leahy asked about each item in turn.

Leahy: Let’s take this piece by piece. Did you discuss any of the following: Emails?

Sessions: Repeat the question again about emails.

Leahy: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian connected official anything about emails?

Sessions: Discuss with them. I don’t recall having done any such thing.

Right after this exchange, Sessions totally balks when Leahy asks him if he has been interviewed or asked for an interview by Mueller, saying he should clear it with the Special Counsel.

Now, there was some imprecision in this questioning. It’s clear that Sessions believed he was answering the question about during the campaign, not since it.

But of the things Leahy asked about — emails, Russian interference, sanctions, or any policies or positions of the Trump campaign or presidency — Sessions ultimately not-recalled in response to just one question: the emails.

Based on the past practice Leahy had just laid out, Sessions claimed to not recall issues that he had actually done. Which would suggest Sessions is worried that there’s evidence he has discussed emails — with someone. It’s just not clear how he interpreted that question.

And while Trump’s firing of Comey after attempting him to drop the Flynn investigation is a key prong in any obstruction case, his role in Flynn’s non-firing is far more interesting, especially given the likelihood, given Republican efforts to claim privilege, that he was on the Mar-a-Lago side of orders directing Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to hold off on a response to Obama’s sanctions. While it’s certainly possible that Mueller may hold off on any examination of Trump’s personal role in any hypothetical quid pro quo with the Russians, there’s plenty of reason to believe Trump was in the loop.

And in early discussions about Sally Yates’ testimony, Adam Schiff had said she might explain why Trump waited so long to fire Mike Flynn after she warned Don McGahn he had been compromised. One obvious reason is that it allowed Flynn, who had helped set up a meeting days later, attend it. That might change the connotation of the timing of the Comey firing, just in time to report back to Russia that the firing had “taken off” the pressure created by the investigation.

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

It’s crystal clear that Trump fired Comey in an attempt to stave off investigation of Mike Flynn.

But the why behind that obstruction led to the rest of the guts of the Russia investigation. And the why may implicate both Trump (as unindicted co-conspirator) and Sessions (most likely as witness) more directly in any quid pro quo pertaining to the election.

Sergei Millian and the Simpson Testimony

Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee was actually far more informative than that he gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee. I get the feeling we all might have been better served had Simpson released Fusion’s own research on Trump rather than the Steele dossier (and it might have avoided all the drama over the dossier).

I was particularly interested in Simpson’s extended comments about Sergei Millian, who ran a sketchy Russian-American chamber of commerce organization (here’s a David Corn profile that surely is influenced by Fusion), who has been alleged by many outlets (WSJ, ABC, WaPo) to be one (D) or another (E) source for the Steele dossier (note, Steele’s labels for sources in the dossier were not consistent, and other figures must be one or another of those letters in some reports).

Simpson described that his own, unpublished research showed that Millian had ties to the Trump camp going back years, first in conjunction with an effort to help Trump brand vodka under his own name in Russia.

And there was, prior to the 2013 Miss Universe fair, there.was an earlier Trump vodka marketing project in Russia that later became something that we were very interested in.

[snip]

MR. SIMPSON: Well, one of the guys who organized this trip was a guy who’s currently known as Sergi Millian. And he’s been in the press a good bit, I think, although not recently. And, you know, he came up in connection with that, and then he came up in connection with Chris’ work as one of the people around Trump who had a Russian background, and unexplained, you know, a lot of unexplained things. So when we looked at him, we found that he ran a sort of shadowy kind of trade group called the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, which is — Russians are known to use chambers of commerce and trade groups as fronts for intelligence operations.

And this guy, his name – his real name or his original n_ame that he came to the United States wasn’t Sergi Millian. It was Siarhei Kukuts, and that’s a pretty different name.

And he changed his name when he got to Atlanta. And when we looked at him some more, we found two different resumes for him. In one resume he said he was from Belarus and he went to Minsk State; and then in another he was from Moscow and went to Moscow State. In one he said he worked for the Belarussian Foreign Ministry; in the other, he said he worked for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

He was a linguist, also an interesting thing about his background. And as time went on, yeah, we found other things about him.

Simpson also described Millian dealing Trump condos to Russians.

We found a picture of him with Donald Trump. He boasted to people that he had sold hundreds of millions of dollars in Trump condos, Trump real estate to Russians, that he was some kind of exclusive agent for Trump in Russia and that he organized this trade fair.

That may refer to Millian’s involvement in the Trump Hollywood project. Simpson describes him playing a role that has been alleged of others in Trump’s Soho project — falsely claiming there were more buyers for the project than there really were.

MR. SCHIFF: And tell me about the Trump Hollywood project. That was an example of the latter or the former? Did they get the financing from what you could tell because they got a bunch of Russians to pre-sale, or did they go to a bank and say these are our investors, or how did they go about that?

MR. SIMPSON: Well, eventually, I mean, they lost the project. It went under. I, can’t – I’m not – I’m sure we did look at who the creditors were, who the lenders were. This is the project that Sergi Millian appears to have been involved in, and there’s a picture of Jorge Perez, Donald Trump, and Sergi Millian.

And he tells a story about meeting Donald Trump at the golf — at a racetrack, drinking a bottle of Crystal with him, seems — he gave him some Crystal. And that was in the early phases of the project. So it was clear that Donald Trump — so the equity partner was the related group. It was clear that this Russian had been brought into this with Trump, and what you can surmise from that is that he’s there to say there are buyers. We can bring you buyers for this property. And that’s what a developer needs to know is that he’s got buyer interest.

MR. SCHIFF: And how does it work? Let’s say Sergi Millian or someone else lines up the Russian buyers. The Russian buyers sign pre-sale agreements. Trump can then get financing for the res! of the project. Do the buyers go through and buy the properties, or is that no longer necessary, once you’ve obtained the bank financing you can actually sell them to real people?

Simpson describes Millian’s role in an NGO that — public reporting had revealed years earlier — had been investigated by the FBI as a recruiting organization.

And then, I guess, last but not least, he, you know – as we became more and more interested in his background and the press started to write stories about him, it came out that he was associated with this Russian friendship entity called Rossotrudnichestvo, and that he was involved in organizing a junket to Moscow for some American businessmen that was the subject of an FBI investigation, because it was a suspected recruiting operation. And the FBI had questioned people who were involved in this trip about whether they were recruited by the Russians when they went to Moscow.

So it was that kind of thing.

Finally, Simpson claims his research established ties between Millian and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen (though it’s not clear whether this involved anything beyond Twitter exchanges) that Cohen subsequently tried to downplay.

And then, you know, as further time went on, we found he was connected to Michael Cohen, the President’s lawyer. And eventually, after boasting about a lot of this stuff on camera, on tape, to the TV network, he backed away from all of it suddenly when the Russia controversy began to get hot.

And Michael Cohen was very adamant that he didn’t actually have a connection to Sergi, even though he was one of only like 100 people who followed Sergi on Twitter. And they — we had Twitter messages back and forth between the two of them just – we just pulled them off of Twitter.

There are two reasons this is interesting.

First, as the NYT noted, in the wake of Trump’s victory, Millian proposed a business deal with George Papadopoulos, with whom he had gotten close in the previous six months.

Mr. Trump’s improbable victory raised Mr. Papadopoulos’s hopes that he might ascend to a top White House job. The election win also prompted a business proposal from Sergei Millian, a naturalized American citizen born in Belarus. After he had contacted Mr. Papadopoulos out of the blue over LinkedIn during the summer of 2016, the two met repeatedly in Manhattan.

[snip]

Mr. Millian proposed that he and Mr. Papadopoulos form an energy-related business that would be financed by Russian billionaires “who are not under sanctions” and would “open all doors for us” at “any level all the way to the top.”

One billionaire, he said, wanted to explore the idea of opening a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow. “I know the president will distance himself from business, but his children might be interested,” he wrote.

I think Millian’s cultivation of Papadopoulos likely explains this reference in the affidavit supporting Papadopoulos’ arrest, showing Papadopoulos asking Ivan Timofeev over Facebook on July 22, 2016 for any information he had on someone he was about to meet for the first time (see my timeline here).

“If you know any background of him that is noteworthy before I see him, kindly send my way.”

That would say that, on the same day WikiLeaks released the DNC emails — which itself took place a day after Papadopoulos signaled something about Trump’s RNC speech to Timofeev — Millian started cultivating Papadopoulos, who apparently had started spending more time in NYC.

And, according to the NYT, that cultivation ended up right where Michael Cohen had started in November 2015, discussing a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow which inexplicably related to Trump winning election, with oligarchs who could evade US sanctions.

Cohen to Millian to Papadopoulos full circle, in the course of one year.

And if I’m right that that Facebook message that Papadopoulos tried to delete indicates a Timofeev role in Millian’s cultivation of Papadopoulos, it suggests a good deal of  orchestration on that front.

Which brings me to Simpson’s comments about Millian and the dossier.

In the first exchange about Millian, Simpson dodges on whether — as had been publicly reported, perhaps even based on sources close to Simpson — Millian was one of the sources for the dossier.

MR. SCHIFF: To your knowledge, was Mr. Millian one of the sources for Christopher Steele in the dossier?

MR. SIMPSON: I’m not in a position to get into the identity of the sources for the dossier for security reasons, primarily.

But there’s a more interesting exchange later, where, in response to a Mike Quigley question about Simpson’s non-public production, Simpson first offers up the non-sequitur that Fusion didn’t leak the dossier to BuzzFeed, then offers a seemingly different non-sequitur about the import of Sergei Millian.

MR. QUIGLEY: The dossier was published. Other elements were published. What wasn’t published? Are there still documents? Is there still information that was garnered by either Mr. Steele or others that the public isn’t aware of at this point, on this point?

MR. SIMPSON: Well, to just put it on the record, we were not the ones that gave this document to Buzzfeed, and I was not happy when this was published. I was very upset. I thought it was a very dangerous thing and that someone had violated my confidences, in any event. I think the story is largely known and that there’s very little that was left on the cutting room table from that time. I think, you know, there’s a little bit of, you know, color, I would say. You know, this guy that we were talking about earlier, Sergi Millian, isn’t named in the dossier, but is someone who was important.

In this bizarre series of non-sequiturs, Simpson appears to connect Millian with the leak of the dossier, which led to the lawfare that in turn led to the campaign to discredit the entire Mueller investigation by focusing on the dossier.

He almost certainly wasn’t the leaker; John McCain associate David Kramer almost certainly was.

But I wonder if, as part of the plan (in which former McCain campaign manager Paul Manafort may have been involved) to use the dossier to undercut the investigation, someone in Millian’s orbit encouraged its leak?

Mueller Wants to Delay Telling Manafort and Gates What Other Crimes It Knows They Committed

The government just submitted a request to modify the deadline Judge Amy Berman Jackson set to give Paul Manafort and Rick Gates notice of other crimes or bad acts it will introduce at trial, what is called a Rule 404(b) notice. Currently, they have to provide that notice on April 6, but the judge is now considering a September rather than a May trial date, so prosecutors want to bump the 404 notice back accordingly.

Mueller’s prosecutors don’t want to give Manafort and Gates more than a couple months notice of the other crimes they’re going to unload during the trial. They also note that if they give notice in April, they may have to provide multiple notices as they learn of other bad acts.

Premature disclosure raises issues as well. For example, in declining to require disclosure that is too early, courts have recognized that “the evidence the government wishes to offer may well change as the proof and possible defenses crystallize.”

[snip]

For similar reasons, early disclosure can result in multiple Rule 404(b) notices and multiply the rulings that a court needs to make, thus undermining the efficient use of judicial and party resources.

The government wants to wait until 8 weeks before the trial before giving notice.

At least two things appear to be going on here. First, Mueller doesn’t want to tip his hand to the many crimes it has found Manafort implicated in. Perhaps, he also wants to avoid making other obvious allegations about Manafort and Gates to preserve their credibility when they flip on the President and his family. But it also seems to suggest Mueller expects he’ll be finding other crimes Manafort and Gates committed for the next 8 months.

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