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Iran-Contra Cover-Up King Doesn’t Address Sessions’ Other Lies, or Conspiracy-in-Chief

Fresh off several witnesses revealing that Jeff Sessions wasn’t as offended by George Papadopoulos’ plan to pitch meetings with Putin as he claims he was, ABC reported that, Andrew McCabe approved an investigation into whether Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his ties with Russia.

Nearly a year before Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired senior FBI official Andrew McCabe for what Sessions called a “lack of candor,” McCabe oversaw a federal criminal investigation into whether Sessions lacked candor when testifying before Congress about contacts with Russian operatives, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.

An anonymous source tried to claim that Sessions would not have known that McCabe briefly oversaw an investigation into Sessions’ own perjury, but Sessions’ lawyer pointedly refused to confirm that.

One source told ABC News that Sessions was not aware of the investigation when he decided to fire McCabe last Friday less than 48 hours before McCabe, a former FBI deputy director, was due to retire from government and obtain a full pension, but an attorney representing Sessions declined to confirm that.

Sessions’ lawyer is Chuck Cooper. Most recently, he got famous failing spectacularly to defend Prop 8. But years and years ago, he played a key role in excusing Iran-Contra, notably by inventing the concept of pixie dusting executive orders.

Given his past as a great cover-up artist, take note of how carefully he words his more general denial.

Two months ago, Sessions was interviewed by Mueller’s team, and the federal inquiry related to his candor during his confirmation process has since been shuttered, according to a lawyer representing Sessions.

“The Special Counsel’s office has informed me that after interviewing the attorney general and conducting additional investigation, the attorney general is not under investigation for false statements or perjury in his confirmation hearing testimony and related written submissions to Congress,” attorney Chuck Cooper told ABC News on Wednesday.

The AG is not under investigation for any lies in his confirmation hearing testimony, Cooper said.

Here’s what that leaves out:

  • Obstruction charges for inventing the reason to fire Comey, pretending to be involved in the firing of US Attorneys including Preet Bharara, and for firing McCabe
  • False statements charges tied to Sessions’ later testimony before Congress
  • False statements charges tied to his Mueller testimony about whether he opposed the Russian outreach (we now know Mueller has gotten conflicting statements on this point)
  • Implication in the Russian conspiracy directly

It’s the last one that is most interesting (and where all these false statements charges are headed anyway). We now know some of the people at the March 31, 2016 meeting believe Sessions was not opposed to the Russian outreach. We know that Sessions’ close aide, Stephen Miller, was in the thick of things.

And then there’s this bizarre exchange from a November exchange with Patrick Leahy (who seems to have known that Sessions was then under investigation for lying to Congress).

Leahy asked about each item in turn.

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

Sessions: Repeat the question again about emails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sessions refused to deny he had discussed emails with a “Russian connected official” since the election.

None of these potential ties in the conspiracy are included in Cooper’s carefully worded denial (nor is Sessions’ knowing that McCabe had okayed an investigation into him for failing to meet his duty of candor, the same thing Sessions just fired McCabe for).

That speaks volumes.

In any case, it seems we’ll be hearing a lot more about Sessions’ implication in all this, in the wake of his firing of McCabe.

“What Did the President Do and What Do His Lawyers Claim He Was Thinking?”

Ever since Richard Nixon, the big question one asks of presidential involvement in scandals is about the cover-up: “what did the president know and when did he know it?” Not so Trump in the investigation into his campaign’s conspiracy with Russia.

Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are already asking about the president’s actions: “What did the president do and what was he thinking when he did it?” WaPo describes the Trump team’s effort to dodge such questions by offering a summary of what his lawyers claim he did and was thinking.

The written materials provided to Mueller’s office include summaries of internal White House memos and contemporaneous correspondence about events Mueller is investigating, including the ousters of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James B. Comey. The documents describe the White House players involved and the president’s actions.

Special counsel investigators have told Trump’s lawyers that their main questions about the president fall into two simple categories, the two people said: “What did he do?” and “What was he thinking when he did it?”

Trump’s lawyers expect Mueller’s team to ask whether Trump knew about Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition, for example, and what instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact, according to two advisers.

Trump said in February that he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Kislyak. He said he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

CNN’s version of the same story seems to suggest such a summary is something they’ve already done, that what was new about last week was a sit-down with Watergate lawyer James Quarles.

As President Donald Trump’s reaction to special counsel Robert Mueller grows more irate by the day, attorneys on both sides sat down last week in a rare face-to-face discussion about the topics investigators could inquire of the President. It was the first in-person meeting after several weeks of informal discussions between the two sides, according to two sources familiar with the talks.

Mueller’s team added granularity to the topics it originally discussed with the defense team months ago, like the firing of FBI Director James Comey, according to one of the sources.

[snip]

The President’s attorneys sent the special counsel a summary of evidence they had turned over to prosecutors already, a practice they’ve followed multiple times throughout the investigation. Mueller himself didn’t attend the meeting. But prosecutors including former Watergate prosecutor James Quarles III gave Trump’s lawyers enough detail that the President’s team wrote a memo with possible questions they expect to be asked of him.

In addition to Trump’s involvement in directing Mike Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to defer any response to the new sanctions imposed in December 2016, CNN says that Jeff Sessions’ involvement in firing Comey is also on the list of questions they have for the president.

This time around, for instance, the prosecutors said they would ask about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Comey dismissal and what Trump knew about national security adviser Michael Flynn’s phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016.

[snip]

CNN reported in January that Mueller’s team had given the President’s lawyers general topics for an interview, such as Trump’s request that Comey drop the investigation into Flynn, his reaction to Comey’s May 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s contact with intelligence officials about the Russia investigation.

A source familiar with the talks said more recent discussions about Trump’s interview also touched on Sessions and Flynn. Sessions previously spoke to Mueller’s team while investigators looked into possible obstruction of justice. And during the transition, Flynn had spoken to Kisklyak about sanctions and the United Nations, then lied to investigators about the calls before Trump fired him. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with Mueller in December.

The questions about Sessions and Flynn are both interesting because of recent events.

First, CNN’s story reporting an interest in Sessions’ role in Comey’s firing came out after the report that Sessions and the president traveled separately yesterday to the opioid event they appeared at together. I found that odd at first — Trump should be happy that Sessions fired Andy McCabe for him last Friday. Perhaps Trump is mad that by firing McCabe, Sessions and Rod Rosenstein have taken one excuse he could use to fire both of them off the table. Or perhaps Sessions has realized that he needs to avoid talking to Trump about his own conversations with prosecutors. But if Sessions has become a witness against Trump and the discussions last week made that clear, then it puts the president in a particularly exquisite bind, because the Senate would not take kindly if Trump fired one of their own after he went to such lengths to fire McCabe.

The separate flight is all the more interesting given the news that three witnesses have testified that Sessions was actually more supportive of Trump’s outreach to Russia than he himself (and JD Gordon) has claimed.

And given Mueller’s apparent efforts to confirm what has long been obvious — that KT McFarland was relaying Trump’s orders to Flynn on what to say to Kislyak back in December 2016, consider Mike Flynn’s odd campaign appearance last Friday. Amid stories that he’s beginning to rebuild his life, Flynn started a campaign speech for a right wing nut job attempting to unseat Maxine Waters by alluding to his unfair treatment in an unfair process.

“I’m not here to complain about who has done me wrong or how unfair I’ve been treated or how unfair the entire process has been,” Flynn said to a small audience, which laughed at his remark, though Flynn did not.

Flynn then went on to reflect his role in getting Trump elected.

“All of us are imperfect,” he said. “Heck, I used to introduce … Trump during our various campaign stops as an imperfect candidate. I mean, clearly, he’s not a traditional politician. But his ‘Make America Great Again’ philosophy energized the country enough to get him overwhelmingly elected.”

“Whether we like it or not, that’s what happened,” Flynn added.

Particularly given the others who’ve endorsed Omar Navarro, like Roger Stone and Alex Jones, you’d think this was all a dig at Mueller, and it may well be. Except that Jared Kushner had an opportunity to exonerate Flynn last fall; his failure to do so is what led Flynn to flip, leading to these questions about whether Trump ordered Flynn to ask the Russians to delay their response to sanctions.

Now, any confirmation that the president ordered Flynn to ask Kislyak to delay his response on one level makes Flynn’s effort less damning: it’s one thing for an incoming National Security Advisor to freelance in trying to undermine the incumbent’s policies. It’s another thing for the incoming president to do so.

But contrary to the obstruction narrative that every fool has been repeating, Mueller is not just interested in how and why Jim Comey got fired. He’s also interested in why Trump fired Flynn. That question becomes more pressing if the president ordered Flynn to chat up Kislyak, and if the president ordered Flynn to lie to hide what he had done (leading to his lie to the FBI). Why not just admit that that was incoming policy? Why not just admit to the FBI that Flynn was acting on Trump’s orders? Instead of doing that, Flynn lied and Trump tried instead to thwart the investigation into Flynn, up to and including firing Comey.

Why fire Comey just before the meeting with the Russians and then brag about it to them?

For months, credulous journalists have been distinguishing between the president’s presumed obstruction and the substantive conspiracy others were being accused of, as if no Trump flunkies were involved in the cover-up and Trump was walled off from the conspiracy. But that distinction has never held up, especially not given the interest in why Trump fired Flynn.

“What did the president do and what the fuck was he thinking when he did it?” are questions not about the cover-up, but about the substantive crime.

And that’s the question Mueller’s Watergate prosecutor has now posed to the president’s lawyers.

Duty of Candor: The Timing of the Sessions News

Since Jeff Sessions fired Andy McCabe Friday night and Trump started ratcheting up his attacks on Robert Mueller, few Republicans have vocally supported Mueller (Jeff Flake, Trey Gowdy, and John McCain are exceptions; all are retiring).

There was, however, this story, reporting that three sources say Jeff Sessions was not as dismissive of George Papadopoulos’ plan to reach out to Russians as JD Gordon has claimed.

Three people who attended the March campaign meeting told Reuters they gave their version of events to FBI agents or congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. Although the accounts they provided to Reuters differed in certain respects, all three, who declined to be identified, said Sessions had expressed no objections to Papadopoulos’ idea.

One person said Sessions was courteous to Papadopoulos and said something to the effect of “okay, interesting.”

The other two recalled a similar response.

“It was almost like, ‘Well, thank you and let’s move on to the next person,’” one said.

As the story notes, this conflicts with Jeff Sessions’ November 14 sworn testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

So in the wake of the Attorney General firing McCabe for violating his duty of candor, three current or former Trump associates leaked that he lied to the House.

The thing is, there can’t be that many people who these sources could be. I’m not sure the annotations from Seth Abramson (above) are all correct, but here’s what it looks like.

Sessions and Gordon are on the record stating Sessions pushed back. Trump hasn’t testified yet.

One may well be Papadopoulos.

That leaves, starting with Abramson’s guesses (here’s a later list of Trump’s national security advisors, which should round out Abramson’s):

  • Joseph Schmitz, who left his job as DOD IG amid some scandal
  • Bert Mizusawa, who is running for VA Senate and presumably wants some national help, but he is himself a lawyer
  • Jim Hoskins, who’s career military (including a lot of time working in intelligence)
  • Walid Phares, appears to still be pitching Trump’s foreign policy adventurism
  • Gary Harrell, who is career special operations
  • Charles Kubic, who even contemporaneously was raising legal concerns about such outreach (and who would be a likely candidate to have been interviewed by Mueller since he showed up in email chains raising such concerns)
  • James Carafano may be the balding man in the foreground (though he’s not in Trump’s list of advisors) — he’s still running interference for Trump’s crazy foreign policy
  • Sam Clovis, who is not identifiable in the picture, raised concerns about legal issues and NATO concerns, but elsewhere was clearly involved in the effort to reach out to Russia, even per Carter Page; he’s in the news because of the potential conflict Joe Di Genova’s reported representation of Trump poses
  • Keith Kellogg is another possible candidate; he remains part of Trump’s foreign policy team and has been interviewed
  • James Woolsey is another candidate — we know he has spoken with Mueller and has been critical of the tension between the White House, Congress, and FBI of late
  • Stephen Miller was at the meeting and interviewed with Mueller last year; I would think he would be a Sessions loyalist, though

I raise all this because, while Republicans in Congress are largely dodging the issue of protecting Mueller from Trump, some people closer to the investigation are calling Sessions on his hypocrisy. That might be far more dangerous to the Trump administration in the near term.

On McCabe’s Firing

Update: 8/28/19: I just re-read this amid discussion that Andrew McCabe may be fired. Much of this I stand by. I was right about the import of Mike Flynn already pleading guilty, I stand by my comments about Michael Horowitz and think the IG Report is damning, though in his lawsuit, McCabe credibly argues it was no developed in the normal fashion. I was right that McCabe would not be a big witness in any obstruction investigation; I was wrong that Comey wouldn’t be. But I want to admit that obstruction did end up being what Mueller effectively issued an impeachment referral for. That said, there was obstruction in both the Stone and Manafort threads of any interactions with Russia. 

I’m going to refrain from making any conclusions about Andy McCabe’s firing until we have the Inspector General Report that underlies it. For now (update: I’ve now cleaned this up post-Yoga class), keep the following details in mind:

Michael Horowitz is a very good Inspector General

The allegations that McCabe lacked candor in discussions about his communications with Devlin Barrett all arise out of an investigation Democrats demanded in response to FBI’s treatment of the investigation into Hillary Clinton. It is being led by DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz. Horowitz was nominated by Barack Obama and confirmed while Democrats still had the majority, in 2012.

I’ve never seen anything in Horowitz’ work that suggests he is influenced by politics, though he has shown an ability to protect his own department’s authority, in part by cultivating Congress. Of significant note, he fought with FBI to get the information his investigators needed to do the job, but was thwarted, extending into Jim Comey’s tenure (as I laid out in a fucking prescient post written on November 3, 2016).

As I’ve long covered, in 2010, the FBI started balking at the Inspector General’s proper investigative demands. Among other things, the FBI refused to provide information on grand jury investigations unless some top official in FBI said that it would help the FBI if the IG obtained it. In addition, the FBI (and DEA) have responded to requests very selectively, pulling investigations they don’t want to be reviewed. In 2014, the IG asked OLC for a memo on whether it should be able to get the information it needs to do its job. Last year, OLC basically responded, Nope, can’t have the stuff you need to exercise proper oversight of the FBI.

DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, has been trying for some time to get Congress to affirmatively authorize his office (and IGs generally, because the problem exists at other agencies) to receive the information he needs to do his job. But thus far — probably because Jim Comey used to be known as the world’s biggest Boy Scout — Congress has failed to do so.

I care about how FBI’s misconduct affects the election (thus far, polling suggests it hasn’t done so, though polls are getting closer as Republican Gary Johnson supporters move back to supporting the GOP nominee, as almost always happens with third party candidates). But I care even more about how fucked up the FBI is. Even if Comey is ousted, I can’t think of a likely candidate that could actually fix the problems at FBI. One of the few entities that I think might be able to do something about the stench at FBI is the IG.

Except the FBI has spent 6 years making sure the IG can’t fully review its conduct.

So while I don’t think he’d be motivated by politics, he has had a running fight with top FBI officials about their willingness to subject FBI to scrutiny for the entirety of the Comey tenure.

McCabe has suggested that the investigation into him was “accelerated” only after he testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he would corroborate Jim Comey’s version of his firing.

I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President. The OIG’s focus on me and this report became a part of an unprecedented effort by the Administration, driven by the President himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn. The accelerated release of the report, and the punitive actions taken in response, make sense only when viewed through this lens.

I’m not sure this timeline bears out (the investigation was supposed to be done last year, but actually got extended into this year). The statement stops short of saying that he was targeted because his testimony — presumably already delivered to Robert Mueller by the time of his HPSCI testimony — corroborated Comey’s.

What we’ve seen of the other personnel moves as a result of this investigation — the reassignment of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page for texts that really did raise conflict issues (to say nothing of operational security problems), and the reassignment of James Baker — seem reasonable. McCabe’s firing was reviewed by a whole bunch of people who have been around DOJ a long time.

So it’s possible the underlying claim has merit. It’s also possible that McCabe is getting the same punishment that a line agent would get if he did not answer the IG honestly.

Trump’s comments matter

Obviously, all that cannot be taken out of context of Trump’s own statements and Jeff Sessions’ efforts to keep his job.

We will get these details in upcoming days, and almost all the details will come from people who’ve got a big stake in the process.

Michael Bromwich — McCabe’s lawyer — says they didn’t get a review of the allegations against McCabe until very recently, and were still trying to contest the firing two days ago (as was publicly reported). I find his claim that this was “cleaved off” from the larger investigation unconvincing: so were Strzok and Page, but that was done to preserve the integrity of the Mueller investigation, and Chris Wray had said publicly that he wanted to act on problems as they found them. Bromwich curiously is not saying that McCabe’s firing violates any agreement McCabe made when he took leave to await retirement.

Undoubtedly, Jeff Sessions did this in the most cowardly way possible. While I think it’s likely, I’m not 100% convinced that the timing was anything other than trying to make a real decision rather than let the retirement make it.

There’s no evidence, yet, that McCabe will lose all his pension

It has been said for over a month that McCabe was just waiting out his birthday so he could “get” his pension. That was so he could start drawing on it immediately. Josh Gerstein laid out the best thing I’ve seen on the implications (as well as what limited legal recourse McCabe has).

The financial stakes for McCabe could be significant. If he had made it to his 50th birthday on Sunday while still in federal service, he would have been eligible to begin drawing a full pension immediately under provisions that apply to federal law enforcement officers, said Kimberly Berry, a lawyer in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in federal retirement issues.

Berry disputed reports, however, that McCabe would lose his pension altogether.

“He doesn’t lose his retirement,” she said. “It’s not all thrown out in the garbage.“

Even after his dismissal, McCabe will probably be eligible to begin collecting his pension at about age 57, although he would likely lose access to federal health coverage and would probably get a smaller pension than if he stayed on the federal payroll, experts said.

There have been claims McCabe could get hired by a member of Congress for a week so he can start drawing on it. But I’ve heard the finances aren’t even the issue, it’s the principle, which if you want to be a martyr, being fired works better.

This will have a far smaller impact on the Mueller probe than Comey-McCabe loyalists and John Dowd lay out

McCabe and others have suggested that there has been a successful effort to retaliate against Comey’s three corroborating witnesses, though that is least convincing with regards to Jim Rybicki, who was replaced as happens as a matter of course every time a new FBI Director comes in.

But the Comey-McCabe loyalists make far too much of their role in the Mueller probe, making themselves the central actors in the drama. Yes, if their credibility is hurt it does do some damage to any obstruction charges against Trump, which, as I keep repeating, will not be the primary thrust of any charges against Trump. Mueller is investigating Trump for a conspiracy with Russians; the obstruction is just the act that led to his appointment as Special Counsel and with that, a much more thorough investigation. Contrary to what you’re hearing, little we’ve seen thus far is fruit of the decisions Comey and his people made. While all were involved in the decision to charge Mike Flynn, he has already pled guilty and started spilling his guts to Mueller. There’s no reason to believe McCabe or Comey are direct witnesses in the conspiracy charges that will be filed against people close to Trump, if not against Trump himself.

For all those reasons, John Dowd’s claim that McCabe’s firing should end the investigation is equally unavailing.

I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.

I mean, if this really is Dowd’s impression of why his client is being investigated, I almost feel sorry for Trump.

But the truth is the dossier has always been a distraction. The obstruction charge was probably used to distract Trump (and his NYT stenographers) while Mueller’s team collected the far more serious evidence on the conspiracy charges, though events of this week may well add to the conspiracy charges. And Comey didn’t manufacture any investigation; if anything, his people were not aggressive enough in the months he oversaw the investigation, particularly as it pertains to George Papadopoulos.

So if Dowd thinks McCabe’s firing will affect the core of the evidence Mueller has already developed (and, I suspect, started hanging on a sealed magnet indictment), he is likely to be very disappointed.

Regardless of the merits of the McCabe firing, it (and the related shit storm) may give Rosenstein and Mueller more time to work. It’s not clear they need that much more time to put together the conspiracy charges that are sitting right beneath the surface.

Finally — and I’m about to do a post on this — the far more important news from yesterday is that Facebook is cutting off Cambridge Analytica for violating its agreements about data use. That may well lead to some far more important changes, changes that Trump has less ability to politicize.

On the Grassley-Feinstein Dispute

In a podcast with Preet Bharara this week, Sheldon Whitehouse had the following exchange about whether he thought Carter Page should have been surveilled. (after 24:30)

Whitehouse: I’ve got to be a little bit careful because I’m one of the few Senators who have been given access to the underlying material.

Bharara: Meaning the affidavit in support of the FISA application.

Whitehouse And related documents, yes. The package.

Bharara: And you’ve gone to read them?

Whitehouse: I’ve gone to read them.

Bharara: You didn’t send Trey Gowdy?

Whitehouse: [Laughs] I did not send Trey Gowdy. I actually went through them. And, so I’ve got to be careful because some of this is still classified. But the conclusion that I’ve reached is that there was abundant evidence outside of the Steele dossier that would have provoked any responsible FBI with a counterintelligence concern to look at whether Carter Page was an undisclosed foreign agent. And to this day the FBI continues to assert that he was a undisclosed Russian foreign agent.

For the following discussion, then, keep in mind that a very sober former US Attorney has read the case against Carter Page and says that the FBI still — still, after Page is as far as we know no longer under a FISA order — asserts he “was” an undisclosed foreign agent (it’s not clear what that past tense “was” is doing, as it could mean he was a foreign agent until the attention on him got too intense or remains one; also, I believe John Ratcliffe, a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and also a former US Attorney, has read the application too).

With that background, I’d like to turn to the substance of the dispute between Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein over the dossier, which has played out in the form of a referral of Christopher Steele to FBI for lying. In the wake of the Nunes memo theatrics, Grassley released first a heavily redacted version of the referral he and Lindsey Graham sent the FBI in early January, followed by a less-redacted version this week. The referral, even as a transparent political stunt, is nevertheless more substantive than Devin Nunes’ memo, leading some to take it more seriously.  Which may be why Feinstein released a rebuttal this week.

In case you’re wondering, I’m tracking footnote escalation in these documents. They line up this way:

  • 0: Nunes memo (0 footnotes over 4 pages, or 1 over 6 if you count Don McGahn’s cover letter)
  • 2.6: Grassley referral (26 footnotes over 10 pages)
  • 3.6: Schiff memo (36 footnotes, per HPSCI transcript, over 10 pages)
  • 5.4: Feinstein rebuttal (27 footnotes over 5 pages)

So let me answer a series of questions about the memo as a way of arguing that, while by all means the FBI’s use of consultants might bear more scrutiny, this is still a side-show.

Did Christopher Steele lie?

The Grassely-Graham referral says Steele may have lied, but doesn’t commit to whether classified documents obtained by the Senate Judiciary Committee (presumably including the first two Page applications), a declaration Steele submitted in a British lawsuit, or Steele’s statements to the FBI include lies.

The FBI has since provided the Committee access to classified documents relevant to the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele and whether the FBI relied on his dossier work. As explained in greater detail below, when information in those classified documents is evaluated in light of sworn statements by Mr. Steele in British litigation, it appears that either Mr. Steele lied to the FBI or the British court, or that the classified documents reviewed by the Committee contain materially false statements.

On September 3, 2017 — a good three months before the Grassley-Graham referral — I pointed to a number of things in the Steele declaration, specifically pertaining to who got the dossier or heard about it when, that I deemed “improbable.”

That was the genius of the joint (!!) Russian-Republican campaign of lawfare against the dossier. As Steele and BuzzFeed and Fusion tried to avoid liability for false claims against Webzilla and Alfa Bank and their owners, they were backed into corners where they had to admit that Democrats funded the dossier and made claims that might crumble as Congress scrutinized the dossier.

So, yeah, I think it quite possible that Steele told some stretchers.

Did Christopher Steele lie to the FBI?

But that only matters if he lied to the FBI (and not really even there). The UK is not about to extradite one of its former spies because of lies told in the UK — they’re not even going to extradite alleged hacker Lauri Love, because we’re a barbaric country. And I assume the Brits give their spooks even more leeway to fib a little to courts than the US does.

The most critical passage of the referral on this point, which appears to make a claim about whether Steele told the FBI he had shared information with the press before they first used his dossier in a Page application, looks like this.

The footnote in the middle of that redacted passage goes to an unredacted footnote that says,

The FBI has failed to provide the Committee the 1023s documenting all of Mr. Steele’s statements to the FBI, so the Committee is relying on the accuracy of the FBI’s representation to the FISC regarding the statements.

1023s are Confidential Human Source reports.

I say that’s the most important passage because the referral goes on to admit that in subsequent FISA applications the FBI explained that the relationship with Steele had been terminated because of his obvious involvement in the October 31, 2016 David Corn story. Graham and Grassley complain that the FBI didn’t use Steele’s defiance of the FBI request not to share this information with anyone besides the FBI to downgrade his credibility rankings. Apparently FISC was less concerned about that than Graham and Grassley, which may say more about standards for informants in FISA applications than Steele or Carter Page.

The footnote, though, is the biggest tell. That’s because Feinstein’s rebuttal makes it quite clear that after Grassley and Graham made their referral, SJC received documents — which, given what we know has been given to HPSCI, surely include those 1023s — that would alter the claims made in the referral.

The Department of Justice has provided documents regarding its interactions with Mr. Steele to the Judiciary Committee both before and after the criminal referral was made. Despite this, the Majority did not modify the criminal referral and pressed forward with its original claims, which do not take into account the additional information provided after the initial January 4 referral.

Feinstein then goes on to state, several times and underlining almost everything for emphasis, that the referral provides no proof that Steele was ever asked if he had served as the source for Isikoff.

  • Importantly, the criminal referral fails to identify when, if ever, Mr. Steele was asked about and provided a materially false statement about his press contacts.
  • Tellingly, it also fails to explain any circumstances which would have required Mr. Steele to seek the FBI’s permission to speak to the press or to disclose if he had done so.

[snip]

But the criminal referral provides no evidence that Steele was ever asked about the Isikoff article, or if asked that he lied.

In other words, between the redacted claim about what Steele said and Feinstein’s repeated claims that the referral presents no evidence Steele was asked about his prior contacts with the press, the evidence seems to suggest that Steele was probably not asked. And once he was, after the Corn article, he clearly did admit to the FBI he had spoken with the press. So while it appears Steele blew off the FBI’s warnings not to leak to the press, the evidence that he lied to the FBI appears far weaker.

Does it harm the viability of the FISA application?

That should end the analysis, because the ostensible purpose of the referral is a criminal referral, not to make an argument about the FISA process.

But let’s assess the memo’s efforts to discredit the FISA application.

In two places, the referral suggests the dossier played a bigger role in the FISA application than, for example, Whitehouse suggests.

Indeed, the documents we have reviewed show that the FBI took important investigative steps largely based on Mr. Steele’s information–and relying heavily on his credibility.

[snip]

Mr. Steele’s information formed a significant portion of the FBI’s warrant application, and the FISA application relied more heavily on Steele’s credibility than on any independent verification or corroboration for his claims. Thus the basis for the warrant authorizing surveillance on a U.S. citizen rests largely on Mr. Steele’s credibility.

These claims would be more convincing, however, if they acknowledged that FBI had to have obtained valuable foreign intelligence off their Page wiretap over the course of the year they had him wiretapped to get three more applications approved.

Indeed, had Grassley and Graham commented on the addition of new information in each application, their more justifiable complaint that the FBI did not alert FISC to the UK filings in which Steele admitted more contact with the press than (they claim) show up in the applications would be more compelling. If you’re going to bitch about newly learned information not showing up in subsequent applications, then admit that newly acquired information showed up.

Likewise, I’m very sympathetic with the substance of the Grassley-Graham complaint that Steele’s discussions with the press made it more likely that disinformation got inserted into the dossier (see my most recently post on that topic), but I think the Grassley-Graham complaint undermines itself in several ways.

Simply put, the more people who contemporaneously knew that Mr. Steele was compiling his dossier, the more likely it was vulnerable to manipulation. In fact, the British litigation, which involves a post-election dossier memorandum, Mr. Steele admitted that he received and included in it unsolicited–and unverified–allegations. That filing implies that implies that he similar received unsolicited intelligence on these matters prior to the election as well, stating that Mr. Steele “continued to receive unsolicited intelligence on the matters covered by the pre-election memoranda after the US Presidential election.” [my underline]

The passage is followed by an entirely redacted paragraph that likely talks about disinformation.

This is actually an important claim, not just because it raises the possibility that Page might be unfairly surveilled as part of a Russian effort to distract attention from others (though its use in a secret application wouldn’t have sown the discord it has had it not leaked), but also because we can check whether their claims hold up against the Steele declaration. It’s one place we can check the referral to see whether their arguments accurately reflect the underlying evidence.

Importantly, to support a claim the potential for disinformation in the Steele dossier show up in the form of unsolicited information earlier than they otherwise substantiate, they claim a statement in Steele’s earlier declaration pertains to pre-election memos. Here’s what it looks like in that declaration:

That is, Steele didn’t say he was getting unsolicited information prior to the election; this was, in both declarations, a reference to the single December report.

Moreover, while I absolutely agree that the last report is the most likely to be disinformation, the referral is actually not clear whether that December 13 report ever actually got included in a FISA application. There’s no reason it would have been. While the last report mentions Page, the mention is only a referral back to earlier claims that Trump’s camp was trying to clean up after reports of Page’s involvement with the Russians got made public. So the risk that the December memorandum consisted partially or wholly of disinformation is likely utterly irrelevant to the validity of the three later FISA orders targeting Page.

Which is to say that, while I think worries about disinformation are real (particularly given their reference to Rinat Akhmetshin allegedly learning about the dossier during the summer, which I wrote about here), the case Grassley and Graham make on that point both miscites Steele’s own declaration and overstates the impact of their argued case on a Page application.

What about the Michael Isikoff reference?

Perhaps the most interesting detail in the Grassley-Graham referral pertains to their obsession with the applications’ references to the September 23 Michael Isikoff article based off Steele’s early discussions with the press. Grassley-Graham claim there’s no information corroborating the dossier (there’s a redacted Comey quote that likely says something similar). In that context, they point to the reference to Isikoff without explaining what it was doing there.

The application appears to contain no additional information corroborating the dossier allegations against Mr. Page, although it does cite to a news article that appears to be sourced to Mr. Steele’s dossier as well.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen people suggest the reference to Isikoff may have justified the need for secrecy or something, rater than as corroboration. But neither the referral nor Feinstein’s rebuttal explains what the reference is doing.

In this passage, Grassley and Graham not only focus on Isikoff, but they ascribe certain motives to the way FBI referred to it, suggesting the claim that they did not believe Steele was a source for Isikoff was an attempt to “shield Mr. Steele’s credibility.”

There’s absolutely no reason the FBI would have seen the need to shield Steele’s credibility in October. He was credible. More troubling is that the FBI said much the same thing in January.

In the January reapplication, the FBI stated in a footnote that, “it did not believe that Steele gave information to Yahoo News that ‘published the September 23 News Article.”

Let’s do some math.

If I’m doing my math correctly, if the FISA reapplications happened at a regular 90 day interval, they’d look like this.

That’d be consistent with what the Nunes memo said about who signed what, and would fit the firing dates of January 30 for Yates and May 9 for Comey, as well as the start date for Rosenstein of April 26 (Chris Wray started on August 1).

If that’s right, then Isikoff wrote his second article on the Steele dossier, one that made it clear via a link his earlier piece had been based off Steele, before the second application was submitted (though the application would have been finished and submitted in preliminary form a week earlier, meaning FBI would have had to note the Isikoff piece immediately to get it into the application, but the topic of the Isikoff piece — that Steele was an FBI asset — might have attracted their attention).

But that’s probably not right because the Grassley-Graham referral describes a June, not July, reapplication, meaning the application would have been no later than the last week of June. That makes the reauthorization dates look more like this, distributing the extra days roughly proportionately:

That would put the second footnote claiming the FBI had no reason to believe the September Isikoff piece was based on Steele before the time when the second Isikoff piece made it clear.

I’m doing this for a second reason, however. It’s possible (particularly given Whitehouse’s comments) Carter Page remains under surveillance, but for some reason it’s no longer contentious.

That might be the case if the reapplications no longer rely on the dossier.

And I’m interested in that timing because, on September 9, I made what was implicit clear: That pointing to the September Isikoff piece to claim the Steele dossier had been corroborated was self-referential. I’m not positive I was the first, but by that point, the Isikoff thing would have been made explicit.

Does this matter at all to the Mueller inquiry?

Ultimately, though, particularly given the Nunes memo confirmation that the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s people all stems from the George Papadopoulos tip, and not Page (particularly given the evidence that the FBI was very conservative in their investigation of him) there’s not enough in even the Grassley-Graham referral to raise questions about the Mueller investigation, especially given a point I made out in the Politico last week.

According to a mid-January status report in the case against Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, the government has turned over “more than 590,000 items” to his defense team, “including (but not limited to) financial records, records from vendors identified in the indictment, email communications involving the defendants, and corporate records.” He and Gates have received imaged copies of 87 laptops, phones and thumb drives, and copies off 19 search-warrant applications. He has not received, however, a FISA notice, which the government would be required to provide if they planned to use anything acquired using evidence obtained using the reported FISA warrant against Manafort. That’s evidence of just how much of a distraction Manafort’s strategy [of using the Steele dossier to discredit the Mueller investigation] is, of turning the dossier into a surrogate for the far more substantive case against him and others.

And it’s not just Manafort. Not a single thing in the George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn guilty pleas—for lying to the FBI—stems from any recognizable mention in the dossier, either. Even if the Steele dossier were a poisoned fruit, rather than the kind of routine oppo research that Republicans themselves had pushed to the FBI to support investigations, Mueller has planted an entirely new tree blooming with incriminating details.

Thus the point of my graphic above. The Steele dossier evidence used in the Carter Page FISA application to support an investigation into Cater Page, no matter what else it says about the FISA application process or FBI candor, is just a small corner of the investigation into Trump’s people.

 

On Disinformation and the Dossier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Magnitsky lobbyists: Rinat Akhmetshin; Ed Lieberman;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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.