Posts

In Which Former NatSec Prosecutor Andrew McCarthy Embraces Russian Disinformation

Andrew McCarthy is one of the few right wingers I think all Trump opponents need to read. That’s true, partly, because his experience as a top NatSec prosecutor grants him an important perspective from which to assess the Trump investigation. And also, he engages in his own assessment of the evidence, as he has received it, even if he brings a far right bias to it.

McCarthy decides the dossier was key in the Page FISA order

Which is why defenders of the Christopher Steele dossier should read — and prepare to respond to — this column concluding (after some prior good faith consideration) that Democrats do have a problem with the way the dossier was used to justify an investigation against Trump. In it, McCarthy divorces his discussion from the known timeline and concludes that dossier is the true referent to Peter Strzok’s “insurance policy” text.

Was it the Steele dossier that so frightened the FBI? I think so.

[snip]

In sum, the FBI and DOJ were predisposed to believe the allegations in Steele’s dossier. Because of their confidence in Steele, because they were predisposed to believe his scandalous claims about Donald Trump, they made grossly inadequate efforts to verify his claims. Contrary to what I hoped would be the case, I’ve come to believe Steele’s claims were used to obtain FISA surveillance authority for an investigation of Trump.

McCarthy then points to this report (as I have) of Andrew McCabe pointing only to Carter Page’s trip to Moscow as validation of the dossier.

But when pressed to identify what in the salacious document the bureau had actually corroborated, the sources said, McCabe cited only the fact that Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had traveled to Moscow. Beyond that, investigators said, McCabe could not even say that the bureau had verified the dossier’s allegations about the specific meetings Page supposedly held in Moscow.

From that, McCarthy departs from prior points he has made about FBI’s corroboration of intelligence on FISA applications and ignores reports that FBI had a FISA order on Carter Page before the campaign (those reports admittedly might be disinformation, but then so might every single report pertaining to FISA orders) to suggest that the Steele dossier was the primary thing FBI used to get a FISA order on him (and, even more inaccurately, to justify the entire investigation). Here’s where McCarthy ends his piece.

The FBI always has information we do not know about. But given that Page has not been accused of a crime, and that the DOJ and FBI would have to have alleged some potential criminal activity to justify a FISA warrant targeting the former U.S. naval intelligence officer, it certainly seems likely that the Steele dossier was the source of this allegation. In conclusion, while there is a dearth of evidence to date that the Trump campaign colluded in Russia’s cyberespionage attack on the 2016 election, there is abundant evidence that the Obama administration colluded with the Clinton campaign to use the Steele dossier as a vehicle for court-authorized monitoring of the Trump campaign — and to fuel a pre-election media narrative that U.S. intelligence agencies believed Trump was scheming with Russia to lift sanctions if he were elected president.

McCarthy may well have a point. That is, I think his argument that DOJ’s predisposition to believe Steele may have led them to treat the dossier more credibly than it warranted. But as I said, to conclude the dossier is the main thing, he has to ignore reporting that Page had already had a FISA order (meaning FBI had already established, to the standard that FISC measures it, that Page might be involved in clandestine activity). He also doesn’t mention Chuck Grassley’s concerns about parallel construction, which he’d only have if he knew that FBI had corroborated the dossier intelligence (as McCarthy had been confident would have happened before this column). Nor does he mention that Page’s visit to Moscow was reported contemporaneously, in both Russian and DC. Further, as I lay out in this post, treating the dossier as definitive on August 15 doesn’t get you very far. Nor does McCarthy acknowledge that the public record makes clear that other pieces of intelligence also established a basis to open an investigation, regardless of what role the dossier contributed.

Still, as far as it goes, McCarthy’s argument thus far should at least be engaged by Trump opponents, because as far as it goes, it is a legitimate complaint.

FBI in no way let the dossier affect its election tampering, which ultimately worked to hurt Hillary

The first area where McCarthy goes off the rails, however, is in his suggestion that DOJ’s credulity about the dossier led the FBI to oppose Trump’s election, rather than fast-track an investigation into his ties with Russia.

He does this, first of all, by speculating — based on zero evidence — that FBI found out early on that the dossier was oppo research.

At some point, though, perhaps early on, the FBI and DOJ learned that the dossier was actually a partisan opposition-research product. By then, they were dug in. No one, after all, would be any the wiser: Hillary would coast to victory, so Democrats would continue running the government; FISA materials are highly classified, so they’d be kept under wraps.

I believe Steele’s public statements (which I admit are suspect) suggest the opposite. That is, I believe he was sufficiently compartmented from whoever was paying for the dossier such that he might not know about it (though that admittedly raises the stakes of what Bruce Ohr knew from his wife Nelly, and to what degree she was upholding client confidentiality).

McCarthy then suggests that FBI’s goal and actions reflect efforts to ensure Trump would not be elected.

[T]he suspicion is that, motivated by partisanship and spurred by shoddy information that it failed to verify, the FBI exploited its counterintelligence powers in hopes of derailing Trump’s presidential run.

[snip]

DOJ and FBI, having dropped a criminal investigation that undeniably established Hillary Clinton’s national-security recklessness, managed simultaneously to convince themselves that Donald Trump was too much of a national-security risk to be president.

Having laid out his argument that FBI gave Hillary a pass on her email investigation (yes, that part of this is laughable), McCarthy completely ignores the events of late October to make this claim.

First, he ignores that Jim Comey publicly reopened the investigation into Hillary less than two weeks before the election in large part because significant swaths of the FBI didn’t want her to win and Comey worried it would otherwise leak. You simply cannot say an FBI that did so was actively working to ensure a Hillary win.

Just as importantly, it appears that after it became publicly clear, with David Corn’s Steele story, that the dossier was oppo research, the FBI not only backed out of a plan to pay for its continuation, but leaked to the NYT that FBI had found nothing to substantiate any ties with Russia.

Note, this detail also provides a much better explanation for why the FBI backed out of its planned relationship with Steele in October, one that matches my supposition. As soon as it became clear Elias was leaking the dossier all over as oppo research, the FBI realized how inappropriate it was to use the information themselves, no matter how credible Steele is. This also likely explains why FBI seeded a story with NYT, one Democrats have complained about incessantly since, reporting “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” Ham-handed? Sure. But in the wake of Harry Reid and David Corn’s attempts to force FBI to reveal what Democratic oppo research had handed to FBI, the FBI needed to distance themselves from the oppo research, and make sure they didn’t become part of it. Particularly if Steele was not fully forthcoming about who was paying him, the FBI was fucked.

Whatever the facts about when it discovered the Democrats were funding the dossier, ultimately FBI went way out of its way to ensure the allegations in the dossier didn’t influence the election.

Wherein a former NatSec prosecutor yawns about Russian disinformation

At this point, I’m somewhat agnostic about the best explanation for all the shortcomings of the Steele dossier. It’s possible that, being offered money to support a conclusion, Steele just told his client what they wanted to hear, regardless of the actual reality (though that doesn’t accord with the public record on Steele’s credibility, at all). But it’s also possible that Russia learned about the dossier early on (possibly from Fusion researcher Rinat Akhmetshin), and spent a lot of time feeding Steele’s known sources disinformation. I’m increasingly leaning to the latter explanation, but I still remain agnostic.

Not McCarthy. He comes down squarely on the side of disinformation.

The dossier appears to contain misinformation. Knowing he was a spy-for-hire trusted by Americans, Steele’s Russian-regime sources had reason to believe that misinformation could be passed into the stream of U.S. intelligence and that it would be acted on — and leaked — as if it were true, to America’s detriment. This would sow discord in our political system. If the FBI and DOJ relied on the dossier, it likely means they were played by the Putin regime.

But McCarthy doesn’t think this through. And he doesn’t think it through even while proclaiming, abundant evidence to the the contrary, “there is a dearth of evidence to date that the Trump campaign colluded in Russia’s cyberespionage attack.”

There’s not a dearth of evidence!

To claim that there is, McCarthy ignores that longtime Trump associate Felix Sater was brokering deals with Russian oligarchs that he believed would get Trump elected in 2015. McCarthy ignores the likelihood George Papadopoulos warned the campaign of stolen emails, referred to as “dirt on Hillary,” even before the Democrats knew about any stolen emails. He ignores that Don Jr took a meeting (with Fusion associate Rinat Akhmetshin) based on a promise of dirt. He ignores that the broker behind the meeting, Rob Goldstone, found it eerie that stolen emails were released right after the meeting. McCarthy ignores that the substance of the meeting — sanctions relief — is precisely what Flynn was ordered to broker even before Trump was inaugurated, which Flynn is now explaining in depth in part because Jared Kushner withheld information that might have exonerated Flynn’s actions.

That is, McCarthy ignores that there’s a great deal of evidence, even in the public record, that Trump welcomed the release of stolen Hillary emails in a meeting at which sanctions were discussed, and that Trump promised to give Russia sanctions relief even before he was inaugurated.

Had he considered all this evidence, though, he might have had to think about why none of this shows up in the dossier, not even — especially not — the meeting which a Fusion research associate attended. Had he considered all this evidence, he would have had to think about how much the dossier looks like a distraction from all the evidence of collusion that was literally lying right before Fusion’s face. He also might have to consider how the dossier, paid for in response to the DNC hack, was worse than the public record precisely as it pertained to Russian hack and leaks.

Sure, it’s possible the Russians decided to plant a story of Trump collusion where no evidence existed, and did so well before Hillary’s investment in such a narrative was public (it would be interesting to know whether emails Russia stole in April would support such a narrative). It’s possible that’s what the disinformation of the dossier accomplishes. All that would be inconsistent with what everyone believed at the time, which is that Hillary would win.

That’s possible, sure.

But that’s not what the existing evidence supports. That is, if the dossier is disinformation, then it appears most likely to be disinformation that served as a distraction from the real collusion happening in easily researchable form. That’d be especially likely given that Manafort seems to have encouraged Trump to carry out precisely the counter propaganda that, with this column, McCarthy has now joined.

Chris Wray’s DodgeBall and Trump’s Latest Threats

Though I lived-tweeted it, I never wrote up Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearing to become FBI Director. Given the implicit and explicit threats against prosecutorial independence Trump made in this interview, the Senate should hold off on Wray’s confirmation until it gets far more explicit answers to some key questions.

Trump assails judicial independence

The NYT interview is full of Trump’s attacks on prosecutorial independence.

It started when Trump suggested (perhaps at the prompting of Michael Schmidt) that Comey only briefed Trump on the Christopher Steele dossier so he could gain leverage over the President.

Later, Trump called Sessions’ recusal “unfair” to the President.

He then attacked Rod Rosenstein by suggesting the Deputy Attorney General (who, Ryan Reilly pointed out, is from Bethesda) must be a Democrat because he’s from Baltimore.

Note NYT goes off the record (note the dashed line) with Trump in his discussions about Rosenstein at least twice (including for his response to whether it was Sessions’ fault or Rosenstein’s that Mueller got appointed), and NYT’s reporters seemingly don’t think to point out to the President that he appeared to suggest he had no involvement in picking DOJ’s #2, which would seem to be crazy news if true.

Finally, Trump suggested (as he has elsewhere) Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe is pro-Clinton.

Having attacked all the people who are currently or who have led the investigation into him (elsewhere in the interview, though, Trump claims he’s not under investigation), Trump then suggested that FBI Directors report directly to the President. In that context, he mentioned there’ll soon be a new FBI Director.

In other words, this mostly softball interview (though Peter Baker made repeated efforts to get Trump to explain the emails setting up the June 9, 2016 meeting) served as a largely unfettered opportunity for Trump to take aim at every major DOJ official and at the concept of all prosecutorial independence. And in that same interview, he intimated that the reporting requirements with Christopher Wray — who got nominated, ostensibly, because Comey usurped the chain of command requiring him to report to Loretta Lynch — would amount to Wray reporting directly to Trump.

Rosenstein does what he says Comey should be fired for

Close to the same time this interview was being released, Fox News released an “exclusive” interview with Rod Rosenstein, one of two guys who acceded to the firing of Jim Comey ostensibly because the FBI Director made inappropriate comments about an investigation. In it, the guy overseeing Mueller’s investigation into (in part) whether Trump’s firing of Comey amounted to obstruction of justice, Rosenstein suggested Comey acted improperly in releasing the memos that led to Mueller’s appointment.

And he had tough words when asked about Comey’s recent admission that he used a friend at Columbia University to get a memo he penned on a discussion with Trump leaked to The New York Times.

“As a general proposition, you have to understand the Department of Justice. We take confidentiality seriously, so when we have memoranda about our ongoing matters, we have an obligation to keep that confidential,” Rosenstein said.

Asked if he would prohibit releasing memos on a discussion with the president, he said, “As a general position, I think it is quite clear. It’s what we were taught, all of us as prosecutors and agents.”

While Rosenstein went on to defend his appointment of Mueller (and DOJ’s reinstatement of asset forfeitures), he appears to have no clue that he undermined his act even as he defended it.

Christopher Wray’s dodge ball

Which brings me to Wray’s confirmation hearing.

In fact, there were some bright spots in Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearing, mostly in its last dregs. For example, Dick Durbin noted that DOJ used to investigate white collar crime, but then stopped. Wray suggested DOJ had lost its stomach for such things, hinting that he might “rectify” that.

Similarly, with the last questions of the hearing Mazie Hirono got the most important question about the process of Wray’s hiring answered, getting Wray to explain that only appropriate people (Trump, Don McGahn, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence) were in his two White House interviews.

But much of the rest of the hearing alternated between Wray’s obviously well-rehearsed promises he would never be pressured to shut down an investigation, alternating with a series of dodged questions. Those dodges included:

  • What he did with the 2003 torture memo (dodge 1)
  • Whether 702 should have more protections (dodge 2)
  • Why did Trump fire Comey (dodge 3)
  • To what extent the Fourth Amendment applies to undocumented people in the US (dodge 4)
  • What we should do about junk science (dodge 5)
  • Whether Don Jr should have taken a meeting with someone promising Russian government help to get Trump elected (dodge 6)
  • Whether Lindsey Graham had fairly summarized the lies Don Jr told about his June 9, 2016 meeting (dodge 7)
  • Can the President fire Robert Mueller (dodge 8)
  • Whether it was a good idea to form a joint cyber group with Russia (dodge 9)
  • The role of tech in terrorist recruitment (dodge 9 the second)
  • Whether FBI Agents had lost faith in Comey (dodge 10)
  • Who was in his White House interview — though this was nailed down in a Hirono follow up (dodge 11)

Now, don’t get me wrong, this kind of dodge ball is par for the course for executive branch nominees in this era of partisan bickering — it’s the safest way for someone who wants a job to avoid pissing anyone off.

But at this time of crisis, we can’t afford the same old dodge ball confirmation hearing.

Moreover, two of the these dodges are inexcusable, in my opinion. First, his non-responses on 702. That’s true, first of all, because if and when he is confirmed, he will have to jump into the reauthorization process right away, and those who want basic reforms let Wray off the hook on an issue they could have gotten commitments on. I also find it inexcusable because Wray plead ignorance about 702 even though he played a key role in (not) giving defendants discovery on Stellar Wind, and otherwise was read into Stellar Wind after 2004, meaning he knows generally how PRISM works. He’s not ignorant of PRISM, and given how much I know about 702, he shouldn’t be ignorant of that, either.

But the big one — the absolutely inexcusable non answer that would lead me to vote against him — is his claim not to know the law about whether the President can fire Robert Mueller himself.

Oh, sure, as FBI Director, Wray won’t be in the loop in any firing. But by not answering a question the answer to which most people watching the hearing had at least looked up, Wray avoided going on the record on an issue that could immediately put him at odds with Trump, the guy who thinks Wray should report directly to him.

Add to that the Committee’s failure to ask Wray two other questions I find pertinent (and his answers on David Passaro’s prosecution either revealed cynical deceit about his opposition to torture or lack of awareness of what really happened with that prosecution).

The first question Wray should have been asked (and I thought would have been by Al Franken, who instead asked no questions) is the circumstances surrounding Wray’s briefing of John Ashcroft about the CIA Leak investigation in 2003, including details on Ashcroft’s close associate Karl Rove’s role in exposing Valerie Plame’s identity.

Sure, at some level, Wray was just briefing his boss back in 2003 when he gave Ashcroft details he probably shouldn’t have. The fault was Ashcroft’s, not Wray’s. But being willing to give an inappropriate briefing in 2003 is a near parallel to where Comey found himself, being questioned directly by Trump on a matter which Trump shouldn’t have had access to. And asking Wray to explain his past actions is a far, far better indication of how he would act in the (near) future than his rehearsed assurances he can’t be pressured.

The other question I’d have loved Wray to get asked (though this is more obscure) is how, as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division under Bush, he implemented the July 22, 2002 Jay Bybee memo permitting the sharing of grand jury information directly with the President and his top advisors without notifying the district court of that sharing. I’d have asked Wray this question because it was something he would have several years of direct involvement with (potentially even with the Plame investigation!), and it would serve as a very good stand-in for his willingness to give the White House an inappropriate glimpse into investigations implicating the White House.

There are plenty more questions (about torture and the Chiquita settlement, especially) I’d have liked Wray to answer.

But in spite of Wray’s many rehearsed assurances he won’t spike any investigation at the command of Donald Trump, he dodged (and was not asked) key questions that would have made him prove that with both explanations of his past actions and commitments about future actions.

Given Trump’s direct assault on prosecutorial independence, an assault he launched while clearly looking forward to having Wray in place instead of McCabe, the Senate should go back and get answers. Trump has suggested he thinks Wray will be different than Sessions, Rosenstein, Comey, and McCabe. And before confirming Wray, the Senate should find out whether Trump has a reason to believe that.

Update: I did not realize that between the time I started this while you were all asleep and the time I woke up in middle of the night Oz time SJC voted Wray out unanimously, which is a testament to the absolute dearth of oversight in the Senate.