Concord Consulting Aims to Make Russian Bots Legal

Remember when they used to say, “they hate us for our freedoms” in the wake of 9/11? The company of Putin’s buddy Yevgeniy Prigozhin is doing the opposite — having a field day with the due process rights his company, Concord Consulting, gets under US law after being charged in the Internet Research Agency indictment.

As I noted, Concord unexpectedly decided to contest its indictment for using Prigozhin’s troll factory to interfere in the 2016 election. Last week it pled not guilty.

In that post, I suggested that the risk posed by the Concord not guilty plea could be deferred, for now, by arguing over a protection order and ensuring that sensitive data be shared under CIA.

[N]either will happen immediately — Mueller’s team will push for a protection order and CIPA process before turning over the requested discovery and defendants almost never get a Bill of Particulars — effectively, Concord signaled its intention to impose real costs on the US government’s use of our criminal justice system to embarrass Russia. They made it clear that one of Putin’s closes allies will be demanding the intelligence behind an indictment naming him and two of his companies. Which is going to pose real discomfort for Mueller’s team (which might explain a bit of their delay here).

Let me clear: Concord is entirely within its right to begin demanding such evidence. That’s the risk of using our criminal justice system, affording due process, in charging a Russian corporate person who can challenge any charges without risking their freedom. I imagine Mueller’s team didn’t sufficiently account for this possibility when charging it this way. And if there are any other known Russian corporations involved in this operation (or fronts, such as the one Joseph Mifsud worked behind), I would imagine Mueller’s team is rethinking their approach to including those fronts. This could be problematic to the extent that proving any “collusion” between Trump’s people and Russians would most easily be demonstrated via conspiracy charges involving Russian entities.

If and when Mueller dismisses the indictment against Concord (but not its 13 paid trolls), it would be an embarrassing PR moment. But the contest thus far only posed a legal risk to any further indictments that relied on corporate entities, which the rest of the Internet Research Agency one does not.

Concord’s latest challenge may pose a greater threat. It requests the judge in the case (which here would be Magistrate Michael Harvey, though Trump appointee Dabney Friedrich is the District judge on the case) to review the grand jury instructions to make sure the prosecutors explained the mens rea required behind the conspiracy to defraud the US charge in the case. It is, as the motion argues, a fairly modest request (the government will argue, rightly, that it asks for grand jury information it is not entitled to, but Concord is asking just for the judge to review it). It’s basically asking the judge to make sure prosecutors explained to the grand jury that they had to find that IRA knew that it was violating US law.

As I noted here, ConFraudUs provides Mueller’s team with a way to argue the abuse of weak parts in our electoral system violates the law, and charging a conspiracy sets up a way to drop in American defendants at a later date. And, as Lawfare laid out in this good legal review of ConFraudUs, ConFraudUs has been used in the electoral context in the past.

Notably for present purposes, §371 has been deployed in the context of election law specifically. The Justice Department’s manual on federal prosecution of election offenses explicitly contemplates bringing charges of conspiracy to defraud based on campaign finance offenses. It explains the theory as follows:

To perform [its] duties, the FEC must receive accurate information from the candidates and political committees that are required to file reports under the Act. A scheme to infuse patently illegal funds into a federal campaign, such as by using conduits or other means calculated to conceal the illegal source of the contribution, thus disrupts and impedes the FEC in the performance of its statutory duties.

Several federal circuit courts have heard cases brought under §371 based on this theory and have not found fault with its application to behavior that may also violate the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).

But Concord is arguing the use of ConFraudUs in this case departs from the approach DOJ has previously used to keep foreign influence out of elections (citing cases of Chinese influence peddling under Clinton).

The Court is well aware that heretofore investigations of alleged improper foreign involvement in American elections have been handled by the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”); specifically the Campaign Finance Task Force created by former Attorney General Reno in 1997, and where the Court worked as a prosecutor from September 1997 to August 1998. Former Attorney General Reno refused to bow to massive political pressure to appoint a special counsel, and instead the Task Force methodically investigated and prosecuted cases through 2000.1 Throughout all of that activity, the DOJ never brought any case like the instant Indictment, that is, an alleged conspiracy by a foreign corporation to “interfere” in a Presidential election by allegedly funding free speech. The obvious reason for this is that no such crime exists in the federal criminal code.

It doesn’t actually prove that use of ConFraudUs in this case would be improper (indeed, after complaining that Janet Reno didn’t appoint a special counsel to investigate funding of Clinton, the motion spends a page complaining about a special counsel in this case). Rather, it argues that the indictment couldn’t charge ConFraudUs because none of the Russians involved knew they had to register with the government before engaging in online trolling (they note they’re going to make similar challenges with respect to other charges in the future).

But violations of the relevant federal campaign laws and foreign agent registration requirements administered by the DOJ and the FEC require the defendant to have acted “willfully,” a word that does not appear anywhere in Count One of the Indictment. See 52 U.S.C. § 30109(d) and 22 U.S.C. § 618(a).

[snip]

Count One of the Indictment appears to be facially invalid because it fails to charge an essential element of the offense of conspiracy to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing and defeating the functions of the FEC and the DOJ, that is, that the Defendant acted willfully, in this case meaning that Defendant was aware of the FEC and FARA requirements, agreed to violate those requirements, and ultimately acted with intent to violate those requirements.

There’s a two-fold risk here, if Concord is successful (and they could be).

First, there’s a risk that such a ruling would in effect provide foreign corporations more ability to engage in improper election speech than domestic ones. Particularly as social media companies move to require more transparency in online advertising, a foreign company could continue to violate those requirements simply by pleading dumb. Certainly Congress could mandate some kind of transparency on foreign companies and with that require private companies to administer such things. but it wouldn’t be a quick fix.

There’s a more immediate risk, however. The filing claims that this indictment is, “a case that has absolutely nothing to do with any links or coordination between any candidate and the Russian Government.” While it is true that Rod Rosenstein emphasized there was no allegation in the current indictment that any American knowingly conspired with these Russians, there are actually three Trump campaign staffers described in a way in the indictment that may reflect they’re still under investigation. And in its last filing, Concord demanded the communications behind one event — an American holding a sign in front of the White House — that leads me to believe Concord knows that the involvement of this US person is more complex than alleged in the indictment.

With respect to ¶ 12b, identify the “real U.S. person,” identify the specific Defendant or conspirator who communicated with the “real U.S. person,” provide the dates and times of any such communications, identify the Defendant or conspirator who stated “is a leader here and our boss . . . our funder,” and clarify whether it is alleged that any such communications were made on behalf of Defendant Concord.

That is, while Rosenstein said that thus far there are no Americans in this indictment, that doesn’t mean Mueller didn’t have plans to add some at a later date.

But if Concord can get this conspiracy charge thrown out before then, it’s going to undercut any effort to claim the conspiracy that will be critical to substantiating the collusion charge even if Mueller presents clear evidence of an agreement to carry out this trolling.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be able to prove a conspiracy involving a more obvious agreement — such as the Agalarovs offering dirt in exchange for sanction relief (though that would invoke the bribery rules that SCOTUS has significantly reined in).

But for now, the IRA indictment is a test case in a legal theory that will make it fairly easy to show that Republicans engaged in a conspiracy to tamper with the election. Because Mueller named a corporate person, he provided a way for the Russians to otherwise undercut a theory that seems central to the effort to hold Trump and the Russians accountable.

Again, Mueller can likely prove ConFraudUs with other players in the larger conspiracy. But this filing poses an immediate threat of undermining the logic of such an approach before he can charge it.

The Credulous Right’s Latest Dribbling Water Pistol

Longtime GOP operative Rick Gates told Alex Van der Zwaan that Konstantin Kilimnik, the Oleg Deripaska go-between with whom Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort discussed providing private briefings on the campaign, “was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the GRU.” The House Intelligence Report, having reviewed the evidence against Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Mike Flynn, and (to a much lesser extent) Paul Manafort complains that, “the Trump campaign was not notified that members of the campaign were potential counterintelligence concerns.” The report suggests (Trump’s hiring of Flynn after Obama warned him notwithstanding) that the “campaign was unable to address the problems with each campaign member and was ignorant about the potential national security concerns.”

Certainly, these Republicans give real credence to the possibility that Trump’s campaign (the campaign that did virtually no vetting and liked aides who would work “for free”) was infiltrated by Russian spies.

Nevertheless, the right wing noise machine (including former Federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy!!!) is pushing a new conspiracy theory: that George Papadopoulos was planted by either the Deep State or the Hillary Clinton campaign. One version of the story is being pitched by Stephan Roh. Roh is, by all appearances, Joseph Mifsud’s handler.

Then there’s the Beeb piece advancing the story of Joseph Mifsud (ignore the repetitive annoying music and John Schindler presence). It provides details on the role played by German born Swiss financier and lawyer Stephan Roh. Roh has three ties to Mifsud. In 2014, Roe started lecturing at the London Academy of Diplomacy where Misfud worked. In the same year, he bought the Roman institution Misfud helped manage. And then, in 2016, when George Papadopoulos was being targeted, Roh was on a panel with Papadopoulos’ two handlers.

That same month, Mifsud was in Moscow on a panel run by the Kremlin-backed Valdai Club with Timofeev and the third man, Dr Stephan Roh, a German multi-millionaire.

Mifsud and Roh interlock: in 2014, Roh became a visiting lecturer at the London Academy of Diplomacy. Roh bought Link Campus University, a private institution in Rome where Mifsud was part of the management and Mifsud became a consultant at Roh’s legal firm.

The Beeb piece goes on to describe how Roh bought a British nuclear consultancy too. When the British scientist behind it balked at cozying up to Russia, he was fired, but it appears to still be used as a cut-out.

Again, none of this is new: Russia just spent a lot of money to set up some fronts. The amount of money floating around and the ability to buy into a title by buying an old castle do make it easier, however.

But he’s out with a book that — in addition to describing how he was surveilled when he came to the US in the wake of the revelation of the Papadopoulos plea last year — alleges that Papadopoulos was actually planted in the Trump campaign by the FBI to elicit outreach to Russia.

Roh and his co-author Thierry Pastor, who also knows Mifsud, write in the book that, upon arriving in New York City with his family in October 2017, “one of the co-authors” was “fished from the passport control” line at John F. Kennedy airport while his family “was retained with armed police force.” (Photos posted by Roh’s wife on social media in October 2017 suggest she was visiting New York in late October.) He was then interrogated for “hours,” they write, by “a team of Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating Russia-Gate.” The book alleges that he and his family were then “observed, followed, and taped, at every moment and every place in New York” by the FBI and that his family was assigned to “special rooms at the hotel” while security personnel “patrolled the corridors.”

It is unclear whether Roh was actually surveilled after being interviewed—a spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment. The book further alleges that Mifsud is not a Russian spy but is actually “deeply embedded in the network of Western Intelligence Services.” Papadopoulos, too, is a “western intelligence operative,” the authors assert, who was “placed” in the Trump campaign by the FBI. In that sense, the book is similar to one written recently by another obscure player detained and questioned by Mueller’s team earlier this year: Ted Malloch, a controversial London-based academic with ties to Trump associates Roger Stone and Nigel Farage. In his book The Plot to Destroy Trump: How the Deep State Fabricated the Russia Dossier to Subvert the President, Malloch argues that the apparent covert intelligence activity connected to the Trump campaign was not Russian, but Western.

Roh and Pastor’s prevailing thesis is that Papadopoulos’s “mission” was to bring Trump into contact with Russian officials. “That’s nuts,” Papadopoulos’s wife Mangiante told me in response to the book’s theory. “From ‘coffee boy’ to spy … George has been upgraded!” she joked, referring to the Trump campaign’s claim that Papadopoulos, a young energy consultant who joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, was so low-level that he was basically a “coffee boy.”

Again, the Republicans on HPSCI who have reviewed the intelligence sure seem miffed that Trump didn’t get an opportunity to weed out the suspected assets in his campaign. But this, from a transparent Russian operative, is still what Republicans want to argue to discredit the Mueller investigation.

Consider what would have had to have happened to pull this off.

First, the Deep State would have started this process years ago, when Papadopoulos worked for the Hudson Institute, establishing his conservative bona fides. Then, they would have inexplicably had Papadopoulos work for Ben Carson, which in any normal year would experience no success in the primary and therefore in any normal year could expect none of his aides to be picked up by the winning candidate. Then, somehow Sam Clovis (who multiple witnesses have said welcomed outreach to Russia) would be convinced to recruit Papadopoulos. The FBI would have somehow had to have known that the campaign itself would do no vetting. And even if the FBI could assume the campaign would do no vetting, it would also have to ensure that the campaign wouldn’t distance itself from Papaodpoulos after the WaPo did an embarrassing profile describing how inexperienced Papadopoulos was.

And, of course, somehow this “coffee boy” would have the finesse to convince a lot of far more experienced operatives to accept outreach from Russia.

Further, in spite of its extensive and remarkably successful effort at placing a spy on Trump’s campaign, the FBI would then have to have chosen not just not to herald the fake Russian spy it had planted in the Trump campaign contemporaneously, but to refrain from joining the Russian attribution in October 2016 altogether, effectively utterly pissing away the value of having placed a spy in the Trump campaign.

In some versions, this conspiracy theory even says Papadopoulos was planted by Hillary’s people. Hillary’s campaign was all too willing to seed their crappy dossier publicly, and spent a great deal of messaging talking about both their own targeting by Russia and Trump’s openness to capitalize off that targeting, not to mention pouncing on thinly source reports suggesting a tie between Russian and Trump. And yet somehow, the guy the Hillary Deep State people planted on Trump’s campaign not only didn’t tell their paid MI6 spy to go find the evidence about Papadopoulos being offered willingly at drunken sessions in London, but didn’t just publicize the details in the first place.

In short, to believe this conspiracy, you’d have to believe all these whack assumptions (from an FBI that the same conspiracists argue is otherwise incompetent) and ignore that Republicans who have reviewed the intelligence find credible the claim that Russia was trying to recruit assets in Trump’s campaign.

And yet that’s where even relatively mainstream Republicans are headed next.

This is, very transparently, Russian planted disinformation. And yet the same Republicans who claim there is “no collusion” are regurgitating the disinformation like automatons.

Kashyap Patel Had Better Not Rely on the Bill Duhnke Precedent

Contrary to what a lot of people understand of the case, Jeffrey Sterling was not the CIA’s first suspect for the Merlin leaks to James Risen. Senate Intelligence Committee Staff Director Bill Duhnke was. As former CIA press person Bill Harlow testified, he told the FBI that James Risen had close ties to Duhnke when he first talked to them about Risen’s story.

Q. Okay. And you also told them that someone they should talk to about something like this would be Bill Duhnke, a person named Bill Duhnke, correct, up at the — that worked at the U.S. Senate?

BY MR. MAC MAHON: Q. Now, Mr. Harlow, in 2003, you told the FBI that you thought that Mr. Risen might reach out to the Staff Director of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Intelligence for confirmation, that Mr. Risen would, correct?

[snip]

A. My recollection is what the FBI asked me is who are the kind of people that Risen might talk to on a story like this, and I told them that he had regular contact with the Congressional Oversight Committees, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, and so the kind of places he might go to ask about the story would be the Senate Oversight committees. That’s my recollection of it. You know, it’s a dozen years ago but —

Q. And one of the names you gave them was Bill Duhnke, right?

A. Right.

As FBI Agent Hunt explained, however, she was hampered from investigating whether Duhnke (who knew aspects about Merlin that Sterling did not which showed up in Risen’s reporting) was a source for Risen because Senator Pat Roberts refused to cooperate with the FBI, even after then FBI Director Robert Mueller requested himself.

Q. And do you also remember writing in 2006 that the FBI director contacted the SSCI Chairman and Senator Pat Roberts, right?

A. Yes.

Q. And that Senator Roberts told Director Mueller that he wasn’t going to cooperate with the FBI at all in this investigation, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And that never changed, did it?

A. It did change.

Q. You then got some cooperation from SSCI, correct?

A. I did. Q. You never got an interview with Mr. Duhnke, right?

A. I did not interview Mr. Duhnke.

Thus it happened that Speech and Debate prevented the FBI from investigating whether a key Intelligence Committee staffer played a role in a leak the government claimed was one of the worst ever.

I thought of that precedent when I read this passage in the NYT’s latest story on DOJ’s belated realization that Devin Nunes was using purported oversight requests to discover details that might help Trump delegitimize the Mueller investigation.

In another meeting, Mr. Rosenstein felt he was outright misled by Mr. Nunes’s staff. Mr. Rosenstein wanted to know whether Kashyap Patel, an investigator working for Mr. Nunes who was the primary author of the disputed memo, had traveled to London the previous summer to interview a former British spy who had compiled a salacious dossier about Mr. Trump, according to a former federal law enforcement official familiar with the interaction.

Mr. Patel was not forthcoming during the contentious meeting, the official said, and the conversation helped solidify Mr. Rosenstein’s belief that Mr. Nunes and other allies in Congress were not operating in good faith.

And these passages in an earlier NYT piece on Patel.

Over the summer, Mr. Nunes dispatched Mr. Patel and another member of the committee’s Republican staff to London, where they showed up unannounced at the offices of Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence official.

Told Mr. Steele was not there, Mr. Patel and Douglas E. Presley, a professional staff member, managed to track him down at the offices of his lawyers. There, they said they were seeking only to establish contact with Mr. Steele, but were rebuffed and left without meeting him, according to two people with knowledge of the encounter.

A senior official for the Republican majority on the Intelligence Committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, said the purpose of the visit had been to make contact with Mr. Steele’s lawyers, not Mr. Steele. Still, the visit was highly unusual and appeared to violate protocol, because they were trying to meet with Mr. Steele outside official channels.

Ordinarily, such a visit would be coordinated through lawyers, conducted with knowledge of the House Democrats, who were not informed and the American Embassy.

Given Rosenstein’s concerns that Patel was lying, I find it particularly interesting that he didn’t inform the American Embassy when he was there. It’s as if he was looking for a back channel!

As NYCSouthpaw noted, Patel has been hanging around the White House since he’s started playing this role.

In the months since, Mr. Patel has apparently forged connections at the White House. In November, he posted a series of photos to Facebook of him and several friends wearing matching shirts at the White House bowling alley. “The Dons hit the lanes at 1600 Pennsylvania,” Mr. Patel wrote under the photos.

This would suggest that the Nunes designee who has had firsthand access to all this intelligence, has also gotten really comfortable with the White House, leaving the possibility that he has shared the information with those in charge of delegitimize the investigation.

I’ve long wondered why Nunes has refused to read the information he has fought so hard to get access to. But by giving Patel that access without reading the materials himself, Nunes ensures that someone with easy access to the White House sees the materials, without jeopardizing the power to refuse any cooperation with Mueller.

Nunes, like Roberts did in 2006, could simply refuse to cooperate under speech and debate.

And it might well work!

There is, however one problem with that. You see, one of the ways (admittedly one of the less offensive ways) the President has interfered in the operations of DOJ is by demanding that the department ratchet up the leak investigations. And at a time last summer where Trump was threatening to fire Sessions so he could hire someone who could interfere with the Mueller investigation, Sessions and Dan Coats rolled out a new war on leaks, speaking of new permissiveness for prosecutors. Both Sessions…

To prevent these leaks, every agency and Congress has to do better.

We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop.

[snip]

Finally, here is what I want to tell every American today: This nation must end the culture of leaks. We will investigate and seek to bring criminals to justice. We will not allow rogue anonymous sources with security clearances to sell out our country any longer.

These cases are never easy. But cases will be made, and leakers will be held accountable.

All of us in government and in every agency and in Congress must do better.

And Coats invoked Congress as a source of leaks specifically.

I would like to point out, however, that these national security breaches do not just originate in the Intelligence Community. They come from a wide range of sources within government, including the Executive Branch and including the Congress.

At the time, those mentions were deemed a warning that (in addition to changing the rules allowing them to pursue journalists), DOJ would also start pursuing Congress and its staffers more aggressively.

So while the available evidence suggests that Patel may be part of Nunes’ effort to funnel information to the White House, and while past history has shown that Nunes’ counterparts have been able to protect intelligence committee leakers, perhaps the witch hunt demanded by Trump will change that.

Stefan Halper Wasn’t Downstream from the Steele Dossier

As you’ve no doubt heard, Devin Nunes and Paul Ryan continue to extort DOJ, ostensibly to find evidence of FISA abuse, but by all appearances, to review intelligence on behest of Trump, delegitimize the Mueller investigation, and create some excuse to start impeaching the people overseeing it.

A Chuck Ross article on the latest effort ends with a reference to Stefan Halper, a dual US-UK citizen who was a Cambridge professor in 2016.

House Republicans are again battling with the Justice Department over information related to the Russia investigation, this time over documents the intelligence community said involves a top-secret source who has provided information to the CIA and FBI.

The mysterious source has also gathered information that was given to Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to The Washington Post.

WaPo reported Justice Department and intelligence community officials issued a stark warning to the White House on May 2 against a request from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Nunes had submitted a subpoena to the Justice Department on April 24 for records related to the Russia probe.

Justice Department and intelligence community officials argued to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that complying with the subpoena would reveal the identity of a top-secret source and would undermine protocol regarding intelligence sources, according to WaPo.

WaPo provided one small clue about the source: he or she is American.

[snip]

TheDCNF reported that in Sept. 2016, he was approached out of the blue by Stefan Halper, a University of Cambridge professor and former U.S. government official.

Other right wing sites appear sure that Halper is the source in question.

In 2016, Halper resigned from the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar along with Richard Dearlove (Christopher Steele’s old boss) out of concerns Russia had started funding it, which is to say he has close ties with a lot of the spooks that the Republicans are obsessed by. Halper would fit as an American. And as someone at the overlap between MI6, the FBI, and CIA, any information he discovered would ultimately get shared with Mueller.

When Ross first broke the story of weird meetings between Halper and Trump aides in March (a month before Nunes made the mysterious request), he provided very specific descriptions of when Halper spoke with each of three campaign officials (though he kept the identity of the third secret).

Halper first met Carter Page at conference on July 11 and 12 in London (the meeting would have been on the way back from his trip to Moscow), then remained in contact thereafter.

Halper met campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page at a July 2016 symposium held at Cambridge regarding the upcoming election, Page told TheDCNF. The pair remained in contact for several months.

Halper met with the third, unnamed campaign advisor on August 31 or September 1, though did not mention Papadopoulos at the meeting.

Halper also requested and attended a one-on-one meeting with another senior campaign official, TheDCNF learned. That meeting was held a day or two before Halper reached out to Papadopoulos. Halper offered to help the campaign but did not bring up Papadopoulos, even though he would reach out to the campaign aide a day or two later.

Halper first reached out to George Papadopoulos on September 2, then met with him over several days in London in mid-September.

Halper first contacted Papadopoulos by email. In a Sept. 2, 2016, message sent to Papadopoulos’s personal email account, he offered the Trump aide $3,000 to write a policy paper on issues related to Turkey, Cyprus, Israel and the Leviathan natural gas field. Halper also offered to pay for Papadopoulos’s flight and a three-night stay in London.

[snip]

Papadopoulos and Halper met several times during the London trip, including at the Connaught Hotel and the Travellers Club — a classic 19th century club foreign diplomats and politicians frequent. Halper’s research assistant — a Turkish woman named Azra Turk — also met with Papadopoulos. The Connaught Hotel meeting was scheduled for Sept. 13, 2016, and the Travellers Club conclave was two days later.

While discussing the policy paper Papadopoulos was to write, Halper made an out-of-left-field reference to Russians and hacked emails, according to a source with direct knowledge of Papadopoulos’s version of events.

From these meetings and ties to Dearlove, Republicans have gotten themselves worked up to believing that Halper was working off the Steele dossier, perhaps because Ross ties Halper to people in terms of the dossier [see below for explanation that he did not intend to suggest this tie]:

Halper is a close associate of Sir Richard Dearlove — the former MI6 chief.

In December 2016, Halper, Dearlove and espionage historian Peter Morland made international news when they announced they were leaving an organization called the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar due to concerns Russian operatives had infiltrated the group.

Months earlier, in early fall 2016, Dearlove reportedly met with dossier author Steele. Steele sought out Dearlove’s advice on how to proceed with information he gathered on Trump’s ties to Russia, The Washington Post reported. Former MI6 Moscow station chief Steele had been told Trump campaign members were colluding with Kremlin operatives to release emails stolen from the DNC.

Steele’s dossier does not mention Papadopoulos, though the former spy was made aware of the Trump campaign aide while he was working on his anti-Trump document. FBI agents asked Steele during an October 2016 meeting in Rome if he was aware of Papadopoulos. Steele did not have information on Papadopoulos, the former spy said.

But Papadopoulos does have at least one possible connection to the dossier. During the campaign, Sergei Millian approached him. Millian is a Belarus-born businessman who was allegedly an unwitting source for some of the most salacious claims in the dossier.

While it’s possible Halper got wind of the counterintelligence concerns via intelligence sources in London, it doesn’t make sense that his information came via the dossier.

The first dated report on Page is in a report submitted July 19, after Page had already made his trip to Russia (and stopped by London where he met Halper). Both of the sources on the report are Russian, not American or British, so not Halper himself. And the report was reported contemporaneously, meaning Halper wouldn’t have been the only outside source that could have told Steele about the trip, nor would Halper have needed Steele’s sources to learn about it.

So if Halper sought out Page out of counterintelligence concerns, it likely had as much to do with the concerns FBI had in March 2016 (the ones that never appeared in the dossier) as it does July trip, much less any discussions between Steele and Halper about that trip. And if Halper is as spooked up as Republicans want to suggest, by the time of his subsequent communications with Page, he would have known of both those concerns.

Similarly, the timing on the ties between Sergei Millian and Papadopoulos wouldn’t support a tie between Halper’s interest in him and the dossier. The Steele reports believed to tie to Millian date to June (including, possibly, the pee tape) and July. But July is around when Papadopoulos and Millian first met (I suspect, on July 22). So to the extent Millian really was a source for Steele, it would have largely preceded the time he met, much less became close with, Papadopoulos.

But all that happened around the time the Australians informed the US of Papadopoulos’ drunken May ramblings.

So by the time Halper met with Papadopoulos (and met the other aide, possibly as background to the Papadopoulos meeting), the US would have already had official notice of Papadopoulos via the Australians.

If anything, it’d be far more likely that Halper gave the US soft notice of the Downer meeting before the Australians did so formally than that Halper learned of Papadopoulos via some Steele channel.

Admittedly, some nut jobs are wailing about Halper totally independent of the Steele dossier, because they’re outraged, apparently, that the the US sought to chase down whether the unvetted people with troubling ties to suspected Russian spies working for Trump for free were real concerns or not. I’ll return to that in a follow-up. But as background to laying out precisely how ridiculous the Republicans are getting here, understand that it is unlikely whatever investigation, if any, Halper was conducting was based off the Steele dossier.

Update: Ross has taken issue with my claim that he ties Halper to the dossier. I base that claim not just on Twitter exchanges with his readers who make the allegation but on these details (for example, this one that claims Papadopoulos was a source for Millian before they met and that May and September are the same time). Ross introduces the dossier by claiming Page was a central figure in HPSCI’s investigation because of allegations made against him in the dossier, though the reality is that it’s because the dossier was included in his FISA applications.

Page is also a prominent figure in the investigation due to allegations made against him in the infamous Steele dossier. Page’s trip to Moscow in early July 2016 is a central piece of the dossier. Christopher Steele, the author of the Democrat-funded report, alleges Page met secretly with two Kremlin insiders as part of the Trump campaign’s collusion effort.

Page attended the Cambridge event Halper set up, four days after that trip to Moscow.

Then there’s the insinuation, in the passage cited above, that because Halper took an anti-Russian stance with Dearlove in December and Dearlove had a tie to the Steele dossier in September, there must be some continuity between the two events.

Halper is a close associate of Sir Richard Dearlove — the former MI6 chief.

In December 2016, Halper, Dearlove and espionage historian Peter Morland made international news when they announced they were leaving an organization called the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar due to concerns Russian operatives had infiltrated the group.

Months earlier, in early fall 2016, Dearlove reportedly met with dossier author Steele. Steele sought out Dearlove’s advice on how to proceed with information he gathered on Trump’s ties to Russia, The Washington Post reported. Former MI6 Moscow station chief Steele had been told Trump campaign members were colluding with Kremlin operatives to release emails stolen from the DNC.

Ross could have avoided any mention of the dossier by simply saying that Halper and Dearlove took that anti-Russian stance together, but he didn’t.

Finally, there’s the bizarre effort (noted above) to tie Papadopoulos to the dossier via Millian.

I’m glad Ross has now made clear he did not intend to suggest a tie between Halper and the dossier, because (as I think I show here) they make no sense. I do hope his readers who do suggest there’s a tie understand he has disavowed any such suggestion.

My goal with this post (as I suggest above) is to lay groundwork showing that the GOP basis for delegitimizing the investigation — that it purportedly started from oppo research paid for by Democrats — does not have a tie to the next stage, Halper. It seems whatever Ross wrote months ago, he and I are now in agreement that it does not have such a tie.

Update: Ross is still cranky that I suggested his six references to the dossier in a story that’s not about the dossier hasn’t led anyone to imagine a connection. Yesterday morning, Jack Posobiec, with his 300,000 followers, was already suggesting a tie based on a link to Ross’ more recent report.

The Oligarch “Peace” of the Pie Plan

I keep coming back to this post I wrote a year ago, arguing that the policy payoff phase of the Russian investigation appears to have as much to do with remapping the Middle East in exchange for personal enrichment as anything else (what I call ConFraudUs for foreign policy).

Kushner’s “peace plan” is not so much a plan for peace. It’s a plan for a complete remapping of the Middle East according to a vision the Israelis and Saudis have long been espousing (and note the multiple nods on Trump’s trip to the growing alliance between the two, including Trump’s flight directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv and Bibi’s comment on “common dangers are turning former enemies into partners”). It’s a vision for still more oppression (a view that Trump supports globally, in any case).

Yes, it’d probably all be accomplished with corrupt self-enrichment on the part of all players.

Since then, Erin Banco (who first confirmed that Erik Prince had met with Kirill Dmitriev) revealed that Mueller is investigating several other meetings in the Seychelles, on top of the one involving Prince.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is examining a series of previously unreported meetings that took place in 2017 in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, as part of its broader investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, according to two sources briefed on the investigation.

The sources said several of those meetings took place around the same time as another meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince, founder of the security company Blackwater, Kirill Dmitriev, the director of one of Russia’s sovereign wealth funds, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the effective ruler of the United Arab Emirates (also known as “MBZ”). Details of that earlier meetingwere first reported by the Washington Post last year.

[snip]

Individuals connected to the Saudi financial system, including the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and the Arab National Bank, flew into the island the second week of January 2017, as did an aircraft purportedly owned by the former deputy minister of defense, Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, fight records show. Other individuals on those aircraft held passports from Egypt and Singapore.

Dmitriev flew into the Seychelles Jan. 11, 2017 with his wife Natalia Popova and another woman with the last name Boldovskaia. Six other Russian individuals flew to the island just a few days after Dmitriev. The aircraft’s ownership is unclear but it flew between Russia, Geneva and Cyprus in 2017.

Others on the island included Alexander Mashkevitch, an alleged financier of Bayrock, an investment vehicle linked to Trump, and Sheikh Abdulrahman Khalid BinMahfouz, according to flight records. BinMahfouz’s father, before his death, was a billionaire and the former chairman of Saudi Arabia’s first private bank.

Today, ABC has a report that not just Tom Barrack (who was interviewed last year), but several others have been interviewed about foreign inauguration donations.

Barrack, a real estate investor, has long been described as a Trump “whisperer” whose close friendship with the president landed him a prime appearance during the GOP convention the night Trump accepted his party’s nomination.

The billionaire runs a fund with hundreds of millions in real estate and private equity holdings in the Middle East. Barrack oversaw the largest inaugural fundraising effort in U.S. history, bringing in $107 million – more than double what President Barack Obama raised for his first swearing-in festivities.

According to a source who has sat with the Mueller team for interviews in recent weeks, the special counsel is examining donors who have either business or personal connections in Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

[snip]

Special counsel investigators have also asked witnesses about specific inauguration donors, including American businessmen Leonard Blavatnik, and Andrew Intrater, according to sources familiar with the Mueller sessions.

Blavatnik has been funding not just Trump, but Republicans generally, including (especially) Mitch McConnell.

An example is Len Blavatnik, a dual U.S.-U.K. citizen and one of the largest donors to GOP political action committees in the 2015-16 election cycle. Blavatnik’s family emigrated to the U.S. in the late ’70s from the U.S.S.R. and he returned to Russia when the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late ’80s.

Data from the Federal Election Commission show that Blavatnik’s campaign contributions dating back to 2009-10 were fairly balanced across party lines and relatively modest for a billionaire. During that season he contributed $53,400. His contributions increased to $135,552 in 2011-12 and to $273,600 in 2013-14, still bipartisan.

In 2015-16, everything changed. Blavatnik’s political contributions soared and made a hard right turn as he pumped $6.35 million into GOP political action committees, with millions of dollars going to top Republican leaders including Sens. Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham.

Also note that all the Cohen side clients revealed by Michael Avenatti had some kind of tie to inauguration donations.

And remember that the leftover inauguration donations, which were supposed to be donated to charity, have simply disappeared (though Mueller, with subpoena power, may well know precisely where it went).

This all seems like an effort by a bunch of oligarchs to take remap the world in their self-interest.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

In this series, it feels like time is marked by big Russian meetings and key firings.

I’m talking, of course, about my efforts to use the Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow to map out what the structure of the investigation (at least as it pertains to Trump personally) might be. Thus far, I’ve shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him personally to investigation.
  • After a failed attempt to quash the investigation into his Administration by firing Flynn, Trump grew increasingly angry that Jim Comey wouldn’t provide a quick exoneration without conducting an investigation first, leading to his firing.

May 10, 2017: What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Trump fired Comey just in time to report to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a meeting the next day that doing took the pressure off he felt because of Russia.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Remarkably, he also felt the need to reassure the Russians that, “I’m not under investigation.”

The reports that Trump’s lawyers need to have clearance because of the inclusion of this meeting in the list of questions suggests Mueller wants to learn more about the meeting beyond the public reports. That may include Trump’s sharing of classified information provided by the Israelis.

May 11, 2017: What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?

The day after meeting with the Russians, he told Lester Holt he was going to fire Comey regardless of what Rod Rosenstein recommended. [These are excerpts and a little rough; here’s a partial transcript that leaves out a lot of the Russian comments]

He’s a showboat, he’s a grand-stander, the FBI has been in turmoil, you know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil. Less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.

[in response to a question about Rosenstein’s recommendation] What I did was I was going to fire Comey. My decision. I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. [Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he’s highly respected. Very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. But regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it.

And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard. Because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

I just want somebody that’s competent. I’m a big fan of the FBI. I love the people of the FBI.

As far as I’m concerned, I want that [investigation] to be absolutely done properly. When I did this now, I said I’ll probably, maybe confuse that. Maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago. ‘Cause all it is, is an excuse but I said to myself, I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people.

[in response to question about why he put he was not under investigation in his termination letter] Because he told me that, I mean he told me that. I’ve heard that from others. I had a dinner him, he wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on, we had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on. [He asked to have dinner?] A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I’ll consider, we’ll see what happens. We had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me you’re not under investigation. I knew anyway. First of all, when you’re under investigation, you’re giving all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn’t under — and I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level, number one. Then during the phone call he said it, then during another phone call he said it. He said it at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

In one case I called him, in one case he called me.

I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said you are not under investigation. All I can tell you is that I know that I’m not under investigation. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns, I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.

[did you ask him to drop the investigation] No. Never. I want the investigation speeded up. Why would we do that? Iw ant to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia, or anyone else, any other country, I want it to be so strong and so good.

I want somebody that’s going to do a great job.

I think that looking into me and the campaign, I have nothing to do, his was set up by the Democrats. There’s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other things is the Russians did not affect the vote.

If Russia hacked, If Russia had to anything to do with our election, I want to know about it. If Russia or anybody elseis trying to interfere with our elections I want to make sure that will never ever happen

[wiretapping] I was surprised [Comey said no spying] but I wasn’t angry. There’s a big thing going on right now, spying, to me that’s the big story.

I want a great FBI Director. I expect that [they will continue investigation].

[Flynn’s access to secrets] My White House Counsel it did not sound like an emergency. She didn’t make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day. It didn’t sound like it had to be done immediately. This man has served for many years. He’s a general. In my opinion a very good person. It would be very unfair to hear from someone we don’t even know to immediately run out and fire a general. We ultimately fired, but we fired for a different reason. Everything plays into it. We fired him because he said something to the Vice President that wasn’t true. He had clearance from the Obama Administration. I think it’s a very unfair thing that the media doesn’t talk about that.

I just sent a letter from one of the most prestigious law firms in the country that I have nothing to do with Russia, I have no investments in Russia, I don’t have property in Russia. I’m in total compliance in every way.

I had the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow a long time ago. I have a certified letter. I’m not just saying that. I assume he’s gonna give the letter out. No loans, no nothing.

I never thought about it [optics of Lavrov meeting]. What difference does it make.

When I spoke with Putin he asked me whether I’d see Lavrov. I think we had a great discussion having to do with Syria, having to do with the Ukraine. Maybe that discussion will lead to peace.

Ultimately, Trump said several things here (aside from putting into the public record the meetings with Comey, though he got details that can almost certainly be proved wrong wrong). He differentiated between an investigation into himself personally and others, denied asking to halt the investigation into Flynn, provided his bogus self-exoneration claim of not having business ties with Russians. He also reiterated the claim he had been spied on.

May 12, 2017: What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?

By this point, Trump and Comey were in a war of credibility. And Trump suggested that he might have tapes of his meetings with Comey.

The White House answers about whether there were tapes have dodged some, so it’s possible.

May 17, 2017: What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?

In the wake of reporting that Comey had documented a request from Trump to halt the investigation into Flynn, on May 17, Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to investigate any links between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” The latter phrase made it clear that by firing Comey, Trump had put himself under investigation for obstructing the investigation in chief.

In the middle of a meeting with Sessions, Don McGahn, Mike Pence, and several others on replacing Comey, Rosenstein called McGahn and told him he had appointed Mueller. Trump took it out on Sessions, calling him an idiot and telling him he should resign. Sessions left and sent a resignation letter, but Pence, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus convinced him to hold off on accepting it. This piece describes Priebus’ side of that story.

May 31, 2017: Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?

Mueller has received testimony from most of the people who counseled Trump not to fire Sessions, including McGahn, Bannon, and Priebus (but not Pence). He has also gotten Sessions’ testimony on this point.

I’m particularly interested in whether Trump consulted with people not listed in the NYT story on this, such as Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller (who had counseled him to fire Comey in the first place). I also suspect that Trump had already reached out Flynn by this point to talk pardons.

June 8, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Mr. Flynn, and what did you do about it?

On June 8, Comey testified to SSCI. The night before, he released a statement that reviewed much of what appeared in his memos. The hearing consisted of senators from each party trying to spin Comey’s report of being asked to drop the Flynn investigation, with little news  — though Comey did make clear the investigation covered false statements.

BLUNT: On the Flynn issue specifically, I believe you said earlier that you believe the president was suggesting you drop any investigation of Flynn’s account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. Which was essentially misleading the vice president and others?

COMEY: Correct. I’m not going to go into the details but whether there were false statements made to government investigators, as well.

Comey refuted Trump’s claim that he didn’t ask him to stop the investigation into Flynn.

KING: In his press conference May 18th, the president responded, quote, no, no, when asked about asking you to stop the investigation into general Flynn. Is that a true statement?

COMEY: I don’t believe it is.

Comey said he viewed the Flynn investigation and the Russian one as touching, but separate, though raised the possibility of flipping Flynn.

KING: Back to Mr. Flynn. Would the — would closing out the Flynn investigation have impeded the overall Russian investigation?

COMEY: No. Well, unlikely, except to the extent — there is always a possibility if you have a criminal case against someone and squeeze them, flip them and they give you information about something else. But I saw the two as touching each other but separate.

Comey also revealed that he had shared memos memorializing his conversations with Trump with a friend.

BLUNT: You said something earlier and I don’t want to fail to follow up on, you said after dismissed, you gave information to a friend so that friend could get that information into the public media.

COMEY: Correct.

BLUNT: What kind of information was that? What kind of information did you give to a friend?

COMEY: That the — the Flynn conversation. The president had asked me to let the Flynn — forgetting my exact own words. But the conversation in the Oval Office.

Much of the hearing covered Sessions’ non-involvement. Comey deferred a number of questions to the closed session.

Trump used the Comey hearing — and his confirmation that at the time he left the president wasn’t under investigation — to have Marc Kasowitz make a statement claiming Trump never impeded the investigation and never demanded loyalty.

I am Marc Kasowitz, Predisent Trump’s personal lawyer.

Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.

Mr Comey’s testimony also makes clear that the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the President told Mr. Comey “it would be good to find out” in that investigation if there were “some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong.” And he did not exclude anyone from that statement. Consistent with that statement, the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey“let Flynn go.” As he publicly stated the next day, he did say to Mr. Comey, “General Flynn is a good guy, he has been through a lot” and also “asked how is General Flynn is doing.”

Admiral Rogers testified that the President never “directed [him] to do anything . . . illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate” and never “pressured [him] to do so.” Director Coates said the same thing. The President likewise never pressured Mr. Comey. .

The President also never told Mr. Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in form or substance. Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this President took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.

Kasowitz also accused Comey of leaking in order to lead to a special counsel investigation.

Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory. We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated. .

In sum, it is now established that there the President was not being investigated for colluding with the or attempting to obstruct that investigation. As the Committee pointed out today, these important facts for the country to know are virtually the only facts that have not leaked during the long course of these events.

This sort of kicked off the official campaign to discredit Comey and those who would back his story.

June 12, 2017: What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?

Public reports date Rogers and Coats’ interviews with Mueller to the week of June 12, 2017, so Pompeo’s must have been around that same time. Rogers and Coats, at least, testified that Trump tried to get them to state publicly that there was no collusion. They said the interaction was odd and uncomfortable, but that he did not order them to interfere.

Clearly, Trump responded to public reports of their being called as witnesses, though we don’t know what the response was. It’s possible that’s when Trump threatened to fire Mueller, only to back off when Don McGahn threatened to quit.

July 7, 2017: What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

I’ve laid out that I believe the evolving June 9 story is a limited hangout orchestrated by Agalarov lawyer Scott Balber. The strategy would have begun when Jared Kushner wrestled with the need to disclose the meeting, both in response to congressional investigations and for his clearance. Manafort, too, turned over emails backing the event about a month before the story came out publicly. This post talks about the response the weekend of the G-20 in Hamburg, including Ivanka sitting in on a meeting so Trump could strategize, and Hope Hicks suggesting the emails would never come out.

As a reminder, on the same day Trump had a second hour long meeting with Putin, he dictated Putin’s propaganda line that the meeting pertained to adoptions. Importantly, he hid what I’ve suggested was the quo in the quid pro quo, sanctions relief. Mueller undoubtedly would like to know if Putin helped him come up with that message, which would be really damning.

Mueller also wants to know about the decision to leak Don Jr’s emails. Bannon suspects that a Jared aide leaked the emails (his then lawyer Jamie Gorelick would cut back her work with him shortly thereafter). But remember: in a DM, Assange proposed that he give Wikileaks the email.

There’s clearly far more back story to the leaked email we don’t know yet.

If Trump’s involvement here involves coordination with Russians (like the Agalrovs, to say nothing of Putin) or Assange, it would provide damning evidence not of obstruction, but of collusion, an effort to coordinate a story about a key meeting. Trump’s lawyers have always suggested questions about Trump’s role in this statement are improper, which is itself a telling indicator that they don’t understand (or want to spin) the risk of the original June 9 meeting.

July 20, 2017: After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?

Mike Flynn tried to get Congressional immunity in March 2017, with Trump’s backing the effort in a tweet.

Mueller’s question seems to suggest even at that earlier period, someone from Trump’s camp reached out and discussed immunity with Flynn. Shortly before April 25, Trump also sent Flynn a message to “stay strong.” (h/t TC)

On July 20, the WaPo reported that Trump’s team was researching pardons. The NYT report first revealing that Trump offered pardons to Mike Flynn (and Manafort, who is curiously not mentioned in this question) describes it happening after John Dowd took over, in the wake of the revelation of the June 9 meeting and the Kasowitz firing. Dowd denied any such thing was happening on July 21, which is probably a good sign such discussions were taking place.

July 25, 2017: What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions? What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

In late July, 2017, Trump accused Sessions of several sins: failing to crack down on leaks, failing to prosecute Hillary, and failing to fire Andrew McCabe. That must be the same time when Trump ordered Priebus to get Sessions’ resignation, which he dodged by stalling, which probably answers the “what was the purpose” question: to lay predicate to fire Sessions.

I’m particularly interested in the question about who Trump discussed this with, particularly given the provocative timing — the days before George Papadopoulos’s July 26 arrest and Paul Manafort’s July 27 condo search (using a warrant that, unlike a warrant from a May 27 storage unit search, invoked the June 9 meeting). It’s possible Trump had advance knowledge of this stuff (which would be alarming), but likely it’s a coincidence.

In any case, Mueller clearly has reason to believe Trump learned something about the investigation and discussed it with people that led him to try, again, to stop it by firing someone.

What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?

On September 1, Trump responded to reports that because Comey had a declination written before interviewing Hillary, he rigged the outcome of the investigation. In mid-October, in the wake of the Manafort indictment and George Papadopoulos plea, Trump returned to this attack. Rudy Giuliani has renewed this attack in recent days, which is presumably an attempt to undercut Comey’s credibility.

What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

The NYT report that Trump tried to fire Mueller in June 2017 made it clear that Mueller had received testimony about it (presumably from McGahn and others). Clearly, Mueller has reason to know that Trump did something else in response. Note that this report came out in the wake of the Michael Wolff book, which would give Mueller an excuse to call several of the relevant witnesses (such as Mark Corallo and Steve Bannon) as witnesses. This time period also closely follows the increasingly aggressive response in Congress.

What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?

The assumption is that Trump continues to attack Comey and McCabe because doing so might harm their credibility with regards to an obstruction investigation, and that’s surely true (made all the worse by McCabe’s firing and his criminal referral).

But I increasingly believe (particularly given that the other contemporaneous witnesses to Comey’s concerns, like James Baker, are not named) that’s not the only reason Trump is doing this. My guess is it’s an attempt to undermine their decision to investigate Flynn. We now know, for example, that McCabe set up the interview with Flynn on Comey’s direction. So in addition to discrediting key witnesses against him, it seems possible that Trump is also trying to discredit the decision, at a time when  FBI was about to close a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn, to instead interview him, leading to the exposure of Trump’s efforts to undermine US policy during the transition period.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

The Gaping Holes in the SSCI Voting Security Report: Vendors and Mitch McConnell

The Senate Intelligence Committee released a 6-page report, titled “Russian Targeting of Election Infrastructure During the 2016 Election: Summary of Initial Findings and Recommendations,” on how to secure elections last night.

While it is carefully hedged (noting that states may have missed forensic evidence and new evidence may become available), it confirms that “cyber actors affiliated with the Russian Government” conducted the operation and that no “vote tallies were manipulated or [] voter registration information was deleted or modified.” It says the intrusions were “part of a larger campaign to prepare to undermine confidence in the voting process,” but in its admission that, “the Committee does not know whether the Russian government-affiliated actors intended to exploit vulnerabilities during the 2016 elections and decided against taking action,” doesn’t explain that the reason Russia would have decided against action was because Trump won.

The report is laudable for the care with which it describes the various levels of intrusion: scan, malicious access attempts, and successful access attempts. As it concludes, in a small number of states (which must be six or fewer), hackers could have changed registration data, but could not have changed vote totals.

In a small number of states, Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data; however, they did not appear to be in a position to manipulate individual votes or aggregate vote totals.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests that,

Election experts, security officials, cybersecurity experts, and the media should develop a common set of precise and well-defined election security terms to improve communication.

This would avoid shitty NBC reporting that falsely leads voters to believe over 20 states were successfully hacked.

Ultimately, though, this report offers weak suggestions, using the word “should” 18 times, never once calling on Congress to fulfill some of its recommendations (such as providing resources to states), and simply suggesting that the Executive warn of consequences for further attacks.

U.S. Government should clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.

Predictably (especially coming from a Chair whose own reelection in 2016 is due, in part, to his party’s abuse of North Carolina’s administration of elections, the report affirms the importance of states remaining in charge.

States should remain firmly in the lead on running elections, and the Federal government should ensure they receive the necessary resources and information.

I guess Richard Burr would like the Federal government to give his colleagues more money to disenfranchise brown people.

But it’s not just in its weak suggestions that the report falls short. There are two significant silences that discredit the report as a whole: Mitch McConnell, and vendors.

For example, in a long section discussing laying out why DHS’ warnings in 2016 were insufficient, the report complains that the October 7, 2016 statement was not adequate warning.

DHS’s notifications in the summer of 2016 and the public statement by DHS and the ODNI in October 2016 were not sufficient warning.

The report remains utterly silent about Mitch McConnell’s refusal to back a more forceful statement (and, as I’ve noted, Burr and fellow Trump advisor Devin Nunes himself never joined any statement about the attacks).

In other words, while this report talks about gaps and is happy to blame DHS, it doesn’t consider the past and proposed role of top members of Congress.

The other big gap in this report has to do with the vendors on which our election system relies. To be sure, the report does, twice, acknowledge the importance of private sector companies in counting our vote, first when it describes that the vendors would are enticing targets that might need to be bound by more than voluntary guidelines.

Vendors of election software and equipment play a critical role in the U.S. election system, and the Committee continues to be concerned that vendors represent an enticing target or malicious cyber actors. State local, territorial, tribal, and federal government authorities have very little insight into the cyber security practices of many of these vendors, and while the Election Assistance Commission issues guidelines for Security, abiding by those guidelines is currently voluntary.

As a solution, it said that state and local officials should perform risk assessments for election infrastructure vendors, not that they should do so themselves (or be held to any mandated standards).

Perform risk assessments for any current or potential third-party vendors to ensure they are meeting the necessary cyber security standards in protecting their election systems.

Not all  states and almost no local officials are going to have the ability to do this risk assessment, and there’s no reason why it should be done over and over again across the country.

That’s particularly true given the fact that (as the report addresses the vulnerability posed by, but provides no remedy) the election vendor market has gotten increasingly concentrated.

Voting systems across the United States are outdated, and many do not have a paper record of votes as a backup counting system that can be reliably audited, should there be allegations of machine manipulation. In addition, the number of vendors selling machines is shrinking, raising concerns about supply chain vulnerability.

The report also suggests that DHS educate vendors.

DHS should work with vendors to educate them about the potential vulnerabilities of both voting machines and the supply chains.

But in a report that acknowledges the key role played by vendors in administering our elections, the report remains silent about Russian efforts to compromise them in 2016. Indeed, in its accounting of how many states were affected, the report admits its numbers don’t include vendors.

In addition, the numbers do not include any potential attacks on third-party vendors.

And yet — thanks in large part to Reality Winner — we know Russia did target vendors. Not only did they target them, but they appear to have succeeded, and succeeded in a way that may have affected the vote in North Carolina, Burr’s state.

In short, the report leaves a key aspect of known Russian efforts to target the vote completely unexamined, and it doesn’t consider the many ways that by compromising vendors in ways beyond cyberattacks might affect the vote.

Perhaps the report is silent about vendors precisely because of Winner’s pending case, to avoid publicly mentioning in unclassified form the attacks that the document she is accused of leaking. Or perhaps the committee just did an inadequate job of reviewing what happened in 2016.

Whichever it is, it’s unacceptable.

Roger Stone, Rick Gates, and Michael Caputo Met Right Around DNC/Podesta Hack

Michael Caputo, a former Trump communications official with close ties to Russia who was mentored by Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, was interviewed by Mueller’s team last week. He described how the Mueller team knows more about the Trump campaign than he does, and that they are precisely accurate in targeting what they’re looking for.

“It’s clear they are still really focused on Russia collusion,” Caputo said, adding, “They know more about the Trump campaign than anyone who ever worked there.”

[snip]

“The Senate and the House are net fishing,” Caputo said. “The special counsel is spearfishing. They know what they are aiming at and are deadly accurate.”

In spite of that and his admission that Mueller would only ever interview him for evidence on “collusion,” Caputo, who was bragging last week that his defense fund has twice as much as he claims he has spent in it, insists he did not provide any evidence of such.

Since his initial statements, Caputo has gotten more specific about what he was asked: About meetings between Rick Gates and Stone.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is focusing intensely on alleged interactions between former top Trump campaign official Rick Gates and political operative Roger Stone, one of President Donald Trump’s closest confidants, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

[snip]

The questions have been largely about what was discussed at meetings, including dinners, between Stone and Gates, before and during the campaign, said the sources, who have knowledge of the substance of the recent interviews.

Roger Stone, who continues to offer shifting stories to the press in lieu of actually being interviewed by Mueller (he now claims he meant to say it would soon be the Podestas’, plural, time in the barrel to disclaim knowing Podesta’s emails had been stolen, though he didn’t offer that when his excuse for the Podesta comment was first aired), claims there was only one such meeting.

Still, the timing and claimed explanation for it is still fairly interesting. It occurred just after the NY State Primary that was held on April 19, 2016.

“I only have a record of one dinner with Rick Gates,” he said, adding that the guest list included two other political operatives: Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide who was recently interviewed by Mr. Mueller’s investigators, and Paul Manafort, who soon after took over as chairman of Mr. Trump’s campaign. But Mr. Manafort canceled at the last minute, and Mr. Gates, his deputy, attended in his place.

Mr. Stone said the conversation during the dinner, which fell soon after the New York primary in April 2016, was about the New York State delegate selection for the Republican National Convention. The operatives expressed concern about whether delegates, at a time of deep division among Republicans, would be loyal to Mr. Trump’s vision for the party, Mr. Stone said.

While I find it logical that Caputo was doing delegate counts with Gates, who was the Deputy of the guy doing the Convention counting at that point, I’m less sure Stone stays that close to actual party politics.

Moreover, the three together — Stone, Gates, and Caputo — at such a time (especially if it happened just a week or so later, after the campaign likely learned of emails on offer from George Papadopoulos) might have been remarkably wired in to the outreach from Russia.

We might have more clarity on that if Stone, in his denials, provided the date of the one dinner he admits to. But he chose not to do that.

With the Upcoming Concord Consulting Not Guilty Plea, Russians Continue to Win the Lawfare Hockey Title

Last year, I observed how effective the mostly-Russian (with some assistance from Republicans) lawfare surrounding the Steele dossier had been. Between the Webzilla and Alfa Bank suits against Steele dossier actors (the latter advised by top Republican lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis), they forced out information that would embarrass Democrats and assist Republican efforts to undermine the Russian investigation. Further, the many suits were far more costly than the initial oppo research had been.

As a number of outlets have observed, one of the firms named in the Internet Research Agency indictment, Concord Management and Consulting, is waging similar lawfare in response to that indictment.

Concord is the firm of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, often called Putin’s chef because he’s gotten rich of catering contracts. The indictment claims Concord provided the bulk of the funding for the IRA. It further alleges Concord funds disinformation campaigns not just targeting America, but targeting other countries and domestic Russian audiences.

Beginning as early as 2014, Defendant ORGANIZATION began operations to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendant ORGANIZATION received funding for its operations from Defendant YEVGENIY VIKTOROVICH PRIGOZHIN and companies he controlled, including Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC and CONCORD CATERING (collectively “CONCORD”). Defendants CONCORD and PRIGOZHIN spent significant funds to further the ORGANIZATION’s operations and to pay the remaining Defendants, along with other uncharged ORGANIZATION employees, salaries and bonuses for their work at the ORGANIZATION.

[snip]

Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC (Конкорд Менеджмент и Консалтинг) and CONCORD CATERING are related Russian entities with various Russian government contracts. CONCORD was the ORGANIZATION’s primary source of funding for its interference operations. CONCORD controlled funding, recommended personnel, and oversaw ORGANIZATION activities through reporting and interaction with ORGANIZATION management.

CONCORD funded the ORGANIZATION as part of a larger CONCORD-funded interference operation that it referred to as “Project Lakhta.” Project Lakhta had multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.

Among the details in the indictment that would require the most SIGINT (as distinct from cooperation from Facebook and domestic forensics analysis) is a paragraph describing the funding behind the operation.

To conceal its involvement, CONCORD labeled the monies paid to the ORGANIZATION for Project Lakhta as payments related to software support and development. To further conceal the source of funds, CONCORD distributed monies to the ORGANIZATION through approximately fourteen bank accounts held in the names of CONCORD affiliates, including Glavnaya Liniya LLC, Merkuriy LLC, Obshchepit LLC, Potentsial LLC, RSP LLC, ASP LLC, MTTs LLC, Kompleksservis LLC, SPb Kulinariya LLC, Almira LLC, Pishchevik LLC, Galant LLC, Rayteks LLC, and Standart LLC.

Presumably, the Mueller team named Concord and Prigozhin because doing so would support sanctions against him and his companies (indeed, Prigozhin was added to sanctions back in March). But it was also a way to put the operation within the immediate vicinity of Putin and tie it to the patronage that he uses to stay in power.

But then the corporate person of Concord Consulting unexpectedly started to contest the charges. On April 11, two lawyers from Reed Smith filed an attorney appearance for the firm. That same day, the lawyers sent Mueller’s team two letters, one asking for a Bill of Particulars and the other an expansive discovery request. Mueller’s team (having previously tried to serve Concord via the Russian government) then sent a letter to the lawyers, asking for confirmation they can receive summons for their client, which the lawyers returned it 10 days later, saying it violated Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The government, based on the returned summons, asked for a continuance to make sure that summons had been accepted.

Acceptance of service is ordinarily an indispensable precondition providing assurance that a defendant will submit to the jurisdiction of the court, obey its orders, and comply with any judgment. Here, proper service is disputed. It would not be an efficient use of resources to conduct proceedings against Concord clouded by the question whether Concord has been properly served. And as mentioned above, that is particularly true given the sensitive intelligence gathering, national security, and foreign affairs issues presented by defense counsel’s initial requests.

Concord’s lawyers responded by arguing the Special Counsel was ignoring local rules requiring two weeks advance notice to make a scheduling change, and further noting the government had not cited any case law supporting the argument that there might be uncertainty about whether Concord had been served.

The Special Counsel is not entitled to special rules, and is required like the Attorney General to follow the rules of the Court. See United States v. Libby, 498 F.Supp.2d 1, 10-11 (D.C.C. 2007).

The Special Counsel’s motion, filed late on a Friday afternoon, essentially seeks to usurp the scheduling authority of the Court by requesting a continuance of a proceeding scheduled in five days knowing that Defendant is ordinarily entitled to fourteen days to respond.

The Special Counsel’s motion is in violation of Local Criminal Rule 47(b) in that its contains no citation to points of law and authority and instead proclaims without citation to any authority that “A criminal case against an organizational defendant ordinarily requires that the defendant has been properly served with a summons in order for the court to be assured that the defendant has submitted to the jurisdiction of this court and has obligated itself to proceed in accordance with the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and other applicable laws that govern this criminal proceeding,”

Judge Dabney Friedrich denied the government motion, meaning there’ll be an initial appearance Wednesday.

Before looking at what Concord is trying to do with its discovery request, let’s take a step back.

The US has been charging Russian hackers and other criminals (like Viktor Bout) for years. Russia hates it. Even ignoring the number of Russian criminals we’ve imprisoned for long sentences, in cases where we don’t nab defendants while on vacation, the indictments still provide the US a forum to expose Russian intelligence activities with little cost to the US.

Charging a corporate person — one close to Putin — for a crime (information operations) that the US also engages in, the government provided Putin and his ally Prigozhin with an opening to either inflict some damage or force the government to withdraw the indictment (and think twice before indicting any other Russian corporations in other Russian investigation indictments).

Here’s some of what Concord is asking for:

Unnamed co-conspirators. When Rod Rosenstein announced this indictment, he emphasized that no Americans were named as co-conspirators in the indictment. That’s different than saying no Americans did conspire (indeed, I’ve noted that three Trump Campaign Officials described in the indictment may be under ongoing investigation). The motion for a Bill of Particulars asks for the identities of those three Trump Campaign Officials, as well as the identities of at least ten other Americans described specifically, and 100 recruited by IRA (described in ¶81). It also asks for the name of co-conspirators for an act, ¶7 of the indictment, who were required to register even though no co-conspirators are alleged to have to do so. Intriguingly, it asks not just for the identity of the real US person who held a sign in front of the White House (¶12b), but also all details surrounding the communications behind that appearance.

Related crimes the government will introduce at trial. The discovery request makes a very normal Rule 404(b) request for any “other crimes, wrongs, or acts” the government might introduce at trial. If Mueller’s team believes anyone in this indictment was involved in other parts of the operation, they might have to disclose that.

SIGINT. The request for a Bill of Particulars asks the government to identify all VPNs, PayPal accounts, Twitter accounts, and web-based emails used in the operation. It asks for the IDs of the people behind the operation and a definition of what significant funds means which would convey how much money Mueller has tracked. It asks for the specific bank accounts the indictment alleges Concord used to launder its money. It asks for specific evidence showing Prigozhin’s knowledge of the operation. It asks for all the communications behind the named events in the indictment. Showing this would provide Concord, and so Prigozhin, and so Putin, a very detailed picture of how much intelligence the US collected to draw up this indictment, which would also hint a lot about how we got it.

Details they will use to show US double standards. This includes a request for all the times since 1945 an agent of the US “engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes in any foreign country,” which is probably a reference to this study that shows CIA has done it more than Russia, along with a parallel request about any times Americans have been charged under the same crime, 18 USC 371, charged in the indictment. It also asks for a definition of a bunch of terms — such as “improper foreign influence,” “computer infrastructure,” “collecting intelligence,” and “began to monitor” that Russia will then use to point out where US spooks do the same. The request asks for a list of all criminal statutes that prohibit interference operations, the specific statutes behind the FECA, FARA, and visa violations alleged, as well as statutes that prohibit “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the US … [by] interfer[ing] with US political and electoral processes. Together, those requests are designed to show that much of this stuff is either legal or spying.

The names of informants. Concord asks for this both as a general Brady request and asks for the specific name of the uncharged co-conspirator who traveled to Atlanta in 2014 in the request for a Bill of Particulars. While Prigozhin probably knows which Russians cooperated, Russia will nevertheless love to use that to punish whoever did.

While neither will happen immediately — Mueller’s team will push for a protection order and CIPA process before turning over the requested discovery and defendants almost never get a Bill of Particulars — effectively, Concord signaled its intention to impose real costs on the US government’s use of our criminal justice system to embarrass Russia. They made it clear that one of Putin’s closes allies will be demanding the intelligence behind an indictment naming him and two of his companies. Which is going to pose real discomfort for Mueller’s team (which might explain a bit of their delay here).

Let me clear: Concord is entirely within its right to begin demanding such evidence. That’s the risk of using our criminal justice system, affording due process, in charging a Russian corporate person who can challenge any charges without risking their freedom. I imagine Mueller’s team didn’t sufficiently account for this possibility when charging it this way. And if there are any other known Russian corporations involved in this operation (or fronts, such as the one Joseph Mifsud worked behind), I would imagine Mueller’s team is rethinking their approach to including those fronts. This could be problematic to the extent that proving any “collusion” between Trump’s people and Russians would most easily be demonstrated via conspiracy charges involving Russian entities.

As I said, for years, it has pissed off Russia generally and Putin in particular that the US used its criminal justice system to embarrass Russia, particularly for actions (like nation-state spying or information warfare like that alleged in this indictment) that we also engage in, including against Russia. It seems clear Putin and his buddy Prigozhin are using the incidence of the latter having had his company be named in this indictment as an opportunity to retaliate and make DOJ think twice as it continues to expand such efforts in the future.

And to a large degree, it’s quite likely to work.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

In this series, I have been showing a framework for the investigation that the Mueller questions, as imagined by Jay Sekulow, maps out. Thus far I have shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him.

This post lays out the questions on obstruction that lead up to Comey’s firing on May 9, 2017.

February 14, 2017: What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

On February 13, Trump fired Mike Flynn. The explanation he gave was one of the concerns Sally Yates had given to Don McGahn when she told him about the interview, that Flynn had lied to Mike Pence about having discussed sanctions relief with Sergey Kislyak on December 29, 2016. Except, coming from Trump, that excuse makes no sense, both because he had already shown he didn’t care about the counterintelligence implications of that lie by including Flynn in the January 28 phone call with Putin and other sensitive meetings. But also because at least seven people in the White House knew what occurred in Flynn’s calls, and Pence probably did too.

Against that backdrop, the next day, Trump had Jim Comey stay late after an oval office meeting so he could ask him to drop the investigation into Flynn. Leading up to this meeting, Trump had already:

  • Asked Comey to investigate the pee tape allegations so he could exonerate the President
  • Asked if FBI leaks
  • Asked if Comey was loyal shortly after asking him, for the third time, if he wanted to keep his job
  • Claimed he distrusted Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed telling Trump about a congratulatory call from Putin

After Trump asked everyone in the meeting to leave him and Comey alone, both Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner lingered.

While the description of this meeting usually focuses on the Flynn discussion, according to Comey’s discussion, it also focused closely on leaks, which shows how Trump linked the two in his mind.

Here’s what Comey claims Trump said about Flynn:

He began by saying he wanted to “talk about Mike Flynn.” He then said that, although Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his call with the Russians (a point he made at least two more times in the conversation), he had to let him go because he misled the Vice President, whom he described as “a good guy.” He explained that he just couldn’t have Flynn misleading the vice President and, in any event, he had other concerns about Flynn, and had a great guy coming in, so he had to let Flynn go.

[a discussion of Sean Spicer’s presser explaining the firing and another about the leaks of his calls to Mexican and Australian leaders]

He then referred at length to the leaks relating to Mike Flynn’s call with the Russians, which he stressed was not wrong in any way (“he made lots of calls”), but that the leaks were terrible.

[Comey’s agreement with Trump about the problem with leaks, but also his explanation that the leaks may not have been FBI; Reince Priebus tries to interrupt but Trump sends him away for a minute or two]

He then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice President but he didn’t do anything wrong on the call. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” but said no more.

In addition to providing Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey, asking this question might aim to understand the real reason Trump fired Flynn.

March 2, 2017: What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?  What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind? Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?

On March 2, citing consultations with senior department officials, Sessions recused himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” while noting that, “This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.” At that point, Dana Boente became Acting Attorney General for the investigation.

Note that this question isn’t just about Trump’s response to Sessions’ recusal — it’s also about what he did in advance of it. That’s likely because even before Sessions recused, Trump got Don McGahn to try to pressure the Attorney General not to do so. He also called Comey the night before and “talked about Sessions a bit.” When Sessions ultimately did recuse, Trump had a blow-up in which he expressed a belief that Attorneys General should protect their president.

[T]he president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In the days after the Sessions recusal, Trump also kicked off the year-long panic about being wiretapped.

On Thursday, Jeff Sessions recused from the election-related parts of this investigation. In response, Trump went on a rant (inside the White House) reported to be as angry as any since he became President. The next morning, Trump responded to a Breitbart article alleging a coup by making accusations that suggest any wiretaps involved in this investigation would be improper. Having reframed wiretaps that would be targeted at Russian spies as illegitimate, Trump then invited Nunes to explore any surveillance of campaign officials, even that not directly tied to Trump himself.

And Nunes obliged.

Don McGahn and Jeff Sessions, among others, have already provided their side of this story to Mueller’s team.

March 2 to March 20, 2017: What did you know about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Mr. Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Mr. Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?

As Sekulow has recorded Mueller’s question, the special counsel wants to know what Trump already knew of the investigation into Mike Flynn before Comey publicly confirmed it in Congressional testimony. This may be a baseline question, to measure how much of Trump’s response was a reaction to the investigation becoming public.

But there are other things that went down in the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony. Devin Nunes had already made considerable efforts to undermine the investigation; he would have been briefed on the investigation on March 2 (see footnote 75), the same day as Sessions recused.Trump went into a panic on March 4, just days after Sessions recusal, about being wiretapped; I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that Trump or Steven Bannon seeded the Breitbart story that kicked off the claim of a coup against Trump. Also of note is Don McGahn’s delay in conveying the records retention request about the investigation to the White House, even as Sean Spicer conducted a device search to learn who was using encrypted messengers.

March 20, 2017: What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.

On March 20, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Comey publicly confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

In addition to questions about the investigation (including the revelation that FBI had not briefed the Gang of Eight on it until recently; we now know the briefing took place the day Jeff Sessions recused which suggests FBI avoided letting both Flynn and Sessions know details of it), Republicans used the hearing to delegitimize unmasking and the IC conclusion that Putin had affirmatively supported Trump.

Sekulow’s questions (or NYT’s rendition of them) lump the hearing, at which Admiral Mike Rogers also testified, in with Trump’s pressure on his spooks to issue a statement that he wasn’t under investigation. Two days after the hearing, Trump pressured Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats to intervene with Comey to stop the investigation.

It’s possible that the term “intelligence officials” includes HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes. On March 21, Nunes made his nighttime trip to the White House to accelerate the unmasking panic. Significantly, the panic didn’t just pertain to Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak; it also focused on the revelation of Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan’s secret trip to New York and probably other conversations with the Middle Eastern partners that have become part of this scandal.

The day after Nunes’ nighttime trip, Trump called Coats and Rogers (and probably Pompeo) and asked them to publicly deny any evidence of a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia; NSA documented the call to Rogers.

It’s now clear that the calls Nunes complained about being unmasked actually are evidence of a conspiracy (and as such, they probably provided an easy roadmap for Mueller to find the non-Russian conversations).

March 30, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on March 30?

On March 30, Trump called Comey on official phone lines and asked him to exonerate him on the Russia investigation. According to Comey, the conversation included the following:

He then said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult. He said he thinks he would have won the health care vote but for the cloud. He then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in DC saying he has gotten no income from Russia). was not involved with hookers in Russia (can you imagine me, hookers? I have a beautiful wife, and it has been very painful). is bringing a personal lawsuit against Christopher Steele, always advised people to assume they were being recorded in Russia. has accounts now from those who travelled with him to Miss Universe pageant that he didn’t do anything, etc.

He asked what he could do to lift the cloud. I explained that we were running it down as quickly as possible and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but we had to do our work. He agreed, but then returned to the problems this was causing him, went on at great length about how bad he was for Russia because of his commitment to more oil and more nukes (ours are 40 years old).

He said something about the hearing last week. I responded by telling him I wasn’t there as a volunteer and he asked who was driving that, was it Nunes who wanted it? I said all the leadership wanted to know what was going on and mentioned that Grassley had even held up the DAG nominee to demand information. I said we had briefed the leadership on exactly what we were doing and who we were investigating.

I reminded him that I had told him we weren’t investigating him and that I had told the Congressional leadership the same thing. He said it would be great if that could get out and several times asked me to find a way to get that out.

He talked about the guy he read about in the Washington Post today (NOTE: I think he meant Sergei Millian) and said he didn’t know him at all. He said that if there was “some satellite” (NOTE: I took this to mean some associate of his or his campaign) that did something, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything and hoped I would find a way to get out that we weren’t investigating him.

Trump also raised “McCabe thing,” yet another apparent attempt to tie the retention of McCabe to public exoneration from Comey.

Given the news that Sergei Millian had been pitching George Papadopoulos on a Trump Tower deal in the post-election period, I wonder whether Trump’s invocation of him in conjunction with “some satellite” is a reference to Papadopoulos, who had already been interviewed twice by this time. Nunes would have learned of his inclusion in the investigation in the March 2 CI briefing.

On top of the clear evidence that this call represented a (well-documented, including a contemporaneous call to Dana Boente) effort to quash the investigation and get public exoneration, the conversation as presented by Comey also includes several bogus statements designed to exonerate him. For example, Millian had actually worked with Trump in past years selling condos to rich Russians. Trump never did sue Steele (Michael Cohen sued BuzzFeed and Fusion early this year, but he dropped it in the wake of the FBI raid on him). And the March 8 letter from Morgan Lewis certifying he didn’t get income from Russia is unrelated to whether he has been utterly reliant on investment from Russia (to say nothing of the huge sums raised from Russian oligarchs for his inauguration). In other words, like the earlier false claim that Trump hadn’t stayed overnight in Moscow during the Miss Universe pageant and therefore couldn’t have been compromised, even at this point, Trump’s attempts to persuade the FBI he was innocent were based off false claims.

March 30, 2017: Flynn asks for immunity

Mike Flynn first asked Congress for immunity on March 30, 2017, with Trump backing the effort in a tweet.

A later question deals with this topic — and suggests Trump may have contacted Flynn directly about immunity at this time, but that contact is not public, if it occurred.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on April 11, 2017?

At 8:26AM on April 11, Comey returned a call to Trump. Trump asked again for Comey to lift the cloud on him.

He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time–getting out that he personally is not under investigation. I relied that I had passed the request to the Acting AG and had not heard back from him. He spoke for a bit about why it was so important. He is trying to do work for the country, visit with foreign leaders, and any cloud, even a little cloud gets in the way of that. They keep bringing up the Russia thing as an excuse for losing the election.

[snip]

He then added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.”

[snip]

He then said that I was doing a great job and wished me well.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?

On April 12, Fox Business News broadcast an interview with Maria Bartiromo (Mueller must know it was recorded on April 11, so presumably after the call with Comey). There are three key aspects of the interview. First, in the context of Trump’s failures to staff his agencies, Bartiromo asks why Comey is still around [note, I bet in Hope Hicks’ several days of interviews, they asked her if these questions were planted]. Given public reports, Trump may have already been thinking about firing Comey, though Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Don McGahn staved off the firing for weeks.

TRUMP:  I wish it would be explained better, the obstructionist nature, though, because a lot of times I’ll say why doesn’t so and so have people under him or her?

The reason is because we can’t get them approved.

BARTIROMO:  Well, people are still wondering, though, they’re scratching their heads, right, so many Obama-era staffers are still here.

For example, was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency?

Is it too late now to ask him to step down?

TRUMP:  No, it’s not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him.  We’ll see what happens.  You know, it’s going to be interesting.

On the same day he had asked Comey to publicly state he wasn’t being interviewed, Trump said he still had confidence in Comey, even while suggesting a lot of other people were angling for the job (something he had also said in an earlier exchange with Comey).  Trump immediately pivoted to claiming Comey had kept Hillary from being charged.

TRUMP: But, you know, we have to just — look, I have so many people that want to come into this administration.  They’re so excited about this administration and what’s happening — bankers, law enforcement — everybody wants to come into this administration.  Don’t forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton.  People don’t realize that.  He saved her life, because — I call it Comey [one].  And I joke about it a little bit.

When he was reading those charges, she was guilty on every charge.  And then he said, she was essentially OK.  But he — she wasn’t OK, because she was guilty on every charge.

And then you had two and then you had three.

But Hillary Clinton won — or Comey won.  She was guilty on every charge.

BARTIROMO:  Yes.

TRUMP:  So Director Comey…

BARTIROMO:  Well, that’s (INAUDIBLE)…

TRUMP:  No, I’m just saying…

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE)?

TRUMP:  Well, because I want to give everybody a good, fair chance.  Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you.  If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.

From there, Bartiromo asks Trump why President Obama had changed the rules on sharing EO 12333 data. Trump suggests it is so his administration could be spied on, using the Susan Rice unmasking pseudo scandal as shorthand for spying on his team.

BARTIROMO:  Mr. President, just a final question for you.

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, he changed all the rules in terms of the intelligence agencies, allowing them to share raw data.

TRUMP:  Terrible.

BARTIROMO:  Why do you think he did this?

TRUMP:  Well, I’m going to let you figure that one out.  But it’s so obvious.  When you look at Susan Rice and what’s going on, and so many people are coming up to me and apologizing now.  They’re saying you know, you were right when you said that.

Perhaps I didn’t know how right I was, because nobody knew the extent of it.

Undoubtedly, Mueller wants to know whether these comments relate to his comments to Comey (and, as I suggested, Hope Hicks may have helped elucidate that). The invocation of Hillary sets up one rationale for firing Comey, but one that contradicts with the official reason.

But the conversation also reflects Trump’s consistent panic that his actions (and those of his aides) will be captured by wiretaps.

May 3, 2017: What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?

On May 3, Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It covered leaks (including whether he had ever authorized any, a question implicated in the Andrew McCabe firing), and the hacked email raising questions about whether Lynch could investigate Hillary. Comey described his actions in the Hillary investigation at length. This testimony would be cited by Rod Rosenstein in his letter supporting the firing of Comey. In addition, there were a number of questions about the Russia investigation, including questions focused on Trump, that would have driven Trump nuts.

Along with getting a reaction to the differences between what Comey said in testimony and Trump’s own version (which by this point he had shared several times), Mueller likely wants to know what Trump thinks of Comey’s claim that FBI treated the Russian investigation just like the Hillary one.

With respect to the Russian investigation, we treated it like we did with the Clinton investigation. We didn’t say a word about it until months into it and then the only thing we’ve confirmed so far about this is the same thing with the Clinton investigation. That we are investigating. And I would expect, we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done. And I don’t know what will be said when we’re done, but that’s the way we handled the Clinton investigation as well.

In a series of questions that were likely developed in conjunction with Trump, Lindsey Graham asked whether Comey stood by his earlier claim that there was an active investigation.

GRAHAM: Did you ever talk to Sally Yates about her concerns about General Flynn being compromised?

COMEY: I did, I don’t whether I can talk about it in this forum. But the answer is yes.

GRAHAM: That she had concerns about General Flynn and she expressed those concerns to you?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: We’ll talk about that later. Do you stand by your house testimony of March 20 that there was no surveillance of the Trump campaign that you’re aware of?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: You would know about it if they were, is that correct?

COMEY: I think so, yes.

GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter page a agent of the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…

COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?

Curiously (not least because of certain investigative dates), Sheldon Whitehouse asked some pointed questions about whether Comey could reveal if an investigation was being starved by inaction.

WHITEHOUSE: Let’s say you’ve got a hypothetically, a RICO investigation and it has to go through procedures within the department necessary to allow a RICO investigation proceed if none of those have ever been invoked or implicated that would send a signal that maybe not much effort has been dedicated to it.

Would that be a legitimate question to ask? Have these — again, you’d have to know that it was a RICO investigation. But assuming that we knew that that was the case with those staging elements as an investigation moves forward and the internal department approvals be appropriate for us to ask about and you to answer about?

COMEY: Yes, that’s a harder question. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to answer it because it would give away what we were looking at potentially.

WHITEHOUSE: Would it be appropriate to ask if — whether any — any witnesses have been interviewed or whether any documents have been obtained pursuant to the investigation?

Richard Blumenthal asked Comey whether he could rule Trump in or out as a target of the investigation and specifically within that context, suggested appointing a special counsel (Patrick Leahy had already made the suggestion for a special counsel).

BLUMENTHAL: Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?

COMEY: I don’t — I don’t want people to over interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.

BLUMENTHAL: But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?

COMEY: Correct. We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.

BLUMENTHAL: So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?

COMEY: I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.

BLUMENTHAL: Wouldn’t this situation be ideal for the appointment of a special prosecutor, an independent counsel, in light of the fact that the attorney general has recused himself and, so far as your answers indicate today, no one has been ruled out publicly in your ongoing investigation. I understand the reasons that you want to avoid ruling out anyone publicly. But for exactly that reason, because of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, isn’t this situation absolutely crying out for a special prosecutor?

Chuck Grassley asked Comey the first questions about what would become the year-long focus on Christopher Steele’s involvement in the FISA application on Carter Page.

GRASSLEY: On — on March 6, I wrote to you asking about the FBI’s relationship with the author of the trip — Trump-Russia dossier Christopher Steele. Most of these questions have not been answered, so I’m going to ask them now. Prior to the bureau launching the investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, did anyone from the FBI have interactions with Mr. Steele regarding the issue?

COMEY: That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum. As you know, I — I briefed you privately on this and if there’s more that’s necessary then I’d be happy to do it privately.

GRASSLEY: Have you ever represented to a judge that the FBI had interaction with Mr. Steele whether by name or not regarding alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the Bureau launching its investigation of the matter?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Mr. Chairman.

In a second round, Whitehouse asked about a Trump tweet suggesting Comey had given Hillary a free pass.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

A couple of quick matters, for starters. Did you give Hillary Clinton quote, “a free pass for many bad deeds?” There was a tweet to that effect from the president.

COMEY: Oh, no, not — that was not my intention, certainly.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, did you give her a free pass for many bad deeds, whatever your intention may have been?

COMEY: We conducted a competent, honest and independent investigation, closed it while offering transparency to the American people. I believed what I said, there was not a prosecutable case, there.

Al Franken asked Comey whether the investigation might access Trump’s tax returns.

FRANKEN: I just want to clarify something — some of the answers that you gave me for example in response to director — I asked you would President Trump’s tax returns be material to the — such an investigation — the Russian investigation and does the investigation have access to President Trump’s tax returns and some other questions you answered I can’t say. And I’d like to get a clarification on that. Is it that you cant say or that you can’t say in this setting?

COMEY: That I won’t answer questions about the contours of the investigation. As I sit here I don’t know whether I would do it in a closed setting either. But for sure — I don’t want to begin answering questions about what we’re looking at and how.

Update: Contemporaneous reporting makes it clear that Trump was particularly irked by Comey’s admission that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” as that diminished Trump’s win. (h/t TC)

May 9, 2017: Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?

The May 3 hearing is reportedly the precipitating event for Trump heading to Bedminster with Ivanka, Jared, and Stephen Miller on May 4 and deciding to fire Comey. Trump had Miller draft a letter explaining the firing, which Don McGahn would significantly edit when he saw it on May 8. McGahn also got Sessions and Rosenstein, who were peeved about different aspects of the hearing (those focused on Comey’s actions with regards to Hillary), to write letters supporting Comey’s firing.

Given that Mueller has the original draft of the firing letter and testimony from McGahn, Rosenstein, and Sessions, this question will largely allow Trump to refute evidence Mueller has already confirmed.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

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